I have a friend who’s in midlife and struggling with the creeping irrelevancy (my term) of his religious beliefs. His personal history with religion (Christianity) doesn’t go all the way back into childhood, but it’s deep enough to have been a significant force in shaping his adult worldview. He and his wife raised their children in a denomination committed to staying as close as possible to the New Testament church model.
It’s probably fair to say that he’s never been in full agreement with the positions his religion has taken with respect to sexual ethics, gender equality, cultural engagement, or truth in religion. But it allowed for some flexibility, at least in the private holding of his individual faith. Over the years, his involvement in church connected him to other believers who became good friends. They raised their kids together and shared a lot of life.
As his doubts rise over the real truth-value of his particular brand of religion, my friend is wondering if there’s truth in any religion. Over the past half-decade, he and his wife have stepped out of church-going. Their children are adults and out of the house, making choices of their own regarding religious affiliation and faith practice. So the obligation of raising a family in a supportive community with clear moral values can be released.
But they still get together with the same friends, only now their conversations are becoming increasingly strained and uncomfortable – particularly as they orbit around issues of doctrine, the Bible, and exclusive salvation in Christ alone. My observation is that he’s also struggling somewhat with the metaphysical assumptions that have invisibly supported his fading convictions.
If you no longer believe in heaven and hell as destinations of the soul, is it necessary to give up believing in the soul? If you are having second thoughts around the claim of exclusive salvation, does the notion of salvation itself need to be abandoned? And if the very idea of a god “up there,” “out there” and external to the world feels contrived and irrelevant to daily life, is atheism the only alternative?
My friend is searching for a new vocabulary that can adequately articulate his evolving spirituality and connect it meaningfully to his life-world. He is understandably concerned that his unwillingness to simply accept as truth what he once believed, and what his church friends still believe, will alienate him from people he doesn’t want to lose from his life.
Of course, many of us arrive at points along the way where the strength of a relationship is tested by our differences over important matters. Religion, politics and morality are frequently powder-keg topics that have a reputation of blowing apart long-standing friendships. Each of us needs to come to terms with how much trust, acceptance, accommodation and forgiveness we are willing to invest in any relationship.
If I reject you just because your beliefs have changed and no longer match my own, can I really be said to have known and accepted you for who you are?
This “new vocabulary” my friend is seeking is also something that I’ve been trying to work out over the years since stepping out of professional church ministry. Here’s something that’s become an essential starting point for me, in order to set up a fruitful conversation about religion, truth, and experience.
Religions are mystically convergent, but doctrinally divergent.
Look into the center of the picture above. Soon enough you’ll begin to see the pupil of an eye dilating and contracting as it stares back at you. That center represents what I call mystical experience. Like a black-hole pulling you through and beyond the world you think you know, the mystical experience transpires in a place that is “no place.” And yet, this now and here (now/here, nowhere) is the starting point of your existence.
The term exist literally means “to stand out,” and what you stand out from is the present source and support of your being. Mystics name this source “the ground (of being),” and experiencing it is to experience the present mystery of reality itself, the deep creative support of all things – including, of course, your life in this moment.
Authentic religion (Latin religare, “to tie back”) is motivated out of a desire to tie the business of daily life back to this Source. As a constructivist I see it as a way of keeping the mental construct of my world connected to reality, the really real. This tie-back operates in opposition to another impulse in religion, which is to fly out into the symbols, stories, theories and farther abstractions (like metaphysics) that express and explain what it all means.
I understand that not all religions have their roots in mystical experience, but my contention is that every true religion does – or at least once did, at its birth. A founder, or founding community, was inspired or disturbed by an experience of the real presence of mystery, which called for a new way of being and behaving in the world. This means that all (true) religions are mystically convergent – that is to say, they share a common ground and have their roots in essentially the same experience of mystery.
But then, the other impulse – to express and explain – takes us into the more provincial way that each religion interprets this experience of mystery into the web of meaning that connects it to the concerns of its present generation. Every community and its larger culture has a history, with all the factors of ancestry, language, geography, politics, and worldview that make it unique. If the experience of mystery is to make sense and have meaning, then it must be translated into this cultural vocabulary.
The founder of Buddhism translated his experience of mystery into a vocabulary of appearance and essence, attachment and release, illusion and enlightenment, suffering and the way of compassion. Centuries later, the founder of Christianity translated the experience (his own, not someone else’s) into a vocabulary of law and love, separation and communion, identity and inclusion, justice and unconditional forgiveness.
As you follow just these two examples of present-day world religions, your investigation will take you farther out along their divergent paths. “Nirvana” (the liberated state after selfish craving has been extinguished) is not in the Christian vocabulary, and neither is “kingdom of God” (the inclusive community of neighborly love) in the Buddhist. The farther out you go, the more divergent the paths become.
So where is truth, then? This is where my friend’s personal struggle is focused. Too many people are trying to work out this question of truth in religion at the far-out periphery of my illustration above. Their assumption is that truth is a matter of how accurate the terms (doctrines) are to the reality they describe. There comes a point, however – represented in the ring of clouds or smoke at the outer edge – where the pursuit of doctrinal clarity and precision eventually produces the opposite in a hopeless confusion of terms. (This is typically where sects, schools, and denominations take off on their separate tracks.)
To stay with my examples, either Christianity or Buddhism is the “true religion,” but not both. (Of course, a Muslim who’s caught in this same way of framing the issue, will claim that neither one is true. His own religion of Islam is the true and only way, while these others are mistaken and dangerous lies.) Truth, according to this approach, is doctrinal and all about accuracy. Who’s telling the truth? Who’s got the story right? Who’s getting saved in the end?
One problem with this line of questioning is that (as I explored in a recent post) each of these religions in its present form might be quite far off the path of its original teaching. When Buddhists, Christians or Muslims do violence against each other or their own, then it’s rather apparent that they have betrayed the revelation of their founders. It might well be the case that we are comparing somewhat (or entirely) corrupt versions of these distinct religions, which makes the project of sifting for truth especially problematic.
But here’s my point. Truth is not about how well our words and definitions match up to the present mystery of reality. The very nature of meaning is that it’s constructed (made up, put together) and conventional (supported in the agreements that a people hold in common), which also implies that meaning is relative to the context and needs to be relevant to actual life. When it ceases to be relevant – when the vocabulary and its worldview, along with the metaphysical assumptions that lie behind it, lose their connection to everyday life – should we just throw it aside and start looking for another? This is what some people are doing these days.
Or maybe we should make ourselves believe it anyway, attributing the feeling of creeping irrelevancy to our ignorance or lack of faith. If our rescue from this world and everlasting security in the life hereafter depends on getting it right, then you’d better believe it – even (or perhaps especially) if it doesn’t make sense. It’s all a mystery we can’t understand. Don’t jeopardize your salvation in your selfish insistence that religion should make a difference in this life.
I would respond to my friend this way: The beginning of true religion, as well as its proper end, is in the mystical experience where you find your ground and release yourself to the greater reality to which you belong. This experience of real presence, of the present mystery, of the really real in this moment invites you deeper into life. As you awaken to the present moment, to this moment of presence, to the Eternal Now, your neurotic compulsions will gradually relax and fall away. In that moment you will come to realize that here and now is all there is. In the real presence of mystery, all is one.
Now your task is to make sense of it, constructing a meaning to the mystery that will help you stay grounded and connected. That will be your religion. It might look a lot like the one you’ve been in for a while, but now with a refreshed relevance for having been reconciled to the same mystery that inspired Jesus so long ago. Or it might look very different.
The responsibility is yours to translate the mystery into meaning. But stay close to the mystery. Meaning will always change, as it must if relevancy is your concern.
I support you in that quest, for it is my quest as well.