I write this on the day after the city of Paris suffered a coordination of terrorist attacks on its citizens. Just this morning we learned that ISIS (a radical sect of Islam that seeks to establish a theocratic state) has claimed responsibility for the slaughter of 129 innocent lives (and still counting). It’s tempting to jump on the anti-Islam wagon and talk about how dangerous this religion is to our civilized security and to the future of free democracy and human rights. How it should be pushed into extinction as quickly as possible – along with all religion while we’re at it.
But I won’t. Instead I’m going to offer a very different perspective on this religion and its place in what I’ll call the progress of wisdom on our planet. We gave our species the name Homo sapiens sapiens (“very wise person”) prematurely and perhaps in denial of the catastrophic foolishness of which we are capable. Or it might have been prophetic of the direction we are evolving, which is increasingly toward a more rational, cooperative, and ethically-minded mode of being. I realize that the atrocities in Paris argue against such an optimistic view, but I should emphasize that I am not making a claim for having arrived, only that we have been evolving in this direction over the millenniums of our ascent as a species.
My second point is a bit harder to defend, which is that religion has been crucial to our advances in wisdom. Today the voice and behavior of religion tend to reinforce the growing opinion that it is a regressive force in modern culture, closing down the mind, perpetuating superstition, and putting up walls where we should be building bridges. And I agree: religion itself is frequently the most strident opponent of spiritual awakening, reluctant to validate and quick to condemn our need to transcend ritual, creed, and orthodoxy for the sake of a higher realization. But as I’ve said before, the regression and corruption of a religion (or even all religions) doesn’t automatically mean that religion itself should be rejected out of hand.
As a system for “linking back” (Latin religare) the individual to his or her community, the community to its history, its history to the cosmos, and all of it to the grounding mystery of being itself, religion has been the glue in human culture. And in its guiding fictions, known as myths, religion has provided for the contemplation of our destiny, our obligations to one another, and of our own evolving nature. Its revelations have come in stages, at precisely the times we were ready to discover more of ourselves and actualize a higher wisdom.
Once an insight was gained or a principle introduced, its transforming power didn’t always, if ever, meet with unanimous acceptance. This is where it is helpful to distinguish between the historical religions (including the history of religion) and the stream of higher wisdom that has been progressing over the millenniums. Think of it this way: as religions evolved, new ethical insights and mystical realizations were “uploaded” to a collective depository of higher consciousness that transcends each and all local cultures. Every time these insights and realizations are contemplated, taught, shared, and put into practice, that wisdom is “downloaded.” The religions exist in local time and get closer or fall farther away from these truths depending on the political intrigues, moral campaigns, or economic hardships that happen to be tying up energy. The stream of wisdom, however, is timeless.What is the guiding ideal to which this stream of collective spiritual wisdom leads? As I survey four of the major world religions and consider the unique “upload” of wisdom represented in each one, the answer to this question becomes obvious. Humanity is evolving in the direction of genuine community – conscious, creative, vibrant, and inclusive. The essential principles and conditions that make such community possible have already been uploaded to the stream of wisdom. It just happens that downloading activity has fallen off sharply of late, which means we are not accessing this wisdom and putting it into practice.
In choosing these four religions I am not “rejecting” others. From my study of religion, which includes a fairly exhaustive survey of the major traditions, I find that these four in particular – Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam – were both originators and early outspoken witnesses of the “insights and realizations” that promote genuine community. Other religions may sound similar bells, but these voices were the first and clearest in articulating them. Let’s take them in chronological order, as suggested in the above diagram.
Judaism discovered and introduced the first principle of genuine community, which offered a way through the impasse caused when emotion and self-interest drive human relationships. Each individual finds pleasure in the other’s company so long as they can get along and stay in agreement. But when interests diverge and their goals fall out of alignment, or when one betrays the other or causes injury – then what? The rule of nature would likely motivate a separation, but not until the offense is redressed. And the more painful, the better.
The ethical insight of covenant fidelity places that relationship inside a system of constraints that are meant to “overrule” the impulses of emotional self-interest and retaliation. A covenant is a compromise (literally a “shared promise”) where individuals commit themselves to the health and longevity of their relationship, instead of being driven by what they get or hope to get out of each other. When disagreement, injury, or betrayal occur, the covenant holds them to their promise and exhorts their best efforts in working things out. As an ultimate aim of covenant fidelity, genuine community becomes the context for reconciliation.
It’s important to see that in Judaism’s concept of covenant fidelity, the objective is not to let wrongdoers get away with it, but neither is it the best thing to let the fur fly until the victim is fully satisfied. The rules of covenant say things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” where a punishment must fit the crime in the interest of repairing broken or strained relationships. In the normal dynamics of any partnership individuals will fall in and out of affection for each other, but faithfulness to the covenant of their relationship will keep them both oriented on a greater good.
Siddhartha Gautama took the Hindu doctrine of Brahman as the One Being in myriad manifestations and followed it all the way to its logical conclusion: If all things are manifestations of One Thing, then all things must also be connected by a sympathetic energy. For the future Buddha the implications of this mystical insight were revolutionary and far-reaching. The outcasts of his society were no less deserving of happiness than those in the highest caste, and no one is exempt from the human condition, which he compared to the chronic pain (dukha) caused by a dislocated joint.
We are all off-center and out of alignment with our proper being. Insecurities drive us to attachments that inevitably magnify suffering as they fall short of our expectations, dissolve under their own impermanence, or change without our consent. In desperation we grip down all the more, only to make our problem much worse. All of our defenses and strategies, our hopes and convictions, end up pushing us deeper into suffering. What we need is to see – really see – that our suffering is self-induced, and that all of our aggressive self-promotion is counterproductive. Making it all about “me” makes us incapable of seeing beyond ourselves to the shining truth of existence.
This understanding of ourselves, where we can acknowledge the insecurity beneath the ignorance that in turn drives the damaging ways we treat each other, can ignite in us the power of compassion – not just for ourselves but for all people. With this ethical vision of universal compassion, rooted in the mystical realization of the interconnectedness of all things, our evolutionary path to genuine community made a decisive advance.
With Christianity – or I should say with Jesus, since the Christian religion was unable to institutionalize the heart of his teaching – came the invitation to accomplish something that would neutralize, or better reverse, that one inviolable moral imperative which holds every tribe together when all else fails: hostility for the out-group. Of course, the boundary separating insider and outsider can be drawn arbitrarily as impulse dictates, which means that what we’re really talking about is how we regard and respond to “the enemy.”
Obviously our enemy doesn’t have to be over the sea or outside our borders. The ones that cause us the most distress and provoke our greatest hostility are the enemies who were formerly our friends, people we trusted but who betrayed our trust, even those we had let into our deepest confidence and most private concerns. Looking around, Jesus observed how much unrest in human relationships is due to a perceived retributive imbalance between individuals and groups. One side has “gotten away” with something, has taken more than his or her share, or caused damage that must be repaired before things can be right again. The trading back and forth of this “retributive reflex” – each side getting even with the other but perpetually throwing off the balance in the other’s mind – is what locks us in never-ending border wars,
The orthodoxy of Jesus’ day had set limits to how many times one should be obliged to forgive an offender. According to rabbinical tradition a remorseful and repenting offender ought to be forgiven as many as three times – more than that puts the guilty party’s sincerity in question. Behind this limit-setting was the conviction that an unrepentant sinner doesn’t deserve the gift of forgiveness. In fact, an unrepentant sinner (as well as the perpetually insincere penitent) deserves to be punished. Instead, Jesus counseled the radical response of unconditional forgiveness. Effectively he told his disciples to just let go and stop counting; love anyway. When the retributive reflex in our hearts is extinguished, the world around us will change.
Now we come to the contribution of Islam. As his generation was languishing amid a stifling pluralism and moral laxity, Muhammad realized that what they were missing was a commitment to something that transcended all the temptations and distractions in the foreground. This supreme reality was the will of Allah, and to submit oneself to the will of Allah would ignite a passion and purpose that no worldly power can overcome. The Muslim’s first task, then, is to vanquish the evils of greed, bigotry, and hypocrisy in his heart, by the systematic and relentless discipline of jihad.
By “absolute” devotion we are referring to an ongoing act of full surrender to Allah’s will, not calibrated on the basis of our circumstances or conditional upon our internal motivation. Absolute literally means perfect, not mixed or adulterated, free from restriction or limitation. Allah’s will is not interpreted through anything, whether it be a holy book or even The Prophet himself. It must be desired, grasped, internalized, assimilated, and realized in the world without compromise. There is an evident danger in this idea of an absolute will, and the Muslim doctrine of the Qur’an as the inerrant word of Allah that must simply be read and obeyed has made the religion especially attractive to extremists who come to regard their own wills as beyond question or debate.
Throughout its history Islam has shown vulnerability to take-over by radical ideologies. Whoever steps into power and assumes an air of authority has been able to exploit the absolute devotion of true believers. The violence in Paris is another example of how the internal struggle of jihad can get perverted and projected outward onto “the evil other” in a kind of religious insanity.
But if we can see this principle of absolute devotion in the sequence of revelations, as whole-hearted and unwavering commitment to something beyond the individual ego, a different picture emerges. I propose that each of the four principles builds on the others, extending and deepening our understanding of what genuine community entails.
Genuine community =
an abiding faithfulness to the health and longevity of relationship (covenant fidelity)
+ a profound appreciation of our shared suffering and connectedness (universal compassion)
+ a decision to release our grievances and treat our enemy with kindness (unconditional forgiveness)
+ a relentless pursuit of its realization on earth (absolute devotion)
The stream of wisdom is the property of no single religion or culture; it is ours collectively as a species. Homo sapiens sapiens.
Commence with the download!