This post ended up being lengthy because it’s actually two in one. A podcast I viewed as I was writing helped me look at my topic through a different lens, and I started to write a note…which turned into a post of its own. I decided to leave it here as a note here since it’s relevant to my discussion.
THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NATURE RELIGIOUS CIVILIZATIONS & SACRED TEXTS
Questions about the source of the Bible or the sacred scriptures of religions hold little meaning for me, although the stories of origin do. I like to study the text I have in front of me, accept its unity regardless of its source, and discover how it speaks to me.
Similarly statements about what a religion is or isn’t hold little meaning for me. From my perspective, a religion is how its adherents at any point in time understand its sacred stories and traditions and apply them in their lives and in the world.
Religions evolve and change. If they don’t, if they are fixed throughout time, there is no opportunity for people to engage with them, to make them a foundation for living in the world. Religions are living, not static. They are an interaction of ideas and texts and stories and songs and ethics and rituals and laws that engage people in different times and places throughout history, changing as people bring them to life in particular situations.
Because of this perspective, I squirm when a religion is characterized as a “religion of peace” or a “violent religion.” Just as every major religion has violence in its history — each also has powerful messages of compassion, healing and hope.
So as I accept the unity of a sacred text, or at least those texts that present themselves as unified, I also accept the unity of religious cultures at any point in time. Negative or violent movements in a religious/cultural framework are not separate from the religious/cultural framework itself. These movements may not define the religious culture, but they are not separate from it.
I apply this perspective to every religious culture and therefore consider Nazism as much a function of Christian religious culture in a certain time and place as I do Islamic terrorism a function of Islamic religious culture in a certain time and place and the Massacre of the Innocents or the murder of Rabin functions of a religious culture in certain times and places.
From that perspective, if the religious right wants to claim that the United States is a Christian nation, then they also must claim responsibility for policies completely antithetical to messages in a text they claim as the foundation of their religion. In addition, Judeo-Christian religious culture in the U.S. at this time in history must claim resurgent hate movements and activity in this country as our own.
A BURNING BUSH: COMPELLING IDEAS AND VALUES THAT LEAD TO CREATIVE ACTION IN THE WORLD
The fact that religions change over time doesn’t mean they don’t offer us universals, ideas and values that emerge from a unified consciousness.
I’m thinking about the length of time religious civilizations have lasted, most for millennia. Even Islam, the most recently arrived of the world’s major religions, has a 13 century history and today is experiencing a resurgence. A new report from the Pew Research Center tells us that Islam “will nearly equal Christianity by 2050 before eclipsing it around 2070, if current trends continue.”
The United States has been a nation just since 1776, 240 years. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of history. Just over two centuries for our democratic experiment…vs. 13 centuries of Islamic civilization and three, four or more millennia to date for other religious civilizations.
Some even suggest, if the U.S. doesn’t change its current trajectory, it is on the downward slope toward ending its experiment in democracy — while Islamic religious civilization is resurgent. If Islam hasn’t yet found its footing, we are losing ours according to many on both the left and the right.
I wondered what gives religious civilizations their staying power, and why our bold experiment in democracy is cracking at the seams after such a relatively short life?
I had this thought: a compelling idea with its associated values is a bush that burns — but is not consumed. It propels a society forward, providing the framework for achievement, creativity, growth and development. It is an idea so compelling that it arrests our attention and both inspires and leads us throughout history, although its surface appearance may change. Years ago I heard a marvelous recording that captures the universality of this idea, although in the form of a staff – The Peasle Tree Sermon.
Despite anti-creation forces in every religious civilization, they have also all been forces for good in the world, creative energies, burning bushes that provide those compelling principles and values that drive adherents to work for a better world.
Our democratic idea was a burning bush at one time in history, but it seems to be no longer. Why? Instead of railing about criticism of the U.S. and its policies coming from within and without, perhaps we should pause to consider what these criticisms and this anger are telling us about who we are at this moment in time. Perhaps we should stop shouting slogans and posturing and reassuring ourselves for a moment and listen to each other and contemplate. We might be astonished to discover how many of us have the same concerns and would respond to the same strong message if our anguish and our desire weren’t camouflaged under our cultural battle cries.
HOW THE BURNING BUSH LOST ITS FIRE
At risk of vast over-simplification, I want to share some thoughts about why our idea seems to have lost its force and power to lead us after just 240 years while religious civilizations are still here millennia after their ideas and values first entered history.
Our founding fathers recognized that unregulated democracy creates injustice and so forged us as a republic, intending to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, we learned from our history that capitalism requires checks in order to work for the broader society. The more we remove these restraints, the more our burning bush loses its fire.
The cry of the French Revolution, which we embraced at our inception, is no longer heard in our land: liberty, equality, brotherhood. This was an idea and a set of values that inspired people so profoundly that they were willing to give their lives to make it a living principle, much the way religious martyrs throughout history have done.
The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France offered us another myth about ourselves, a vision for who we could be at our best, in the words of Jewish-American, Emma Lazarus, written in 1883: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” This myth is one that seems at best out of sync with our action in the world.
But the failure of checks and balances isn’t our only problem. As I have had the opportunity to be more reflective in the last two or three years about food choices and our food supply, I’ve come to see my world through a different lens. The problem I see at the root of our food supply, the problem that poisons the food chain, bringing chronic disease, death, injustice, poverty, hunger and environmental degradation, is the same problem that permeates our culture, our politics and our world. It is the same problem that makes our republic no longer a burning bush, no longer a compelling ideal.
In addition to eroding those checks and balances that were carefully built into our constitution, we have allowed another imbalance to take over our society, and that is, secularism, including an ideal of unfettered relativism. While the founding fathers may not have been Christians in the image of today’s evangelicals (some left their Christian faith and practice to become Deists, and many others were influenced by Deism, a Enlightenment rationalist idea) they were not anti-religion or anti- spiritually rooted values. Indeed many founding documents and artifacts draw on Hebrew scripture for inspiration. The framers of the Constitution simply believed that the tenets of a specific religious profession should not be part of the constitutional and legal framework of the United States. The way we have translated the idea of separation of church and state would probably surprise them today.
Secularism and relativism bring many important benefits, often including respect for those whose cultural norms and expressions don’t match our own — but coupled with an erosion in how we value our own republic with its system of checks and balances, we have created a society which repudiates the values found in every major religious culture. Successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism rule the day while we continue to claim we are caring and compassionate. Yet our actions demonstrate the truth of what we have become.
We must claim this current version of our American ideal as part of what America is. Just as we can’t say any religion is a religion of peace or of violence, we cannot say America is a caring and compassionate country — but we also don’t have to let this vision of banning Muslims and rounding up Mexicans and censoring science and debunking our institutions and values define us completely. Both are part of who we are today at this time in history. We are no longer, if we ever were, a shining city on a hill. That is our myth about ourselves, our vision that sustains us and guides our action in the world when we let it. At present, when we even think of it in the rough and tumble of daily life, it is a myth in remission.
REGAINING THE BURNING BUSH
I am not saying that myths are bad things. They are constructs, as is anything in the created world, including language itself, our vehicle for communication. It is impossible to comprehend reality without looking at it through a construct. Every religion knows this and has its myths of origin, its myths that explain the world and its relationship to transcendence. These myths contribute to creating us as human beings and build our worldview according to a set of beliefs or principles and values.
Similarly rituals and law codes create us, teaching us how to live within a society. Basic to every major religion are codes that inculcate caring and compassion and behaviors that build society.
The myths of religious civilizations, the rituals and the codes that emphasize caring and compassion, are burning bushes that have inspired adherents for millennia. I maintain that our history of secularism, relativism and capitalism demonstrates these principles cannot sustain a democracy. Therefore they cannot serve the same purpose as spiritual value systems that recognize the interdependence of human beings with creation and transcendence. The lessons we teach, the ways we create human beings in our society, based on successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism will never maintain their fire. They will achieve their ends by asserting power. There is no other possibility. These are not values for which people will willingly give their lives.
Many on the right stake their claim to leadership on a specific religious worldview and frame the left as godless secularists. Many on the left undoubtedly add to this image when they ridicule and discount what they portray as simplistic religious ideas.
Let’s consider, for a moment, that human engagement with transcendence and ultimate meanings is, rather, audacious, as are all ideas about the value of human life on this planet. Engagement, a process, is audacious. Asserting that one knows ultimate truth is human arrogance — but so is rejecting engagement in the process of discovery and connection. Some humility from both directions is probably in order.
I think perhaps the left has been too quick to see what is negative about being “religious,” however we define that and for whatever specific faith.
There is this fact — for a civilization to survive over millennia, even to thrive, its adherents must be inspired and driven by compelling principles and values. These principles and values must be communicated in meaningful ways that shape people’s lives in the world. All mainstream religions can claim major success in this respect by virtue of their long-term and continuing energy and ability to inspire. Our 240 year old republic, in the meantime, struggles. Half of our citizens aren’t even inspired to vote much less offer their lives for the current principles and values of our society.
I think we on the left need to look closely at what religious civilizations teach us about serving as a burning bush for the long haul. All major religions emphasize values of caring and compassion. All remind us to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, the forgotten among us. And all use myth, ritual and ethical codes to teach us those values, to shape us as human beings.
The left needs to actively re-engage with the meaning of our existence in the context of transcendence and ultimate unity. From this engaged perspective, it must forge a vision, a message, that reinspires its current adherents and shapes and inspires new generations to transform society.
By transformation, I mean we must dismantle the worn out foundation on which we operate today, overwhelmingly secular, relativist and capitalist. We must pour a new foundation, one resting on the principle of the unity of all being, a principle that expresses itself in caring and compassion in every word, action and policy. A principle that expresses itself in community, the kind of community we all want, a community where no person is forgotten or diminished. A principle that expresses itself in our connection to and dependence on the rest of creation.
While we need the humility to recognize as many different paths to enduring truth as there are people in the world, we also need the audacity to engage, to reclaim the enduring significance of a burning bush, a bush that burns but is not consumed, to lead our society forward.
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*NOTES: Yesterday as I was continuing to edit this post, a friend shared a fascinating podcast with me which I believe discusses in a different way some of the same issues I struggle with above.
I was recently alerted to my own dissatisfaction or paradoxical relationship to what Ken Wilber calls the “green” movement, a point of view that asserts there is no absolute truth, that all truth is context specific and relative and that all points of view or cultures or belief systems have equal value.
On the one hand, as you can see from what I have written, I gravitate toward and am trained in cultural studies of religion. This is the method by which religion is taught in universities today — culture and time specific and relative. There are many advantages to this method, and it allows a measure of objectivity, understanding and respect that exists only uncomfortably with assertions of the truth of myth, an approach invariably associated with ethnocentricity, according to Wilber. I’ll add to that anthropocentricity.
On the other hand, as Wilber explains, this “green” perspective becomes mired in self-contradiction and finally, leads to nihilism. If no value statement is superior to any other, then value statements about the green approach itself is also not superior to any other. This leads to an idea that there is no way to say what is true or what superior values can guide us in this life. If there is no difference between bad values and good, in fact no good or bad values, just values — well, why choose one or the other? And if there is no reason to choose and no absolute truth, how is there meaning in our human activity? Why bother with anything, including living?
I sensed but haven’t been able to verbalize this paradox with regard to my studies. I came up against it at a personal level in my late teens when I arrived at a point that I felt there were only two possible responses to questions about the meaning of life: yes or no. Stark, simple, no elaboration needed. A “yes” choice is a biologically driven choice on the one hand, since life wants to live — and a leap of faith on the other hand.
I came up against it again recently in a series of classes I recently took in religion as a refresher. There was a discussion question to Pope Francis’ 2016 statement: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” the Pope told journalists who asked his opinion on Trump’s proposals to halt illegal immigration.” The question we were asked was, is Pope Francis correct in making this statement?
From the perspective of the cultural study of religion, he was not. Pope Francis is Catholic, and Trump is Presbyterian. Who says what Christianity is or isn’t? Christianity is what people who consider themselves Christian do at any point in time, etc. As I said, I understand this perspective and the benefits it offers…but I found myself having a negative gut reaction to it. My instinct tells me that if the world and our lives are to have meaning, we require definition, boundaries within which we live, we must make choices on the basis of values we can judge to be superior to other values.
Finally I recognize that the conundrum of the left matches my own conundrum. If we disparage religions as blind and ethnocentric — say that all values systems are equal and that ethics or beliefs are situational and relative…how can we assert a message superior to others? How can we make a statement that has the power to move people, a message we can claim is superior to the message that currently invigorates and moves the right to action?
Here is how I resolve this dilemma for myself. How this works in a political framework, I’m not certain, and that is what I tried to deal with in this post. A statement from Mishna Haggiga guides me: “Whoever speculates on one of four things should better not have been created: what is above; what is below; what is before; and what is after.”
Although the statement, like any scriptural statement, has a context-specific point of origin and addresses context-specific questions, it also has a universal dimension. In that respect, it is similar to statements we hear in so many forms from so many different contexts: we can’t know the mind of G-d, be in the present, develop an attitude and practice of caring and compassion toward the world around us. For a person who, like me, accepts a spiritual dimension, that is the backdrop for everything, it informs everything, but my focus and attention are on how I live in the world. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t want to follow philosophical ideas to their logical end point. They will inevitably fail.
My academic training and my “green” orientation keep me humble. I accept that any worldview is a construct. It might be ultimate or absolute truth, but there is no way any human being knows that for certain, and we are all shaped by our historical and cultural environment, me as much as anyone else.
My personal experience tells me we cannot live without these constructs, and Wilber’s comment defines that conundrum, laying bare the ultimate nihilism of a cultural studies approach. And so I would call the construct that I choose “functional.” I choose it because it works in the way I want it to work in my life: the worldview I choose gives me hope, guides me to be the best person I can be, inspires me to engage actively in the world in which I find myself, inspires me to create.
If there is one absolute, as Wilber points out, it is the persistence of pattern in creation. One of those patterns is that life is creative. Another is that all life ends. So I sought and found a functional worldview that inspires me to become part of that creative activity in the time between my beginning and my end.
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