Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category


Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

I have been reading Needleman‘s The New Religions*. It has been on my bookshelf for a long time but I have only just got around to looking at it seriously. He says in his introduction that by eliminating the cosmos from man’s relationship with God the European has come to emphasise more the ethical, and even the legal, aspects of religion. Religious life became a matter of belief, or performance.

There is a lot in this. Faith (religion) was a dialogue with God. The world was simply the stage on which this action took place. It had no intrinsic relationship with either of the actors, the believer, or the deity. The action was the important thing. It was a cerebral drama. The protagonists have no history, no context. They leap fully clothed onto the stage, act out their roles and depart at the end. The milieu in which this takes place is a backdrop, scenery, nothing more. Any backdrop will do. The play can be in period, or modern dress. The externalities are just that, accidentals. They are not intrinsic to the context, or the meaning. “It is an intellectualism rooted in European acosmism and its accompanying sense of the human mind as autonomous and outside nature.”

Talking about suffering he says that in the West we treat it with palliatives. We treat the symptoms. We do not look for and try to eliminate the causes. Our mind and the power of thought itself is inept without exposure to a spiritual discipline. Logic is a whore serving anyone who can pay the price. We are concerned with preserving the quality of the life we lead rather than transforming it. Religious services are time spent reading and listening to clinical descriptions of our illness and its cure as though the mere reading would somehow effect a cure – or we read and then pray for a cure as though the simple saying of words in a prayer would somehow effect the cure. Why?

Why do we not carry out the prescriptions we read? The short and simple answer must be because we do not believe or accept either the diagnosis or the prescription. Why is this? One answer is that most of our unhappiness and suffering is due to material causes. We do not have enough money. The situation at work is oppressive. We feel exploited. We are beset by anxieties. Because we have little power or control over our lives, over where we live, the work we do, the actions of others in the family, the looming threats of redundancy and financial disaster – all these are swords hanging by thin threads over our heads. We feel that if only we had sufficient money we could deal with these problems. They would then no longer be problems and we would be happy.

However, it does not take much thought to realise that, while money can make life more pleasant and give us greater control, it cannot, in itself, bring happiness. Material things affect us, but far more important are immaterial things – especially relationships. What use is wealth if one is not loved, or if the person one loves is suffering? And even if one is wealthy and if all one’s relationships are successful, there is always the impending threat of disaster, illness, suffering and death. We do not really believe that God is in control, or has any power to affect our lives. Chance and luck rule, not divine destiny. If we are lucky we will have a few brief moments of pleasure and happiness before feeling the cold fingers of the brute facts of existence. Besides, those who preach the Gospel, there are some honourable exceptions, do not inspire us with confidence that they have discovered the Kingdom.

But what is the Kingdom?

But what is the Kingdom? Is it there to be found? Or is it only there for those outstanding spiritual athletes like Jesus, Buddha and the saints? Traditionally there have been two routes. There has been a fast track for those who want to dedicate their whole lives to the search for enlightenment, or sainthood. Traditionally these have been the monks, nuns and hermits; those who leave behind home and family in the single-minded pursuit of God, and those who have dedicated their lives without reservation to others, such as Gandhi, and Oscar Romero. And there has been a slower track for those, the majority, who have not felt the imperative desire, or whose lives are quite comfortable. For them the excitement and challenges of day to day life are meaningful enough. They do not see the need of sacrificing everything, as they see it, for an uncertain possibility. For them religion is an insurance policy. Not all are as cynical as Pascal, but there is comfort in the rituals and prayers. They remove the terror of the prospect of death, they provide reassurance that the wicked will eventually get their comeuppance, while the meek, gentle and exploited will receive their reward. And then there are those for whom the word God is no more than a vague concept, who do not believe there is anything other than the existence of immediate experience.

As far as I can see this has always been the case. The determined search for enlightenment has never been the preoccupation of more than a small minority. Most people fall into category two and for them religion has been what some sociologists have called a sacred canopy. It has given a sacred dimension to the values, morals and customs of society. It has provided myths which helped to give meaning to life, it has marked the rites of passage for individuals and helped them to find a sense of identity, worth and meaning in an often cruel and indifferent world. Not surprisingly, as society becomes more and more secularised religion becomes more and more an anachronism. And yet, as society becomes more and more secularised, comes the nagging suspicion that there is something missing, something lacking; that the conventional answers are not really addressing the questions that matter, or that we are not asking the right questions and, instead, finding answers to the wrong ones.

*Doubleday, 1982