I grew up in a religious home. Do not take that to mean I was religious. I went to church because my mom made me. I was not exactly waking up cheerful and proper on Sunday morning, singing harmonies of Amazing Grace. We didn’t go every single week, but I was exposed to many of the common teachings of today’s non denominational Christian church. And I at least knew enough to be completely turned off when I was exposed to science in high school. How was I supposed to believe some dude died and CAME BACK TO LIFE three days later, all to somehow save mankind? How was I supposed to believe God created literally everything when I had learned about Darwin’s theory of evolution and selection? And the fact that none of these contradictions were even broached in church really turned me off. The church goes on acting as if many of the things they preach are not in direct opposition to hard science. These contradictions were not spoken of – more or less tucked away in the DO NOT DISCUSS category. Surely, if you ignore something long enough it will just go away right?
One of the things that bothered me most as a kid was the extreme geographical bias of the great savior Jesus. Was I simply lucky to be born in the blessed holy land of the southern United States where Christian churches were on every other street corner? What about the billions of people born around the world who will never be exposed to the Bible, Jesus Christ, nor ever see a church? Did the great forgiving savior simply forget about those billions of people? Were they sentenced to Hell simply by virtue of birth location? That didn’t strike me as a great strategy by the almighty one. It was also not difficult to see that many of the religions shared a great majority of their teachings. Sure they were dressed up in different words and practices, but they seemed to almost be coming from the same source. If my God was teaching the same principles as your God, should we not go to the same Heaven? Unfortunately the dogma and traditions of religious institutions seek to emphasize distinctions rather than embrace the many of qualities connecting the world’s religions.
My largest stumbling block was the manner in which the Bible or Christian stories were taught to me. They were taught as objective truths. God did create the entire world in 7 days (or whatever), and Jesus did in fact come back to life after being crucified and killed. The basic theory of evolution I was taught in high school clearly contradicted the truth of creation I was taught in church. But factual contradiction was not the the only problem here. I was forced to entertain the idea hypocrisy. How can one assemble a tome espousing the virtue of truth and honesty, when the first book on the creation of the world is a blatant lie when interpreted literally? At this point I was not aware of the metaphorical and metaphysical truths actually being described by the creation story. I did not have that belief structure because the idea of the Bible as metaphorical truth was never discussed during my time in church. From the viewpoint of the dogmatists and traditionalists of institutionalized religion, claiming a metaphorical truth would be the largest surrender and step backwards possible, so I understand their predicament. I could go on with the problems I was finding in the teachings of the Christian church, but these illustrate the point clearly enough. These sentiments generally sum up my spiritual position from high school up until about 1 year ago (I’m 26 now).
“The power of moral prejudices has penetrated deeply into the most spiritual world, which would seem to be the coldest and most devoid of presuppositions, and has obviously operated in an injurious, inhibiting, binding, and distorting manner.”Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
I never had a feeling of contempt or disdain towards those who considered themselves religious, or believers. In fact, I admired those people. Not only because they were generally good people, but because it was evident that religion was this intricate connecting fabric of all peoples. I went to engineering school and was surrounded by people who were technical, science minded individuals. Many of my classmates were religious and seemed to have no problem building a career based on science while also believing that a man rose from the dead. I don’t know if these people were living their lives with some form of low grade cognitive dissonance, or if they were spiritually advanced to the level of holding paradox and understanding deep metaphor (I would have to guess the former based upon my experience with religious teachings). Anyways, I suppose I always had a deep respect for religion even if it I didn’t understand it or believe it.
Over the last year my views have changed rather dramatically. Or perhaps, they have simply come full circle. I became very interested in the ideas that lay under religion, those common threads. This led me to Jospeh Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces) which led me to Carl Jung (multiple books), while previously being influenced by the metaphysical ideas of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), and Don Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements). Over the many months of these readings, I eventually realized they were all talking about the same thing. Each, through a different perspective, attempting explanations of the divine – that force or essence connecting all things, that is all things. The thing that gives rise to religion.
The fundamental problem with teaching religion is that God is all things. Therefore, when you speak about God, you are always making some sort of abstraction. Words can be classified as denoting substance, activity, quality, or relationship. For example, dog and human would belong to the category of substance, he runs or she jumps would belong to activity, dark and light would belong to quality, and lastly, having wealth or status would belong to the category of relationship. The idea of God does not fit into one of these categories, for it is all things. God is ineffable by nature, words are no more than partial descriptions. This is the fundamental reason why we must look to religion as teachings of metaphorical truths rather than concrete, objective, or historical truths. The fact that words unfailingly recoil from the idea of God demands a deeper interpretation than simple historical fact. When one views religious teachings as metaphors, the room for development and spiritual growth is magnified. Dogma feels this as reduction, when in reality, this opens the door to the infinite.
This understanding creates plenty of room for both Darwin and Jesus. The genes that are the units of selection for Darwin’s theory have been through innumerable events of birth, death, and re-birth, just as the followers of any religion have been. Science and religion are not diametrically opposed. They are two distinct lenses through which one can gaze upon reality. They are both tools capable of fantastic dynamism, growth, and innovation. Both able to generate insights into our existence, and quite possibly into our purpose. When the western scientific approach seals its walls to religion, it is limiting its possibilities and trapping creative minds. It is quite literally placing bounds on what is possible. If we limit science to only that which we currently understand, we will not be able to meet the demands of our world. We must be willing to leap into the unknown, and we must reward those bold thinkers, nay, bold adventurers. When religious institutions rely on dogma and tradition to spread their message, they are alienating future generations and severely limiting the profound spiritual wisdom of our ancestors. They are acting as a reducing valve to an unfathomable beauty and source of insight and creativity. Tomorrow’s church must embrace the deeper truths, those that underly all the religions. It must embrace the complexity of God instead of attempting to reduce the ideas to flat historical fact. We must fight the tendency to identify with only one of science or religion. Together, they can be constructive and their collaboration might just be necessary for the fantastic problems of our future. Here is to future scientist shamans.