It’s a warm Sunday morning. After a fine walk along the newly verdant paths in the park, and a pleasant talk with two women on horseback, I stop to sit at picnic site. The divergence between religions and religiosity is about to come to a head.
As I’m enjoying the water and greenery as well as the sight of people going by across the creek, a middle-aged man walks up with his dog. He says nothing as he unleashes the big canine and starts throwing sticks for the animal to chase in the water. One expects some noise and intrusion, but this is too much.
I politely tell him that I am taking a meditation, and ask if he would mind finding another place to play with his dog. I hope that the simple request would suffice, but of course the very inconsiderateness that caused him to ignore a man sitting there silently also compels him to reject the appeal.
Like so many Americans in recent years, his doggish desires are all the matters, and he arrogantly informs me that there is plenty of room here, and his dog wants to swim. He adds the snide comment, “if you want to meditate, go to church.” At that point I reply, rather angrily I must admit, “Churches my ass, leave.”
An individual’s relationship with nature is the cornerstone of their relationship with people and the world. Indeed, a great cathedral evokes the same feeling, imitatively and intentionally, that a mountaintop or a magnificent vista induces. That raises the questions: Does the problem with religions begin with putting the symbol before the actuality? Or are religions inherently false constructions of that which cannot be formulated?
There is an old joke about a man who searches for the truth for thirty years. He finally finds it, and is very happy. Then the devil comes along and says, “Here, let me help you organize it.”
The religious symbol is an internal construct before it is an external building and behavior. The word ‘God’ is not God; the word ‘Allah’ is not Allah. But for most believers, the word is the thing. From this confusion it’s a short step to believing the Bible or the Koran are “the word of God.”
Inspiring religious works are often written by exceptional people who have direct experience of the sacred, with the intent to convey insights and actualities that lie beyond words. But then followers turn the actualities that true religious teachers point to into scriptures and religions, which inevitably divide people. Even the words of teachers who warn against this danger become scripture after their death, which followers subtly and slavishly try to imitate.
The enthrallment of millions with the symbols of religion produces a counter-reaction in many people, who deny the existence of anything beyond the symbol, the material and the random. That is the ultimate case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Theism is one side of the coin, and atheism is the other.
Is there truly sacredness beyond thought however? Obviously that question cannot be answered with either a definite yes or no, or else one’s inquiry is finished. During meditative states, one perceives and feels sacredness beyond thought, an all-pervasive awareness within and beyond the universe.
That doesn’t mean there is any kind of ‘Creator,’ it simply means what we call ’God’ is present only when we are fully in the present, when thought is deeply quiet and the mind/brain profoundly aware. Each contact with the actuality of wholeness (which has the same basic meaning and root as the word holiness) is new and completely distinct from prior experiences. Indeed, the remembrance of past experiences prevents awareness of the infinite in the present.
In short, it’s easy to say what God is not (a deity or ‘Supreme Being,’ a separate spirit or the ‘Creator’); but it’s impossible to say what it is. I don’t understand how people can believe that God can be found in a building or a book. It’s hard enough to observe the mind into stillness in the mirror of nature, and hear the Nameless in the whisper of the wind through the leaves.
So is it possible for so-called mystics to communicate with churchgoers, and for churchgoers to benefit from talking with mystics? Or is the gulf between being genuinely religious and belonging to a religion just too wide?
If churches are seen as gathering places of communities of faith (not as belief systems but in the deeper sense of the word), and religious texts are seen as inspiring words of men and women (not as ‘the word of God’) then interfaith and intrafaith dialogue can be fruitful.
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