The remarkable success demonstrated by the methodologies of science over the past two centuries has brought us to a place in history where its epistemology has cornered the market.
In the modern West objective truth and facts have a monopoly on value. By these standards, religion does not measure up. It is useless in the modern world. The question is whether this is a fair standard by which to measure the value of religion.
Religion is viewed, by most people, as a set of supernatural propositions that must be either affirmed or denied. This position creates a deep chasm. On one side are those who validate the supernatural truth-claims of religion; on the other side are those that categorically reject the validity of those claims. These two camps are commonly referred to as believers and atheists.
For the better part of 15 years, I thought myself an atheist. The ubiquity of fundamentalist religion in the deep South (where I live), coupled with my tacit acceptance of this false dichotomy (believers vs. atheists), forced me to side with the atheists. Nothing in me believed that “God” was a suitable explanation for the origin of life or the cosmos. Furthermore, the idea that an all-knowing, all-powerful creator God fashioned a world, which so displeased him that he was forced to offer up his son as a blood-sacrifice in order to pacify his own wrath made no sense to me. It wasn’t a matter of being angry or resentful at Christianity. I was just as disinterested in reincarnation as I was in heaven and hell. As a child of modernity these supernatural propositions just didn’t resonate with me. So I found common cause with the atheist, though I was always sympathetic to the idea of spirituality.
This spiritual impulse pulled me towards the Buddhism section at my local bookstore. Buddhism seemed to be devoid of these supernatural elements. After spending some time in India I learned this was a Western facade. Buddhism, like all other religions, is full of supernatural elements: reincarnation, tulkus, gods, dakinis, dharmapalas, and yidams. Much of this is read out by those that have popularized Buddhism in the West, but in its indigenous form it is there. That said, Buddhism has a rich and rewarding tradition of contemplative practice and philosophical inquiry that is capable of functioning independent of any supernatural elements. But so does Christianity.
One day, twelve or so years ago, I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama. In it he mentioned a name: Thomas Merton. I didn’t know Thomas Merton from a hole in the wall, but the Dalai Lama—who I deeply respect—gave him a glowing recommendation. So I bought my first Merton book—No Man Is An Island—which began my love affair with Thomas Merton and my introduction to contemplative Christianity.
As I plunged into the wide array of contemplative Christian writers—ranging from Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila up to contemporary writers like Matthew Fox, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, and Cynthia Bourgeault—something began to awaken within me. Their words were resurrecting the winds of inspiration deep in my body. It felt like a homecoming.
In Contemplative Christianity I found a practicable spirituality that was organized around an experience of God, rather than paranormal speculation. Furthermore, it was consistent with my cultural background and required no ideological allegiances that disqualified my commitment to Buddhist practice or the principles of Buddhist spirituality that had for me proven to be true and effective. As a Westerner, their view supplemented my Buddhist practice and the practices they offered enlarged my spiritual life.
Eventually, it go to the point where I could no longer exclusively identify with either tradition. In fact, I am still in this bardo, so to speak. I am confused—actually, I am not confused! The confluence of resonant threads in my spirituality and my inability to honestly label myself as one or the other is probably a more accurate representation of the complexity of the human experience, and interestingly enough, more in line with the view selflessness in both traditions. I am comfortable without the name tag. And I am not alone in this. In the ever-developing spirituality of the modern West identification with traditions and labels are losing their significance (and not just for pretentious, quasi-intellectual reasons).
The emerging view of spirituality in the West is one based loosely on the idea of pragmatism. What works? This is the concern driving the development of modern spirituality. And this concern necessarily absorbs into the existing framework effective ideas and practices from a variety of traditions. In fact, this view of spiritual practice is fleshed out in my book Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West.
This approach also exposes the inadequacies of the "believer vs. atheist" dichotomy. Falling through the cracks of this fatuous debate are millions of people who see religion as an effective vehicle for spiritual growth and personal, and thereby social, transformation—not as a set of truth-claims about the physical world.
If we are talking about the origins of life or the cosmos, then yes, in that limited sense, I am an atheist. Science is the most effective tool for answering those questions, not religion. However, if we are talking about moving beyond the narrow and lifeless world between our ears and reconnecting with the ground of meaning and being, then I am a religious person. When skillfully utilized, religion is, in my opinion, the most effective means of approaching and embodying our human nature.
The value of religion cannot be measured by its capacity to explain away the mysteries of the material world. That is not the job of religion. Those mysteries belong to science. And the fact that large numbers of people believe that religion’s value consists primarily in that endeavor is strange. It demonstrates our limited perspective and painfully anemic grasp of truth.
Yes, something is of value only if it is rooted in truth, but truth is not the same as trivia.
The word truth is a representation of reality, which is a rich, kaleidoscopic domain that the word "fact" fails to envelope. When the word “truth” is mistaken for the word “fact,” life is reduced to a myopic, single-tiered plane of cerebral existence that ignores every phenomena which escapes measurement.
Our understanding of truth must also account for those intangible dimensions of reality. It must account for consciousness and courage, meaning, longing, patience, and self-sacrifice. Love is not a quantifiable fact, but it is an indispensable quality of truth. And this aspect of truth, strangely enough, finds its most judicious descriptions in works of fiction, not philosophical treatises.
Fiction is not necessarily antithetical to truth, as any student of literature well knows. Fiction can be skillfully deployed as a means of communicating truth. When fiction is used to communicate truth (The Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings) or when fact and fiction are blended in an effort to lift truth from its historical context and place the story on a timeless plane (The Bible), it is properly called myth. At its core, religion is a collection of myths coupled with practices or rituals that enable us to participate in the story.
Myth is a system of symbols that, as the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell explained, point past themselves “to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder.” There is always a sphere of experience that escapes the plain language of facts. This is the realm of mythology.
Historical facts detail the events of times passed; whereas myth tells the story of an ongoing journey, the human adventure. Since mythology is organized around eternal truths rather than historical details, it invites us to participate in the journey, which in truth is the unfolding of our authentic life.
Briefly stated, myth tells the story of mankind, not a particular man, and therefore invites us to participate in the telling of this story through our lived experience.
The value of religion consists, not in the factual accuracy of these stories, but in their capacity to arouse within us the courage to be in the face of despair. And furthermore, couple that inspiration with an actionable path structure that enables us to actualize that potential or express it in our actions. The value of God, for example, is found in its ability to direct our longing—to set our gaze on the transcendent realm or center our identity in the selfless awareness of the heart. The word God does not explain existence away. It is not the name of the most powerful being in the universe. God is a symbol for Being-itself, which we participate in through basic awareness.
God is not a being far removed from the reality and the immediacy of our daily life, but The intimate, intensely personal, and deeply affecting presence that substantiates our life.
The word God calls us out of the claustrophobic, false-self identity that is at the root of our suffering and into the life of the body. But religion is not a collection of magic words. Religion without practice is wishful thinking. Practice births God into the world through our actions. Prayer invokes the power of Being in the face of fear, anger, and depression. Meditation practice crucifies the false-self on the cross of silence, enabling our true Self—Christ, if you will—to be resurrected from rubble of our disembodied life. This true Self—not I but the Christ within—is the impersonal or selfless quality of basic awareness that mediates our relationship with God.
In the words of Rabbi David Cooper, God is not a noun, but a verb. When practiced—rather than simply affirmed—God enables us to overcome personal suffering. And that is the standard of truth by which religion must be judged.
William James wrote in The Meaning of Truth, “The true, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in our way of behaving.” I don’t agree with the idea that expedience is any more representative of truth than are facts. I believe that both have their place. Each represents a quality of truth.
Suffering brings us to the spiritual path. We might pick up a book about spirituality, meditation, or some religion for reasons of curiosity, but no one commits themselves to the painstaking work of spiritual practice unless they are looking for transformation. And suffering is what motivates us to change. So when we ask the question, “Does it work?” we must understand that to mean, “Does religion enable us to overcome suffering?” For example, we get frustrated when we lose our temper because deep-down we are aware of a greater potential. We know that our responses are limited, that our freedom is restricted by the conditioned reactions of the false-self system and we yearn to throw off the old, tired ways of this false-self. The question is, does religion enable us to accomplish that goal? It depends.
When religion is viewed as a series of truth claims that must be affirmed or denied, it does not have the ability to change our lives. It isn’t even concerned with this life. When you believe in the literal existence of heaven and hell—eternal bliss and eternal damnation—this life loses its significance. Such religion is forced to ignore the concerns of the present moment and obsess over the hereafter. However, if you reject this literalist position, which creates the false dichotomy of “believer vs. atheist,” and accept the claim that there is truth in usefulness, then you recognize the space between atheism and fundamentalism. In this space, religion is free to focus on this life.
When religion is seen not as an answer to the question of existence, but as a sophisticated system of practice that enables us to enter into the experience of Being-itself, then yes, religion has the ability to overcome personal suffering. It has the ability to conquer spiritual death.