So how do you LIKE your religion? The issues I’m addressing are not the theological “it is/it isn’t” arguments about whether God exists or how many angels can dance en pointe on the head of John the Baptist, assuming you can get that pesky dove out of his hair. While I’m not quite going to the raw consumer level of household appliances, I’m asking whether your religion is comfortable and whether it’s functional. Does it feel good? Does it work?
On a far more elevated plane, some philosophers are already moving back to the experience level of religion: can you feel the sacred? Do you feel that the universe includes you? Do your beliefs give you joy? In terms of function, does your religion give you a clear basis for ethical decisions, a motive for doing the right thing and a way of figuring out what that is? Will it support you if you have to stand against a majority who differs from you?
These are quite different ways of approaching religion than looking at traditional labels or ethnic contexts. We have been traversing a strange time in which on the one hand there is the strong assertion that all humans are universally invested in the Golden Rule, that all humans are loved by any worthwhile God, that God is in every culture, and so on. At the same time we’ve been wrestling with the Star Trek claim that every culture is unique and we are not justified in criticizing it, even though it might feature cannibalism and terrorism. (Such cultures exist on this planet today.) On the one hand is naivete and on the other is cynicism.
I go to my “symbol” of the dot in the middle of the circle. Start with the dot, which is oneself and one’s internal life, both thought and feeling. I will argue that it is ecological, with the ecology consisting of place, family, institutions, material culture, and then things like music, art, culture. Do not take this as necessarily “elevated.” Surely growing up neglected and filthy in a ghetto housing project with a drunk mother and a violent father IS an ecology with all these things. Nor does it have to be “colorful,” for a suburban split-level with a cheerleader mother and a white collar father, complete with emerald lawn and top-of-the-line barbecue, is still an ecology. Ecologies are the root of religion.
This is the core that a counselor would pursue: how did you fit into the terms of your childhood and what assumptions about the nature of the universe did they teach you? When someone says, “nursery of the stars,” does that sound terrifying or does it sound like a sentimental conceit or do you think it’s about Hollywood actors? As an adult, what assumptions need upgrading? Which ones never proved out anyway? This is not a right/wrong inventory, but a reality check. A good religion gives you reality checks.
In a time when a child can be made into a mutilating and murderous marauder and then pulled out of that environment to go to college in the US (“A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ishmael Beah), a religion that allows forgiveness through transformative rebirth would be vital. But it doesn’t have to be Christianity. If it IS Christianity, the KIND of Christianity that works might well be evangelical, packed with song and movement and people who are at least the same color. A religion that says the only reparation is death will simply eliminate a child who kills. (It was only recently that the US Supreme Court ruled that we would no longer kill the killers who were children at the time.)
In this country and in all others, partly because of the separation of church and state, it is hard to formally reconcile differences between “religions” (worldviews), particularly when the religion privileges one group over the other. William Shatner would be baffled. Even Mr. Spock would be troubled. If one’s identity is based on privilege, one is vulnerable, either to envy or to exploitation.
Here are my provisional criteria for a good religion:
1. It should enfold you like the wings of an angel. You like that? There are no angels. They are a metaphor. There are wings, You should find out more about them, their construction and proper use. And you should see what there is in this galaxy that makes you feel enfolded as well as what enfolds (embraces) others ON THEIR TERMS. It’s a feeling. Use your spindle/mirror cells if you’ve got any. (Some people don’t. What can we do with them?) Remember wings can fly. Wings can fall apart.
2. You shouldn’t have to struggle to justify what you do. If it all seems easy and obvious, and yet everyone is angry at you, best run another reality check. Have you had “mission drift?” Do you need to reboot? More inputs? New app? (That’s about the extent of my computer jargon.)
3. Does it give you chances to celebrate, rejoice, mourn, mark the seasonal wheel at the solstices and equinoxes, rejoin your tribes, undertake pilgrimages? Maybe chances to atone or do penance?
4. Does it tell you to “be where you are,” wash the dishes for the sake of the sensuous ceremony of it, adhere to a discipline, cut loose in a wildly Dionysiac way? Would it let you, like that remarkable Chinese man, step out in front of a tank to protest injustice or protect others? Does it tell you to protect your body?
5. Does it help you think the unthinkable, the inconceivable, the black swan that isn’t a swan and isn’t a color and is neither seen nor suspected? This is the element of revelation. But you don’t have to impose it on everyone else.
6. Can you accept your limits? That you’ve set yourself on an unobtainable or an ephemeral goal? That you might die too soon? Will that acceptance give you consolation and laughter?
7. Can you share with others? Is there a context in which people are unified, even if only dancing to the same music? Marching for the same cause?
8. Does it discourage you from searching for gods in other people, someone to parent you and boss you and make your life beholden to them? Does it discourage you from the fantasy that you ARE God?
9. Does it connect you to the planet in some direct way, like a rooted plant rather than a cut bouquet? Can you feel the sun and the rain, the light and the dark?
10. Does it keep you from making lists like this which are only a beginning and not to be taken as a fail-safe recipe?