I was raised in the Catholic Church. The Church that determined what books would be included in the authoritative Bible and what would not. As a kid, I grew up believing in God. I was even an altar boy although it was against my will. In high school, I stopped attending mass. In college, I studied religion from medieval Christian mystics to Zen Philosophy. I went to temples, churches, and mosques wondering if there was any trace of truth under all the man-made rubble. I dreamed for a long time traveling the world’s holy places like an agnostic’s spiritual pilgrimage to religion.
These days, I would defend religion when speaking to an atheist and would defend atheists from the evangelicals. Naturally, this confuses most people, gets me into a lot of arguments where I’m forced into a position that doesn’t fit me, and no one seems to know “what” I really believe including even my parents. I agree with parts of what others believe but rarely all of it.
The Ground We Will Travel Together in this Post
In this piece, I’m going to dissect the challenge I have with exclusive religions like Christianity that demands faith but their members seem to mistake faith as full knowledge. Then I’ll argue that religion is about transcendence of self and why it’s true, real, and important. Finally, I’ll end with a metaphor that a pastor once gave me and share a similar metaphor from another faith.
1. The Challenge for Faith Based Evangelicals
There’s one point I want to present to the devout Christian. Especially the newly converted who tend to be the most hot and inclined to feel the need to attack / defend themselves in a way that most lifelong Christians never feel the need to do.***
As far as I know, to be a Catholic or Protestant Christian is:
I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on the Cross to repent for the sins of humanity and that salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ alone.
Secondary beliefs include the idea that human beings are sinful beings who can never come close to perfection. We are limited creatures incapable of having full knowledge or understanding of God, at least while we’re alive.
Therefore, it’s impossible for a person to die without sin. It is because of Jesus Christ that we are ever able to ascend to Heaven, he wipes our sins clear through his love. And that’s why we should have faith and worship in Jesus. Why Christians believe it’s not enough to just be a good person who do good acts because only Jesus Christ is perfect Good and only through him is salvation possible then. Even the best man dies with sins and without Christ would be stuck. (Ideas of limbo and purgatory though mitigate this challenge)
However, this belief in Jesus Christ is one of faith. A faith that always contains a seed of doubt. The condition for faith is doubt. Without doubt, there can be no faith.
The atheist who asks for empirical proof of God’s existence is understanding religion incorrectly. God cannot be proven which to a strict empiricist would seem insane to believe in.
For example, let’s say you have faith in your husband or wife that they love you and would not cheat on you. If you tracked their every movement and knew everything they did all the time though then that’s not faith. That’s absolute knowledge that they are not cheating.
Faith is saying that I have a trusting relationship and based on that experience, I believe in you despite any doubts I may have.
So, no Christian, no matter how good, ever has perfect belief in God. It is faith that despite any doubts that may arise in my mind, I believe.
But, if you have followed me thus far and overall agree with the underlying argument then here’s the challenge for those extreme evangelical Christian. Not all Christians. Not even all the evangelical. But just a reminder to those trying to convert others to their way.
What right do you have to tell other people that they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Christ? That Christianity is the one and only true religion?
Built into the very fabric of faith is a lack of this knowledge; an ever constant existence of doubt.
You believe based on your experience with God that he/she must be there at the end. But you cannot and will not know until your death comes.
In reality, it was your experience that lead you to taking on the faith for Jesus Christ, whatever that experience was. Maybe, it was even an experience of God.
So, the challenge is perhaps how do you get others to have their own experience that leads them to religiosity or God?
And the ever constant fear is do these newly converted people believe in God only because of the physical, social, psychological, and other benefits they received by being around Christians wanting to help them? Does it even matter? Maybe Christ is acting through his agents to help in matters of the soul as well as the mind and body. But if that person had been given free psychotherapy sessions instead, would they instead be champions of Therapy instead of Christ?
2. So, what do I believe then?
“Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.”
My interest and belief in religion is that there’s a real experience of transcendence beyond the self which I think is a fundamental part of all religions. An experience of godliness. And this experience is actually more closer to the truth, to reality than our daily, normal experience. That our experience of selfhood, of individuality are artificial constructs of our mind that actually divide and separate us from the truth, from God, from reality, from things as they are. Neuroscience has already proven this is true. Just watch Jill Bolte’s TED Talk:
This godliness is a universal experience therefore I cannot accept exclusivity of salvation by one religion only.
3. Religious Metaphors and Stories
A pastor once gave me a metaphor that there’s a burning house with only one exit. Jesus Christ is that exit. I responded that Muslims would believe that your Christ door has been shut off, and a new door has appeared with the Koran. So, who’s right? Actually, Buddhists have a Lotus Sutra with a similar story:
One day, a fire brokes out in the house of a wealthy man who had many children. The wealthy man shouts at his children inside the burning house to flee. But, the children are absorbed in their games and cannot understand his warning, though the house is being consumed by flames.
Then, the wealthy man devises a practical way to lure the children from the burning house. Knowing that the children are fond of interesting playthings, he calls out to them, “Listen! Outside the gate are the carts that you have always wanted: carts pulled by goats, carts pulled by deer, and carts pulled by oxen. Why don’t you come out and play with them?”
The wealthy man knows that these things will be irresistible to his children.
The children immediately race out to get into the carts. In this way, the wealthy man is able to get his children safely away from the burning house.
Once outside, the children demand the carts they have been promised. Instead, the wealthy man gives them a much finer and larger cart — one that runs as swiftly as the wind — adorned with many jewels and drawn by a great white ox. This cart is called the Great White Ox Cart.
Interesting to note here that first of all the children inside the burning house don’t even realize the house is burning. Likewise, human beings are often very ignorant not just of spiritual truth but of their surroundings and themselves. Second, the father promises various gifts to each son, different strokes for different folks. But, in the end, the importance is that they are safely outside now and can learn the truth about things now such as the fact that they’ve been living in a burning house/life.
To the Christian, to the Muslim, I wonder perhaps your Bible and your Koran are like these different carts. Useful, good, and real items of salvation that bring people out of their ignorance. But, in the end, truth is universal.
It is an elitist viewpoint for me to say. I say it based on my own experience, study, and reasoning. I argue for the university of religion by interpreting every founder of every religion being an outsider, a mystic who questioned everything and wanted to know the meaning of life. I make this claim having had a mini-transcendental experience where I was not me but entirely only me.
If the real importance is getting out of the fire then what are we arguing about? It seems more likely that the people arguing are the ones still in the burning house and arguing which door to take.*@
Faith is ecstatic:
… “It transcends both the drives of the nonrational unconsciousness and the structures of the rational conscious…the ecstatic character of faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes nonrational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.”
*** As it so happens, this entire discussion on Christians fits atheists, scientists, Muslims, and a lot of other groups. Any good science should first agree on the claim that their knowledge is incomplete. The magic of science is that it’s always on-going, and that past mistakes can be corrected and better and better truths found.
*@ Likewise, I find most discussions between friends talking about the world to be a useless exercise. Two people saying what each other already believe and agree on. “God, everyone should recycle.” “I know right, people are so lazy.” “Yeah, yesterday, I saw this guy just throw a can of soda on the grass, it made me so angry.” yadda yadda yadda. Let’s focus on action. Thought not implemented into action is just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Frustration and Judging Value of a Religion: I get frustrated sometimes because the atheist gets caught up with the idea of religion as believing in some Fatherly God in the sky who rains punishment and gifts to his people. But I also get frustrated with those of faith who truly seem to have more normal problems of how to make friends in a new city, how to deal with losing a loved one, how to change one’s life for the better and turn to the church for answers. Not to say any of that is wrong. But what about the question of why am I? What is God? I ask the member whether they have experienced a compassion and love greater than themselves? I wonder if their faith is actually making them any better to their fellow brother or just helping them adjust better to living normally? I question the spiritual leader how do they and I get closer to God, to be both sensitive to others and fully me?
Trying to figure out how to put this into words. People become a member of a religion for some benefit to themselves. You are the subject, and religion is the object that shall help you, guide you, maybe reward you for good faith and action. However, there comes to a point where the subject/you become the object of question. Who am I? Why do I exist? Is anything real? True? Good? When the meaning and purpose and value of everything is put into question and then religion becomes the subject, and you are the object, the vehicle through which religion works through. Wei-wu-wei. Action without action. Holy Spirit. You will never fully capture enlightenment, God, or whatever. But there are glimpses.