The God in Your Religion
Copyright 2013, John Manimas Medeiros
God is a problem. The problem is in how one defines God, and how one prescribes a relationship with Him. Note that immediately we are in a swamp of uncertainty and controversy simply by referring to God, or a “God” as “Him.” Are you certain God has the traits of a male? And must we capitalize the “H” of “Him” because he is a personal noun? Or because we are referring not to just any “him” but to the “Him” who is a person who created the universe? The problems we encounter in attempting to talk about God, and any religion that is “God centered” arise from the moment we begin to speak. We cannot talk about God without immediately confronting the many problems that make religion a source, possibly the primary source, of human conflict and destructive violence. God is a problem because some people claim to know God with a passion, claim to love God while also claiming that others do not love God and even reject God. If God is identified as the Creator of the Universe, it is not possible to reject God.
If one studies this problem, such as approximating the depth and width of research compiled by Karen Armstrong, in her book entitled “The Case for God,” one cannot help but learn that it is difficult or impossible to come up with a thought about God that has not already been thought by someone else, perhaps a thousand years ago, perhaps yesterday. All of the contradictions, disagreements, and different viewpoints have been addressed by our ancestors. The most common conclusion among historians and religion scholars who study religion with an open mind is that we define God in a manner that places the concept of God, a clear and concise understanding of God, beyond our capacity to know. Most of what has been said about God, in oral conversation and in writing, supports the conclusion that the human mind, or human brain, is not able to encompass and manage the meaning of “God.” We have, either deliberately or by the process of our own social and political evolution, made God a concept that by definition does not have a definition. We are all faced with the argument of the ancient Hebrews that the name of God cannot be pronounced, and the name of God cannot be spelled out in writing. This ritual practice or doctrine is symbolic of the inescapable truth that if God is the Source, the embodiment of Mother Nature, or the Force, or the Power, or the original event that began the real, detectable universe, then we cannot assign a truly meaningful and universally acceptable form to this Sacred Origin of all that is. God, the Holy Spirit, the Great Spirit, the Father of Life and of Being, is a thought, a concept, but cannot be like a chair or a table, or like a dog or a cat, or like a man or a woman, or like a tree or a rock. In ancient times, we placed God in a tree or in a rock, acknowledged the presence of divinity, the spirit of life, in things that live or exist in their recognizable form for a long time. The original religion is reverence, not only reverence for life but reverence for the process of history and of time. We held the wisdom of elders in reverence, even as the young rebelled against it. We held the vigor and courage and recklessness of youth in reverence, even as we wished it could be protected and tempered by the wisdom of experience. The reason God is a problem is because God is used to elaborate complex and oppressive religious ideas and institutions. Thoughts become beliefs and beliefs become doctrines and doctrines become the basis of control, restrictions, and the obstruction of human freedom. Religion, it seems, has been the most useful tool to prevent people from seeking and finding new knowledge, or a different viewpoint. This is why God is a problem, because some people claim they have identified the Will of God, and it is contrary to public policy to oppose the Will of God.
If you want to understand your own religion, it is essential to ask yourself what you believe to be true about God. One may take the position that there is no God, but that does not mean that one has no religion. In my study of religions, I formulated The Seven Pillars of Religion, which are People, Calendar, Ritual, History, Teleology, Ethics, Institutions (Chapter Twelve of The Primacy of Stewardship). The alleged battle between religion and science does not arise from six pillars of religion, which are all elements of culture, but does arise from Teleology, the pillar of religion that offers or prescribes answers to the cosmic questions:
Is there a God?
What is God like?
What is the meaning of death?
What is the meaning of life?
Are there sacred truths?
How does one practice one’s religion properly?
The cosmic answers do spill over into Ethics, but that is associated with the claim that the Will of God is clear to us in Holy Scripture, or in some derivation of the cosmic answers. Thus, the fundamentalists of any religion generally arrive at the same types of conclusions that cause all fundamentalists to have more in common than they do with the non-fundamentalist members of their own religious institution: they all impose a set of authoritarian doctrines on society. They propose and practice “salvation by membership” meaning that there is only one truth, their truth, and only one definition of God, their God, and all those who do not accept their specific vision of reality are condemned as individuals who have rejected God and do not love God, and most important of all: God does not love them. Religious authoritarians raise the problem of God up to the level of the greatest of all problems because they use God to punish those they do not like or wish to remove from society. The ultimate doctrine of a hateful set of beliefs is that some people, who have not accepted the sacred beliefs, are outside of the Love of God. They do not belong. This is the first step in the process of holocaust. This is the setting of the stage for genocide. In order to remove a person or group from existence, the best method is to first place them outside of the Love of God, outside of the embrace of the Divine Creator. Therefore, we can punish them, and we can kill them.
Democracy is a teleological answer. Freedom of thought is a response to the question “How does one practice one’s religion properly?” Democracy and equality were taught and practiced by Jesus and by Mohammed, as well as by Gautama Buddha, Confucius and Socrates. The belief in democracy is a religious belief, not only a matter of political science. To believe in the freedom of the individual and groups to find and accept their own answers to the cosmic questions – freedom of religion – is the most radical and most effective antidote to the poison of religious authoritarianism. You cannot fight religion with religion, and you cannot fight religion with science, because science can also be formulated as a set of religious beliefs, complete with saints and doctrines and an authoritarian path to salvation. We can effectively oppose authoritarian religion with freedom and only with freedom. In a real democracy, there is no institution that is assigned the function of defining religion for the people. The answers to the cosmic questions, and the ethics that might be derived from cosmic answers, are all deemed to arise from sources outside of the political process. Policy can embody ethics, but the neither the legislative body nor the executive power invents the ethics of the society. The society invents the ethics, and the legislature and executive respond to them, uphold them, support them. The judiciary serves freedom of religion by periodically reminding adversaries in the courts that the moral standards of society, or a community, arise from the people and their culture. The government accepts and supports the cultural values of the people, but does not invent them and impose them on behalf of any intellectual or religious authority. The only religious doctrine appropriate for political authorities in a democratic society is to uphold the will of the people, and let God enforce the Will of God as a deity so desires. We do not enforce the will of God because to make that claim is like saying we will make sure the grizzly bear eats the salmon. The bear does not need our guidance or suggestions. Whether we live in a democracy or other form of political organization, if God is defined as the Creator of the Universe, then we cannot escape the Will of God. The most terrifying question of all religion is not what is the Will of God, but what is the will of my neighbors. If they want freedom as much as I do, then I am safe; we are all reasonably safe so long as the majority want to be free.
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