Faith: The Devil’s Masterpiece

Having just read The End of Faith by Sam Harris, I am now utterly convinced that spirituality can exist outside of religion.  Indeed, we need not be afraid of the term spirituality at all, regardless of New Age connotations.  I have been arguing in previous posts, inspired as I have been reading the book, that religion is an arbitrary concept that we would do better to be without.  One need not have a system of belief in order to be a better person, or even to experience a mystical dimension.

Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.  It is the denial – at once full of hope and full of fear – of the vastitude of human ignorance.  A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness.  And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. (from p.221)

Religion is indeed a product of tribal identity formation.  It is a product of the culture in which it exists, and develops well beyond the intentions of the people who inspired its unfolding.  Beliefs come to obscure the mysterious rather than give it structure.  As was said by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth, and reiterated by Harris, it is identification with beliefs (or mental positions) that is pathological.  Tolle calls this ego.  Harris sees it as useless and destructive.

What surprises me is that without intention I am finding many books in a row that revolve around the idea of consciousness as being that which is prior to thought.  Harris does not go as far as Tolle or Ken Wilber in ascribing an intelligence to consciousness, but he is not far from the idea.  He suggests that such thought is not necessary, but to experience consciousness directly requires spiritual practice.  Buddhism has done this magnificently without having to resort to systems of belief and objects of worship.  It has become a religion, but in essence has very little in common with the major religious traditions of the world (aside from Hinduism, of which it was derived).

What does this say of my Christian heritage?  Yesterday I picked up a copy of The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg which I plan to re-read at some point.  It speaks of a progressive approach, one that is open to change and correction, one that does not hold the Bible as a supreme revelation of God, one that is able to be creative with the concept of God.  Is it still worthwhile holding on to Christianity, even in this guise?  I am not sure.  As I suggested, I do not wish to identify with unrealistic beliefs, and find most of the Christian religion to be a bloated mess.  I have no appeal to read or study the Bible, having done so studiously in the past, and even recently purchasing a decent study Bible.  Yet authors such as Borg and John Shelby Spong continue to intrigue me.  There is still something to Jesus and Christianity that I find mildly appealing.  It is not the churches, it is not the superstition.  Either I am just not yet ready to kiss the whole thing goodbye, or I am still drawn to it in a mysterious way.


Religion – why bother?

In our postmodern culture, religion seems to be going by the wayside. I was delighted the other day to be able to actually talk to someone about my religious experiences, as they just don’t seem to interest that many people. And yet, religion imposes a very heavy influence on the world, despite the omnipotence of secularism in the West. It is an underlying influence in moral discourse in social and political arenas, as such it is difficult to read the newspaper without some reference to a particular faith. We have numerous choices when it comes to religion: we can choose to ignore it, we can be a participant, we can work to bring it to a level playing-field when it comes to moral responsibility, or we can reject and attack it. At times, we can move through one or more of the above positions.

Today I met up with a couple of friends who were discussing church, one of them asking me if I were attending. What I find quite common is that church people generally mean well, but are not very deep when it comes to matters of faith.  I would say in general that they are religious but not spiritual.  In fact, the great majority of Christians I know would shy away from the whole idea of being ‘spiritual’.  I have reached the point where I believe there is a HUGE difference between the two ideas.  One is concerned with material matters, such as service structure, Bible studies, and social activities.  The other is concerned with the inner life of experience.  Now, whether you are the most materialistic person on the planet, you cannot question the existence of the inner dimension, the place of emotions and intuition, and some would say soul or spirit.  Spirituality is concerned completely with the inner world, regardless of the belief system involved.  This is why Christian mystics of the ages have been compared with Eastern mystics – in the world of the contemplative experience, the differences fade.  The differences appear with the system of belief that is used to explain the experience.

Religion attempts to define spirituality on the outside-in, i.e. putting layers upon layers of outer concepts upon the inner experience.  As such, most practitioners of religion are caught up in the outer layers and rather ignorant of the inner dimension.  Hence why my friends were only concerned with the formalities of the service.  Ironically, their church is contemporary pentecostal, and yet ends up with the same problem of outer concern that plagues the more traditional churches.  These formalities do not encourage the desire for depth in spirituality at all, for raw experience is too risky inside the religious arena.

Contemporary Christianity does well to mask the spirituality inside the tradition through focus on the afterlife and a literal rendering of the Bible.  As such, it is very easy for the Christian to be completely ignorant of the inner experience, where ultimately God can be found.  For it is our beliefs about God which tend to hide God from the world of experience.  When I speak of God, I am not referring to the theistic conception that most people understand.  My idea of God is not of some kind of being somewhere who hears your prayers and intervenes in the world.  There is no such being.  When I speak of God, I speak of that which is the source of life and the thing that connects us all.  God is the One Life, the Spirit is the manifestation of Life, and the Christ (Word) is the incarnation of Life.

I understand that these concepts will not be understood widely, I have trouble understanding them even as I write them.  That is the problem with trying to wrap your brain around the inner world of experience, ultimately language fails.  Karen Armstrong speaks of theology as poetry rather than historical fact.  In other words, the sacred scriptures are not meant to be taken literally – they are the very product of people trying to put into words the indescribable.  All traditions have layers upon layers of texts and interpretations of meanings, which end up only exacerbating any who approach.

So is religion really worth bothering with?  In some ways, yes, in other ways, no.  The mystics who speak most to the inner experience are largely found within religious traditions.  Fortunately, we have such access to them today so as to not get lost in the layers of religion to find them.  Considerable works today exist that speak of spirituality without resorting to religion.  People who are inclined more to spirituality than religion, particularly those who have suffered from their religious experience, are of great value as ambassadors of the spirit to call upon all religions to look through the layers to the essence of their tradition.  The unifying essence of any tradition is the only thing that can save us from the tyranny of the formalities.

A Reasonable Faith?

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues that faith is unreasonable, and the cause of much of our present world turmoil (bar natural disasters). My faith struggle is evidently clear on this blog, and my beliefs have undergone radical changes in a short period of time. Presently I have been looking at the nature of consciousness and the purpose of myth, these being incredibly fascinating areas. It took a great deal of time to let go of ‘the God out there’, yet once gone I was not saddened, for that inferior idea was replaced with the notion of ‘the ground of our being’. I no longer care to seek to experience God in religion, for the experience of life is far more enriching. This means that faith in God is entirely unnecessary, and however I name my experience of life is an arbitrary construction.

As such, I am more and more coming to the position, like Sam Harris, that religion itself requires deconstruction. The whole system is flawed and really should just be pulled apart. Depth and meaning, or sacredness and spirituality can still flow through the culture without the necessity for institutions to administer it. I never really was into institutional religion even through my Christian years, as I viewed my simple faith and pentecostal experiences to be superior to the extra baggage that seemed to be carried in other traditions. Still, that did not make me irreligious, just skeptical of the validity of the other forms. As I moved through my deconstruction process, I have tried to remain as open-minded as possible to the potential good that could still exist in the religious traditions, particularly Christianity. Unfortunately, it seems the negatives far outweigh the positives when it comes to the contribution that religion makes today.

I guess the most pertinent question to ask is, how useful is religion? What is religion’s contribution to the world? Some would say the benevolence, such as aid organizations that are currently supporting Burma and China in their recent disasters. Others might say that they have a tremendous unifying power, bringing people together under a system and banner that makes for effective community. These things may be true, but do they outweigh the pathologies? The institutional religions by-and-large hold on to archaic and imperialistic beliefs about the world and reality that more than counter any aid effort, instead leading to death and destruction. Christians might say, granted this may be true for Islam, even for Judaism, but not for Christianity with its peace-loving Saviour. Putting the historical argument of the Crusades aside, I have to again side with Harris in the thought that irrational beliefs, such as those promoted in the Left Behind series, do impact foreign policy, and are cited as motivators for war. Why should we consider the word of one person writing over 1,000 years ago (Augustine) to be definitive in the cause of launching a ‘just war’? Moderate believers who promote tolerance within their own traditions are condoning beliefs that lead to senseless violence.

So, is there a reasonable faith? There might be, so long as the beliefs in question are held lightly and are open to question. I would suggest that faith must be progressive for it to be reasonable. In other words, it must be open to change and correction. There is no room for reason and arrogance to coincide, whether believer or atheist. Willful ignorance should be challenged wherever it exists, without the necessity to resort to pettiness.

Honest to God

Today I finished this wonderful little book by John A.T. Robinson, named by John Shelby Spong as a primary inspiration, and have a few quotes to share.

The moral precepts of Jesus are not intended to be understood legalistically, as prescribing what all Christians must do, whatever the circumstances, and pronouncing certain courses of action universally right and others universally wrong.; They are not legislation laying down what love always demands of every one: they are illustrations of what love at any moment require of anyone.; They are, as it were, parable of the Kingdom in its moral claims – flashlight pictures of the uncompromising demand which the Kingdom must make upon any who would respond to it.

Life in Christ Jesus, in the new being, in the Spirit, means having no absolutes but his love, being totally uncommitted in every other respect but totally committed in this. And this utter openness in love to the ‘other’ for his own sake is equally the only absolute for the non-Christian, as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats shows. He may not recognize Christ in the ‘other’ but in so far as he has responded to the claim of the unconditional in love he has responded to him – for he is the ‘depth’ of love. The Christian ethic is not relevant merely for the Christian, still less merely for the religious. The claim of the Christ may come to others, as indeed it often comes to the Christian, incognito: but since it is the claim of home, of the personal ground of our very being, it does not come as anything foreign.

It (the ethic of love) is prepared to see every moment as a fresh creation from God’s hand demanding its own and perhaps wholly unprecedented response

For the Christian gospel is in perpetual conflict with the images of God set up in the minds of men, even of Christian men, as they seek in each generation to encompass his meaning.


I’m almost done on David Tacey’s Re-enchantment, here’s a great quote from p.219:

Evil and sin do not go away just because we have stopped noticing them. On the contrary, they hold more sway than ever before, because they work below the threshold of awareness. In the language of the fundamentalists, ‘Satan’ (as the personification of evil) reigns supreme in our culture because he in not even noticed or observed. I think that a lot of what the fundamentalists say is almost half-right, except that they think in such ridiculously concrete terms that the modern intellect recoils form their utterances as the babblings of an idiot. But evil and sin are basic human realities, and if we repress them, they only arise to assault and defeat the common good with even more power and devastation than before. It is the old Freudian adage: whatever is forcibly repressed eventually returns in altered form and with more primitive and destructive force than when it was held in consciousness.

I want to go more into the Satan myth as a follow-on from The Grand Myth of Lucifer, and this certainly points the way as to where I want to take it.


A pertinent quote from Re-enchantment:

In its social persona and outward political mask, Australia is brazenly secular, pragmatic, disbelieving. At this level, Australians live life as if material reality is all, forgetting both meaning of religion and our responsibility towards the divine ground of our being. We Australians even boast about our secularity, our freedom form divine authority, our ability to live only from the conscious and deliberate human will. Our philosophy of life appears to be summed up in the popular saying: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, a testimony to secular humanism. Our secular persona is much admired and ardently revered, perhaps virtually worshipped. Indeed, contemporary secularism makes a quasi-religion from its adherence to the values of the human ego and its concept of social progress.

To me, this secularity is partially to blame for the cult of individuality that is the enemy of community.