Viewpoints: Perspectives on Religion

I count religion but a childish toy,
And there is no sin but ignorance.
     – Christopher Marlowe

In the next  essay we will encounter, among others, the wisdom of the great psychologist (C. G. Jung), philosopher (Ken Wilber), scientist (Carl Sagan), historian (Will Durant), scholars (Elaine Pagels and Uta Ranke-Heinemann, sages (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Huston Smith), mystics (Siddhartha Gautama and David Hawkins), a novelist (Frank McCourt), an ex-priest (Matthew Fox), and an ex-nun (Karen Armstrong) all of whom were courageous enough to do their own thinking and to listen to their own inner wisdom rather than to accept the religious paradigms into which they were born or into which they were initially indoctrinated. They were, in short, Self-reliant. The voices of liberation await us.

What are some insightful realizations that shake the foundations of our old and outmoded religious institutions? Obviously, most of us have experienced hypocrisy in religious communities. But of greater concern is the unconscious presence of indifference and dysfunction that robs religion of its innate power to transform, to heal and lift up humanity. “Despite avowals to the contrary, we live in a completely atheistic and irreligious culture. Success in our culture is measured by wealth, reputation, and power and the desires that are requisite for obtaining this success are greed and ambition. Religious values are paid lip service, but they are inoperative in our culture. Indeed, they are fundamentally incompatible with the values that do, in fact drive our culture.”  This is an unconventional statement by Neal Grossman but we have learned that P-B is a story that is replete with behaviors that invite critical examination. Could Grossman be right? That’s up to you to say, but be careful not to dismiss observations like these just because they differ markedly from mainstream thinking.

Christianity, one of the most foundational of all institutions supporting western culture, could become a more profound and relevant force for deepening humanity’s quest for “salvation.” For that to happen, terms such as “salvation” as well as concepts surrounding the identity of Jesus himself must be redefined and reconceived before the full power of Christian religious communities can be fully realized. If Christianity cannot reform itself then it will be replaced by a more relevant spiritual paradigm.

Let’s take, for example, the concepts of heaven and hell as seen from the perspective of P-A. When profoundly understood, religious scriptures are a wonderful synthesis of myth, metaphor and inspired teaching. When understood more deeply than is common today we can arrive at the realization that heaven and hell are not locations in space and time but states of consciousness which place them in the dimension of “present time.” We find ourselves in hell when separated from God (Creation) and in heaven when in unity with God (Creation). “Christianity must escape the traditional understanding in which it has been captured or it will die.”  We have just quoted, of all people, the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, John S. Spong, and in an article of all places, the AARP magazine.

To view our religions afresh, it would help if we had more objectivity because we are so conditioned to believe the “reality” of P-B that we unthinkingly accept those beliefs as absolute.  If any of us could come to our culture as a foreign anthropologist (or better yet a cultural anthropologist from another planet) and observe traditional Christian attitudes toward sexuality and gender, and how we view “human nature” in relation to politics, philosophy and psychology, we would be astonished by the irrational beliefs, attitudes and values we take for granted.

For example, St. Augustine, one of the greatest teachers of early Christianity, projected his own psychological complexes (a connected group of repressed ideas that compel characteristic or habitual patterns of thought, feeling and action) onto the story of Adam and Eve. He added to Christian theology numerous beliefs that did not exist before, namely that, “sexual desire is sinful, that infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin, and that Adam’s sin corrupted the whole of nature itself.”

The guilt that St. Augustine had about what he later came to feel were sinful behaviors in his youth were first repressed and then projected onto the whole of humanity. As biblical scholar Karen Armstrong makes clear, religion is defined less by divine revelation than human fantasy. “There had been an emphasis on guilt and sin, struggle and strain in the religion of God in the West ever since Augustine.”  Even many non-Christians, and those who value the Bible primarily as literature, are influenced by a narrative indelibly shaped by myth, metaphor and the human ego. Then when we consider the influence of religions on the collective unconscious, which shapes the behavior of humanity in powerful ways that we are not conscious of, then we can see the importance of bringing these influences into the light of awareness.

Jesus as an archetypal prophet did not seek to be worshipped and he was not the incarnation of an imaginary god. There have been no such incarnations and never will be except in the story-creating mind of man. The Gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ essence as a human being make it perfectly clear, to an objective and perceptive reader, that he embodied the “Christ consciousness” common to all of humanity which was and is “good news” indeed.

The process of institutionalizing the resplendent message, that Jesus so courageously embodied, distorted and diluted its true meaning. For several centuries following Jesus, the founders of Christianity succeeded, as Carl Jung discovered, in “replacing [Jesus] immediate experience by a choice of suitable symbols invested in a solidly organized dogma and ritual.”  Symbols suitable for whom, we may ask; suitable, of course, to the survival strategy and the needs of the individual and collective false selves and of a frightened and deeply mesmerized humanity.

Christianity thus became a fictional story about Jesus rather than the message (Gospel) of Jesus. The term “messiah” from the Aramaic m’shekha, means “the perfection of humanity” or as in the case of Siddhartha Gautama, the comparable eastern prophet, “the awakening of humanity.” The need to awaken is a better description of the challenge facing the people of the global village. Jesus called all of humanity, not just the Jews, to grow in awareness and compassion, to our natural state, the embodiment of Oneness. Jesus, like all mystics, would have been appalled with the idea that anyone, for any reason, would be excluded from his wonderful promise. Any true religion, worthy of the name, would be totally inclusive not only of all of humanity, but all of Creation, and would, therefore, be focused on the expression of universal compassion.

Religious beliefs are often injurious to those who suffer most on our planet and almost all people suffer to some degree because of them. For example, in the nation that is the home of the Hindu religion: “Though they would give alms to lepers to improve their karma, most Indians looked upon leprosy as a malediction of the gods.” Of course, as long as we humans believe that anthropomorphic gods are in control of the human condition, then there is little incentive to address the problem of leprosy or any other problems for that matter. The result in Hindu India is that religion is used as an excuse, consciously or unconsciously, to ignore a disease that is relatively easy to control. Ironically, Hindu beliefs are responsible, at least in part, for the experience of the lower-caste lepers who unnecessarily suffer the horrors of their disease and the rejection of their community.

Buddha was also against a societal hierarchy and a religious hierarchy as well. He saw the Brahmin caste making the rest of society dependent on them by keeping secret the knowledge of religious rituals which are necessary for fulfilling religious obligations. We can recognize this as an expression of the false self’s need for power and control.

In fact, like Jesus, Buddha urged his followers to trust their own intuitive knowledge and to abandon the rites and rituals that made them dependent on the “tight-fisted” Brahmins. He discounted the “forms” of Hinduism in much the same way that Jesus criticized some of the mindless forms that characterized the Orthodox Judaism of his day (remember the 600 daily rituals practiced by the Pharisees).

The recognition that religion needs reform is not new. Both Jesus and Buddha were outspoken in their criticism of the respective religious paradigms into which they were born. The reforms that they advocated were, for the most part, not carried out; nor have the people who practice the world’s major religions taken responsibility for their own behavior. Humanity remains dependent on outmoded paradigms that unconsciously and consciously discourage Self-reliance, creativity, joy and compassion.

A fundamental fallacy underlying the mainstream religions as they are practiced is the rejection of Reality “as it is.” There is a basic resistance among the “anxious faithful” to “what is” and, hence, they never learn to live fully in the present moment because the focus in religion is on the future. In the paradigm of religion, the world is often seen as filled with flawed and sinful people, who are, therefore, not meant to be at home in this life.

But, and it’s a big BUT, the realization of the True self depends on non-resistance, on being at home in the world whatever our experience turns out to be, giving up any attachment to anything being different than it is. (Remember J. Krishnamurti’s “I don’t mind what’s happening.”) This is not the same thing as being opposed to change or being against problem solving and that distinction at this point is vitally important. In fact, religious paradigms often undermine our appreciation of the importance of the process of change. “When you build your basic understanding of the universe on nature’s cycles (as the creation-centered [P-A] tradition does) rather than on a mythical past state of perfection (as the fall/redemption [P-B] tradition does), you learn to reverence change and process.”   The way Matthew Fox puts it helps us to understand how important it is to find support for Simple Reality and being at home in the Universe.

Much of the message of the world’s religions was meant to be metaphorical but is often interpreted literally today. For example, each human being is imbued with a marvelous capacity to be creative. This capacity is at the heart of the evolution of human society which is the history of the human desire to express those creative impulses. The Hindu religion takes that innate human creativity, projects it onto a god, and thereby loses the deepest self-understanding that is the very essence of our identity, which is to make progress and relieve human suffering. “One of the mightiest gods in Indian mythology, Viswakarma was the personification of creative power.”  People are not creative, wise or fortunate because they are favored by a god. Creativity and wisdom are innate; they are in our “bones and blood.” If we come to believe in the egotistical “smallness” and the “powerless” identity taught by most religions, the expression of our creative “essence” is stunted.

The efficacy of any religion is the authentic power contained in the principles expressed in its doctrine. Does it deliver the goods? Are Christians, for example, living the teachings of Jesus? Emerson, long ago saw the hypocrisy in Christianity when he observed that “every Stoic was a Stoic, but in Christendom where is the Christian?”  Remembering his childhood in Limerick, Frank McCourt in his wonderful biography, Angela’s Ashes, wrote: “The rain drove us into church—our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through the priest’s drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the incense, flowers and candles. Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.”

We do not necessarily want to do away with religion if it can be made relevant to the attainment of humanity’s highest expression but as Frank McCourt’s childhood experience suggests, we need to make religion harmonize with Simple Reality. If religion is to support our shift to a sustainable human narrative, it must effectively address the problems of those of us who are suffering—and we are all suffering.

Religion is a P-B institution and is characterized by official euphemisms and a kind of double-talk designed to perpetuate the unconsciousness that obscures Simple Reality. What is obvious to an awakening individual is hidden to the masses: “Roman Catholic leaders in New Hampshire for decades ignored [were in denial of] the danger [to children who have few protections in P-B] posed by molesting priests—even those who admitted guilt—while misleading [lying] to civil authorities and victims about the extent of sex abuse charges. The state was prepared to establish that in some instances the diocese was willfully blind [keeping secrets] to the danger its priests posed to children.”

We already know that denial, lies and secrets are systemic attributes of a dysfunctional institution managed by unconscious people. To respond to the “wake-up call” inherent in an abusive institution is simply to find the courage to acknowledge what is happening. All of humanity must engage in a more profound approach to problem-solving. All institutions, not only religion, are systematically abusing their respective constituencies. The good news is that the remedy we are all searching for will address the institutions of the entire global community and their problems simultaneously. For now we must continue revealing the nature of reality as it is not as we wish it to be and stop the lying, denying and keeping secrets.


References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry:
Who Am I? The Second Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Where Am I?  The First Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival

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