Like a woven cobweb, God and religion are difficult to untangle. [MC]
Religion and God. Oh, my goodness! This is one of those articles that will not go away. As I sat browsing through one of my journal writings from the eighties, I noticed my first words, “My pen is the mouthpiece for my unspoken thoughts”. It’s a quote that remains true for me today. Until my unspoken thoughts appear on paper, I’m stuck. At a standstill, neither moving forward or backwards.
Unfortunately, I’m also a bit of a coward. It’s easy to write about the outside-in stuff. Regale you with stories of my interests – running, yoga, friends, family, memoirs, or even a work of fiction. However, I am drawn longingly to write about life from the inside-out. But religion and God? I’ve read enough bitterly scathing, caustic, vitriolic criticism from others to scare me from writing about the subject for a lifetime. But I need to move forward. As my outward life unravelled so too did my inner life. I make no apologies about the fact that a central spiritual theme decorates my Fiftypluskiwi writings –– God, religion, love – all have woven a well-trodden path of bittersweet moments in my life. And all were littered with myth, perception and misconception. So I began the process of unpicking and discarding. Questioning everything about my spiritual life. And part of this process was trying to make sense of the nonsense that surrounds God and religion. Here goes…
Like a woven cobweb, God and religion are difficult to untangle. In a previous blog, Love in three minutes, I mentioned how, we use the words love and commitment as though both words have the same or similar meaning when, in fact, they are quite different. We do the same with religion and God. Mention religion and people start talking about God. Discuss God and people start talking about religion. Seeking God and identifying with a religion are totally different experiences. Throughout history, God has suffered a great injustice at the hands of those who claim to be the closest to God.
Religion has done a huge disservice to God. Not long ago I received a curt email from an acquaintance. The one sentence email read, “This is why I don’t believe.” Underneath was a link to a YouTube clip featuring Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) lecturing from his bestselling book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens was a controversial, thought-provoking British-American writer. He was a serious atheist. In the YouTube clip he was witty, funny, riveting, confident and clever. And I had to agree with most of what he said. I did not believe in the God he was talking about either. But the problem I had, and have, with the atheist argument is how they mix God with religion as though they were one and the same, when in fact, the two are very different. And it wasn’t until I explored the question, ‘what if everything I perceived God to be was lie?’, that I realised I had been doing the same thing.
Jeff Goldwasser, a rabbi at the Temple Sinai in Cranston, says our society, it seems, has become so confused about religion that we don’t really seem to understand what a religion is. Because of that, we don’t really seem to understand what it means to experience God, either.
“Seeking God and identifying with a religion are different experiences. Yet, many people seem to think that a person who does not identify with any particular religion must, therefore, be an atheist. That is an insult both to God and, I suppose, to true atheism. Religions are human institutions that, at their best, help people to experience and be close to God. At their worst they can give people an excuse to hate, control and be greedy. However, the relationship between a religion and God is like the relationship between a radio and music. Just because you don’t have one does not mean that you can’t experience the other.”
Goldwasser says seeking God and identifying with a religion are different experiences. He is right. Religion is an ‘outside-in’ experience, between you and other people; it’s full of interpretation, theories and opinions. But God, experiencing God, is an ‘inside-out’ experience just between you and God. A feeling in your chest – it’s a matter of the heart. No one else is involved. God happens when you allow yourself to wander through the chasms, abysses and crevasses of your own heart and pay attention to what you feel. Religion is not necessary for this. Someone once told me ‘going to church makes you no more a Christian than going into a cowshed makes you a cow’. So true! There is nothing, you need to achieve, belong to, or go to, to know God.
Can religion be found in God? No! Absolutely not. Can God be found in religion? Yes. But as a stepping stone, not a stopping place. Religion can one of the many, many ways we use when we are seeking that something or responding to matters of the heart. But religions don’t work for everyone. They are not necessarily the ideal way for everyone to experience God. No religion, and no human institution has a monopoly on the truth. Because that’s what this is about. It is not about having the best argument or winning the debate. It’s about truth. You do not have to have a religion to find that truth. These days I tend to tell people, ‘If the by-product of what you believe is love, then go for it’.
Freeing God from the shackles of religion has been a liberating experience for me. When I began the process of untangling the web that ensnared religion and God, I noticed how my attitudes towards others changed. The people I met, their stories, became incredibly precious. Everyone’s life mattered. Love, peace and tolerance take on new dimensions when you separate God from religion and religion from God. Especially love, because we are all searching for that place where love has hidden itself away.