In the early 1970’s living in Oregon I would periodically encounter members of the Children of God. This group was a fundamentalist Christian group regarded generally as a cult. The group lived communally and recruited dropouts from the hippie movement with an evangelical message about End Times and salvation. The ones I encountered were young, about my age at the time, and very sincere. They would say various things: “Jesus loves me.”; “Christ is my salvation”; “The Judgment Day is near.” These are all “words of belief”that led to the recruitment pitch for me to become one of their community.
What struck me at the time was the fundamental abstractness of their statements combined with an obvious internal emotional resonance that they felt but that I did not despite my attending a Baptist church in my childhood. While millions of Christians may believe in the statement “Jesus loves me”, the basis of this belief cannot be checked factually. It is a statement that a person saying it finds true through internal sense and feeling. It comes from hearing others – usually parents and loved ones or, in the case of the Children of God, the other members of their group – profess belief and the association of certain feelings with that belief. The words in themselves mean nothing. None of the people had ever seen Jesus and had known anyone who had. The belief can only come from hearing other people say they believe. In a sense the words are like mantras that make internal alignments in the psyche of the speaker but have no meaning in themselves. They are words that grow out of shared belief. The affirmation of others in the group is what makes the words real to the individual.
Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas recounts how she stepped into a church one Sunday morning and was startled by her own reaction to the prayers and harmonies of the music. The visit to the church came at stressful time in her life. Her young son had just been given a death sentence by doctors. What she found in the church that day was a “community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.” (1) Her response that day to the church service was perhaps much the same as the response of recruits to the Children of God to its message. Just as she felt parts of her own life spinning out of control, the hippie dropouts attracted to the Children of God looked for order, comprehension, and sometimes a way of dealing with tragedy in their own lives.
One of the great mistakes Dawkins and other zealous atheists make is thinking religion is about belief. Religion is about community and making sense of things, such as death and loss. Science may explain death in biological terms but it cannot make sense of it in human terms. The atheists in this mistake are aided and abetted by the creationists and the literalists who misunderstand the words they speak to be the essential part of their religion, whereas in reality the words are only superficial parts of it.
The “words of belief” are pointers to feelings and shared experiences. They are the verbal currency of a community. When we speak them we feel ourselves to be part of the community and others recognize us to be part of it.
Beyond “words of belief” is there more? Is there a universal divine knowledge?
In the mid 1940’s in his book The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley compiled quotes and writings from philosophers, saints, and prophets from all the major religions and assembled them into major themes with commentary. The effort was to show the commonalities of the major religions, the extent to which all religions were alike. Underlying this approach is that there is, indeed, some type of divine knowledge. Huxley looked to find the “Highest Common Factor” which would be “the closest approximation man can attain to truth and ultimate reality”.(2)
Perhaps the clearest expression of the Perennial Philosophy that Huxley put forth was in his introduction to the Bhagavad Gita.:
First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness – the world of things and animals and men and even gods – is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be nonexistent.
Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
Fourth: man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.(3)
The Perennial Philosophy was widely reviewed in its time. Many praised its scholarship and overall intent to try to find unity among the world’s religions. Others complained of Huxley’s apparent belief in the paranormal. Others still thought it perhaps a bridge too far to try to find unity between Christians and Buddhists when Baptists and Presbyterians still had trouble agreeing on beliefs that each regarded as core to their religions.
The book came after perhaps a century or more of increasing encroachment by science on religion as a source of explanation. I think an underlying motivation of Huxley was to provide a scientific foundation for religion. If spiritual traditions from many times and cultures could be shown to be saying the same things, one might argue for some experiential evidence for a Divine Ground.
The problem with this approach is that religion itself, as I have suggested, is tied to “words of belief”. The verbal currency of belief is tied to a community that professes the same words. The community is tied culture. Are Allah, Brahman, Yahweh, and God the same? When we worship God, do we also worship Allah? Is there no difference at all? Or are these actually different beliefs and the commonality between them is only the religious feeling and sentiment of the believer?
When I started college as an anthropology major I was interested in the commonalities of human cultures as well as their differences. The differences provided me with a scientifically based moral relativism now so easily criticized by conservatives (perhaps with some justification). My interest in the commonalities went against the grain of modern anthropology with its core mission of delineating human differences that arise through culture. Modern anthropology can be intensely interested in the differences in design patterns in pots of two cultures living fifty miles apart – differences that might not even be apparent to the untrained eye – but care little for the commonalities of the widespread, almost universal, practice of shamanism around the world among small tribes and hunting and gathering societies. Attempts to synthesize observations across cultures were often met with either complete indifference or niggling attempts to point out differences where the author points out similarities. A case in point is the classic work Shamanism by Mircea Eliade which attempted to survey shamanic practices around the world and has been criticized for over-generalization.
There are similarities just as there are differences across cultures. Some people may look at two apples and see two apples. Others may look at the same two apples and see a Winesap and a Red Delicious. I think perhaps religions may be more like apples, pears, and oranges.
We can try to understand the commonalities in the world’s religions and spiritual traditions from various perspectives that are not mutually exclusive.
We shouldn’t rule out there is really is a Divine Ground underlying the universe and guiding its order. Modern cosmology actually accepts the idea of a quantum void from which the universe was brought into existence at the Big Bang. Physicists think of this void as a cauldron of random fluctuations with particles going in and out of existence . The energy associated with this void is called zero point energy. For some reason the calculations for the amount of energy in empty space is absurdly large. Physicists naturally would not use the term of “divine” in describing this void but the quantum void certainly corresponds scientifically to the religious concept that Huxley calls “Divine Ground”.
We might look to our shared neurological structure – the basic foundational core of the brain and nervous system that are the roughly the same in all humans. We have abundant evidence that spiritual practices produce actual changes in the brain. Persinger’s experiments have shown elements of religious experiences can be produced by applying induced magnetic fields to the brain, particularly the temporal lobe. The ingestion of various chemicals – LSD, DMT, and psilocybin – can produce mystical experiences in many individuals. Even Gopi Krishna believed that his own experiences with cosmic consciousness had a biological basis. (4)
Finally we might look at the experiences that are common to all humans – birth, love, illness, and death- and our attempts to understand them as a basis for commonalities of religion. These common experiences form the basis of many rituals of religions. The celebration of birth and life and the grieving of loss and death is central to all religions.
If the accept the idea of Divine Ground, then matter and time came forth from it. From matter came life and from life consciousness. Our human neural system would be constructed in the image of the Divine Ground and would be a mirror to it. Our human experiences are born from a temporal existence that was brought into being with the universe. Birth, death, and suffering provides the way to access the Divine Ground. It is our very limited nature itself – our existence in time – that provides the pathway to divine knowledge. This is a way of Tantra that uses our bodily existence with its limitations as the path to knowledge.
Since the publication of The Perennial Philosophy our opportunities to be exposed to many cultures, beliefs, and tradition has expanded enormously. While this to me is undeniably good, this can also be problematic. Some of us are able to pick a tradition and enter wholeheartedly on its path for a lifetime or for long enough to learn and appreciate it from the inside. Others of us, however, can end up with a spiritual hodgepodge of beliefs and practices from which we have chosen what we liked and discarded the rest.. This hodgepodge may have an inner coherence for an individual but often lacks the coherent core of common principles or beliefs shared with others that would be essential for an enduring tradition. We become dabblers in spirituality. I must say I am not immune to this criticism. Ultimately this approach leaves us with nothing substantial.
Unfortunately contemporary traditional religion is wedded to literalism. It is caught up in its mantras of belief and arguments with science. For religion to become relevant again, it must move beyond that and focus on divine knowledge.
1- Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Random House, New York, 2005. p. 4.
2- Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy, Harper and Brotheres, USA, 1945.
3- Huxley, Aldous. Introduction to Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God, New American Library, 2002. p. 13.
4- Krishna, Gope. Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man. Shambhala ,Boston, 1970.