As a child I was exposed to the standard religious education then in vogue throughout the South... among other places certainly. But in the South, Jesus held sway like nothing and no one else: Lord of Hosts, King of Kings, best buddy to one and all. Pray to Jesus you miserable sinners, and be cleansed.
I remember going to Southern Baptist Sunday School and church services in Jacksonville, Alabama in 1957. It was held in an ancient one-room church made of rough wooden planks white-washed on the outside with a dark cavernous interior steeped in holiness, real or imagined depending on ones point of view, and reeking of decades of sweat and salvation. Stained glass windows kissed the light with rainbow colors. The floor was bare wood burnished by time and the shuffling of a million feet. The pews were hard wooden benches polished by the fidgeting asses of untold generations of penetents and sinners. The ceiling rose to a peak high above the congregation and resonated with the hymns and spirituals sung in quasi-harmony with the gusto of the saved: Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross, Onward Christian Soldiers (yeah I know, weird right?) and my own personal favorite, Jesus Loves the Little Children.
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
As one of the little children, whenever that song was sung, I felt personally enveloped in the love of Jesus as my little heart soared to the rafters and I was more than happy to graciously share the love with all the other little children of the world. They were my peeps. We were one. Jesus loved us all. It said so right there in the song.
The lessons, the ones I understood anyway, seeped into my bones...just as intended. In my case however, they may have set up a little harder than expected. Usually the religious lessons that lodge in the psyches of young children wear down over time with actual experience in the real world, to the point that they resemble ghost images or faint impressions like the fossilized gossamer of dragonfly wings sandwiched between layers of sedimentary stone. We were expected to outgrow these childhood teachings, just not entirely. We were meant to make adjustments for the real adult world but to retain just enough residue of the teaching that we might bear some resemblance to moral beings. No one was expected to actually love their neighbor, as long as they held it as a precept. You were supposed to care about the poor, but you didn't really have to care for them. You weren't supposed to murder people but you could kill them under certain circumstances. Adults understood that the rules were loose guidelines or general principles more than hard requirements.
I attended that church in Jacksonville more-or-less every Sunday for the better part of my sixth year. Then we moved a short distance away to Shannon Hills where we found a church that was somewhat larger but otherwise all but indistinguishable. The routine was virtually unchanged. First we had Sunday School which consisted mostly of Bible stories about Israelites and other exotic folk, and then we had the regular church service which included a central sermon from the preacher interspersed with the singing of various hymns and spirituals and sprinkled generously with readings from the Scriptures. The main thing I remember about the regular service, other than the singing, was the seemingly interminable nature of it all. The preacher could drone on and on about matters well beyond my ken and the time seemed to crawl at a pace designed to torture young souls. It was supposed to last an hour, but that too was a general guideline...one not usually observed too closely. It was considered bad form to complain. I spent many lifetimes on those unyielding pews, praying for mercy.
In the Summer following my first year of public schooling, my family moved to Vientiane, Laos where we lived for one year followed by a year in Bangkok, Thailand. There I got a close look at people who were not only not Southern Baptists but who were not even Christians...at all. Nor were they Israelites, Hebrews, Philistines, Pharisees, or any other of the myriad peoples of the Bible with whom I was passingly familiar. These were people not even hinted at in ye old King James. These were Buddhists. I was struck dumb with wonder.
I had no idea what to make of these people with their strange language, exotic appearance and mysterious ways. I could only stare and wonder. Eventually I began to paint a picture for myself, however lacking in fine detail, of who these people were. What came across to me was that these were people much like any other but who featured a strong deep-running vein of human compassion, perhaps even greater than that of the Christians I had known (certainly greater from my adult perspective). Theirs was a calm, friendly, easy-going culture that seemed to embrace foreigners as anything but foreign. Rather, we seemed to be of great interest to them. I always felt very welcome in their smiling presence. It was as though I were a long lost friend. I fell in love with Laos and the Lao and later with Thailand and the Thai. They were very similar cultures being next door neighbors, warm and gentle, slow to anger and graciously accepting of outsiders. Though some of them can get a little crabby sometimes, not altogether unlike their Vietnamese neighbors. Nobody really likes to be pushed around.
I used to wander onto the grounds of a monastery near our home on the outskirts of Bangkok oblivious to the possibility of trespassing or annoying the monks. They were invariably good-natured and gracious. Like most Laotians or Thais, they were curious about Americans and asked many questions. They welcomed me into the monastery as if I owned the place. Their many kindnesses touched me and left a deep and lasting impression.
Years later, my appreciation for the sublime humanity of the Buddhists I had known led to a spiritual crisis that culminated in my 'leaving the church,' which is a thing. I was 14 and living in Huntsville, Alabama, the city to which my father had retired from the Army. Huntsville was filled with brainiacs and rocket scientists because of Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center. It was also filled with rednecks because of it being Alabama. I hadn't sussed all of this out just yet and the Sunday school teacher at the church we attended happened to be one of the rednecks. To me he was also an adult authority figure and I had yet to learn my lesson about those guys. In the course of one of his lectures, he made the statement that all who were not Christians would be condemned to fiery hell for eternity. This struck me as very harsh and altogether unlike anything a loving God would do, but I was assured nonetheless that God would get even with the heathens for not toeing the line. I objected. The argument grew heated, and in the end, I 'left the church' - and I never went back.
I've gone back and forth on the matter of religion since then, the existence of God and all that, the ultimate nature of existence. If approached honestly and thoughtfully, it is a more complicated question than it might seem at first blush. To some the concept of God is a simple one, a supernatural being, who perhaps dwells in the sky, or the water, or the wind. Whose God? The God of Abraham, Black Elk's Great Spirit, the Greek Gods or the Gods of the Hindus? And what of the non-dogmatic conceptions? The thought that God is the great mystery, that he/she/or it embodies the cosmos and is comprised of all that we don't know or understand. If God is everywhere, could it be that God is everything?
God is the mystery that lies at the heart of the universe. ~ EinsteinI still think that, in the most expansive sense, there are many worthy philosophical and scientific questions surrounding these matters. However I no longer presume to have the answers and I reject simplistic explanations. What I learned from working on the Hubble Space Telescope project (among other things) is that I, and we, know very little compared to all that there is to know. Some of the engineers I worked with on HST figured it would allow us to see that which we'd already seen, only with much greater clarity. I told them to brace themselves, that we'd see things undreamt of – and boy was I right – though I'm not claiming to be the only person who saw it coming.
Note: The following image is a composite of two HST images that don't actually belong together. There is Saturn in the foreground and the keyhole region of the Great Magellanic Cloud in the background. Artificially juxtaposed, as they are here, they attempt to illustrate something of the actual glory of the heavens (or a small portion thereof).For the Walking Wounded and the Living Dead
We inhabit a universe the complexity of which dwarfs our meager imaginations. Our knowledge is an ever-evolving bubble in a great sea of mystery. Every question answered gives rise to new questions, and much of what we think we know is wrong. Like 19th century physicians bleeding the desperately ill patient, utterly convinced of the good being done, we are constantly learning how what we used to know with certainty is wrong. In a multiverse such as this, certainty itself is wrong. Call that the OPOL uncertainty principle: nothing is certain, not even death or taxes.
Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation . . . Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.I will respect anyone’s religion to the extent that it does no harm. I don't need to be convinced of the ultimate veracity of someone else's religion in order to respect it and the revered place it holds in their personal cosmology. To me that is a simple matter of having basic respect for humanity - you know, as you found it. One does not go to Laos to explain to the Buddhist monks how wrong they are about everything. Well, missionaries might, but not sane people.
Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
One reason that I am not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater with respect to religion is that, at its best, religion can be a profoundly good influence. And any path that leads to love and peace or mercy and forgiveness has to be respected. Of course it doesn't always work out that way, some may scoff at the very notion. People rightly speak of the ill and harm that has been done in the name of religion. History is rife with those tales. We've learned here in the South that you can't drape a bigot in holy raiment and wind up with anything but a bigot. And it is well known that the worst advertisement for any religion are its adherents.
Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. ~ GandhiBut it is also true that many acts of compassion, kindness, charity, mercy, forgiveness and social heroism are themselves inspired by religion – think Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers and the liberation theology of the South American Catholics. Religious values (often) speak to the very best of human nature: love, charity, compassion, mercy, altruism, etc. I think that may be why religion in some form or another has resonated with humanity for the duration of our existence.
There is also the fact that many have endured suffering or trauma that they could have faced in no other way than to rely upon (what they perceive to be at least) a well of spiritual strength or divine support/assistance. Every wretched soul, woman, child or man, who ever held on by virtue of their faith, whatever it might have been, through some hellish moment, event or lifetime has my complete sympathy. As to the true nature of such belief, who would deny someone a coping mechanism that works? I don't mean to dismiss the question. All scientific inquiry is important. Understanding the truth of these things is important. But I think it is more complex than sometimes viewed...like so many things in this infinitely complex universe. Things are often so much trickier than they seem.
People of all religions and no religion seem to err equally as they strut across the human stage. Some people seem to have an understanding of their religion that suits them, centers them or makes them better people: stronger, more charitable, courageous, kind or whatever. And some take their religion as a stick with which to beat others. So maybe religion is not always the problem. Maybe it's not even always the same thing. Is the native shaman who seeks guidance from the great spirit the same as the fundamentalist preacher who condemns anyone unlike himself to hellfire for their 'sins'?
It's obviously difficult for humans to be good (i.e. kind, compassionate, generous, loving, altruistic, etc.), religion or no. The problems seem to boil down, time after time, to us. We are too often incapable of rising above our own nature, try as we might. But I respect those who try.
When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are hungry, they call me a Communist. ~ Archbishop Helder CamaraSo whatever gets you through the night is the way I look at religious matters. I respect that religion, for all its problems, is a deeply human thing that has long been with us. It is part of our history, our sociology, our cultural DNA. In its most enlightened manifestations, at its very best, I recognize the good in it and the power of it - all opposite effects notwithstanding.
While allowing for the possibility of a 'living' 'intelligence' at the heart of the universe, that might conceivably be referred to as a creator or source of all things, I try to keep a scientific perspective. I believe that if God exists, it will be as the heart of the equation that explains it all, the lynchpin of the unified field, the pinnacle of science, not its antithesis. Maybe I'm stretching terms here. But I do believe that science and religion are in many ways attempting to tell the same story, the story of our existence, and the story being told by modern science is stranger than the wildest fever-dreams of any ancient religion, and I believe that the ultimate outcome of science (assuming we squeak by existentially) is going to be a real whopper. I believe to my very last atom that there are untold wonders, grand and glorious beyond description, yet to be discovered. We really don't know what's out there. So I try to keep an open mind.
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. ~ Carl Sagan
Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.So the problem with the wildly imaginative Judeo/Christian conception is not that it's too bizarre to be believed, as I interpret Feynman, it's that it is inadequate to explain anything as deep and impressive as the universe and the existence we are coming to know. The problem is not that religion overestimates reality, as often alleged, it's that it underestimates it. The reality we know today, thanks to our advancing science, is more bizarre than the ancients could possibly ever have imagined. There are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in their philosophy. Which is not to say that they were wrong about everything. Human wisdom predates science by a good bit.
I guess I am in ways something of a reverent agnostic, as my son might say. I don't claim to have the answers to the great questions posed by our existence, but I respect the great mystery, the enormity of all there is that we don't know, and I recognize the profundity of the questions themselves and respect their deeply philosophical nature. Also, I appreciate the enormous complexity of our universe and thus reality, and I respect other peoples right to grapple with such weighty matters in their own fashion. I don't believe it is important for us all to pursue the same path, look at life through the same lens, describe everything in the same terms or arrive at the same conclusions – though it doesn't hurt when we can learn from one another. I do believe it is important for us to embrace each other whatever our superficial or philosophical differences may be, and to be kind, tolerant, merciful, helpful and loving to one another if for no other reason than to just make life a little better for everyone. This, all our sages have told us.
I don't know if it's the persistence of dragonfly gossamer, the example set by Buddhist monks or just my own innate humanity, but I believe we have an obligation to feed the hungry and care for the needy. I believe we are likewise obligated to not bomb innocent villagers or torture helpless prisoners. I believe that if there is such a thing as 'sin,' then having nothing but scorn and hatred for the poor certainly is one. I believe in kindness, charity and universal brotherhood. I believe we are meant by the cosmos to love, assist and care for each other...and to preserve and protect our home here on planet earth. I believe we are capable of being so much better than we so often are, and I believe we should at least aspire to the level of bonobos.
And I do believe that Jesus loves the little children. All the children. Of the world.
I feel it in my bones.