Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Religious Machine

We all ask the great question: "Why?". We want to know why we exist, why things are the way they are, why the sky is blue... And we create methods to help us find the answers.
The moment when we find the answers we seek is something we call Spirituality. This is a moment of epiphany -- "born again" -- "enlightenment". Suddenly, everything makes since, although we have great difficulty explaining to others what these answers are. This is a state William James described as "mysterium tremendum" -- the great mystery, where we are "filled with the Holy Spirit" -- "the lights come on". Spirituality is the goal of our search for meaning.
The tool we use to find Spirituality is something called "religion". Religion is the method, the machine, which helps us find Spirituality. Now, religions are made by people, each from the perspective of its creator or creators. There are so many different religions in the world because we each see and understand the world a little bit differently. Yet each religion can lead to Spirituality.

The Religious Toolkit

Many of our religions hold the idea that things were once harmonious and perfect. But something happened which upset the balance. And so today, they maintain, we are constantly searching for some way to recapture the peace which we've lost.
From a purely scientific viewpoint, we lost the harmony the moment we came down from the tree, stood upright, and began to reason. Previously, we had been like every other species on the planet: governed primarily by passions. And so, when we stop behaving primarily by our passions, we upset the balance. We "ate from the tree of knowledge" and separated ourselves from the natural order. We stopped being animals and we became human.
And so we are forever on a quest to recapture what we've lost: the peace, the harmony, the balance. We search for it as a species and we search for it as individuals. And because we are a reasoning people, we ask a great many questions in order to try and make sense of it all.
Our search follows the pattern of six very basic questions: who, what, where, when, how, and why. Since we are very young we ask these basic questions. And we have very specific tools to try and answer them.
We have created disciplines -- special thinking tools -- to help us answer these basic questions. If we wish to know who we are we consult a biography or family tree. To understand what life is we have created philosophy. Where we are is explained through cartography and astronomy. When we are is handled through the elaborate histories we write. In order to understand how things works we have created biology, chemistry, and physics, among others.
Religion is the discipline we use to understand why. Religion is simply a toolkit for opening the soul. And the meaning we find is what we call spirituality.
Spirituality is the moment when we "plug in" -- when we become enlightened, or "filled with the Holy Spirit" -- when everything falls into place and makes sense. Spirituality is not a thing which can easily -- if at all -- put into words. Spirituality cannot be taught, only discovered. It is a thing which can be pointed to, but never fully described. This is the moment when we regain the balance we so desperately seek.
No one religion contains "all the answers" and no religion should have its myths taken at face value. Religion is a set of tools which can lead us to spiritual freedom and rebirth, but only if we use these tools correctly. There is no guarantee that we will find spirituality if we only practice our religions for what they, at first, appear to be.
Myths are specialized stories meant to teach us spiritual truths. Since spirituality cannot be easily put into words, we rely on myths to help us find some spiritual meaning. At first glance, myths appear to be miraculous stories of gods or messiahs performing impossible tasks by supernatural forces. Modern-day skepticism teaches us that myths are simple "grand fairy-tales" which are entertaining, but best ignored. But for those who study myths they are treasure chests full of spiritual gold.
Myths are central to religions. They are written in a special form known as mythological language. In mythological language very little is what it appears to be. Symbolism is the language of myth, with many items being representative of something much greater. And often mythological images are the same as dream images. For example, in myth water often represents the situation of the world. "Troubled waters" represent turmoil -- an image we use even in our every-day language! When someone rises above these waters, either by boat or by foot, they transcend the problems of the world. Often, there are signs that the myths contain hidden meanings and are not to be taken literally -- either through their use of "miracles" or even through statements such as "the people did not understand what had just happened."