HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes Updated January 18, 2009 12:00 AM
A few nights ago, I was having a conversation with some young people about religion and how they are completely turned off by it. From their point of view, religion means the Catholic faith and their aversion includes the Bible, the pope and the officials of the church, the obligation of going to mass and all of the attendant rules and requirements imposed on the flock.
I listened intently and, quite honestly, I was neither shocked nor surprised. I have heard many people express the same thing and I must confess I, myself, experience great doubts about my own faith from time to time as it was taught to me when I was growing up.
Many of the younger generation that have been raised in a technological age of instant gratification and dominance of scientific thought over religious dogma find no attraction nor need for membership in an organization whose core beliefs science regards with suspicion (and vice versa, I might add). Although they went to Catholic schools, they find no connection with much of the religion that was taught to them.
The young man in the group said he did not believe in the veracity of the Bible because it contains, in terms of evidence as defined by the modern world, a lot of hearsay. He noted that the truthfulness of a lot of biblical facts would be found faulty if subjected to rigorous scientific investigation.
The young lady noted that a lot of the accounts in the Bible contradict one another and the morality in some stories is — by today’s reckoning — quite abhorrent. In the Bible, slavery, polygamy, revenge, the smiting of one’s enemies were practiced — all, apparently, with God’s blessings.
There’s a lot I could agree with in their views, taken at face value. As scientific or historical accounts of events, the texts of many religions leave much to be desired. However, Joseph Campbell, an erudite writer on myths, maintains that to look at religious texts as scientific or historically accurate is to miss out on their meaning completely. He points out that religious text, when taken literally, loses its power. Literalness and materialism belong to the domain of science, after all.
The strength of religious stories and text lies in their symbolic meanings. Symbols are open-ended, rich in interpretation and one can get lost in them while plumbing their depths. At their heart is mystery, often unfathomable, and the truths they express go way beyond what words can express.
God begetting a human, or the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove are two such moving mysteries, even if not uniquely Christian themes, Campbell points out. He explains that similar themes have existed in other, earlier religions. He says the order of the day was the adaptation by Christianity of many themes and symbols prevalent during that time. These themes and metaphors made them acceptable to the unconverted. This did not necessarily diminish their power. In fact, faith may have been enhanced by them.
Personally, I feel that the paradoxical nature of a God born in a manger instead of a palace who teaches mankind to turn the other cheek and love his enemies is a very powerful message. It dangles before us a world order that is so revolutionary that heaven may not have to wait for us to die to be experienced.
While I could see the validity in a lot of what the kids had to say, it was my turn to ask them if they had any fascination or yearning to understand the mysteries of life and love. Did they ever ponder the question of the afterlife? Did they ever wonder whether man could ever find a meaning in the states of suffering, pain, joy and happiness that humanity seems to swing back and forth between? Did they ever look at the horizon and wonder if there was a power that created everything? They answered in the affirmative. They admitted that, certainly, there was much to ruminate on and seek to understand if one was to find his place in the universe.
While the kids may seem atheistic from the point of view of organized religion, in my view, they are undoubtedly spiritual for the simple reason that these questions do matter in their lives. While there are people who prefer to walk the straight, narrow and sure path that their parents trod along terms of religion, there are some who like to carve their own path to heaven.
Like the kids I talked to, sometimes, I hear adults complain that they, too, are having a hard time finding meaning in the age-old rituals of religious ceremonies. So much of the rituals seem tired and stale, needing major makeovers. I sometimes ask myself if it isn’t the role of the messengers of the different faiths — the priests, deacons, priestesses, shamans, gurus, evangelists, rabbis, etc. — to summon the great mysteries, the timeless stages and themes of life such as birth, death, sex, love, oneness and meaning so that their followers feel alive to them, and awakened to their timeless truths.
William Ernest Hocking, an American philosopher, wrote, “No religion is a true religion that does not make men tingle to their fingertips with a sense of infinite hazard.” This is a reminder to those who perform rituals about the danger and reality of lost potency in how they invoke the mysteries.
If the quote above is true, then to know God is to experience Him in a way that will rock one’s world. But what happens when you can no longer summon the thrill?
It may seem sacrilegious to make the comparison but when you look around, you will find a lot of peak experiences in modern but secular rituals that actually point to the direction of the mysteries, without expressly mentioning sacred deities. There may be something to learn here that can revitalize the energy of churchgoers.
When people sing, groove, sway and wave their hands in unison during a rock concert, isn’t it an expression of partaking in a larger community, or even a sense of oneness? Doesn’t being one with everybody else in a certain place or event create the feeling that one is “bigger than life”? Isn’t the performer enactging a ritual that invokes the experience of power among the audience? Could that, as secular as it may seem, be within the realm of a spiritual experience?
I am convinced that the success of social networking on the Internet with such sites as Facebook, Myspace and others comes from the fact that its members experience closeness or intimacy with other people. The interaction has many facets: an identification with an “other” or “others,” a fascination, a thrill in being able to communicate and exchange thoughts with people from everywhere, even with people you do not know. One might say the virtual community is also an experience of shared oneness.
The thrill of watching or participating in sports has an element that defies man’s limitations that may border on a spiritual experience. The very power of an athlete in breaking world records stretches the meaning of what it is to be alive and human. There is a feeling of being greater than one can imagine oneself to be. It is absolutely joyous and inspiring to see someone defy limitations. Think about it: Doesn’t this seem to be within the territory of experiencing what a miracle is like?
Religions, too, incorporate the pull of the large ritual, the extravaganza to keep their flock excited and inspired. Think of World Youth Day, the Haj, the seasons of Christmas and Eid-Al-Fitr. The crowds, the ritualized movement, chanting, singing aren’t too different from the opening of the Super Bowl, the Olympics, or a U2 concert.
Could it be that the kids these days get their share of spiritual sustenance outside the churches without their knowing it? What a concept. And if true, what an opening for religion to exploit!
After all, isn’t God supposed to be everywhere all the time?
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