Monday, February 18, 2008

The Role of (Good) Religion

Before I begin, I would like to invite my atheist, agnostic, deist and theist friends/critics to contribute to this chapter of the book my father and I are writing. The idea is to solicit your (most welcome) input, in part, because the concept of community lies at the heart of Good Religion, and a community of thoughtful friends who have already given this some consideration, and are willing to share their unique perspectives, will only enrich the outcome. So feel free to leave your comments, criticisms, suggestions, as this is a work in progress (and very incomplete)...

Chapter Three: The Role of (Good) Religion

“I see the emergence in our consciousness of a Universe of a magnificence, and an intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors imagined. And if much of the Universe can be understood in terms of a few simple laws of Nature, those wishing to believe in God can certainly ascribe those beautiful laws to a Reason underpinning all of Nature.”
-Carl Sagan

“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
- James 1:27

Life has evolved to the point where it can contemplate its own existence and purpose – to understand itself and its kinship to all other life. As we humans sit atop the pinnacle of evolution’s amazing and varied path, let us pause for a moment to consider where we’ve been, and what lies ahead. If we begin with the premise that the pursuit and attainment of happiness is the primary goal of most of us going forward, then those methods, ideas and principles that help meet that goal ideally become the common denominators of social laws, and the foundational principles of good religion.

Inspired individuals (e.g., prophets), record their observations and insights gleaned from a divine source (God), a loving, heavenly parent, whose concern for our own development, happiness, and well-being mirrors the same concerns we have for our own children, and why we therefore feel compelled to teach and pass on these same inherited and proven principles to future generations.

Religion – good religion that is, because we all too frequently encounter what constitutes bad religion – is comprised of the collective social wisdom, insight, laws, and values that have been (and are hopefully continually being) recorded and handed down from generation to generation for the benefit of all. As with scientific advancement, it only makes perfect sense for us to “stand on the shoulders of giants”, and contemplate, embrace, assimilate and enlarge upon these principles that come to us from the vantage point of hindsight, so that we don’t have to “reinvent the wheel”, making the same mistakes others before us have made, thus learning life’s lessons the hard way.

Well, of course that is the ideal, but unfortunately it seems that this collective wisdom all too often comes accompanied (and tainted) by cultural “baggage”:

• The justification and glorification of warfare (accompanied by the denigration and contempt of pacifism).
• Utter disregard for our environmental stewardship, claiming that Jesus is coming to clean up our messes and forgive us our trespasses and contempt of his Creation.
• The oppression, subjugation, marginalization (and even mutilation) of women.
• The usurpation and twisting of scripture to justify and rationalize slavery, genocide, incest and child abuse.
• The pursuit of wealth at the expense of others (and the environment).
• The gleeful promulgation of exclusivity, divisiveness and polarization.
• The substitution (rather than the enrichment) of reason with faith.
• Intolerance of diversity, ethnicity or departure from the status quo.
• The promotion of fear for the sake of exercising control over others.
• The deliberate confusing of retribution with justice.
• The willingness to apply sophistry, spin and apologetics to support otherwise untenable beliefs.
• The tendency to judge and find fault with others.
• An obstinate clinging to superstitious and speculative false traditions.
• A dearth of healthy skepticism.
• Suspicion and contempt for science.
• “Telling lies for Jesus” – the complicit willingness of (alleged) ‘disciples’ to misrepresent facts and distort truth, in order to make or prove a point, rationalizing that the ends justify the means.
• An insistence on a literal reading of scripture (even if the text is meant to be understood symbolically, metaphorically or allegorically).

This is baggage which can (and all too often does) obfuscate and call into question the credibility and overall beauty of religious truths that should and could otherwise lead us to happiness. In fact, it is the stubborn, unyielding adherence to such wicked principles that indeed creates bad religion. We’ll have more to say on that in a moment.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wisely observed:

“Religion is not the carping voice of condemnation, telling us that the normal is sinful and the well-intentioned mistake is an unforgivable transgression that will damn us forever. Religion is the voice that says, I will guide you through this minefield of difficult moral choices, sharing with you the insights and experiences of the greatest souls of the past, and I will offer you comfort and forgiveness when you are troubled by the painful choices you made.”

Scholar and therapist Mary Pipher (“Reviving Ophelia”), commenting on the major social concerns she has for girls and young women, stated:

“All of the great religious systems of the world teach... that happiness comes from virtue, it comes from loving and working, it comes from delaying gratification, and being prudent, it comes from being generous as opposed to being greedy.”

The German philosopher Goethe suggested that if everyone swept in front of his own door, the whole world would be clean, and this concept naturally extends to other moral precepts that begin with the individual. It would be difficult to find fault with the idea of daily self-evaluation, accompanied by a resolve to correct (or repent of) wrong doing or wrong thinking (sin); if practiced as a community, significant societal change for the better becomes possible. Likewise, the powerful principle of forgiveness has the remarkable ability to enact significant life changes that have a way of radiating out through society like ripples in a pond.

One could appropriately and correctly argue that the promotion of many (if not all) of these ideas and virtues – hard work, prudence, humility, forgiveness, etc. – are not unique to religion per se. But few other societal vehicle exists to convey these principles to the extent and scale that they might actually make a measurable difference to individuals and groups. Taking this idea one step further, don’t most of the laws that exist in the majority of (successful) governments find their foundations in religious principles and traditions? We suggest (and believe) that they in fact do.

One critical hallmark of good religion involves the idea of community; the magnifying of good, individual efforts to effect large-scale changes, and accomplish important tasks that lie well beyond the scope of individual efforts and means.

For example, in a neighborhood context, this could be illustrated with an Amish barn-raising. Brother and Sister Brown need a new barn; the community plans to spend a day coming together; the women might prepare a large meal, as the men assemble their various tools and talents – and design, haul, saw, nail and erect the timbers necessary for the project. Everyone helps, including the children. The work is hard but fun – and at the end of the day, a new barn exists where there once was none. Brother and Sister Smith also need a barn, and Brother and Sister Brown and the rest assemble on his lot the following week and the process is repeated...

From an LDS perspective, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Sister Kent, a widow, might need a new roof on her aging house, and doesn’t have the funds to purchase the materials, much less hire the crew of laborers, necessary to replace it. So several hours on a weekend are set aside by her Ward’s Elders quorum, and the job of stripping the old shingles, repairing any rotted plywood or framing, laying down new tar paper and shingles, etc. is handily accomplished by a sizeable group of willing volunteers (using materials paid for by fast offerings) who understand that “many hands make light work”. And at the end of the day, these participants (and certainly Sister Kent) feel pretty good about what just happened.

Of course, on a global scale, a united, world-wide (religious) community can marshal the people, funds, talents and collective resources to provide significant humanitarian assistance and support towards disaster recovery, disease control, drought and famine relief, etc.

Furthermore, this concept of community extends to, and lies behind the ideal of “it takes a village to raise a child” – where individuals pool their collective perspectives, talents, time and energy to support, teach, share and enlighten each other, whether in sermon, fireside, Sunday school, and Relief society or priesthood lessons. We gain and grow and are richly served in an environment of diversity – where individual perspectives are shared and evaluated, and whereby horizons of understanding are broadened. Good religion reminds us of our global kinship; we are all brothers and sisters, and the more we treat each other as such, across national, political and ethnic divides, the more we are able to realize the great injunction of the Creator, to love one another, serve, feed and clothe and teach and support one another, and thereby become like Him.

Where a single instrument in the hands of a skilled musician can make beautiful music, it cannot accomplish the rich, diverse experience of a symphony. Likewise, individuals, however talented, cannot provide the fullness of the musical experience provide by the complimentary voices of a choir, able to serve up a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Again, these concepts and their implementation are certainly not exclusive to religious organizations. Habitat for Humanity, Rotary International, United Way, the International Red Cross, the Salvation Army, etc., – people can and do thankfully unite to promote worthwhile common causes, and good religion should be right there supporting and complimenting such organizations in this humanitarian choir.

Practical, real-world examples of good religion include the collection (and expectation) of fast offerings – a brilliant strategy that asks individuals and families to forgo two meals, donating the cost of the meals skipped as an offering to assist the poor and needy, benefiting the person fasting with a healthy rest to their digestive system, as well as a practical exercise in self-control.

Good religion provides welfare services, educational funds, charitable contributions, and disaster relief on a scale far beyond the means of individuals or local congregations. Good religion encourages members to faithfully visit, encourage, uplift, sustain and care for one another, to look after each other, and serve each other; to understand that we are family, and act accordingly.

The missionary efforts of good religion must never be coercive or obnoxiously intrusive, but an invitation. They must not be limited to proselyting the good news of the gospel, with its ability to transform lives in meaningful and productive ways. They must also provide educational, humanitarian, medical, and farming assistance and instruction. And in the process of missions work, men and women can gain valuable leadership and teaching skills, develop good work habits, and gain appreciation and respect for other cultures and races, as they learn to love those they serve.

Good religion also provides job placement services, social services, foster placement and adoption services, access to professional counseling, and access to affordable higher education.

Good religion fulfills social needs, providing a ready pool of social connections and potential acquaintances and friends -- even family -- who share common values and goals, wherever one might travel in the world.

Good religion acknowledges the need for wise stewardship of our physical bodies, promoting health and longevity. It provides a law of chastity that not only helps to protect naïve and innocent children, but promotes fidelity in marriage that can lead to greater bonds of trust, love and security in the most important of relationships. It encourages personal sacrifice of short-term wants for long-term benefits. It promotes the journaling of discoveries and epiphanies, tribulations and triumphs, inspiration and insights; accounts of oversights and overcomings, rejoicing and regrets, along with profound personal revelations, for the benefit of reflection, remembrance, and encouragement of future generations.

Good religion embraces truths wherever they may be found, whether in science, philosophy, or amongst the multitudes of religious creeds or social systems world-wide.

Good religion places a great deal of emphasis on hard work and education, for both career and personal enrichment. It encourages learning a foreign language so that cultural divides can be breached. It provides opportunities to teach and be taught by others. It enables individuals, from the time they are very young, to overcome the all-too ubiquitous (and profoundly real) fear of public speaking, giving them opportunities to stand at a pulpit and share personal insights with hundreds of attentive and supportive listeners.

Good religion demands that a fullness of life is achieved not just in knowing good, or in merely doing good, but in becoming good.

Good religion embodies the noble ideas expressed in Will Allen Dromgoole’s poem “The Bridge Builder”:

“An old man, going a lone highway,
Came at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fears for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again must pass this way;
You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide—
Why build you the bridge at the eventide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him.”

Indeed, good religion demands that we look beyond our own limited sojourn here in life, beyond our natural tendencies toward selfish greed, to acknowledge the welfare of future generations, and our stewardship toward not only each other, but to all life on planet Earth.

The central tenet of good religion is love. In fact, Jesus the Christ distilled the entirety of the gospel down to that – love God (and if you do, you will keep his commandments, which are nothing more than principles and policy that guide us to happiness) and love our fellow men, even as (we should love) ourselves. If only...

Bad Religion

When scripture tells us that we have been given dominion, that is not to be understood as a license to rape, pillage and plunder. When scripture tells us that “there is enough and to spare”, we certainly cannot interpret that to mean that we have been given carte blanche to mis-manage, abuse, over-use, and recklessly neglect our sacred stewardship to “take good care” of this garden planet, and all other forms of life that share it with us. In fact, we’ve been given the charge to multiply and replenish the earth! We must replenish the trees when we cut them down. We must replenish the fish in rivers and streams and oceans when we’ve depleted their numbers. We must recycle and reuse the raw and refined materials we pull from the earth. We must practice conservation; we must understand and carefully preserve the delicate balance of our ecosystem, to avoid polluting and poisoning both it and ourselves in the process. We simply must be prudent and wise stewards of these precious resources, as we will certainly one day stand before, and give an accounting to the Lord regarding his creation, for those things with which we have been entrusted.