Does God Create Religion or Religion Create God? (Val Webb)

  (12 May 10)

Does God create Religion or Religion create God?


An address by Dr Val Webb.



There is something about me that dislikes “yes/no” questions.  It is a blessing I finished my studies before multiple choice became standard.  With every question, there seems to be many possibilities along a continuum, not just opposite ends.  When I was doing theological studies, we were constantly presented with conflicting theories by different theologians from which we were supposed to choose one over the other, but I always saw something in both arguments, perhaps because I realized even then that whatever was said was human imagining within a particular time and place.   Today’s topic, Does God Create religion or Religion create God, doesn’t have a yes/no answer either, so I will wander across the subject, introducing many facets of the question to stimulate your discussion later.  You will be the ones to answer the question.  Let me say at the beginning, I use the three letters G-O-D to indicate the Sacred, however we imagine it, with no specific theological baggage. That allows me to talk beyond religious boxes.


First let me read you something about GOD from 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic, Rumi, unfortunately in the very male language of the time:


A lover seeks his beloved, but he also wants his beloved to seek him. God seeks every human being, but he also wants human beings to seek him.  A lover feels flashes of lightning in the heart – flashes of joy – and wants to know that his beloved feels the same.  God takes joy in humanity, and wants to know that humanity takes joy in him.  Have you ever heard one hand clapping?  God is one hand; humanity is the other. [i]


To Rumi, God was both the initiator of love and the recipient of love, a two way relationship.  Listen, on the other hand, to this from George O’Brien’s book with the great title God and the New Haven Railway: and why neither one is doing well:


Primal religious behavior is language addressed at the mute or the mysterious.  Language is our self-conscious communication, and normally we know how and when it works.  We address our friends and relations and even believe that the dog understands our tone of voice.  Then we find ourselves talking on when we are not sure that there is anyone to address, yet when we also refuse silence … we can only guess at the life of the One who slumbers not nor sleeps.  We are by no means sure how to name the Holy Mystery which we project as the audience for these strange linguistic turns.  [ii]


These readings illustrate the continuum of the religious search – the desire to experience the Divine as Rumi does and O’Brien’s reality of searching and refusing to accept Divine Silence.  


Few of us have the luxury (or misfortune) of approaching religion with a blank slate and thus it is hard to define a moment when God first engaged humanity or we first created God.  Most of us have been raised in a society steeped in religious ideas and a culture that confirmed those “truths.”  Even if our family was not religious, these values and morals shaped our slice of the world, such that we absorbed them with our mother’s milk.  We entered this environment with our first breath and spend the rest of our lives responding to these traditions positively, casually or negatively.  19th century Russian writer Leo Tolstoy described his Orthodox heritage:


Had I simply understood that life has no meaning I might have accepted it peacefully, knowing that it was my lot.  But I could not be calmed by this.  If I had been like a man in a wood from which he knows there is no way out, I might have been able to live; but I was like a man in a wood who is lost, and terrified by this rushes around hoping to find his way out, knowing that with each step he is getting more lost, and yet unable to stop rushing about. [iii]


All the famous atheists have spoken, not as observers from another planet stumbling on something called God, but from within a culture shaped by these religious beliefs, such that Karl Marx named the struggle against religion as “indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”   Since Richard Dawkins is a current topic – he’s speaking at the Atheists Convention soon in Melbourne – let me tell a story. I n a science and religion course during my doctoral studies many years ago, we read The Selfish Gene, published in 1976 by a relatively unknown British biologist named Richard Dawkins.  My theology professor was excited about this brilliantly argued book on science but, with science degrees in my background and also a conservative evangelical religious upbringing, I argued, to my professor’s surprise, that this book was as much a subtle anti-religious manifesto as a scientific text.  Dawkins was not simply describing science but pitting it against religious ideas.  At the time, I wondered about what religious background brought him to this need to attack and so was interested to read a recent review of The God Delusion that traced an evolution in Dawkins’ books from a subtle challenge to religion in The Selfish Gene to a full-blown, hardly scientific attack on anything religious in The God Delusion.  For those who saw the recent interview with Andrew Denton, an uncomfortable Dawkins was asked, since he was opposed to any GOD-idea, what ethics and values he lived by.  He said, “Oh, the usual – do to others what you would like them to do to you.”


Each of us has a “background” that not only shaped who we are, but also determines what we have to grow out of as we grow up.  For me, I was, in Spong’s term, a God-intoxicated child.  Raised in a devout family, I longed for dramatic experiences of God, to feel God in some way.  I would lie on the grass and stare at the clouds, willing God to send a sign – a face in the clouds or a supernatural shaft of light beamed down to me.  I lost count of how many times I rededicated my little life to God, either with altar calls or in my mind, but later would plead with God into the night for some experience as assurance of Divine Reality.  If anyone wanted God, I did.  It seemed odd that a loving God so desirous of relationship with humanity would make a career of silence and hiddenness.  Theologians have constructed many theories as to why it is OK for God to be hidden or silent, to keep God in a win-win situation, yet my questions would remain, ending up in my book In Defense of Doubt: an invitation to adventure.  


The famous atheist philosopher Andrew Flew told a parable of two explorers stumbling into a jungle clearing where flowers and weeds grew.  One said, “Some gardener must tend this plot.”  The other said, “There is no gardener.”  They pitch their tents and set up watch.  No gardener is seen.  “Perhaps he is invisible,” they wonder, so build a barbed-wire fence, electrifying it and patrolling it with bloodhounds.  No cries suggest an intruder, the wire never moves, no bloodhounds bark.  The believer was not convinced -- “There is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener without a scent who makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden he loves.”  The skeptic replied, “How does what you call your invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” [iv]  As you may know, Flew, in old age, has recently written a book called There is a God.  Again, none of us are blank slates – we struggle with the questions according to the evolving place where we now stand and from where we have come.


My youthful theology was shaped in Queensland by the school Crusader movement, Billy Graham and the University Evangelical Union of the sixties.  SCM was also alive and well, absorbed in Bishop Robinson’s book Honest to God, whose heresy the Evangelical Union was determined to combat.  In my brand of Christianity, spiritual experiences were signs of a good Christian and their absence questioned whether you were a Christian at all.  Conversation focused on answers to prayer, miraculous events, or what God had “laid on your heart.”   You kept quiet or did a little embellishing if you didn’t have any about which to talk.  For those of you raised outside the church, or in a church where one’s salvation was linked more with doing the sacraments, this will sound strange, but I meet many in progressive circles today with similar religious pasts.  Many are products of Billy Graham’s 1959 Australian visit, immediately before Bishop Robinson’s book Honest to God hit Australia.   These set up opposing territories in the sixties and seventies.  Those liberated by Robinson’s ideas addressed their God questions then – here in Brisbane, many theological students left theological colleges as a result and those who stayed went into social justice areas rather than parish preaching.  On the other hand, evangelicals who fiercely defended their position against Robinson in the sixties came to these questions much later in life and with considerably more guilt and reticence, given their long conditioning. 


Certainly, for me, I have spent my life in conversation with my religious past, including a  return to University and a Ph.D in theology, and I now find myself helping others think through brands of dogmatic Christianity that stifle their reason and spirit.  I recently met a clergyperson who had made the same journey as I have and I asked him what convinced him about God these days.  He talked about epiphanies, not the old dramatic answers to prayer and miraculous car-parks, but sacred moments of joy or more-than-coincidental events that assured him of Something More.  I asked how he decided what was “more than coincidental” and what was co-incidental – 50-50 odds or God-driven?  In other words, do we name those things caused by chance, good planning and human wisdom as God-activated, or do they originate from God and how can we tell the difference?   And what about things that don’t work out?  Perhaps I have lived too long with people who see every good thing as an answer to prayer, yet fail to comment when something bad happens or prayers aren’t answered.  Just last week, an elderly man in a group I was leading kept steering the discussion to an after-life.  He had a recent experience of suddenly remembering to mention to the doctor a previous illness that might explain his present medical complaint and he called this God twigging his memory, but he also admitted it could be his own recall.  In frustration with his urgent need for evidence of God and heaven, he said, “Why doesn’t someone just come back and tell us whether heaven is real or not.” 


Since religion is part of our heritage at birth, it is hard to assess whether God first engaged us or humans created God.  Freud said religion is a learned mechanism to control basic energy and release tension and frustration, a product of people’s helplessness, but could Freud prove there was not some encouragement from behind the veil?  Marx declared religion to be “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions … the opium of the people,” yet could Marx demonstrate such hope was always illusionary and there was no Object of that happiness some claimed to encounter?   Religion historian E.O. James thought religion gave people something to hold on to in life’s uncertainties, especially death, because eternal rewards were painted as better than life, yet could James prove there is nothing beyond death or nothing supporting us in time of need?  “While [the human being] has dispelled many of the demonic ghosts of ignorance,” philosopher Sam Keen says, “he has at the same time fallen prey to the pretention of omniscience, to the foolish pride of believing that he can eliminate the mystery of being.” [v]


How we resolve this question is inevitably a faith statement.  We cannot prove there is Something More, nor can we prove there is nothing.  American physicist Lawrence Krauss, who does not hold a God-idea himself, says:


While nothing in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, or cosmology has ever provided direct evidence of purpose in nature, science can never unambiguously prove that there is no such purpose.  As Carl Sagan said in another context, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. [vi]


And what do we mean by GOD – a universal Force, Presence, personal Genie, external Being manipulating universal laws, or none of these, the theme of my last book Like Catching Water in a Net: human attempts to describe the Divine?  The spectrum of answers over the centuries range from the Deist belief in a Creator with no further interest in creation, to Nature as Sacred, to a Divine life-force or Persuasive Urge within the universe, to GOD directing every from outside the world, changing its laws in answer to prayers.  And finally, how can we demonstrate conclusively to anyone else something that we personally experience or don’t experience?  How we answer these questions comes down to how we personally interpret what we experience of the world.  Writer Theresa Maggio described life in her Sicilian farming village.  “We had no technology, so we used religion … We prayed, ‘Dear Lord, let it rain, let it rain.  The grain is dying of thirst.  Give us a good one, with no lightning and no thunder.’”  The Holy Crucifix was carried through town three times a year, first to beg for rain, then in April to ask for warm sun and on May 3 to celebrate the Crucifix’s feast day.  In June the people harvested.  When it was time to winnow, they prayed to Saint Mark, patron saint of wind, for a breeze to blow off the chaff, leaving a pile of grain.  Then they prayed that the ants wouldn’t eat it.” [vii]  


We progressives are an interesting mix.  We meet together because we share a common desire to find an authentic religious shape for living.  Many have challenged traditional Christian doctrines and want to explore beyond these.  Some come from outside formal religious traditions, interested in exploring spirituality free of dogma.  Some are happy to jettison all God talk – and wish others would hurry up and do the same -- yet still want to talk about living life with a capital L.  Some find this as a refuge after leaving the church, an interim recovery space until they move beyond religion altogether.  Some have lived a lifelong lie, wanting there to be a God and wondering why God has never shown the Divine Face in any convincing way, despite their pleading.  Others experience a Presence in themselves and the world, but reject traditional explanations domesticating this experience.  Others remain active in churches, cherishing community and social outreach while struggling with outdated theology in hymns and liturgy, hoping always to influence their church to progressive thinking.  Others are lucky enough to be in affirming progressive churches.  What holds us together as progressives beyond what some see us as – people who wish to dismantle everything? 


The Religious Experience Research Centre in England has carried out research around the question, “Have you ever been aware of or been influenced by a presence or a power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?”  In its Nottingham survey, 62% of people recorded such an experience at least once or twice in their life. [viii]  In a 2005 survey in America’s Newsweek magazine, 80% called themselves spiritual rather than religious.  Despite the flurry of books denying any Deity and labeling experiential claims delusional, progressive British theologian John Hick argues for an inbuilt human capacity for awareness of the Transcendent, given the millions who, over centuries and different contexts, have claimed such awareness.  How many seriously mystical people do we need, Hick asks, both inside and outside religion, in order to take notice and not dismiss everything as delusional? [ix]


Our decision today as to whether Something engages us or we have created God basically boils down to our experiences, or not, of the Sacred, or what we believe of the experiences of others, for example the church.  In Christian history, individualistic faith or personal experience has not been the norm.  God’s covenant was with a Hebrew clan, mediated through leaders and prophets – “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6: 7).  One such prophet was Jesus, whom some accepted as a Messiah or “anointed one,” a term applied to anyone called by GOD for a mission.  After Jesus’ death, the promised Comforter Spirit engaged the community, guiding them “into all the truth” (John 16: 13).  Paul did not focus on his personal spiritual journey, but his messenge to Jews and non-Jews.  The Bible is not an anthology of the religious journeys of individual saints, but a story of an ancient people’s corporate engagement with the Sacred.  Once Christianity was part of the Roman Empire, God was mediated exclusively through the institutional Church, with the Pope Christ’s earthly representative and the Holy Spirit domesticated and operational only within the Church -- outside the Church there was no salvation.  The Church created the rules by which God could access humanity, and also became the mediator of people’s contact with God through priesthood, prayers and sacraments.  When the mystics challenged this church control of the Spirit, claiming individual unmediated God-experiences, they were marginalized and suspect and women mystics, given their supposedly irrational nature, were placed under male confessors. 


The reformers also challenged the Church’s exclusive mediation of God and moved authority to the Scriptures that people could read for themselves, guided by the Spirit.  Martin Luther translated the Latin Vulgate into everyday German and William Tyndale published the New Testament in English, but Tyndale and his books were burned – perish the thought of lay people reading in their own language!  In practice however, since many could not read, authority simply shifted from Church to preacher.  Anabaptist reform went further, however, declaring that the Spirit engaged the individual soul directly, not only through the church and those ordained for office.  The Quakers taught that everyone could have a direct relationship with God, their inward Light.  The Enlightenment allowed human reason as a way to “know” God for ourselves, along with scripture and tradition, and Wesley added experience, having felt his own heart “strangely warmed.”  This fourfold approach to engaging God -- scripture, tradition, reason and experience -- gave validity to those who sought God themselves or claimed God had engaged them. The Enlightenment also paved the way for biblical criticism, exposing the Bible as a human book with contradictions and cultural accretions, rather than Divine dictation.   This opened the flood gates for all sorts of challenges to traditional beliefs, now that it was acceptable for anyone to critique the sacred texts.  In the early Twentieth Century, theologian Karl Barth temporarily doused this freedom of thought, declaring God to be known only through Christ as recorded in Scripture, but his colleagues Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich continued the rebellion, leading to Bishop Robinson and the “Death of God” scholars of the Sixties who argued that our GOD-descriptions were outdated and needed to die so new ways of thinking could engage a contemporary world.


This heritage now allows us to use individual reason and experience to address God-questions, recognizing that church, scripture and tradition are ancient human products always in need of reform and critique. Theologian Sallie McFague names us all theologians:


All Christians must have a working theology, one that can actually function in their personal, professional, and public lives … there is nothing special about theology – every Christian has one.  The question is, how good, appropriate and functional it is … We need a theology that “begins in experience and ends with a conversion to a new way of being in the world.” [x]


We must decide, from our experiences, whether Something engages us or we are we simply listening to our echo returning to us.  We need to decide what is initiated by Something More or whether we have invented God – and how we have imagined God anyway.  Faith is first-hand experience while beliefs are second-hand, someone else’s God-experiences cemented into doctrines by which we are told to live.  The question did God create religion or religion create God also depends on what we mean by religion.  There are many definitions -- binding the sacred to the profane, belief in spiritual beings, consciousness of the infinite, finding what is highest and deepest in our experience, an uneasiness about the human condition and its solution, a house of meaning built on the edge of despair, symbolic forms relating us to the ultimate, stories to live by and belief systems uniting us in a moral community.   Paul Tillich called religion “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life.” [xi]  Ultimate concern can be transcendent or immanent, a Being or a mysterious No-thing (Nothing).  It can be personal or beyond personality, all-powerful or persuasive.  “Religion” is therefore a very slippery object, even before we consider its varieties and particularities. 


Religion scholar Huston Smith lists several elements of religion:  authorities who specialize to help others; rituals to help people act together; speculation about its source and goal; traditions that bind the faithful; usually a concept of Divinity and finally, a consciousness of mystery beyond mundane human existence. [xii]  These elements are also religion’s problems.  Each can be abused, dragging it from its initial inspiration into static institutionalization and humanly-constricted rules shaped by culture and those in power.  Authority can shrink to personal or corporate power with secrets held from laity.  Rituals can reduce to empty shells of offerings and chants.  Speculation about the cosmos and human condition can become obscure, irrelevant or outdated. The Divine can be trapped in unhelpful human descriptions; and mystery can descend into magic. [xiii]   Fresh challenges are needed to jump-start these elements back into progressive movement.  Even if a group begins with fluid relationships under a charismatic leader, structures develop, especially after the leader’s death, to keep the original ideas in play, and these will constantly be adapted according to evolving worldviews and scholarship, regardless of how “original” its “truth” claims to be. 


A Greek Orthodox friend recently gave me Matthew Gallatin’s autobiography of growing up Seventh Day Adventist, becoming a fundamentalist pastor, joining the charismatics, exploring Roman Catholicism and finally converting to the Orthodox Church. [xiv]  His journey was driven by his search for the original Christianity which he found in Orthodoxy.  He writes – “until the eleventh century, “to be Christian” meant “to be Orthodox.” [xv] Yet it is impossible to recover the original form of any ancient religion and see it through its founder’s eyes.  Our Fourth Century creeds were not there from the beginning and say nothing of Jesus’ life and teachings apart from noting his birth and death – they are already a dramatic progression from original events, forged in battles, even to death, amongst bishops, political intrigue, imperial interference and deep-seated theological splits – like any Church Council today!  Finding the original Jesus is equally difficult since the Gospels were written up to eighty years after Jesus’ death by different communities who shaped their versions of his legacy; and there is serious debate as to which Jesus sayings actually came from his lips.  Beliefs that later became central, such as the virgin birth, are not even mentioned in the earliest writings – those of Paul and the Gospel of Mark -- and the earliest Gospel fragment we have is a chapter from a Second Century copy of John – we have no original texts.  While Christianity claims the Holy Spirit as guide against error, our host of denominations today demonstrate a certain difficulty with this argument.   While a founder’s revelations may be the impetus for a group to gather -- God creating religion -- how the group structures itself to engage this Divine are human creations within which that Divine is corralled to act.


Today, Buddha would be a progressive theologian.  Born into Hinduism and seeing suffering as the human condition, Buddha tried the religious solutions in his day, studying under gurus and starving himself.  In his time, religious authority has become personal power for Brahmins and Guilds.  Rituals were performed by priests for payment.  Speculation about cosmology had become rife, producing answers divorced from human need; and mystery had become magic.  When nothing worked for him, Buddha sat under a tree until he found enlightenment or “became awake,” the meaning of a Buddha. His solution was not metaphysical speculation but a practical way of living fully here and now.  Buddha is an interesting case study for progressives.  Firstly, he dismissed external authorities, breaking the monopoly of Brahmins and guilds.  “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher,” he said.  “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.” [xvi]  Secondly, he dismissed prayers to helpless gods, calling them fetters that bind, and did not introduce new ones.  Thirdly, he refused speculation about the cosmos and the soul etc., developing instead a practical way of living. Fourthly he proposed a way devoid of tradition so people could pursue their own way.  Fifthly, he advocated self- effort instead of passive offerings to gods and endless rebirths to gain Nirvana.  Finally, he ignored the supernatural and miracles. [xvii]  It was not that he denied a Something More but, since we cannot know, we should not waste time speculating.  His practical way followed the Four Noble Truths -- One: Life is suffering.  Two: The cause of this is desire, our selfishness and ego clinging to what does not last.  Three: Selfish desire must be overcome.  Four: Follow the eightfold path with the help of a community – right knowledge, right aspiration, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right absorption or practices.  Compassion is the goal and the question of whether there is Something More to engage remains open.  Religion scholar and ex-nun Karen Armstrong says:


The experience of an indefinable transcendence, holiness and sacredness has been a fact of human life … I don’t think it matters what you believe in – and most of the great sages of religion would agree with me.  If conventional beliefs make you compassionate, kind and respectful of the sacred rights of others, this is good religion.  If your beliefs make you intolerant, unkind and belligerent, this is bad religion, no matter how orthodox it is. [xviii]


Speaking about Buddhism introduces another dimension of this topic.   We cannot talk about whether God created religion or religion created God without acknowledging that this is not just a Christian question, since many people claim to have encountered this Divine and formed religious traditions around It. We can’t simply make statements about all religion as delusion, using a few examples from an outdated variety of Christianity or a media-created view of Islam.  Critique of one religion cannot automatically be a critique of all.  We are actually at a good place today.  The new imagining of the Sacred within the world, rather than an intervening external God, has allowed us to speak across religions in our global village, since most religions share this image of the Divine infilling everything, even though Christianity dismissed God to an elsewhere heaven, which we are working on recovering.  We are finding that which we thought superior and unique in our religion in many religions, often in forms more attractive and evocative than our own.  “All religions have caught visions of a transformed society,” theologian Ursula King says, “Hindus call it dharmaraj, the reign of righteousness: Christians the basileia or [Reign] of God; Muslims speak of ummah as the community of all believers and the Quran sees this community encompassing all humans.  Spiritual needs are basic to humans.” [xix] 


What we can share across religions is our humanness, the desire to be the best human we can be, fully human.  In Norman Habel’s new book An inconvenient text: is a green reading of the Bible possible? he begs us to “get real” and recognize who we really are. “It is time,” he says, “[that]we read [the Bible] as Earth beings in solidarity with Earth, not as God-like beings who happen to be sojourners on Earth,” [xx] … [It is time not]to view nature as a resource for humans to exploit on our assumption that we are superior to the rest of nature.” [xxi]  We have been hoodwinked for centuries into believing that our earthly existence is purely a test for heaven.  We have seen the soul as separate from the body, falling into the Greek philosophical trap of a pre-existing soul entering earth for a short stay in a foreign land and returning to its true home in the skies, making us separate from and superior to the rest of nature.  God is preached as reached only by our removal from this sinful earth, ignoring biblical imagery such as Jesus saying “I have come that you may have abundant life [here].”  It skews reality and downgrades the world and all its interconnected richness.  We are part of nature, earth beings, like everyone else on the planet.  The Divine within us is the Divine within everything.  That Indian greeting “namasti” with hands together and a slight bow means that the Divine in me greets the Divine in you and the Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita, says, “By me all this world is pervaded in my unmanifested aspect … As the mighty air everywhere moving is rooted in the ether, so all beings rest rooted in me.”  [xxii]   While Jesus was the human face of Divine Love at one moment in history, the Divine was not absent from the world before or after.  Seeing GOD only through Jesus is not plausible if we imagine the Divine infusing everything.  We cannot say this God within the world is only in us and all other experiences of God are false.  We can’t even argue that God only acts for those who “have faith” or say the right religious words if nothing in the universe is separate from the Sacred.  Even talking about our “spiritual” life or “spiritual” journey is problematic – all of life is spiritual if we believe in a Divine Presence infilling the universe.  Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard and a United Methodist layperson says, “Uniqueness, to me, does not mean that the “Jesus story is the only story of God’s dealings with humanity, nor the only true and complete story.  The language of only is the language of faith, not of statistics. [xxiii]


When we focus on our common humanness and our common human desire to seek the Divine, rather than doctrines claimed to be eternal as the only way to God, we see differences as the variety that comes with the common search from different cultures, histories and experiences.  This is the theme of my book that will come out at the end of this year – Stepping out with the Sacred: human attempts to engage the Divine.  This does not gloss over differences, but focuses instead, not on superficial commonalities of doctrines but our common humanness.  Religion scholar Huston Smith says:


It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the pathways merge.  As long as religions remain in the foothills of theology, ritual and church organization, they may be far apart. [xxiv]


Maurice and I recently attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne.   Some 7,000 people listened to how others sought and engaged the Sacred, their common ground the human need to search.  Sikh turbans mingled with Buddhist saffron robes as Muslim women in hijab chatted with Hindu women in magnificent saris.  Arctic Saami people in embroidered wool costumes compared stories with sedately suited men with crosses around their necks.  In the opening ceremony, Aboriginal elder Professor Joy Murphy Wandin (Aunty Joy), welcomed the crowd.  “We celebrate your belief,” she said, “We celebrate your right to be who you are” -- generous words, I thought, from one whose mob was decimated by those who ignored their right to be who they were.  Various blessings were offered – Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Aboriginal and Shinto.  I marveled at the wisdom represented, not just in these people but in their ancient traditions, all seeking human transformation.  The seven days of sessions would take a book to describe (the program book was three hundred pages), but here are a few comments I scribbled down about being human – From a Christian, “If we see the world as holy, as sacred ground … every issue that engulfs our world has a spiritual shape.”  [xxv]  From a Jewish rabbi, “In a world where you can do everything, the moral question is whether you should.” [xxvi]  From an Afghani woman educator of girls and women, “Life is a struggle.  Life is jihad.  Jihad is struggle.  People in Afghanistan have been struggling for thirty years … Religion is to give love and compassion, bring justice, help the neighbour and reach out to each other.  We all know this,” she added in an inclusive gesture. [xxvii]  From a Sikh woman scholar, “Guru Nanak, our founder, said, ‘How could women be inferior when they were the source of all creation, including men? … Women need education and employment -- and freedom of movement to go to both.” [xxviii]  From a Benedictine nun, “Educate western people about greed, not poverty – greed is something they know.” [xxix]  The Opening Ceremony speaker, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, having watched the orchestra perform with precision, in sync with choir and soloists, offered this metaphor.  Each religion plays its own instrument and we don’t argue about which is best.  The key to harmony is to “play our instrument, not fight, and focus on the one conductor some name God.” [xxx]  At no point in seven days did I hear anyone claiming their religion was superior or they had the only truth – except conservative Christians standing outside the conference entrance holding banners saying “Jesus is the only way, truth and life.” They were standing beside the atheists with banners saying “I’ll give you $10,000 if you can prove there is a God.”  It IS possible to talk together without such claims and furthermore, it is exciting to see our God in different venues, whatever God is to us.


This last week, I was leading a group where a minister, progressive in his Christian approach, admitted he knew little about other religions because he was comfortable with what he experienced through the Christian tradition.  Others expressed fear of dialogue with people of other religions in case they tried to convert them, or they heard something that challenged their ideas, or that God wouldn’t approve or that they might be trapped by something there.  All this may have stopped us in the past, but I don’t think we can exist that way anymore.  As it was said, “To know one religion is to know none.”  What does it say about our search for the Sacred if we are not interested in how fellow humans encounter this Sacred – aren’t we still subtly holding onto our exclusivity?  We don’t have to espouse another faith tradition but at least, if we seriously seek the Sacred, we should look at all its God-expressions. 


As I said at the beginning, I am not trying to answer a yes/no question but throw out different perspectives to stimulate reflection and discussion. Faith in what we call ultimate concern comes down to our own experience – or not - of the Divine, helped by the other legs of scripture, tradition and reason.  We may give different weight to each leg, yet all come into play.  Our personal struggle to interpret our God-ideas and experiences, or lack of them, becomes “religion” or our consciousness of the Sacred, our explanations against despair.  As we shape our “theology” or talk about God in our time and place, we “create” God in the sense that we choose always inadequate metaphors to talk about the Unknowable.  In a group like this, we need to be careful we don’t simply turn the bed-quilt over to the other side.  Whereas once we were told to believe certain things about God, we now need to be respectful of other people’s experiences and not declare our particular God-image, or none, what progressives must believe, whether Don Cupitt’s Life as God, Spong’s Love as God, the mystic’s Unknowing, or no-God-at-all.  Since all God language is necessarily metaphorical, we need all the images and concepts we can get to speak of that beyond conceptualization.  But here lies another problem.  If God is beyond conceptualization, is God there?  What if we have invented God?  What if descriptions of Presence and Ground of Being are simply interim steps before taking the final plunge?   If we have experienced Something engaging us, metaphors help us express that experience, but if we have not had such experiences, could this mean there is nothing to experience?  Or, perhaps we do we not need experiences at all?  Can we have faith in Something simply because it make more logical sense than nothing, or because we need Something in our frightening world?  


Many of us have experienced great relief in moving beyond dogmas that previously and uncomfortably bound us.  It was scary at first, leaving the safe fold of group certainty, but once beyond this, it is unthinkable to go back.  Gretta Vosper’s book With or Without God: why the way we live is more important than what we believe issues a challenge that progressives must take seriously.  Given our experiences, how we can encourage others to take this leap.  Vosper says it is our responsibility to anticipate as many of the questions and challenges our progressive message will present to others and act to mitigate these negative effects, to lessen the burden of change and make the new terrain more habitable.  We need to honour what has gone before, even as we show its inadequacies. [xxxi]  Sometimes the temptation is to go “bull-at-a-gate” with our new ideas, especially if oppositional arguments are weak or naively grounded.  We have to remember that these arguments were constructed over centuries, backed by institutional authority that wrought fear in doubters, so they are not going to dissolve in a few minutes unless the hearer is desperately seeking new solutions.  Progressives need to spend time together discussing ways to approach their message such that it becomes attractive and not totally threatening.  I have included this exercise in our questions for today. 


As for whether God created religion or religion created God, rather than struggling with what we cannot know, we can live in the mystery, the cosmic dance that includes everything, even the Unknowable.  We can listen to all the Voices of the Universe – nature, science, Hinduism, literature, Buddhism, indigenous peoples, art, music, silence – and bask in the wonder of being in the whole, rather than hung up on separating out the little drop that is us, or what is God, from the ocean.  When we are absorbed in a beautiful piece of music, we don’t have to see the conductor to know she is central to the harmony, nor identify each instrument in order to enjoy the music -- we participate in the experience as hearers, conductor, trombonists or soloists.  What matters in life is our ability to absorb these experiences so they transform us.  We can see the world as sacred, with or without a GOD-concept, not in tired religious terms but as a wondrous living whole of which we are part.  We can be filled with awe through science, the wilderness, someone’s sacred story, the eyes of a child and by experiencing a Presence.  These are not either/or options, although we have long made them so.  Sir Lloyd Geering describes this as a “new form of mysticism,” living deeply in the present world in all its splendour, tragedy and messiness.


Faith is not about having answers. Even if we got them all catalogued, they would change before we filed the last one.  My daughter emailed the other day to describe her afternoon with two toddlers. “We have spent the last hour on a picnic rug in the garden watching a sign-writer in the sky trying to write ‘Jesus Lives,’ but every time he gets the ‘L’ finished, ‘Jesus’ has blown away and has to be redone.”  Sometimes we live like that sign-writer, but we can’t wait until we cross all the T’s.  Buddha said, “If a [person] were to postpone … searching and practicing for Enlightenment until such questions were solved, [she] would die before [she] found the path.” [xxxii]  We don’t find faith – we live it.  If we insist on defining unchanging truth, we have to choose between certainty and agnosticism or atheism, rather than flowing along the evolving continuum between the two.  Paul did not claim certainty – “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part ….” (1 Corinthians 13: 9)   Certainty cannot accept grey, believing God created everything in black or white.  The beauty of grey is that it is the only area where movement and change can happen and, if you add a little light to grey, you get silver.   I’ll close with Matthew Fox, “A lifestyle is an art form.  It brings life and wonder, joy and hope to persons otherwise condemned to superficial living.  Our times call for the creation of lifestyles of spiritual substance.” [xxxiii] 


Questions to ponder.


There are no right and wrong answers, just questions to stimulate discussion.  As a group, decide which questions you want to tackle and in what order.  Be respectful of all opinions and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak without fear.


 What keeps you keeping on with the Divine?  What is the basis for your faith – reason, tradition, Scripture and/or experience – or something else?


What/who is G-O-D for you?


Did God create religion or religion create God – what do you think?


Karen Armstrong says, “I don’t think it matters what you believe in.  If conventional beliefs make you compassionate, kind and respectful of the sacred rights of others, this is good religion.”  What do you think about this?


What is your hope for progressive religious thought?  What sort of progressive religious community can you envision?


What will you teach your grandchildren about God and faith?


Gretta Vosper says a progressive group must anticipate the challenges its thinking will present to others and act to mitigate these negative effects. Learning how to anticipate the problems and creating a positive environment for change is essential.  How would you go about this in your church/community?


What do you find difficult about interfaith dialogue?  Do you think we can start at the common experience of being human in order to talk about religion?  What is your goal for this?


How do you experience (or not) the Divine in nature and the world?


What new snippet of thinking will you take from this presentation?


[i] Rumi, Robert Van de Weyer, ed., (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998), 27.

[ii] George Dennis O’Brien, God and the New Haven Railway: and why neither one is doing well (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 133- 4

[iii] Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and other Religious writings, Jane Kentish, trans. (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1987), 33

[iv] Quoted in John Hick ed., The Existence of God (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1964), 225

[v] Sam Keen, Apology for Wonder, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969),130.  The original quote said “homo faber” rather than “human being.”

[vi] Lawrence Krause, Does the Universe have a Purpose? Online article

[vii] Theresa Maggio, The Stone Boudoir: in search of the hidden villages of Sicily, (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2003), 101 

[viii] D. Hay. Religious Experience Today: studyin g the facts (London: Mowbray, 1990), quoted in John R. Hinnells ed., Penguin Dictionary of Religions, (London: Penguin Books, 1995),  396

[ix] John Hick, The New Frontier of Religion and Science: Religious Experience, neuroscience and the Transcendent, (Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 206

[x] Sally McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), xiii

[xi] Brennan R Hill, Paul Knitter & William Madges, Faith, Religion and Theology: a contemporary introduction (Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1990), 155

[xii] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, (New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1965), 101. 

[xiii] Ibid, 104 

[xiv] Matthew Gallatin, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002).

[xv] Ibid, 180

[xvi] Huston Smith, 105

[xvii] Ibid, 106-8

[xviii] Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 4-5

[xix] Ursula King, The Search for Spirituality: our global quest for a spiritual life (New York: BlueBridge, 2008), 41h

[xx] Norman Habel, An Inconvenient Text: Is a Green Reading of the Bible Possible? (Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum Press, 2009), 58 

[xxi] Ibid, xix

[xxii] Bhagavad Gita, quoted in Robert O. Ballou, The Portable World Bible: a comprehensive selection from the eight great sacred scriptures of the world (New York: Viking Press, 1944), 65

[xxiii] Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: a spiritual journey from Bozeman to Benares (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 89

[xxiv] Huston Smith, 6

[xxv] Rev. Dr. William Lesher, Chair of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions 2009

[xxvi] Rabbi David Saperstein

[xxvii] Dr Sakena Yacoobi, founder of Afghan Institute of Learning

[xxviii] Dr. Gurbux Kaur Kahlow

[xxix] Sr. Joan Chichester OSB

[xxx] His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shanker

[xxxi] Gretta Vosper, With or without God: why the way we live is more important than what we believe (Toronto, Ontario: HarperCollins, 2008), 185-6 

[xxxii] Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Buddhist Promoting Foundation), The Teachings of Buddha (Tokyo, Japan: Toppan Printing Co., 1987), 296

[xxxiii] Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, quoted in Lucinda Vardey, ed., God in all Worlds: an anthology of contemporary spiritual writing (London: Chatto & Windus, 1995), 508


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