February 7, 2008

Truth or Consequences? Religion or Not?

Few people would deny that the world is in a state of turmoil provoked by political events, ecological disruptions, and disturbing earth changes. All indications are that these factors will continue to increase; therefore, we can expect the world to become more tumultuous in the future. 
People have different ways of dealing with these manifestations, depending largely on their individual personality. 
Yes, I say it's personality, not knowledge or intellect or some other trait. For instance, many (perhaps the majority) simply immerse themselves in the busy-ness of life, keeping their scheduler and their mind so occupied that they have no time to consider the state of their world. Others can't tolerate 'bad news,' so they deliberately avoid 'news' as supplied by the media, and go about their routines listening to their favorite tunes in their iPods. A minority are morbidly fascinated by the dark images discernible in the reporting of global events, some persons becoming neurotic over them, and others preparing for 'Armageddon.' The easiest coping mechanism is always denial, and to really demonstrate effective denial, we ramp up the partying, buy more unnecessary gadgets, drive a bigger vehicle, engage in more risky sports, and so on.
Part of this whole 'future shock' syndrome is a reaction to sheer information overload-- we are bombarded by a relentless torrent of 'information' daily; some of it useful and necessary; some of it devoid of application to our harried lives. The problem is, we don't always know what information is worthwhile, and what isn't. And since we're swamped with it, we tend to ignore some information that may be valuable, but we just don't spend the time to investigate it. Or, we may realize that we should check into it, so we take the digested, summarized, edited version offered by a supposed expert, and we now feel that we've got all we need on that subject. It's this reliance on the opinions of others that gets us into the most trouble as a society. (And any derivative commentary on an original source is always an opinion to some degree.) Because the fact is, that too many of these experts have their own agenda to fulfill, and knowing the faith that people vest in them, they present a version of reality that serves their own ulterior purposes. The flocks that have bought into those opinions then carry on their lives based on these views. And since they have paid for them, either with money or personal approbation, or both, they then feel compelled to support those views, often vehemently. That is the dilemma facing every individual in this dawning decade of the 3rd millennium.
Inside the 'soul' of every human, (however you understand soul), there is a small voice that cries out for meaning, as described in the book, 'Man's Search for Meaning,' by Viktor Frankl. We want our lives to mean something-- not just existence like an animal before passing back to dust. To mean something implies that there must be truth, otherwise all is illusion. So the dilemma of existence is what is truth and how do I find it? Anyone with a little experience browsing the Worldwide Web soon realizes that there are manifold versions of truth available to the shopper. All kinds of theories of the origins of humanity, our purpose, our nature, abound in the sphere of speculation. Each proclaims itself the 'answer' to our perplexity, and explicitly or tacitly dismisses all other theories as false. Great! As the old German proverb goes, he who has choice has problems! What can the seeker do in such a confusing situation? Again, the selected path seems to depend to a large extent on personality. Some people can place their faith in someone else's ideas or experiences, and leave it at that. Others reject all theories, and just soldier grimly on, increasingly aware of the great void awaiting them at the end of life. 
And so we have the religions of the world, proclaiming a convenient, all-inclusive package of answers for the eager adherent, while there's the curious and dreary non-belief package of atheism that purports to explain existence as a mere accident and hence, devoid of ultimate meaning.
Obviously, I don't care much for either product. But, what else is there? Well, I have to reject atheism because of its inherent nihilism, which taken to the logical conclusion should lead to suicide of the individual (at least upon nearing death) and chaos for society-- both of which we are seeing manifest presently. So then, I'm stuck with religion, you say. Not exactly... if we follow the argument. This is where so many people get it wrong, and make a deadly mistake! They quite rightly observe the terrible wrongs perpetrated in the name of religion, all around the world and down thru history... and so they throw out the whole notion of religion as a sorry concoction of human imagination. God didn't create Man, they decide; instead, Man created God as an expedient 'Big Daddy in the Sky' to give our lives the meaning that an accidental universe lacks. 
Others are exposed to some religion by birth or circumstance, and once mind-conditioned in the system, simply live out their lives in nominal or, perhaps, zealous acquiescence. A few individuals take the initiative to look into their faith to see what it teaches. However, they generally do so by reading (hearing) the explanations provided by anointed spokesmen for their faith tradition. These teachers are supposed to have all the answers-- the answers rehearsed and supplied by the organization to respond to any question raised by those on the inside or from outside. Rarely does a believer go back to the source of his/her fundamental beliefs to see what the originators had to say. And if a seeker should decide to investigate the origins, few of them are aware of the degree to which their findings are pre-determined by their pre-existing beliefs.
There's the rub! Either we reject out of hand, without serious investigation, the claims of religion; or else, we subscribe blindly to the nostrums dispensed by the zealous purveyors of religious snake-oil. 
The dilemma is really another instance of the classic Hegelian dialectic choice-- an artificial splitting of all problems into just two opposing choices-- which inherently limits the thinking of the chooser. Who says there are only two choices? Why can't there be more options? You see, the problem is that the option that is being offered to the world as 'religion' is a false choice! Religion was never meant to be pre-packaged and retailed through franchises that we call churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples. The religious experience is supposed to be between each person and the 'higher power,' however we can presently understand it. By interposing an organization between the believer and 'God,' unscrupulous humans have perverted the belief systems to their own malevolent ends. Cynics sneer that all wars are caused by religion. Obviously that's an exaggeration; but there's a certain amount of truth to it. Every organized religion behaves like a franchise, and desires to expand its market share. It does this by competing for believers, and that competition inevitably leads to conflict. And so we see battles between major religions (e.g. Muslims vs Hindus), but also battles (usually bloodier) between sects of the same religion (e.g. Catholics vs Protestants; Sunnis vs Shias).
What I'm trying to say is that at their fundaments, most religions are benign, beneficial, and peace-loving. It's when they get organized formally that they become prey to the opportunists who know how to manipulate any group of well-meaning people into a force for mischief. More than that, I am advocating the idea that true, primal Christ-based faith is the one, trustworthy path towards intellectual and spiritual freedom for all who investigate for themselves. I think there are many who call themselves atheists because they have seen the false dichotomy offered to them, and have reluctantly taken the only selection that made sense to them. What I urge such atheists to do is to bypass the retailers, and go directly to the source. Don't read commentaries on the Bible; go and read it for yourself! 
Here's how to go about it. First, don't get dissuaded by the notion that you have to read the King James version with its 'thees and thous,' and run-on grammar. Get a modern language version, and read it with a highliter in hand. Second, I recommend that every seeker should start reading the New Testament, not the Old. It's true that the NT presents the fulfillment of OT prophecy and foreshadowing; but it makes for much easier understanding and gets to the heart of Jesus' mission. Once the NT has been studied, the seeker can then go back and read the OT with much more insight and comprehension, without getting bogged down by the apparent inconsistencies and cultural peculiarities, and so on. If one reads with a genuine desire for enlightenment-- not to confirm preconceived biases-- one will be struck with the overall coherence of Biblical scripture (e.g. how the themes in the OT are echoed and fulfilled in the NT). As the seeker continues to delve into scripture, more and more truth is uncovered to his/her mind. I don't claim that you will find the meaning of everything in those pages-- that's not its purpose. You will, though, find everything you need to live a meaningful life, and to be confident of your existence in the after-life. Try it. And for you former Christians, I say 'try it again, for the first time!'

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