Some 20 years ago, I watched a Tibetan lama puzzle over why so many of his audience members were asking questions about Christian theology when they’d come to learn about Tibetan Buddhism – “What about hell?” “How can I be saved?” they asked.
It occurred to me that not only do people unwittingly carry around the narrow conceptions of religion that they may have been raised with, but the human mind in general is susceptible to small-minded conceptions of the biggest thing in the room. People mistake words and mental images for the thing itself – like the Zen saying about mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.
Midway through the last century, Bible translator J.B. Phillips published a little book called “Your God is Too Small.” It cataloged the various ways people imagine deity. His descriptions were apt for those of all faiths as well as unbelievers. Whatever people think of as most basic, powerful, and authoritative – whether it comes from religious education or is founded on scientific materialism – is “God” to them.
They use reason to justify their belief and they defend it out of habit. Often what individuals believe intellectually has little to do with what drives their thoughts and actions in real time. Superstition haunts those considered faithful as well as those who are part of the growing ranks of the unchurched. No one could claim to be absolutely consistent in his or her faith; things happen, paradigms are broken, and people are forced to start again.
Beyond the human faith that is mere belief without understanding, there is a world that many of us have encountered and recognize as spiritual reality. Spiritual because it can’t be seen or measured by the senses. Reality because it is what is consistently found to be there when everything else is cleared away.
I don’t suggest that the words and teachings of all religions (including atheism) can be reconciled with each other. But there is a world of Spirit behind all those words and human attempts at explanation, which we always have access to. Sometimes we find it in our extremity, like those who walk away from near-death experiences with the revelation that life has always been about divine Love. Or it may come to us more gently as an epiphany of real and present unconditional goodness. It is not really a separate world but an understanding of the primitive and original source of all we hold dear in life. Christian Science calls that ever-presence “God,” and defines God as “incorporeal, divine, supreme, infinite Mind, Spirit, Soul, Principle, Life, Truth, Love” (Mary Baker Eddy, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 465). We see these expressed in daily life: Mind signifies intelligence; Love, affection and kindness; Truth, honesty; and so forth.
Apply the four words at the beginning of the definition – incorporeal, divine, supreme, infinite – to those terms for God, and it is clear that this is not a small God. Principle, which is never trapped in form, is wholly good, ultimately authoritative, and everywhere all the time, could never be confused with a bearded old man deity in the clouds or some kind of cosmic manager or sectarian judge. The definition is liberating and reconciling in that it is simply a description of the spiritual sense of existence we can all experience and recognize.
Though that sentence was written over 125 years ago, its radical implications for us are far from fully appreciated, and grasping those implications is long overdue. The papers are increasingly filled with stories of abused authority and confused morality. In the words of James Davison Hunter, a professor and author of “The Death of Character”: “We know more, and as a consequence, we no longer trust the authority of traditional institutions who used to be the carriers of moral ideals.... We used to experience morality as imperatives. The consequences of not doing the right thing were not only social, but deeply emotional and psychological. We couldn’t bear to live with ourselves. Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it” (Maureen Dowd, “Moral Dystopia,” The New York Times, June 16).
The Bible warns us against being deceived by words and the vanity of human knowledge (see Deuteronomy 11:16, Job 15:31, I Corinthians 2:12-14, Psalms 94:11). Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, adds this: “The looms of crime, hidden in the dark recesses of mortal thought, are every hour weaving webs more complicated and subtle” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 102).
With traditional social structures of morality breaking down even as a world of people earnestly searches for answers to the perennial questions about life, there is now a human and divine imperative to get beyond sectarian doubts and beliefs that divide us. Tribal, sectarian belief systems never will be capable of meeting humanity’s crucial need for unity. But that need can be met in a spiritually scientific approach to faith and understanding, which begins with acknowledging our connection to God as divine Spirit. Then we may find what Eddy saw when she wrote: “Science so reverses the evidence before the corporeal human senses, as to make this Scriptural testimony true in our hearts, ‘The last shall be first, and the first last,’ so that God and His idea may be to us what divinity really is and must of necessity be, – all-inclusive” (Science and Health, p. 116).
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