This article first appeared in Intersect on April 4, 2016. I’ve revisited and updated some thoughts for today’s article.
Seeking Golden Threads
I’ve always found it useful to look for common threads weaving throughout the world’s religions. The intersection of ideas creates wisdom. At the very least, religious commonalities reveal that in our quest to understand our place in the universe, we quite often come to the same conclusions. One such common thread is “The Golden Rule.” Every religion, theistic or not, includes some variation of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Check out the chart below (click for a larger version):
If most religious systems agree that we should be good and fair to each other, why then do we so often attempt to annihilate each other in the name of our religions?
I have two theories about that.
First, many of the wars fought for “religious” reasons were (and are today) political wars. On the ancient world stage, most of the states were theocracies in name or manner. Emperors and kings were seen to be, if not gods themselves, then a god’s chosen representative on Earth. Early interpretations of how Jesus was also God continued this misguided and dangerous tradition of Holy Monarchy. The idea is still too pervasive in contemporary Christianity for many of us. With the advent of hereditary monarchies, rulers consulted religious leaders—Cardinals and Popes, for example, before making any decisions. Often, monarchs were simply puppets of the dominant religious system and its leaders, who used the ill-conceived notion of “saving souls” as a façade for colonial expansion.
Second, there is a tendency within all religions to resist syncretism—the blending of different belief systems and traditions, sometimes in an attempt at inclusiveness. Many faithful people see any theological adjustment as a dilution of the “purity” of their religion. The truth is, however, that no religion is “pure.” People don’t live in a vacuum. The idea that religion (or any human system for that matter) won’t be influenced by other religions, science, archaeology, history, biology, pop culture, education, reason, etc., is naïve. Religions don’t just suddenly appear in human consciousness. Humans create religious institutions in response to their surroundings, most often in a quest to answer questions such as Who am I? Why am I here? What happens after I die? Is there a God, and if so, what is God’s nature? If there is a God, why is the world so horrific?
It takes a long time for a religion to evolve to the point where acceptance of different, sometimes contrary, ideas is possible. The Golden Rule stagnates as a statement of faith for believers, not applicable to the institution. Religious institutions get nervous when their ideas are challenged (Moses challenges the Egyptians, Jesus challenges his fellow Jews, Martin Luther challenges his fellow Catholics, etc.).
Practicing the concept of “do unto others” means we listen, with respect, to those who think differently. Contrarian ideas don’t necessarily have to be integrated into the religion itself, but the sign of a healthy, vibrant, living religion is one that is willing to reexamine its positions on a multitude of sacred and secular topics. Often.
For us to grow as people of faith, as human beings sharing an increasingly small space with limited resources, we must relentlessly self-reflect. We must measure what we believe against what others believe and never cease learning about each other and the workings of the universe. We must continue to grow spiritually, intellectually, politically, socially, emotionally, and physically, even as our religions fail us and noisily fight their way into irrelevancy as we are filled with surprising answers to our questions by a renewed sense of relationship with the mysterious all-being of all realities, God.
We must realize, especially as we head to the resurrection symbolism of Easter, that the birth of something new, wonderful, love-filled and miraculous, requires the death of our old habits, thoughts, ideas, and prejudices. To live the golden rule, we must think and act differently and demand the same of all our institutions—religious and secular.
Meditation: Share your peace with me, that I might share peace with others, my God of Wisdom and Love.