Quick Views on the Faiths 2003

On these pages there are a large number of religious resources. However, what do I very briefly conclude about these religions?

First of all I oppose any idea of spiritual foundationalism. I do not think there is a higher spirituality. As soon as we describe what that might be, we use words and start to invent another religion. In any cse I do not think there is a spirituality above and beyond all religious manifestations.
There may be consciousness and certainly experiments need to be done on Near Death Experiences: timing, ability to perceive out of the body, when the brain is clinically dead, not needing a physical eye, and the plurality of experiences that people put into the light tube down which there is the sensation of movement, and the feeling of overwhelming love. Brain oxygen decline and chemical changes may explain some of this, but not seeing the unexpected correctly or when the brain is simply switched off. Quantum effects and being in two places at once (Roger Penrose) cannot explain the ability to see without eyes! The brain and mind remain puzzles: some credence then is possibly given to Hindu and Buddhist views about either a true self moving on perhaps to broader consciousness or the end of self. Perhaps consciousness and being is, according to their different explanations, something to do with movement around. If so, someone had better start rewriting physics.
This is my objection to astrology. Claims are made for birth charts and general aspects of character. However, if the causal relationship claimed is true, physics had better be rewritten. The midwife has more gravitational effect on a birth than planets and starts. And why should birth be significant: why not conception, or the thought of a child? When religion (which is what astrology becomes) tries to be blatantly causal or scientific, it becomes ugly and even stupid. Religion is part of the arts, and the arts penetrate deep into the brain, mind and consciousness, and the brain-mind tells back narratives and organisation based on the information it receives but with elaboration.
In Christianity there is no mechanism for transmitting the idea of Jesus saving sins. I do see that in those days they believed that illness was evidence of sin, such as demons in epileptics, and that death itself was also evidence of sin. So clearly someone who was sinless had to cheat death. If someone was sinless and died, it would have to be for others' sins. So this makes sense from their point of view. It makes no sense from our point of view.
Then people speak of the resurrection. This is the event that, in the gospels, the further away you get from it in time the more is known about it. It reads instead like a literary device, seen in the pattern that the risen Christ is not recognised, a point is made and then he is recognised, and then he disappears, unless another point comes up. There is the argument against the gnostics (Thomas and so on) that this must be a real physical body continuous with that one who lived, but it ties itself in knots because it isn't. paul has the formula of spiritual body. He knows the least (and is the earliest). If the 500 was true, we would hear about it elsewhere. If people had post-death experiences now, resurrection language would not be used about it whatever may be the phenomena. Maybe something happened, but it is lost in the fog of time. It is probably something charismatic, expectant, supernatural believing, and pluriform and determined. Attempts to apply our views of truth, morality, historical accuracy and so on simply do not work.
The bible's claims for itself are an easily dismissable circular argument, and Jesus perhaps was a follower of John the Baptist until his arrest, to go on and become increasingly intense about his own role in the Kingdom of God to come, to be felt in one's heart in the meantime. But it was a world of the imagination, and culture, and wrapped up in itself, and needing translation if possible. Observing the horrible crudities of the Gideons, as I have, huge assumptions and crass conclusions, shows what happens when those translations sensitive to the texts are not made.
In the end it comes down not to a propensity towards charismatic movements in times of stress, but whatever was the teaching, and even that is wrapped up in Jesus' world view and much of which is relative now.
I see that there are two main tendencies in Buddhism: towards the more supernatural and powers and towards the more rational. I find the emphasis some Buddhists are forced to give on lineage, whether it is Keshe Gelsang Gyatso of the breakaway (from the ailai Lama) Madhyamika Tibetan tradition or indeed even Sangharakshita of the Western Buddhist Order (whose line of ordination includes one out of order) quite tedious. The Tibetan group emphasises the power of Shakyamuni Buddha, and the whole range of Bohdhissatvas and deities available in the Buddhist universe. I reject all this as not essential to the basic logic that appeals where getting rid of clutter and attachments in the mind leads to a greater human happiness, one that is better grounded because it fully accepts the transcient nature of everything. Pleasure is fine so long as it is itself transitory, and we should not be too worried about small transgressions.
I have become more positive about Hinduism. I especially like the idea of the yogas. These are:
  • Jananayoga - seeking spiritual knowledge through traditions, scriptures, gurus
  • Bhaktiyoga - following a deity with its characteristics
  • Rajayoga - disciplined contemplative meditation
  • Karmayoga - good works
These are linked with varnas (caste), the first three being twice born (that is, coming of age spiritually), but beyond this they seem to cover the field of different approaches to the practice of religion. Buddhism of course is a development out of Hinduism and disciplined contemplative meditation took on primacy for the benefit of the mind, with other aspects following on according to the faith's own justifications.
Another aspect so enjoyable in Hinduism is the many gods and forms. Brahman does not appeal, but the idea of creative (first time), preserving and destroying/ renewing forces does (not external forces but normal processes of building and decay). Ganesh and Hanuman appeal to the story hearing and telling in all of us. We like to make narrative sense of everything. Sometimes too we do well to follow a given example, with a bit of colour and humour added.
The saddest aspect of Hinduism is that, although naturally tolerant because of its diversity, even it can becomes intolerant towards others, as in the temple area at Ayodhya where a mosque was destroyed. Hindu nationalism proves the corruptability of every religion. Just as Buddhism has been at war in Sri Lanka, so Hinduism has found intolerance in India.
I used to think that Islam was a pure way to follow a distant God, one which removed superstition. I now think it is full of superstition. I agree with the Sikhs about this. Praying five times a day, having to face the Ka'ba at Makkah, the washing rituals and so on, strike me as superstitions. Muhammad, for all his reforming zeal, did not remove the superstition but adapted it or simplified it. As foir Adam and Abraham building the Ka'ba, I think this is the realm of myth, as I do the construction of an absolutely pure and unalterable in the Arabic Qur'an. In fact not all Muslims have believed in this all the time. Muhammad probably had disturbing visions, but they started as visions about faith and became later about organisation with faith and the community. He met jews and Christians and wanted to unite the Arab peoples. Whether he was illiterate or not is not really known, but certainly there is no infallibility on the road to compiling this book of which there were once several versions. Then I have real problems with a religion that spreads through war (didn't they all) although accepting that it had a tolerant and creative period compared with Christianity, such as the Abbasid period. A lot of copying of intellectual material does inevitably end up improving it, which is what the Muslim civilisation did. But it has long been in the doldrums, and now defensive, starting with the Renaissance in Europe, which it has never matched.
I have much time for liberal Judaism but not orthodox Judaism, and there is quite a gulf between the two. It seems to me that with liberal Judaism a reasonableness becomes possible where tradition engages with contemporary times. Men and women must be equal and sharing, and rituals are guides not absolutes. I overlap with liberal Judaism. The real difficulty comes with those who are apologists for much of the action of Israel in recent times even in the face of terrorism.
The reform of the Sikhs, both in respect to superstition in Hinduism and Islam, is something I warm towards. There is a stress on equality (they don't quite escape caste), on anti-monasticism (as in too much Buddhism), and they are in the world (as in Hindus' Karmayoga). Family life is very important. Words become more important, and poetry, and music, so there is ritual, but it is not ritualistic. No religion ever escapes superstition, however, and I wonder what is the belief behind opening the Guru Granth Sahib at random and coming up with a reading. This is the way some people use the Bible, and which most Christians reject. The Bible is not an oracle, but this use of the Guru Granth Sahib strikes me as oracular.
It should be possible to have a genuinely plural and positively tolerant Unitarianism but I fear the institution is imploding. I have had little to do with it around 2002 and 2003. Unitarian Universalism in the United States still remains a model but one that is not realisable in the United Kingdom. The Unitarian Church here has rather lost its way, which is to be regretted.
My religious views still hover around the radical Christian humanist and the Western Buddhist. The second half of 2002 and 2003 has seen me perhaps warm towards aspects of Hinduism. I have become more pluralist myself, and more agnostic too. No one has to sign up to a single religion anymore, and indeed can be selective within a religion. We are just faced with many texts and traditions and we have the freedom to go into them and between them.

Adrian Worsfold

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