"The varieties of religious experience suggest that the sacred--God--is an element of experience, not simply an article of faith to be believed in."
--Marcus J. Borg
The God We Never Knew
One of the gravest problems facing religion in the modern era comes from the need for a suspension of disbelief when it comes to seeing God as a kind of supernatural being that presides over all things. In my own spiritual development, this was a serious issue during my youth. The image of "God" as this bearded dude who sat on a throne and shook his head when we went against his "laws" was one I came to reject.
What organized religion often fails to take notice of is the different ways in which individuals will experience what they often speak of in the most controlled terms. We are often taught there is only one way to receive and to accept the sacred. I use the word "dogma" in a broad sense to define what I see as organized spiritual bullying. Within the framework of many organized faiths there is a sense that if you question definitions or methods, you are one against many. Those who leave "the church" because they feel they are being asked to accept a blanket order of beliefs, rituals and rules find themselves without moorings, and yet many remain active and strong in a spiritual sense.
This is not to say that all elements of organized religion are adrift in dogma. Not every church and every denomination believes in or requires universal acceptance of all elements contained within it (note that I only speak from the perspective of Christianity because it is what I am most familiar with). Often, it is the people within an individual church or churches who push the total acceptance clause and not the leaders of that church.
What I believe happens is those who are actively involved in the study, practice and teaching of their faith have a broader level of experience with those who have differences of opinion or belief. Those who see their religion as a required element of their lives, such as having a job, eating food and mowing the lawn tend to take it in more literal, dogmatic form. "It is what it is and that is all it is." For some, going to church on Sundays and observing religious holidays and the like is not really all that different from going to work during the week and observing the rules of your place of employment. You accept the rules of your employer because otherwise you wouldn't have a job. Many approach religion in the same way. If they do not accept the rules of their religion as written down and taught to them, "God" won’t accept them.
The difference lies within religion being either exclusive or inclusive. When a religion in exclusive, it requires one accept all its elements as truth in order to be "a part of the faith." When it is inclusive, it opens its arms to all who would wander. For those who strongly feel one must embrace a religion, faith or denomination completely, one only has to turn to the works of Jesus of Nazareth. It is very clear in Jesus' teachings that he favored inclusive spirituality rather than exclusive spirituality. While his disciples were quick to judge the tax collector and the Roman soldier, Jesus embraced both.
When it comes to imaging that which is called "God," we can see "Him" as being outside our paltry existence, looking over us and judging us. We can also see God as something more than this. Consider the statement "God is everywhere." My own imaging of the element "God" is as an energy that flows through all things. It is something more than an all-powerful king or an obstinate judge.
In my youth, this was a major sticking point in my acceptance of religion as it was presented. Why, exactly, would an all-powerful and omnipotent force have any interest in being worshipped? Wouldn't such a "being" be well above something that simpleminded? Why would it need us foolish mortals to kneel down and kiss its ass? Such a thing would reduce an all-powerful being to the level of mortal beings. It made no sense to me until I began to evaluate it as being a human need rather than a God need, in essence we worship because it simplifies the experience for us, not because this supernatural being demands it. At this point, I began to loosen the idea of "God" as a supernatural being and accept "God" as something more, as a force of energy. At that point I chose to instead refer to my image of "God" as SOAE, the Source of All Energy, because I found myself battling those who bandy terms like "blasphemy" and "heresy" without understanding the nature of their own dogma. It became easier, and allowed me to escape from a position where I was at odds with those who imaged spirituality and religion differently than I did.
Over years of study, I have come to believe that the standardization of religion is a matter of simplification. Many of those with a limited focus on matters of their own spiritual nature and development would prefer to have a widely accepted belief system in place. It is similar to the difference between making your own dinner and having a dinner fully prepared for you. Some people aren't much for cooking while others take great pleasure in it. Some seek acceptable and standardized spiritual beliefs they can make their own while others image their spirituality on a more personal level. Does religion have a place for both? A person who either does not like to cook or does not know how does not starve in modern America. You can find many varieties of frozen dinners in most grocery stores.
In my opinion, the biggest problem with spirituality in the modern age is with spiritual bullying/dogma. This splits people into camps and creates conflict between the camps. There are the fundamentalists and the literalists who insist one must accept every law, statement and story that makes up the history of a faith as absolute truth. Yet, many of the laws and rules are outdated, designed for a completely different society with completely different problems. Imagine applying the same rules and way of life of a shepherd in the time of Jesus of Nazareth to someone who works in an office cubicle today. It makes little sense to do so, and yet we often apply the same religious elements of another era to the modern era because it is "the law of God."
For those who try to image a more inclusive and modern approach to spirituality there are many roadblocks. There are those who will accuse them of cheapening or "watering down" their faith. The split occurs at this point, which is basically a difference between exclusive and inclusive approaches to religion, faith and the sacred. It is a simple matter of whether one is required to accept an existing belief system completely or whether that belief system accepts differences in interpretation, experience and faith. What works for you is what works for you. The conflict occurs when the dogma of some is seen as an umbrella for all.
If we take the variety of denominations within the Christian religion as collectives of persons with similar beliefs and interpretations we see the inherent value in them. However, we must also consider the fact that most denominations are geared towards "embracing" entire families. It is very common for two people who get married to choose one faith and/or denomination to belong to. It is not uncommon for a person to completely change religions when they get married in order to embrace the faith of their spouse. If the couple has children, their children are very likely to be brought up within that faith and/or denomination and be taught the elements of that faith from the earliest age.
If you consider a family of four, all of who are members of the same church and who espouse beliefs that are a mirror of each other, you begin to understand. My interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son relates to this. Taken literally, the story tells of one son who goes off on his own, abandoning the riches of his family and squandering his life on the excesses of fast living. I tend not to take any of the parables of Jesus of Nazareth literally. To me, they are all symbolic. In the family of four, with a father, mother and two sons all growing up in the same church with the same interpretation of their religion and belief system there is stagnation. If one son goes off on his own in a spiritual sense, seeking to experience life on his own terms, he ends up deepening himself in a spiritual sense. This is not because the faith he was raised in is wrong, but because a belief system which is taught as absolute truth, is limiting. When he returns, bringing with him his own set of experiences and interpretations, he is embraced and honored. It is a parable about inclusiveness and acceptance.
One does not need to explore the nature of their faith when surrounded by like-minded individuals who accept the elements of that faith. Someone who likes to eat chocolate doesn't think much about eating chocolate if everyone they know also likes to eat chocolate, but what happens when they meet people who either don't care about chocolate or find the taste of it to be repulsive? It causes them to question their enjoyment of chocolate in a way they never would have if they continued to be surrounded by chocolate lovers. If the individual goes from a place where chocolate is always available to them to a place where it is scarce or non-existent, their appreciation will deepen. When we take things for granted we often forget why they mean so much to us.
Most of the texts of the world's primary organized religions are made up of collections of stories about individuals who experienced the sacred, the essence of the spiritual, in profound ways. As such, these texts can be utilized as a way of understanding faith and the sacred through their experience. This brings us to an important question. Are the experiences of individuals regarded as religious icons, saints and martyrs more important than our own personal experiences with the sacred? I believe the parable of the prodigal son answers this question.
Special thanks to Transitional Man for turning me on to the works of Marcus J. Borg, who I recommend for additional reading. Conception of this piece occured after reading Borg's The God We Never Knew.