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We have only one WORLD yet! If we destroy it, where else will we go?


Religion in Our Time

Will Our Faith Help us to Unite or Will It Continue to Divide?

Text and Illustrations

by Julie MARDIN


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"One of the things that had to die was my mind.  We were being trained in Ignatian obedience, which aims at breaking down the will and the judgement of a religious so that he unquestioningly accepts the will of God as it is presented to him through his superior.  It is the obedience of the professional soldier..."

In Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong chronicles her time as a Catholic nun in the turbulent years of the sixties.  These were the years right before the modernizing efforts of the Vatican, and there were strict rules in place that were meant to dispel any sense of possession, emotion, independent thought, or even friendship. When the young initiate was sent to Oxford University her naturally incisive, rational, mind pulled her in one direction, her strict religious training in the other, in effect tearing her in two and ultimately leading to her decision to leave the order. 

As a stark contrast to the years spent in such intellectual cloister, Ms. Armstrong went on to become one of the foremost commentators on religious affairs, and is the best selling author of a series of scholarly works, such as Buddha, Islam: A Short History, or the monumental, A History of God, in which she accomplishes the breathtaking task of outlining the debates, struggles and recurring themes of the three major monotheistic faiths that trace themselves back to Abraham, with consideration along the way of paganism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

It is a somewhat dizzying experience, almost like watching a pendulum swinging back and forth between the God of the mystics and the God of the philosophers, those who thought we could only reach God through our creative imagination and others who tried to reach him through reason, those who taught that God was within each of us and those who considered Him aloof and not of this world.  These types of polemics existed within each of the three monotheistic faiths.  Ms. Armstrong skillfully compares and brings to life all the various approaches to the idea of the ultimate truth, with points and counterpoints that ultimately seem to be leading back into each other, as we get to consider, for instance, the mystical aspects of Plato, or the scientific inclinations of the Sufis, who she says had often used mathematics and science as an aid to contemplation.

"Compassion is the key."

Ms. Armstrong traces the evolution of the first Sky God, to the growth of Paganism, to the painful return to the idea of the one God, that of Abraham, which she says got off to an unfortunate start, "since the tribal deity Yahweh was murderously partial to his own people."  Early on he was used to justify the annihilation of the native people of Canaan in a way that adds a chilling dimension to the current events of that region, the modern day Israel.  But ultimately the prophets of Israel reformed the old cult of Yahweh and promoted the ideal of compassion. Yahweh started out as a god of revolution, but became one of self-castigation as well.  "They thought they were God's Chosen People?  They had entirely misunderstood the nature of the covenant, which meant responsibility, not privilege,"(3) Ms. Armstrong paraphrases the prophet Amos.  Over the centuries, the importance of compassion and respect for our fellow human beings was one of Yahweh's primary messages, as it would be of all the great world religions.

Ms. Armstrong similarly works to dispel some of the preconceptions of Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant faith.  These prejudices were unfortunately to be lived up to in modern times by members of some of its own fundamentalist sects.  And yet the Quran adamantly opposed coercion in religious matters, and its vision was inclusive of all the People of the Book. It discouraged war, and its early conflicts with the Quraysh tribe was ultimately resolved by what must be one of the great campaigns of nonviolence, starting in 628 when Muhammed set out for Mecca to make the hajj with about a thousand fellow unarmed Muslims.  

Similarly, one can't consider it an inherently misogynistic faith.   Polygamy was in place before Islam, women were without any political or human rights, and female infanticide was common.  The Koran strictly forbade the killing of female children, and reprimanded the Arabs for their disappointment when a girl was born.  It also gave women legal rights of inheritance and divorce to which most western women had nothing comparable until the 19th century.

All three of the monotheistic faiths at one time or another tried to wed their traditions and their ideas about God with the rationalism of Ancient Greece.  This of course first started with the Jews, and held an affinity for the Greek Christians, but was taken up even more extensively by Islam, until they helped to awaken Europe from out of its Dark Ages.  What they called Falsafah, or "philosophy," was the ideal to which Arab Muslims were beginning to devote themselves in the 9th century.  The Faylasufs wanted to live rationally in accordance with the laws that governed the universe, which could be perceived at every level of reality.  In this way they were able to combine their spirituality with an empirical curiosity as well.  During the 9th and 10th centuries, more scientific discoveries had been achieved in the Abbassid empire than in any previous history of mankind.  Averroes in the 12th century, who was said to have introduced Aristotle to the West, influenced Maimonedes and Thomas Aquinas, and helped Europe to acquire a more rationalistic conception of God.

For so many reasons, whether it be the brutal experience of the Inquisition, or the conservative spirit after centuries of Mongol invasions, Judaism and Islam around the 15th century were starting to lose faith in falsafah, and the possibility that we could ever know God through rationalism, and it was around this time that the Western Christians were just getting started.  The Renaissance, the Reformation, and a new kind of society based on science and technology was to emerge, and to charge ahead of all its rival world powers.

Still the God of the Reformation might have made the Western Christians efficient and powerful, she says, but he did not make them happy.  It was a terrifying and elitist God, predestining the majority of humanity to hell.  The growing sectarianism, and the wars fought in God's name, would by the end of the18th century gradually lead a few disillusioned Europeans to start questioning God's existence itself, rather than merely the dogma surrounding him.  Eventually God and Science were to become altogether incompatible, and the new Gods of the West would be those of Pure Rationalism, Technology, and Progress.  As Ms. Armstrong points out, as we come to realize the toll we’ve been taking on the environment and the variety of other social ills plaguing western society, the growing rate of crime, and drug addiction, perhaps today we are beginning to suspect these new myths might be just as hollow as some of our older ones.

"There is a linguistic connection between the words 'myth,' 'mysticism,' and 'mystery.'  All are derived from the Greek verb musteion: to close the eyes or the mouth.  All three words are rooted in an experience of darkness and silence.  They are not popular words in the West today."  (4)

Such men of the Enlightenment as Newton and Descartes, who still believed in God, but saw him more as a kind of Great Mechanic, who sat atop a mechanized universe, had no time for mystery.  But there are signs that the pendulum might be swinging back, if not towards an actual God of the Mystics, towards an attention towards that spiritual, that more mysterious side of our lives and our psyche.  There is a growing interest in Eastern religions and practices such as meditation and yoga.  Joseph Campbell's work on mythology is widely read.  Celalledin Rumi is currently the best selling poet in the West.  Ms. Armstrong finds evidence for this resurgence even in the preponderance of people in psychoanalysis, which she likens to certain kinds of mystical disciplines.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, scientists were fairly confident that they had conquered almost everything there was to be conquered, and that science would be able to solve all our problems.  And yet people were to soon realize that even secular societies were just as prone to war, and science itself in the 20th century entered a new era of uncertainty.  Einstein was telling us absolute space and time did not exist, the notion of simultaneously existing realties, extra dimensions, would challenge our reliance on empiricism, as would the world of quantum mechanics, which some say has brought about the death of determinism.  The most successful theory today, quantum theory, which makes possible everything from laser beams, transistors to computers, is actually based on some of the most bizarre ideas in the history of science.  In the quantum world there is always an element of uncertainty.  Everything is based on probability, and the whole concept of object, as something existing with well-defined properties, just does not apply.  Somehow an electron does not even exist until we observe it.  

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