Have you ever caught some bright spot of light out of the corner of your eye? You move your head around to try and catch another glimpse; to find its source, but it’s gone. Maybe you forget about it, or ignore it, then all of a sudden it’s there again. It’s elusive, like a rabbit sitting perfectly still in a leafy yard, which you can’t see until it moves. You can’t locate it by force of will, but every so often, you are given a glimpse.
Maybe you’ve had such an experience, and through some persistence and/or luck, you were able to find the source. Or in truth, what had seemed to be the source, only now you are holding a sharp splinter of glass, one edge of which would occasionally catch the sunlight — when the wind moved the leaves just so and you were gifted with that elusive glimmer. This sharp piece of glass, while it seemed so incredibly bright, was never the actual source of that light, only a tiny reflector. And yet, a moment prior, it seemed like it must have been.
For those of us who are religious, whose belief in a higher power defies explanation and logic, I think that is what our relationship to the Truth of God is ultimately like. Many of us have been taught, from an early age, how deeply unfathomable God is. And as children, we accept this, in part because as children there’s lots we don’t understand. But I think as we grow older, and believe ourselves to be wiser, we lose sight of that truth. We lose that innocence and begin to fool ourselves into thinking that we do have some real insight into the nature of God.
The pinnacle (or nadir, if you will) of such thinking is what leads to religious wars. When we have convinced ourselves deeply enough that we understand God, and those “others” don’t; that God is on our side and not theirs; it permits, or some believe demands, unspeakable acts against those we choose to label “other.” While certainly not an inevitable outcome of organized religion, it is an ever-present danger of those human constructs.
More subtle, but far more insidious, are the myriad ways in which we judge others because of our own religious beliefs and traditions. Perhaps ultimately this is, in sum, the greater evil — that in the name of God, whose Truth we can only dimly perceive, we can so easily condemn others, when in fact all that any of us can possibly lay claim to is the merest glimpse of that Truth. We would be wise to be extremely cautious about doing so. Creation has been around for billions of years; human civilization only a few thousand. We still have so much to learn.
Certainly there are some beliefs that civil society in general, and essentially all major religions, share. Killing is wrong. Taking things that belong to someone else is wrong. But even these crimes, which at first appear to be very black and white, turn grey when you scratch at them even a bit. Killing someone who intends to drive a car bomb into a crowded mall is probably less sinful than killing someone because you don’t like their haircut. A wealthy tax collector pocketing some of the money they collected from someone poor is probably more sinful than someone stealing a loaf of bread from a store so their family doesn’t starve. Once you get beyond that and into issues of who is allowed to love whom and how, for instance, you’re no longer even standing on shaky ground, but rapidly sinking in quicksand.
There is a song, Cathedral by Crosby, Stills & Nash, with the lyric,
Too many people have lied in the name of Christ
For anyone to heed the call
Too many people have died in the name of Christ
That I can’t believe it all
And while I certainly don’t feel the same way, and in fact consider myself a Christian, I find myself sympathetic to the sentiment all the same.
I believe that a sincere belief in a God that is powerful enough to have created the universe demands of us a great degree of humility. If one truly believes in such a God, then by definition one cannot “know” such a God, or even the will of such a God. My father explained to me long ago the difference between praying for something with the words “if it is Your will” vs. “if it is according to Your will” because in the former case, one could afterwards claim to know the will of God, whereas the latter is at least a degree removed. He had much finer language to describe the difference, of course. Still, fundamentally, it is about having the requisite humility in the sight of an awesome God. Human language, like human understanding, is woefully inadequate for dealing with God, but sincere believers must do the best we can.
None of this is to say that I find no value in organized religion. On the contrary, I find great value in it, and participate enthusiastically. As humans, with all our inherent limitations, we must work within the confines of those limitations to come to know God to the extent we are able. If people were capable of fully knowing God, we would all agree on things, and there could be one True Religion. But if that were true, then we would be equal to God, rather than created in God’s image.
Given these limitations, the fact that there are so many different religions in this world makes sense. Different people are given different facets of understanding about God. People’s minds work differently; the cultures that we were brought up in are different; people’s needs are different. In a world that is populated with a host of imperfect and unique beings, we cannot expect there to be a single True religion. At best, we each are given a tiny piece of the Truth. And occasionally, when we faithfully and humbly work and worship together, we might temporarily assemble those pieces into a larger artifact, and use that to perceive some representation of a larger piece of the truth.
I take great comfort from Paul’s statement to the early Christians in Corinth,
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)
Which brings me back to my shard of glass. At best it reflects a bit of the True light; it is not the source. But once we pick it up and pocket it, and claim it as our own, it ceases to even reflect that light, and reverts to being a weapon, just as likely to hurt us as others.