I give credit where credit is due: this post is almost totally inspired by the film (and book) Life of Pi. I read it when it came out, and my anxieties were very much relieved that director Ang Lee did every bit of cinematic justice to it.
For those unfamiliar, the young Indian protagonist, nicknamed Pi, practices three religions simultaneously: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, much to the chagrin of his rational-minded father, who tells him “believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing”.
In the tradition of this post, I’ll say I both agree and disagree with Pi’s father. Confused? Good.
Below is my “digest” of the five major religions, and what I feel embodies their core, distilled wisdom, or emotional / cognitive benefit. Some folks like Pi’s father may warn against “piecemeal ideology” — picking apart things you like and ignoring the rest. In a time as geopolitically, culturally and spiritually complex as ours, however, I think such a practice is imperative. It seems to me not only intellectually sluggish to not do this, but borderline immoral.
So, without further ado…
Hinduism: The Bhagavad-Gita teaches one to see Krishna in everything — every tree, dog, leaf of grass, and human being. It is the spark of divine in all, the thing we all share, the substance of which we are all made.
Buddhism: Self-examination and “inner-journeys” are essential to figuring out who you are (a distinct part of the Universe) and making peace with that. Such enlightenment also comes not from excessive poverty or materialism, but the Middle Way, a balanced life. I enjoy Bill Maher, but on his show he was absurdly trivial and shortsighted in his unfortunate portrayal of the ideals of Buddhism.
Judaism: Of course, Moses made clear the “commandments” of God, some of which are terribly outdated, some of which we still abide by (or try to). Judaism was also newly monotheistic, indicating not many gods but one God, or, as I see it, one energy holding together all things.
Christianity: Talk about a mucky overlay of baggage with this one. But Jesus, whatever his historicity, nevertheless imparted a truly revolutionary message. He taught that all people, rich and poor, of all races, are equal in the eyes of God, that we should love our enemies, and that “you cannot love both God and money” (please try to tell me, rightwing Christians, how you reconcile that one with your blind love for billionaires). When Christ said “I bring not peace, but a sword”, I believe he was warning of how radical his message was, and of the potential violence that might ensue.
Islam: This one might go broke at the airport, what with all the charges for checked baggage (yes, yes, pity laughs, sure). Forget all the jihads and bombings for a moment, though. The most striking thing to me about Islam is the five-times-a-day praying. One writer put it very poignantly: “[Muslims] don’t want to spend a moment away from the Divine”. I think that’s remarkable. The ideal of constant prayer is to revel in awesome perspective and humility, to remind one’s self of kinship with a Bigger Picture. In various ways, I try for that all the time.
Agnosticism: Reality is the strangest thing in the world, of course, so how can we claim with pure certainty to know anything? It’s good to understand that we should always carry in our pouch a reserve of doubt.
Atheism: I notice lately that there’s been a subtle shift in how atheism is generally defined. It used to be, “I don’t believe there’s a God”. Now, it’s more like, “I don’t happen to have a God”. The author Sam Harris articulated this, when he said, “We’re all atheists when it comes to Zeus, or Thor…..Christians are atheists, for instance, with Allah”. No, atheism is not a religion, as some religionists like to counter, but it does have a worldview, one that, in some people, can easily mutate into dogma. All that said, however, most atheists I know are willing to entertain new concepts and definitions of God (pantheism, let’s say, or more modern forms of Gnosticism). Their conceptual malleability is admirable, and they recognize the basic, observable truth that every generation offers new revelations on the inner-workings of the cosmos.
If you’re curious, here’s my personal position:
I believe in God. I believe unquestioningly in evolution, the Big Bang, and everything science tells us. I also believe there is no greater plan, either for us collectively or individually.
How are those things compatible with a belief in God?
I don’t believe in a separate, white-bearded, judgmental God. I believe that we, and everything around us, are synonymous with God. To me the universe is like a giant brain, or body, that is experiencing itself through its billions of life forms, which includes us. The “idea” at the outset was to turn Concept into Experience.
Think of it this way: you can conceptualize being an artist, but until you experience creating art, what fun (or growth) can you possibly you have?
Of course, if we remembered our origin, then we couldn’t have a truly new, exhilarating experience, could we? So, as Robert Heinlein wrote, “We all created the universe amongst ourselves and decided to forget the gag”.
Why forget? So we can eventually remember.
At a very fundamental level, we are not separate from anything else. We’re just one giant ball of energy, portioning itself out like a lava lamp. A saint and a cockroach are two “identical bands of light”, as Kurt Vonnegut wonderfully noted.
YOU are the universe deciding for itself its own path. You control it. You are the cosmos making up its own mind about itself. Right now, you are the cosmos reading this, on a computer-shaped piece of yourself. At this moment, I am the cosmos writing this.
Evil, disease, war, etc. all exist because this is a physical world based on polarity and relativity. You can’t know hot without cold. It doesn’t take the creaking, straining, contrived arguments of a Mere Christianity to figure this out. I believe it’s simpler than all that.