Category Archives: Seeking the Spiritual

Seeking the Spiritual: The Intimate Bond of Culture and Religion

Grow up in a different culture, and chances are you'll follow a different faith.

One of the very important things that I’ve been realizing about the world and the people in it over the last few months is the level to which religion is a cultural tradition and inheritance. This may seem like an extremely obvious conclusion for anyone to come to, but for me, this has been a difficult thing. As I’ve mentioned in a number of previous posts, I was brought up in a strongly Christian environment. For most of my life, when I was an adherent of evangelical Christianity, I rarely, if ever, questioned why I believed what I did. If I were to seriously ask myself this question a few years ago, my answer would’ve been, “Because you know that it’s true!”

But recently, I’ve allowed my old conceptions of religion and people be challenged and remodeled. This has been partially due to my travels over the last summer to France, Holland, Greece, and most importantly, Turkey. I’ve had the privilege of seeing how other people live their faith, particularly in the case of Islam, as I experienced life in a country where the (very) dominant religion is one very different from what I had experienced for the greater part of my life. I also have a great many friends from China (due to the large international student program at my school), and getting to know them and their fascinating culture has helped my understanding of Eastern thought to broaden.

Here’s where I’m going with this. Over recent months, I’ve discovered more and more that the reason I believed what I did for most of my life has been because I grew up with it, in a mini-culture that told me that the right thing to believe was Christianity. And more importantly, I’ve realized that others (again, this sounds like an obvious point), particularly those in vastly different parts of the world like Turkey, have grown up being taught that the right thing to believe was Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even atheism. I can see now that so much of what I “believed” was simply what had been passed down to.

Now, this is only natural. Parents teach their children what they think is right, and in fact many holy books instruct parents to do this (Proverbs 22:6 of the Bible, for example). But when someone becomes a brash conversionist (I know, I made it up) with their religion, they seem to leave sanity behind in their mad rush to change others to their way of thinking. What I mean by “leaving their sanity behind,” is that these religious practitioners have so thoroughly convinced themselves of their own rightness and the wrongness of others, that they forget that they probably only believe what they do because they were raised that way!

More frightening than that though, they forget that the beliefs that others hold dear are ones that they were always raised on as well. The reason for their belief in whatever religion it may be is their upbringing, not some deep-seated and witless desire to be a heretic. So when you get down to the heart of the issue, an evangelical Christian (this is only an example) and the young Indian Hindu he is trying to convert both believe in their respective religions for the same reason: They were always taught to.

I strongly believe that if more people, from all places, traditions, and religions could accept this, there would be far fewer people condemning each other for what seem to me to be obviously cultural influences. No person can decide the circumstances of their birth, and it’s a terrible thing that religious people of all kinds issue bold proclamations that anyone who doesn’t accept their truth, including young children who have heard nothing about it, is doomed. Truth be told, this is a pretty typical trait of the evangelical Christian in particular. I was talking with an evangelical acquaintance of mine about this very issue, not too long ago. I asked her, “What about an orphaned child in India? Chances are they’re going to grow up learning Hinduism as their religion. What happens if that child dies, and they’ve never heard anything about the Christian god?” She answered (paraphrase), “God’s justice is different from our justice. It’s sad that it has to happen, but the Bible says that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ is going to hell, no matter what. And that’s just the way it is!”

There is something desperately wrong with that picture.

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Seeking the Spiritual: Nature and the Divine

Could our spiritual being be connected to nature?

Ever since the dawn of man, humanity has had a deep connection with the land, or at least it has been meant to. Our land has been used for growing our food, providing us with water and animals, building our homes and habitats, and supporting most of life as we know it. Humanity depends on the rest of nature for almost everything we do.

But I think that nature has much more than a utilitarian connection to us. So often, we as humans view the rest of the environment as a kind of resource to be used and exploited as we see fit. Many people fail to see that we as humans are a part of nature, not above it, and that we’re very much dependent on it for almost all of our most basic needs. So in some sense, humanity is deeply rooted and connected to the world around us.

But I would say this extends far beyond a simple physical dependency on the land. Humankind has a spiritual connection to the world as well, in ways I can’t claim I’m even close to completely understanding. The religion I grew up in, Protestant Christianity, has never had much interest (or concern) for nature, being careful to keep it in a subservient role so as not to “idolize” creation. I was always taught that creation cannot and should not be revered above its creator, and to elevate nature too high would put me in the heresy danger zone. And, although I’m still young, I’ve begun to see more and more how limited I had allowed my spirituality to become, especially in this area.

Until recently, I would never let myself think of the natural world as something I could be spiritually connected to. While I’ve always known I’m in some way part of nature, for most of my life I’ve thought of myself as above and apart from the natural world. But now, I’ve begun to realize just how important and meaningful nature is for me, especially in a spiritual sense. There are few times when I feel more connected to my spirituality, the world around me, and even my fellow man than when I’m in a beautiful, natural place.

What I really want to stress in this post is this: the connection between man and nature is not specific to any religion, creed, or belief system. It is a spiritual, divine connection between human beings and the world they live in. If all people, all across the world, could agree to live in a way that honored this connection, then we could be responsible inhabitants of this shared Earth.

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Seeking the Spiritual: What did Jesus Really Say?

What did he really preach?

It’s more or less unarguable that the figure of Jesus Christ has had an enormous impact on the world, especially the Western one. Whether or not he really existed, or performed any of the miracles he claimed to, or died on the cross and rose again on the third day, Jesus has influenced Western thought and religion for 2,000 years.

I was raised in a strongly evangelical Christian setting. I went to church every Sunday, attended Sunday school, and I’ve been educated at private Christian schools from when I was four years old to the day I’m writing this post. I’ve been inundated in Christian teaching nearly every day of my life.

To be fair to my parents, I want to interject that I hold nothing against them for this, and they have always been extremely supportive of whatever view I choose to have. They just raised me in the way that they thought was best, and I really appreciate their love and commitment.

But has what I’ve always been taught about Jesus and my faith been the right view? I would never have challenged this two years ago, or even a year ago, but now I find myself asking really tough new questions. I owe this, at least in part, to a book I’m reading with members of the church I’m currently going to, called “Writing in the Sand.” The author, Thomas Moore, proposes some fascinating and difficult questions, and has given me an entirely new idea of who Jesus might be.

But first, I want to say that I don’t think that Jesus’ historicity is at all important in the debate over who he was. From the conservative Christian standpoint, Jesus’ factual existence is crucial, but I would challenge this view. Is it really important, for anyone, that Jesus did everything the Bible records? From the typical evangelical Christian perspective, the historicity of Scripture is paramount, but I would challenge this. So many problems arise for the Christian who tries to hang his faith on a literal interpretation of the Bible. And from a theological perspective, what’s more important? We could spend all the time in the world arguing about whether such-and-such event in the Bible really happened, and we would get nowhere, but if one focused on what the real message of Jesus was, all the rest is unimportant.

So what was the real message of Jesus? That’s a hotly contested issue, and one that I must admit I don’t have the most concrete answer for. But I have my ideas! Perhaps the real message of Jesus is far different than what we’ve come to expect and interpret. Maybe Jesus wasn’t trying to establish a new religion at all, but a new way of life. The very fact that there’s a Christian religion at all to me says that there’s been a deep misinterpretation of Jesus’ purpose. If one really reads the Gospels, the focus of Jesus’ life was caring for others, not making them believe or live morally pleasing lives. So much baggage has been added to who Jesus was and what he meant that his message has been twisted into a state that he would probably barely recognize.

The rebirth that Jesus meant when he said “you must be born again” was not a change of religion or belief, but a change of mindset. His message was not one that was meant only to apply to those who call themselves “Christian” or live a perfectly moral life. As Thomas Moore puts it, “Establishing the kingdom in the world doesn’t mean converting people to a belief system but creating the climate in which a spiritual vision combines with deep engagement with life.” Jesus wasn’t worried about the temporal religious designations we put on ourselves and others. He, like the Buddha, Saint Francis, Mohammed, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Lao-Tzu, and many others, was concerned with waking us from our stupor, and making all people realize that there’s a much deeper reality to the world than most people are willing to accept.

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Seeking the Spiritual: An Introduction

Just an idea. (Image is public domain)

(This article is the first part of an indefinitely long series I’m starting that I’ll call Seeking the Spiritual. These articles will be placed in their own category on the site, and each will be tagged with that same title, for easy finding. These articles will be different from the rest of the site, in that they’ll be a more personal exploration of spiritual ideas, with a focus on informality and honest opinion. I’m particularly interested in getting more people writing for this series/section, so please let me know if you’re interested. Contact info is on the “About the Author” page. Enjoy!)

RELIGION. It’s a big word, with a huge meaning (magnified by its typing in CAPS LOCK). It’s undeniable that religion plays a huge role in the lives of millions, if not billions of people across the world. It takes all kinds of different forms, and is expressed in almost every way imaginable. To many, religious faith or tradition is the single most important and valuable thing in life, and governs most, if not all actions.

But what is it about religion that makes it so damn controversial? Why is it that people have been killing each other for millennia over these things? The answer, at least the way I see it, is pretty simple: Most people are sure that their religion is the right one, and everyone else’s is wrong.

This is hardly something new or original, I know. People love being right about everything, from sports to politics to philosophy to God. Humans have an inherent need to know what they can cling to, what they can know is right and good, and what can give them meaning in this life and right thinking about the next one. So they look for these things. Some find them in the words and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostle Paul. Some find them in the prayers and pillars of Islam. Some find them in the Eightfold Path and meditation of Buddhism. And there are countless other ways in which people experience the spiritual and the divine.

The problem and conflict between different religions and religious groups comes when they can’t agree on where and how people should find this meaning. More importantly though, it comes when people insist that only their view, only their way could possibly be right. This is an exclusivist tree that inevitably sprouts branches of intolerance, bigotry, and sometimes even hatred. So many religious people (though, to be fair, the greatest perpetrators tend to be associated with Christianity or Islam) are so concerned about making other people believe the same thing as they do that they forget that the world is populated by human beings, not numbers.

While I’m still unsure of my own personal beliefs on many things, the last thing the world needs (unstable as it is) are people who are too busy shouting about the virtues of their faith and the shortcomings of others to listen to anyone else.. The only way our world can truly move forward, or could possibly become a place of freedom and peace, is if people of all faiths are willing to lay aside their differences and recognize that all people have a freedom to believe what they choose. As soon as religion becomes harmful, manipulative, or conquesting, it truly becomes poisonous.

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