In Search of the Divine: My Year of Reading Religiously
Merry Christmas, dear readers, and Happy Holidays! Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanza, a Festive Festivus, and a Sensational Solstice, too. Whatever you celebrate, or whatever you don’t, I hope the end of the year finds you happy, healthy, and rested.
It’s been some time since I’ve posted anything to the blog, and I apologize for that. It’s a combination of things that have kept me away, from simply being too busy, to being too tired, to being on a bizarre journey that took me to all sorts of unexpected places—spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. It’s this last bit I want to share about today. (Don’t worry! I’ll be back again in a few days with my annual “Big Book Survey” to end the year.)
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, or at least for the last year, know that I generally establish a themed reading event every year, and the theme for 2021 was “World Religions.” The plan was to read six formative texts from six different major religions, and to post about them every month or two. I did the reading, plus lots more, but I only posted here about the first few texts, and there’s a reason for that. I could blame it on this second pandemic year and all its craziness, or on being too busy from picking up overloads at school due to faculty illnesses, and etc., but the truth is, the journey got a little bit personal. Since the plan was to read these texts from an historical and literary perspective, I wasn’t expecting it to take me offroad and into a spiritual place, a place of deep introspection and reflection, but that’s exactly what happened. And I wasn’t sure how to pivot my checkpoint posts into that kind of discussion, so I stepped away entirely. I do apologize to anyone who was following along and wondering what happened.
That being said, here’s what happened.
I’ve never been a religious person. Even as a child growing up in the Lutheran Church and going to Lutheran schools until the fourth grade, I knew it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the spiritual side of things, per se, that bothered me, but the dogma, the prejudice against inquiry, the “blind faith,” that is valued in the Christian faith in particular, and the decidedly un-Christlike manner in which most people at those churches and schools treated me and my family. It all seemed so very hypocritical, and it turned me off, for a very long time, from wanting to know anything about anything to do with god, religion, spirituality, faith, and the like.
The thing is, though, I’ve always been a spiritual person. Despite my lack of trust in any organized religion—a feeling I maintain to this day, even after this remarkable year of discovery—I have known that there’s something more to this experience we call life than what can be seen on the surface. I spent years studying Humanism, then years studying Stoicism, followed by the last couple years studying Buddhism. George Harrison said once that we’re all living in the “material world,” and unlike Madonna, he didn’t just mean this world of things, but our own corporeal existence. This state of being in a body, with its senses, all of which are there to help us experience what it is to be human, to be alive. After this year reading from Christianity, Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, Hinduism, and Atheism (or Humanism, as it turned out), I’ve come to align myself rather closely with Harrison’s interpretation. In fact, I might go so far as to see he’s become a kind of ancestor guru for me.
Here’s what I mean. This year, I re-read the New Testament, which I’ve read many, many times, and the Qur’an, Buddhist scriptures, Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the Analects of Zhuangzi, the Holy Vedas (as well as an ancient Indian epic called The Ramayana), the Talmud, and Religion for Atheists, which turned out to be a kind of humanist perspective. I also added A Brief History of Thought, which turned out to be another advocate for humanism, as well as George Harrison on George Harrison, which of course relayed much of Harrison’s spiritual beliefs that center on Hinduism, though he wasn’t exclusive. In fact, after my year of reading religiously, I was shocked by the serendipitous conclusion he and I both seemed to come to about these great world religions in general, which is that they’re all the same. Really. At the core of each of their messages is a simple concept: Love. They’ve just tried to explain it in different ways.
I used to be obsessed with kindness. I spent much of my college years, and beyond, trying to get to the root of kindness, trying to understand why some folks are kind and others aren’t, why some are naturally compassionate, and others seem to lack empathy altogether. After this year of deep reading and reflection on spirituality, I’ve come to think that compassion, and kindness, come both from a person’s current life experiences and those they’ve built up from experiences past. In a way, I guess that means I believe in reincarnation of a sort, which brings me close to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. They each argue that reincarnation is fact, though Hinduism and Buddhism suggest that it’s the spirit, only, that experiences many lives, while each body only lives once. Christianity, on the other hand, suggests that each person lives just one life on Earth—body and spirit—and then, if they’re a true believer, their body and spirit will be resurrected in Heaven.
I don’t follow that last logic, as I don’t believe that Christ’s resurrection was a literal one. To me, the resurrection story reads like a beautiful metaphor. Instead of Christ dying for our sins, which in my opinion lets people off the hook a bit too easily, I believe Christ’s sacrifice is the lesson. He dies for love. He is willing to give up his earthly body and all its senses and experiences, to ensure that love will continue, that the message of love lives on and inspires others. In this way, I think it comes incredibly close to the concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Humanism, which suggest that we are all part of the same grand oneness, that there is divinity inside every one of us, and it is this which we recognize in one another. There’s a related mantra that suggests, “the way out is in,” which means that if we can touch the divine inside of us, we will learn to see it in others, and we will ultimately make our way out of this human condition and into the freedom of pure spiritual existence. Therein lies the road to love, to peace, and to ultimate transcendence, in whatever form you want to imagine it (heaven, nirvana, etc.)
This reminds me of that belief I mentioned above about compassion and kindness coming from a place of lived experiences in our current and past lives. It seems to me that the sensitive ones, the compassionate ones, those who hurt when others hurt and who literally cannot bring themselves to do harm to others, are the ones who have come closest to that state of ultimate transcendence, because they’ve experienced what they need to, to understand the divine and what it means to be human. What separates us from every other living creature on the planet, and what connects us to one another. All life is sacred; all are equal.
George Harrison said, and I’m paraphrasing, that “I am not Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish, I am all of these.” It’s true. All of these are trying to get to the heart of the matter, and the heart of the matter is you and me. God, if that’s what you want to call it, is not, for me, a single entity, a deity in the classical sense, watching over us and making judgements, or even meting out karma (one of many places where I diverge from Buddhism and Hinduism, though I find much of their belief systems amenable). It’s that divine spark inside of us that feeds our conscience, that teaches us joy and how to give it, that lets us know what a smile is for and when to share it.
Thomas Paine wrote, “the world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” There are lessons in so many religious texts about the dangers of false idols, though I think we’ve sometimes mistaken those lessons as advocating for competition among religions or the various gods. There’s only one god—one essence of divinity, I mean—which is everyone, and it’s lost when we play the game of favorites. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way, “We are all the branches of the same tree. We are all the waves of one sea.” To me, the road to joy is found by honoring the essential sameness in every one of us, that sacredness that makes it profane to harm, hinder, ignore, enslave, or take advantage of another. We can find that road by doing away with false idols; I don’t mean the golden calves of the Old Testament, but the other things we hold up as sacred that divide us—flags and nations, political parties, and yes, religious affiliations.
“I am he / As you are he / As you are me / And we are all together.” It’s a simple kind of message the Beatles were trying to get across, and one that is shared by virtually all the major religions of the world. It was remarkable to me to read, this year, how very close—sometimes literally down to the characters and narratives—these supposedly diverse theologies are to one another, and it was reassuring. After all, if over the course of thousands of years, all the worlds’ greatest thinkers, from virtually every region and religion on the planet, have come to the same conclusion, that love is the way, then I feel remarkably good about being a disciple of love.
It’s because of love, I think, that I’m filled with spirit every Christmas season, despite not being “a Christian” (but, like Harrison, I am that, and all the rest too, and none of them at all.) I’ve adored Christmas music and Christmas movies and all the warmth of the season for as long as I can remember, and not because I feel particularly connected to the birth of Christ (Christos; Krishna…how about that, eh?), though I’ll be the first to admit that I am in many ways a follower of Christ; who wouldn’t be, when it gets down to the philosophy of it all? It’s not nostalgia, either, which is what I assumed for most of my adult life that it must be. It’s the connective sensation of it all. The “vibrations,” as some have put it.
This connective sensation is something I’m starting to understand much better, now. This idea of the divine in all of us, and how it’s worth seeing—it needs to be seen, and I need to see it. It’s love, these connections, whether we call it friendship or nostalgia, or warm memories, or whatever. “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34 KJV) The way out is in, but that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to isolate ourselves. We need to reach in and touch that divine essence inside ourselves so that we can know it, and love it, and learn how to share it. That’s why, when we see it in others, we feel good. Less lonely. A little bit fuller. And when we all get to that place inside ourselves, we can start making better choices, especially about how we treat others, which might be the only thing that will lead someone else to change for the better, too.
The more we can do this, the closer we come to the divine. The more of us do this, the closer we bring all of us to peace. Heaven, Nirvana… these concepts of attainment that require, first, a soul that is at peace, having thought, spoken, and acted rightly. It’s not given to us by anyone, as far as I’m concerned. Christ dying on the cross was not a gift, in my mind, it was an instruction. If you want your soul—your energy, your spirit, your essence—to live forever, you must give your all to that which is good and right, always and no matter what.
The magic of Christmas is that it reminds me of all this, every year. I’ve always felt it, but it wasn’t until this year’s journey through world religions, and into the depths of my inner self, that I began to wonder about what I was feeling and where it was coming from, and why. My answer might be convoluted, it might even be wrong, but it leads me to love. And love is the only place worth being.
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies . . . you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut
2021 Religious Works Read and Consulted