The Power of Religion

Even if we don’t care about their Godly beginnings, the religions can give us our best source of human wisdom. Both through the mistakes that have been made in the name of religion, and in the ongoing traditions, the religious injunctions have been tested through the centuries by many people in many cultures.

For example, thou shalt not kill. We know, if we go out and start a war, the result will be a long and awful hatred directed at us by the people whose parents (ancestors) and children we have killed and maimed. If we are honest, we do not blame other people for a hatred that we created, and we know it is wiser to not create it in the first place. So why do we do it? The source of most unwise behaviors is pride, arrogance and the ego-driven life.

All the religions advise against pride, arrogance and the ego-driven life. But that sounds pretty wimpy in the context of “The American Way” doesn’t it? What is wrong with me living a good life if I am not hurting anyone else?

I think that question answers itself. Pride, arrogance and the ego-driven life define our unexamined belief that our lives are nobody else’s business; that we are not hurting anyone else; and that we as individuals are more important than the community, the ecosystem, the government — more important than everything else.

The reality is otherwise. If I may introduce the wisdom of science into the discussion, the two most important things we know about the creation are:

1. All of the creation functions by natural laws, and all the natural laws relate to balance. All the different parts of the creation must stay in balance with each other or something will happen to bring them back to balance. All of nature is set up to maintain the balance of nature. Those parts of nature (things like the law of gravity, for example, or the nature of time) are not things we can not change or stop. We are not God; we are only “me.”

2. Everything in the creation does affect everything else, in one way or another, because the whole shebang is a network of interacting processes and behaviors.

Surely these two realities are reason enough that the wisdom traditions of the ages have preached against pride, arrogance and the ego driven life. Clearly, if we want to not be ego-driven we must honor the needs of the community, the ecosystem, the whole creation, above our individual needs. And so we try to do this, but we nevertheless often get the vague feeling that the world is worse because we are here — like we should be able to change something about Haiti, for example, but we can’t. And we feel bad.

Of course we feel bad. It is a human tragedy. If we didn’t feel bad there would be something inhuman about us. Still, nobody wants the world to be worse because she lived here, and that makes us ask — what can we do that will make the world a better place because we lived here? My answer to that question is very clear. We should not to do the same behaviors that caused the problems in the first place. If we want to avoid an even bigger tragedy for the future, then our prime directive must be to find a better way than what we did in the past, but we certainly should NOT do more of what caused the problem in the first place.

The tragedy of our times, as I see it, is the enormous amount of compassion that is being poured into doing more and yet more of the behaviors that are the very cause of the problems that they are trying to fix — rather than buckling down to the more difficult task of fixing the root cause of the problems. And the tragedy is compounded by the fact that we do understand what caused these problems and we do have the technologies with which to address them. Our biggest challenge is not to figure out the cause, but to come up with a solution, and we aren’t even trying to talk about that.

So what can I do?

1. The first thing we should do is recognize that we can not personally understand all of the wisdom of all of the creation. Therefore, we should question what we believe, if what I believe actually is the best thing for the community, the ecosystem and the whole creation. Even if my belief is based upon a quotation from the Bible. Probably someone else can find an opposing quote. I believe is a position of pride, and the Bible does not promote pride. Even if we love our beliefs and they define the world for us. All the more reason to question them.

2. The second thing is to do this questioning positively, that is, in a way that will lead to changes that are good for the community, the ecosystem and the creation as it continues through time. Four steps in that process are:

a. Realize that you are not responsible for the behaviors of other people in past times. The problems of Haiti are a combination of the past behaviors of other people and the natural processes of the earth. There is nothing anyone can do to change the past behaviors of other people, or of our selves for that matter, or the natural processes of the earth. The best we can do about past behaviors and natural processes is to learn from them, provide compassionate support for the victims, and dedicate ourselves now to behaviors that do not contribute to similar events in the future.

b. Recognize that our own responsibility relates to what we are doing right now. Our responsibility now is to figure out the bottom-line root causes of these disasters so that we can behave in a more helpful way. This can not be done by individual people because nobody knows enough — it requires a community of wisdoms, working together. But it must be an inclusive community, not one that is hand-picked to our personal belief system.

c. We must learn to listen together — REALLY listen to all the sources of wisdom, check them against our own wisdom traditions to see if they make sense. If they don’t seem to make sense and they do seem to be important, then discuss them with someone who is in the OTHER wisdom tradition that doesn’t make sense to us. Of course, we must choose someone who will also listen, so that we all together can make sense of — whatever seems to be contradictory.
Learn to know the difference between opinions and facts.
Understand that debates are really a form of ego confrontation, not problem solving. There is no such thing as a problem with only two answers; therefore real problem solving tries to find all the answers to every problem. That requires discussion, not debate. Debate is designed to promote ego and pride, and to sell something without talking about all the relevant facts.

d. Recognize there is no such thing as “empowerment,” outside of politics, and me-ism is neither our constitutional right, nor is it self-affirming. The only power that we control is our own behavior as we respond to whatever is happening in this moment of time, and as we plan our behaviors for the future. The most self-affirming thing that we can possibly do is help to create a better community, ecosystem, etc., for our tribe.

3. The third thing we should do is to use our tested wisdom to inform our behaviors in each moment of time according to the best interests of the community, the ecosystem and the creation as a whole.

This is more than enough responsibility for most people, especially as we compassionately try to help the victims of yesterday’s mistakes. If we ONLY clean up the mistakes — and do not take any responsibility for positive change — then we are part of the problem and not part of the solution, because we are creating more victims for the future than we are helping today.