Ancient Religious Wisdom for Modern Challenges

Can Old Dogs Teach New Tricks?

Recent polls indicate that, for the first time since such records have been kept, less than 50% of Americans are affiliated with religious institutions. Just when the challenges are more daunting than ever– pollution…terrorism… wars…pandemics… political polarization–the question for most people is not so much “Does God exist?” as it is “Is religion relevant anymore?” That is not to say that Americans are not interested.  Similar polls consistently show that the vast majority of Americans believe in, well… “something.” However, access to that “something” for too many people amounts to seeing a couple of lines about “all is love” on some idyllic poster. Man may not live by bread alone, but spiritual life cannot survive on Facebook memes alone, either.

The sad irony is that religious traditions have a great deal to say about our challenges.  Ecology?  Judaism sees people as God’s partners in caring for His Creation since the Garden of Eden. The Bible has laws about how even during wars it is not permitted to cut down trees that will be essential for the eventual peace—no matter how far off that may seem—and recovery. Why is there evil? Taoism explains that, as with all dualities, we would not understand what is “good” if there were no “evil.”  Why do bad things happen to good people? In Hinduism, “karma” works like gravity—not as “punishment,” but by behavior having predictable consequences, albeit over many lifetimes. 

The fundamental point that so many overlook—even those who extoll the virtues of “mitzvot” and “social justice”—is that, without a broad context of the divine mystery that is reality, all such efforts seem pointless.  Why bother building the most beautiful of ethical sandcastles on the beach when the waves of time will just wash them all way—leaving no trace they were ever there to begin with?  Spirituality is not simply about ethereal meditation that dismisses the substance of the world.  Religious traditions also reassure us that our efforts at Tikkun Olam are consistent with the very nature of the universe.  Moral law is no less real than any physical law.  If anything, it is the assurance of eternal and pervasive moral law that gives us the courage and confidence to battle against the forces of evil and chaos.  Despite the temporary appearances to the contrary, evil simply cannot succeed long-term any more than Newton’s apple could fall up from the tree it left.

But religion is much more than theological speculation about what happens “out there.” People are drawn to the questions of ultimate mystery in times of personal distress—the loss of a loved one, emotional depression, or bewildering disasters.  Here, too, religious traditions have so much to offer.  In Hinduism, as with Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage” in which God/Brahman experiences all the dramas of human life the way people go to movies or read novels. The core message of Christianity—the Passion and the Crucifixion—is that all suffering and even death, no matter how horrible they may appear, are nevertheless illusory and surmountable. In Islam, followers are commanded to care for the sick—and that, to care for the sick is to actually care for Allah Himself! Again, without a theological construct, why bother caring for the sick when everyone is just going to die anyway; when it is just a matter of time before the earth itself will be consumed in the fires of a sun gone supernova? No, we care for the sick because caring for the sick matters in a fundamental sense. Evil is temporary. The good is eternal.

Only once we have established our religious perspective can we turn to the practical question of how we can console those who are suffering.  For the Buddha, in fact, this is the one and only question. For example, a woman is frantic because her son has died and she implores the Buddha to bring him back to life. He does not dismiss her; nor does he give her some theoretical treatise on the nature of evil.  Instead, the Buddha tells her that he will bring her son back to life, provided she can bring him a mustard seed from a family that has never experienced a similar loss. The woman is overjoyed and promptly goes from house to house looking for the secret to her son’s return to the living—only to find that every family, in one form or another, has suffered just such a loss. No, the Buddha does not bring her son back to life, but the poor mother does learn how to share her grief with others and, in so doing, how everyone can comfort everyone else.

There are those who rant about religion, claiming that it is “otherworldly” and useless—a pandering offer of “pie in the sky when you die” to those in desperate, dire straits. The truth, however, is that there is very much in religion that is quite down to earth. “For everything, there is a season; a time for every purpose under heaven; a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to reap; a time to kill and a time to heal…” (Kohellet/Ecclesiastes 3) So, too, the Taoist believes “There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being energetic, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger.” (Tao Teh Ching 29) These are not the words of some romantic idealist. Briefly put: the world is the world.  One can live in accordance with its laws and prosper or one can resist its laws and fail. That is not hopeless meaninglessness—the “absurdity” of the existentialist.  That is a hard-nosed understanding of the world as it is–and heavenly guidance as to how we can realistically bring our hopes and dreams to fruition. 

But even if all the preceding is accepted, there yet remains one more critical question: if religion is so wonderful, why has religion been the cause of so much hatred and violence.  Doesn’t the historical record prove that religion is a false prophet—Jeremiah’s rejection of those “proclaiming ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14) Sadly, the past gives little reason to be sanguine about the potential of religion to do good in the future. For every Moses, there has been a Korach; for every Mother Theresa, there has been a Torquemada.   To a certain extent, the Dark Ages were dark because of religious dogmatism—but it was also the Church’s Scholasticism that kept learning and literacy alive in the face of barbarism.  The truth is that spirituality is like nuclear energy—an incredibly potent force that can be used for good or evil.  Religion, too, can spread the light of beauty and wisdom—or inflame the world with fury and intolerance.  As Winston Churchill—or Spiderman’s Peter Parker—said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If there is an answer, it may lie in our ability to use words like “both” instead of “either.”  Many religious proponents have argued that their tradition is “true” and that others are sinful idolatry.  That mentality has led to countless wars, ex-communications, and bitter rivalries.  A more propitious model would be that of a garden: we are individuals with individual colors and fragrances and roots, but we can all grow together to create a garden of beauty reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.  We can, indeed, follow our individual religious traditions, but we can at the same time be open to the teachings of other faiths that can help us work together for the benefit of everyone’s garden—our entire earth and all its inhabitants.

The Muslim poet Rumi wrote that “People are everywhere in prison while holding the keys to their cells in their hands.”  Yes, the problems we face—as individuals and as humanity—are terrifying, but they need not be overwhelming.  We can find answers that resonate in our souls, but only if we can look beyond all those labels that divide us and share those insights that can bring us spiritual peace and solidarity.

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