‘We need to tolerate everyone’s approach, and learn from those who take a different route.’
I often wonder whether disharmony between people with spiritual awareness is caused by confusion between the terms ‘God’ and ‘Religion’.
For me, ‘God’ is a convenient name for whatever it is that lies beyond the material world and abstract ideas. The thing itself is entirely beyond our comprehension, and mostly beyond our experience. It isn’t a person, but giving it the shape and characteristics of a super-human can be a very useful metaphor. Other common metaphors are ‘Energy’, ‘Power’, ‘Light’ and ‘Love’, but they are all still metaphors, referring only to part of whatever God is. Of course, ‘God’ is a metaphor too.
‘Religion’, however, is a name for human systems. These systems have to be full of metaphors too, since they can’t define what they’re trying to express. The problems arise when these metaphors are given the status of definite facts.
I’m sure people have had an awareness of God for as long as there have been people. Early humans found it convenient to ascribe anything they didn’t understand to the capriciousness of God. This had unintended consequences: later scientific discoveries, which explained such phenomena, were often said to disprove the existence of God. But surely, what such discoveries were actually showing was that human beings had made the wrong attribution in the first place.
Most religions seem to be based on the spiritual experiences of one individual. If that individual was charismatic, they could attract followers. If the followers were sufficiently inspired to form groups and spread the ideas – and if they were inhabiting the right time and place – then a religion emerged. But all such religions were based on the experiences of one inspired person; and no single person can possibly experience God in its entirety.
A large group of people with a shared, perhaps fanatical belief, is difficult to manage. This leads to the establishment of structures, and structures need guidelines and people to support them. Unfortunately, guidelines can become rigid rules, and people can become ruling cliques. These cliques can use the rules to intimidate others. Telling people that they are intrinsically evil, and will suffer torment after death unless they follow the practices prescribed by the rulers, is one very effective way of maintaining order.
As Quakers, we believe we can all approach God directly. But our individual experiences, as well as our backgrounds, will influence how we make that approach. We are all influenced by the culture we come from, and we all create our own traditions, too. We need to tolerate everyone’s approach, and learn from those who take a different route. Whether or not we use the systems and words already developed by an established religion depends on how we think and feel. I would suggest that the only necessary belief for our Religious Society is that at least there might be something, somewhere, and in some form, that, by the definition above, could be called ‘God’.
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