|The Thinker, Auguste Rodin, 1902|
When I look at our planet’s religious landscape through the eyes of someone from another planet, or through the eyes of the Creator, I see a patchwork of multiple belief systems with Christian belief systems having 2 billion+ adherents largely concentrated in Europe, the Americas, Russia, and Australia; Muslim belief systems having 1 billion+ adherents largely concentrated in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia/Malaysia; Buddhism/Taoism with 1 billion+ adherents largely concentrated in China, Japan, Mongolia, and Burma/Thailand/Laos/Cambodia /Vietnam; Hindu belief systems with approximately 1 billion adherents largely concentrated in India; and other belief systems scattered here and there across the planet. I once thought that such a patchwork picture must be very disconcerting to the Creator, seeing intelligent creatures, whom he/she/it created (we need a special personal pronoun for the Creator), agreeing on little more than that the Creator exists and some (an estimated 2.5 % of the planet’s 6.8 billion population) not even believing in that.
Another aspect of the religious landscape is the bewildering variety of religious belief systems. There are 50,000+ different religious belief systems on planet earth today. There are 34,000+ different Christian belief systems, over 60 different Muslim belief systems, multiple Jewish belief systems, and multiple Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Chinese Folk, etc. belief systems with each belief borrowing from and overlapping with every other belief.
That is the large picture. And I have come to accept that that is the way it should be, and that our planet is blessed by the diversity and multiplicity of its religious traditions, all contributing to an ever expanding understanding of the divine.
Religious belief fundamentally resides in people, and very often boils down to being an individual matter. I have a belief system and I suspect it differs from yours and from the belief system of most other human inhabitants of our planet. My grandmother, in her 34-acre farm on a hillside in Ireland’s heartland, believed in Jesus and in the Little People with what seemed to me equal fervor. And she saw no contradiction in these beliefs. To her, the other world of the Little People as well as heaven and hell were all part of the way things were. She never felt the need to contemplate or question her faith. To her, being Roman Catholic mingled with remnants of Druidism was as natural as breathing, and I suspect that is the way with most individual beliefs. Just as I cannot bring myself to condemn my grandmother for her beliefs, I cannot condemn anyone for sincerely held beliefs.
My belief system, presented below, has evolved into something quite different from my grandmother’s. I spent two years studying philosophy and four years studying theology at All Hallows College, Dublin, Ireland, a live-in institution run by the Vincentians, a religious order founded in 1625 by St.Vincent de Paul, a French priest. His mission was to preach the Christian gospel to the poor and to reform the clergy. I was a good unquestioning student, absorbing the worldview of the Roman Catholic Church, as was expected of me. Subsequent to my ordination in 1957, I served as an assistant pastor at Immaculate Conception parish, City of Sacramento; at St. Isadore’s parish, City of Yuba City; at Holy Rosary parish, City of Woodland; and as Assistant Chaplain, Newman Center, University of California, Davis in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, California.
But towards the end of my 15 years as a priest, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the worldview they encompassed started to unravel. I can trace the roots of the unraveling to the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII in October, 1962, with the principal objective, as John XXIII said then, to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air and start a dialogue with the contemporary world. Like many in the church–lay people, nuns, and clergy–I welcomed the opening of windows and embraced the fresh air. The theological, ecumenical, scriptural, and liturgical discussions that the Council engendered caused many, including myself, to commence a re-examination of church practices and later a questioning and a re-evaluation of church teachings. In my own case, there was a very gradual, almost imperceptible evolution away from a dogmatic belief system, to openness to and acceptance of ideas in conflict with church teachings and practices.
I gradually came to question the church’s teaching on birth control, on divorce and remarriage, on original sin, on hell and eternal damnation, on denying the priesthood to women, on the celibacy of the church’s clergy, etc. On this last topic, I wrote an essay tracing the history of the development of celibacy from a recommendation to a widespread practice, to its enactment as a church law in 1139 by the Second Lateran Council, which is often cited as having for the first time introduced a general law of celibacy, requiring ordination only of unmarried men. The piece entitled, “Should the Council Look at Celibacy”, was published on June 9th, 1965 in the National Catholic Reporter, a weekly publication read by many Catholics throughout the U.S. The article, under the penname, “Sacerdos Occidentalis” (western priest), started a national discussion on celibacy in the Catholic priesthood that lasted for almost a year. Another incident stands out in my recollection of those years. During my assignment at Holy Rosary parish in Woodland, I incurred the wrath of the farming community for supporting a strike in Delano, California, to get union recognition for grape pickers (see: Clergy: The Grapes of Wrath, Time Article, Dec. 10, 1965). I was getting a reputation as a rebel. I resigned from the priesthood in 1972 and the evolution in my beliefs has continued in fits and starts down to the present.
The Basis of My Current Religious Understanding. Humans have been on planet earth for at least a few million years and I logically conclude that religion in some form has been part and parcel of the human experience from the beginning as humans sought to understand where they came from and the meaning and purpose of their lives. I see the many different religions and belief systems growing out of and being a direct reflection of the geographic, cultural, political, and linguistic diversity of the planet. It seems to me that culture, geography, inheritance, language, politics, and tradition are all contributing factors to why certain religious belief systems developed and took hold in certain parts of the planet and not in others and why religions splintered into multiple belief systems.
Why are there 34,000 different Christian belief systems as against only 60 different Muslim belief systems? The almost incomprehensible proliferation of Christian belief systems happened after the Reformation in the 16th century, when many Christians were released from authoritarian interpretations of the Christian Bible, and were free to interpret God’s word as their conscience dictated. Whereas, the Muslim faith has experienced no reformation and a corresponding splintering of that belief system has not taken place. Hence, it would seem that the proliferation of belief systems is the natural outcome of the absence of authoritarian dogmatism and the presence of an environment that encourages freedom of thought and expression.
Another factor contributing to the fragmentation of belief systems is the conjecture of sociologists that 150-200 is the outer limit of the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. So where individual freedom is a core value and there are no laws or norms enforced to maintain group cohesion, people tend to form splinter groups. A solution to this natural tendency within mega churches is the breakup of the large worshipping community into small cohesive interest and service groups.
The central question is: are all the different religions and belief systems of divine origin or merely of human origin? I have come to understand that they are merely of human origin for I cannot attribute the multiplicity of beliefs to direct intervention of the divine. And I ask myself, why would the deity be directly involved in disseminating ideas and concepts that confuse and divide the human family? Just as with science and all areas involving understanding of our planet and the universe, the deity, it seems to me, has left it to humans to figure things out for themselves. And if the Creator gets to express emotions, there must be emotional satisfaction in seeing scientists solve bit by bit some of the mysteries of creation, and seeing religious leaders lead people into deeper understanding and deeper relationships with the author of that creation.
In my large picture of religion, I see all religions as legitimate traditions or worldviews searching for truth and an understanding of the divine, not necessarily as possessing them, but striving to build upon human insights down the ages. I see religions as journeys of exploration - searches for understanding in the spiritual realm just as science is a search for understanding in the physical realm.
My large picture understanding sees religions as having a major positive role in the development and betterment of civilized society; in building communities of caring, giving, and sharing people; in breaking down barriers between peoples; in fostering altruism among adherents and sharing of the planet’s resources; in controlling human greed and hostility; in promoting human equality and eliminating prejudices; in caring for the poor, the aged, the sick, the outcast, and the forgotten; in teaching stewardship of the planet; and in fostering a deeper understanding of the divine and a deep sense that all humans of all belief systems and of no belief are children of the Creator and have a right to a quality life on the planet.
Religion, the attempt of humans to relate to the divine, is as old as humans themselves. But history tells me that divine revelation, the concept of the deity reaching down to enlighten humans, has been a recent phenomenon. The Holy Books or scriptures of the various religions are recent entries on the stage of human history-all within the past 5,000 years. That is part of the large picture. As stated above, I have no problem with the concept of religion, and I see religion as making very positive contributions to human society, human communities, and individual humans. But I have many problems, which will be discussed in the next blog, with the concept of divine revelation, i.e. the claim that what is written in Holy Books such as the Bible and the Qur’an is the unalterable word of the deity.
Inputs, expansions, adjustments, counterpoints, rebuttals, etc. to the above are very welcome.