Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion? I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance! — Abdu’l-Bahá from a talk given at Rue Camoens, November 12, 1911
I believe—and indeed, in my own experience, have found—that science and reason are necessary to religion (more on that in a later post) and that the greatest threat to religion is human invention—in a word, tinkering.
Someone commented recently that history clearly shows how much of what we think of as religion is of recent vintage. That is certainly true of certain rituals, traditions and forms that exist in religious communities today, but seem to have their origins somewhere other than the sacred texts of a given faith. An example of this is how some present day kashris (Jewish food laws) were more recent adaptations of scriptural exhortations. Take the modern-day Orthodox kashrut about having dairy and meat together in the same meal (or served on the same dishes). This stems from a commandment in the Torah that a baby goat should not be cooked in the milk of its mother. Some rabbis have reinterpreted that commandment in a way that is applicable to a world in which the cooking of a kid in goat’s milk is vanishingly rare—hence, meat and dairy are not to be mixed. Others have simply accepted it as an ancient social teaching that was applicable once, but which is no longer appropriate to the state of society today.
A lack of historical clarity makes it difficult for believers in any of the faiths founded in pre-literate times to distinguish between the revealed teachings of the Prophet and what we might think of as “tradition”. This might include the tradition that Buddha was born from a slit in his mother’s side, or the conviction that belief in Jesus’ blood sacrifice and resurrection was what led to salvation, not—as He says—hearing and keeping His Words. Where, the believer might ask, does scripture end and human interpretation begin? As a youth, I wondered, for example, why the epistles of Paul were granted the same authority as the collected words of Christ.
Back to the idea of human tinkering. There is a difference between the received wisdom of the Prophet (which is what I mean when I use the word “religion”) and the later human accretions and edits to His teachings (which is, possibly, what most people think of as “religion”).
A commenter here noted that a God that is different at different times must be fictional. I think to a great extent that is true. Bahá’u’lláh says that God is not comprehensible to human beings—that any images or conceptions we have about Him (including gender) are fictions born of our own flawed imaginations. Unable to comprehend the reality, we fashion an understanding of God that is pieced together by our own perceptions, reason, hopes, fears and prejudices.
I’ve found the Hindu scriptures to be eloquent about the difference between the reality of God and the sort of god outfits we try on Him.
Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it came first into being? He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it or did not form it, Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it. — Rig-Veda, Hymn CXXIX, Creation
Those who love the gods go to the gods; but those who love me come to me. The unwise think I am that form of my lower nature which is seen by mortal eyes; they know not my higher nature, imperishable and supreme. — Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 7:23-24
I see in thee all the gods, O my God: and the infinity of the beings of thy creation. — Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita 11:15
I came from a Christian background and understood “scripture” to refer only to the Bible. Bahá’u’lláh’s statements about the reality of the Prophets challenged me to look past the human tradition I had been taught, to the scriptural record of other faiths besides my own. I saw that the God revealed there was not different at different times. If it seemed so, it was because we human beings were different at different times.
And as all things originate from one Essence, so they are developing according to one law, and they are destined to one aim which is Nirvana. Nirvana comes to thee when thou understandest thoroughly and livest according to that understanding, that all things are of one Essence and that there is but one law. Hence, there is but one Nirvana as there is but one truth, not two or three. And the Tathagata is the same to all beings, differing in attitude only so far as all beings are different. The Tathagata, however, knows the law whose essence is salvation, and whose end is the peace of Nirvana. He is the same to all, and yet knowing the requirements of every single being, He does not reveal Himself to all alike. — Dhammapada
This idea—that the great Teachers educate us according to our capacity, is a cornerstone of the teachings of Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá’u’lláh, etc., as well. That contributes greatly to our perception that we worship different gods or that God is capricious or that He is fictional.
I’ve heard repeated arguments that Buddha or Christ or even Muhammad were not real people, but simply invented by some nebulous, but apparently powerful group for their own purposes. It seems less than reasonable to assume that, given the sheer amount of evidence to the contrary, and I think Occam’s Razor would slice on the side of there having been a personage at the core of the legend who taught things that people thought worthy of remembering, repeating, and eventually writing down. Certainly, humans edited the message to suit temporal purposes, but the essentials can easily be seen despite the tinkering of human hands.
We are, of course, hampered in the study of pre-literacy Prophets; the record is fragmentary and subject to the vagaries of human understanding. We also have a fragmentary fossil record supporting the theory of evolution, but it is enough of a record that, taken with other evidence, we can be reasonably certain that evolution is the mechanism by which life progressed on this planet. I submit that there is similar “fossil evidence” for the evolution of religion. The teachings attributed to Buddha or Krishna or Christ are fairly well agreed-upon at this stage and they are, in a sense, a spiritual “fossil record”. In this record, we read about God in the consistency of the prescriptive messages of the Prophets; we read about ourselves in the changing social teachings those Prophets brought and the edits we made.
As we advanced forward in time, as we became literate, this record became ever more solid. The surihs of the Qur’an were written down as a body of work far closer to the revelation of Muhammad than the Gospels were in relation to the ministry of Christ or than the contents of the Tripitaka were collected after the passing of Gautama Buddha. The Gospels were recorded in a piecemeal fashion until Luke—a journalistic pioneer of sorts—rather intentionally went out seeking stories about Christ. The disciples of the Buddha painstakingly gathered their three baskets of written teachings (hence, Tripitaka), until they had a body of work to collate and copy for posterity.
A 2000 year-old revelation is hard to chart, of course, but there is the 1000 year-old Muslim revelation, and—much closer to hand, still—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, who both wrote a record of Their teachings as well as having contemporary chroniclers—friendly, hostile, and neutral—marking Their progress and offering commentary.
Bahá’u’lláh, in His copious writings, affirmed that the pattern of revelation we see in the scriptural record—if we take the time to look—is really there. I personally believe that if we want to have some idea of what the Buddha or Christ or any other Divine Teacher experienced, a study of the lives of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh can be most enlightening. Here, we have an opportunity to see what many atheist thinkers, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, believed humanity would never witness again.
In God is Not Great, Hitchens wrote: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago… We shall have no more prophets which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday.”
When I first read that passage, it rendered me speechless (as hard as that is to believe). Mr. Hitchens’ words are both falsifiable and false, though I’m sure he believed them and felt them to be reasonable. And therein lies the whole problem that being human presents—ultimately, we are limited by our own capacity to know and to understand what we know.
A science magazine that I read long ago contained an illustration of man’s knowledge about the universe. It was a large circle with a tiny dot somewhere near the perimeter. Two arrows completed the drawing—one pointing to the dot, the other to the outer border of the circle. “This,” said the caption on the dot, “is what we know about the universe.”
The caption on the circle? “This is what we don’t know about the universe.”
This is why we have science. It is also why we have religion—because there is another huge circle inside that tiny dot that we are equally ignorant of. It is a final frontier that cannot be seen with material eyes, but that all of us know exists nonetheless.
Next time: The scientific method and useful fictions..