MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Why I Love Religion

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I love religion.

I love the holy texts, the rituals, the art, the histories, the practices, the mystical teachings and the sacred spaces. I love religion, while very aware of its obvious dangers and limitations, because for the last 15 years religion has provided insight, intellectual growth, friendships and inspiration that continue to transform my life for the better.

We all know that religion can be harsh and divisive, and these destructive qualities need to be brought in the light and confronted. I often wish, though, that those who have been hurt by, or are unshakably critical of, religion could see and feel my experience. This wish is not based on any desire to convince or convert, but to present another possibility that may expand the conversation.

Although I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home with parents who encouraged us in Judaism, until the age of 37, I wanted little to do with religion. Religion seemed to be no more than a crutch for those who are too afraid to face life directly, or a backwards tradition that had nothing to do with modern life. And I could not imagine how any intelligent adult could possibly believe in some kind of super-being who created everything, gave us texts, and cares about us in some way. I firmly believed that if only humanity could get past these ridiculous superstitions the world would be a much better place.

All this changed in a moment when suddenly, unexpectedly, and from a normal state of awareness, my defenses were stripped away and I was given a glimpse of the spiritual realm. Such moments are very difficult to describe, and always lose their reality to the limitation of language — like reading about sex compared to having (great) sex. I can say, though, that what I experienced was beyond anything I could have conceived. In that moment I saw with microscopic clarity of vision, felt an unrestricted connection to others, and was surrounded by a loving embrace. And in that moment I received a message from a “voice” that spoke with endless compassion and wisdom. It said simply, “I love you, and you must change.” I cried for the first time that I could remember, and audibly answered, “yes”.

I now know this moment as grace — the spontaneous, unwarranted, self-revelation of spirit: God’s wake-up call.

No one could have been more shocked than I, and as much as I wondered if this was just a neurological malfunction or delusion, the experience started a process that changed me for the better. I began to see other people with more kindness and empathy, and for the first time felt that life has a purpose. And for this I was very grateful. It was no longer a question of whether God exists — because I now saw that God is more than an invention to settle our fears and explain natural phenomena — but an exploration of the nature of God as I experienced It; as something that is not in conflict with reason and science, but that actually enhances and clarifies existence.

In order to help understand this I started reading all kinds of spiritual books — mostly non-religious — and began to discover that my experience was by no means unique. Others had described similar encounters, and their description aligned almost exactly with mine, as though we were tourists who had visited the same lands. And I continued to have spontaneous mystical experiences, which encouraged me to continue my search.

I read holy books from many religions, and soon found wonderful writers who came from various traditions: Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Adin Steinsaltz, Elie Wiesel, Chasidic Masters, the Dalai Lama, Rumi, and commentators on the Mahabharata and Upanishads, to name a few. These writers presented spiritual practices and teachings that were nothing like the simple image that I had carried about religion. These were not about dogma and claims of exclusive truth, but something much richer and more complex. These authors searched and struggled to understand the mystery of creation, to celebrate the beauty of life in all its pain, and to tell us of our obligations to others.

I began to explore religion in a new light, and went to Buddhist meditation retreats, Catholic Masses, Evangelical healings, various yogas, and Jewish prayer services. These all expanded my sense of what religion is and what it can be. Judaism called to me most strongly, not because I found it “better” or “truer”, but because it is the tradition in to which I was born, and it felt deeply familiar, even though I had never really known it.

I gradually discovered that religion is, in its essence, a compilation of experiences and teaching from those who have glimpsed the spiritual realm, have known of its transformative power, and have tried to communicate this to others so that we may be more fully alive. Religion is to the spirit what a gymnasium is to the body, and a school is to the mind. This does not mean that one needs religion to be spiritual — just as one does not need to go to a gym to be physically fit — and much of my spiritual practice is not specifically religious. But at its best religion sets out in a systematic way to help us nurture spirit and care for each other.

Of course religion has been hijacked for a variety of destructive reasons, and as I wrote earlier, this must be addressed directly. But much of the criticism of religion is simply not true. While religion is often pointed to as the cause of most wars, this is not statistically accurate. Greed and power are the cause of most wars. The vast majority of wars have not been overtly religious — unless one claims that Nationalism, Communism or Nazism are religions, in which case the definition of “religion” becomes so distorted as to be meaningless. And, statistically, most religious people are not fundamentalists, and most recognize the validity of other traditions. I encourage those who are totally opposed to religion to look at it realistically and with an open mind.

The need to praise and to give thanks to something greater than our selves is a basic human impulse, and when done with clear intention and with a supportive community elevates us and makes our lives happier and more effective. Without this we can descend in to lives devoted only to filling personal desires. Religion proclaims that there is more to reality that our normal perceptions can recognize, that life is sacred, that we must love each others, and that gratitude is the highest state of being. For this reason it deserves my love.

~ Rabbi Alan Lurie

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Written by MattAndJojang

September 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. I really enjoyed this. As it happens, I read another blog this morning I think you would enjoy. Here’s the link to the specific entry at Practicing Resurrection.

    shoreacres

    September 3, 2012 at 12:43 am

  2. The article also resonated with me. I would like to think that it expressed beautifully what I thought about religion.

    Read the blog post “Selling Water by the River” and your accompanying comments. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree wholeheartedly that we must distinguish between the teachings of the great spiritual figures and the institutions that claim to propagate their teachings. The danger of institutionalizing spiritual truth is illustrated by this story:

    “One day the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street.They saw ahead a man stooping down and picking something from the street. The man looked at it and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, ‘What did that man pick up?’ ‘He picked up a piece of the Truth,’ said the devil.’ That is very bad business for you, then,’ said his friend. ‘Oh, not all,’ the devil replied. ‘I am going to let him organize it.'”

    As a lay missionary for many years, I’ve seen up close the negative effects of organized religion. It seems that sometimes there is a great disparity between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus that these institutions talk about. For instance, as a Catholic Christian, I am very much saddened by the widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by our clergy.

    This does not mean, however, that I have given up on religion or abandoned my affiliation with my own religious tradition. I still love the Jesus that I find in the gospels, the sacramental rituals of our church, the teachings of our great spiritual and mystical writers. Needless to say, as a student of comparative religion, I have learned so much and been enriched by the spiritual teachings and practices of other religions, especially Zen Buddhism.

    Because of religion, I have experienced that there is more to reality that our physical senses can recognize. Religion has given meaning to my life and has taught me the inherent dignity of the human person. And as such, no matter what the person’s background or status is, he/she deserves to valued and respected.

    I guess, what’s important is to distinguish the unhealthy and life-denying aspects of religion from what’s true, good, and beautiful. Also, it’s important to put primacy on religious freedom, on the primacy of the individual’s conscience over any religious organization, no matter how respectable or hallowed it is.

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    September 3, 2012 at 9:29 am

  3. This is a beautiful post and I’m very glad to have discovered it. I listened to a talk by Marcus Borg recently and he described having had an experience very similar to yours. Like you he began researching religious mysticism and was amazed to discover that his experience was not uncommon. Like you, I suspect, he gained an assurance of the truth of the reality of God and settled into his native religious tradition, but in a way that was open-minded and not triumphalist or condemnatory of other faith traditions. I am so glad to have read this post as resonates deeply with some things that have been on my mind lately.

    If you’re interested and have the time, here is a link to the Borg talk. http://www.northernspiritradio.org/index.asp?command=ShowInfo&ID=428480071086

    peace

    Bill

    September 3, 2012 at 8:50 pm

  4. The post was actually written by Rabbi Alan Lurie. I have to agree it’s beautifully written. It also deeply resonated with me because there are parallels to his journey and mine.

    My spiritual journey started in my teens, when I attended a prayer meeting. It was through that prayer meeting that I had a deep spiritual experience. This led me to study deeply not only Christianity and the great Christian mystics but other religions as well, especially Zen Buddhism.

    I have to admit, though, that there was a time that I thought of leaving Christianity after having a deep Zen experience while attending a one week Zen retreat. Fortunately, while surfing the internet I came across a website of a Christian theologian who was practicing Zen. We corresponded and he explained to me my Zen experience in Christian terms.

    I now understand that my Christian experience of God’s presence and His unconditional love and my Zen experience of the Oneness of the universe and compassion towards all living beings are not contradictory to each other but, in fact, complement one another.

    Today, I’d like to think that I’m still a Christian in spite of the fact that I studied other religions and adapted some of their practices. My approach was to remain open to other faith traditions while remaining faithful to my Christian faith. I have to admit though that it wasn’t easy. For one thing, I have to ensure that I didn’t fall into the trap of religious syncretism while studying and adapting the teachings and practices of other religions.

    But having said that, being open to other faith traditions and learning from them has deeply enriched my life and even broadened my Christian faith!

    By the way, thank you, for sharing the link to Marcus Borg’s talk. I’ll surely check it out.

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    September 3, 2012 at 11:01 pm


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