Friday, December 13, 2013

Finding The Antidote To Poisonous Religion

I have been writing on the subject of how I believe that Christianity is not supposed to be like religion (see part 1 and part 2) - that is, a system of insiders and outsiders where we are the right side and everyone else is on the wrong side.  This is a very confusing concept for most people, I would guess - I can tell you that it was for me when I first started dealing with these issues, and still is as I deal with my own dualistic thinking.  I obviously hold certain beliefs to be representative of truth, and worthy of "fighting for" (in a non-violent way, mind you).  But how does one adhere to a religion that transcends religion?  How does one even come to a point where they feel the need to challenge their religious beliefs?

Recognizing the Reality of the Poison
For myself, I came to a point where some things bothered me - I felt that there were unresolved problems I needed to address.  I realized that belief structures that others outside of myself had were causing unhealthy behaviors and attitudes, and then I realized I had been raised in these same belief structures.  And so I decided that I must examine my belief structure.  The realization caused me to open myself up to a possibility I had never considered before: I might be wrong.  This led to what I'd call an awakening.

What I think every human being needs to realize is that we all fall prey to cognitive biases - faulty reasoning which prevents us from seeing the truth.  We actually get pleasure from winning an argument, rather than from discovering a truth as a result of realizing we were wrong.  The Bible calls this pride, and has a lot of negative things to say about it, while telling us that we ought to be humble instead.

One of my favorite diagrams that helps me to conceptualize how bias works is called "The Ladder of Inference":

This is the natural way that all human beings operate - we develop our belief structures based on our observations, which we've added meanings to, and then inferred assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs from.  We also see in this diagram that there is a tension between belief and action - our beliefs affect the way we act, and the way we act affects the way we develop new belief structures.  And these belief structures change the way we observe reality itself!  So a faulty belief structure is like a deadly poison which cripples you and prevents you from seeing straight.

Identifying the Poison

How do we find this poison in our lives?  And what is the antidote?

No, not THAT Poison....

Some would say "read the Bible!"  But there is a naivety to this response that makes me cringe.

It's not that I don't respect the Bible - I have a great deal of respect for it, as should be easily inferred from the way I refer to it throughout my writings.  But I think this knee-jerk response shows a lack of understanding for how our own views shape the way we read the Bible.  It also tends to reinforce the idea that a person who has never read the Bible couldn't possibly know anything about truth, which is a horribly prejudiced view, in my opinion.

So how do we discern between right beliefs and wrong beliefs?

I'd start by changing the wording of that question a bit - I don't think it's helpful to use the terms "right" and "wrong" in this context, because it puts too much pressure on the situation.  We want so badly to be right, and the thought that we might have been wrong about anything puts guilt on us, which pressures us all the more to defend our current position so that we won't have to bear this guilt.  But rather than using the terms "right", and "wrong", I'd say "healthy" and "unhealthy" instead.  I think that using these terms not only takes a bit of the pressure off, but also helps us to understand the method for discerning where the poison lies.

The Bible has a lot to say about a concept known as "sowing and reaping", and Jesus said that you will be able to know a false teacher "by their fruit" (Mt. 7:15-20).  The apostle Paul talks about the "fruit of the Spirit" in Gal. 5:22-23 - "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."  So a healthy belief structure will lead to a bountiful harvest of these good fruits, but an unhealthy belief structure will lead to hate, misery, fear, anger, unkindness, malice, irritability, and a lack of self-control (this is my own list, but I'm sure you could add others).  

The idea of the fruits of a belief structure is not all that dissimilar to the scientific method's approach to experimenting in order to prove or disprove a hypothesis.  Science is always developing new ideas based on old theories, as well as making adjustments to old theories.  It is not often that an old theory is thrown out completely, but when an experiment shows results that don't fit within a theory, it shows that adjustments might need to be made to the theory.  

Well, that didn't turn out so well....

In the same way, we ought to be constantly examining our beliefs and our actions to see if they produce "good fruits" or "bad fruits".  Do our beliefs make us healthy or unhealthy?

But I believe that we can get a clearer picture by expanding our views as well.

Rather than only focusing our ourselves, we can observe the track society is on and the results of belief structures.  Along with the theme of "religionless Christianity" and how beliefs play out in society, I read an interesting article recently about research that found that when people thought about religion, it made them more prejudiced, while thoughts on God caused them to be more generous.  

Many Christians like to think they're shaping today's secular culture with their faith. But in reality, they're shaping their faith with yesterday's secular culture.

The central question in this exploration is: do these beliefs cause love for neighbors?  Love was a central teaching of Jesus, even to the point of demanding love of enemies.  So if a belief structure is not leading you, or a larger cultural group, to love others, but is rather leading to division and strife, you've got bad fruits.

Finding the Antidote
Once we've we've examined the fruits of our beliefs and recognized that we have poison in our system, we can then search for the antidote to this poison.  But how do we search for an antidote?

The mere idea of challenging our beliefs is often frightening for people.  But this may help us to recognize where the problems lie - because if you realize that love should be the grounding of all your beliefs, then you can keep in mind that love drives out fear (I John 4:18).  Paul tells us in 2 Tim. 1:7 that God doesn't give us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love and a sound mind.  And in John 8:32, Jesus said that the truth will set us free!  Free to question, free to be skeptical, free to doubt!  Because love can bear it!

Often our beliefs structures are built in such a way as to protect themselves - we fear questioning them, because we fear the consequences.  But this is not how love works.  Love doesn't build loyalty through fear.  And love does not demand that we be ideologically pure in order to be part of "the in crowd" (see I Cor. 13:5).  In "The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi", Gandhi writes:
Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.

The Buddha once told a parable about a poisoned arrow -  Thich Nhat Hanh paraphrased this parable like so:
Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.

If your beliefs are causing you to live in a way that is harmful, you have a poisoned arrow in your side, and love would not demand you keep it there.  Love would set you free to remove it!

St. Augustine once said:
The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.
So do not fear - set the truth free to defend itself, and you will be free.

When you are free to question, and you have examined the fruits of your belief structures - both in yourself and in the larger societal groups around you - you may then search for the cure with love as your guide.  You may do this in a variety of ways, but I'd like to suggest two methods.

The first method is to change your practices.  Just as our belief structures shape our actions, I believe that our habits change the way we perceive reality.  Mark Twain once said that if you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you've always got.  

The central message of Jesus has always been love for neighbors - so if you want to find an antidote to the poison, begin to look for practical ways to change your habits in a way that shows love for neighbors.

This highlights a second method for finding the antidote for the poison - examining alternate perspectives without fear.  In "Introducing Theologies of Religions", Paul Knitter writes:
A simple analogy might make all this clearer and reveal its relevance for our issue of dialogue: we might compare “truth” or “the way things are” to the starry universe around us. There is so much of it, and it is so far away, that with our naked eyes, we really can’t see what’s there. We have to use a telescope. But by enabling us to see something of the universe, our telescope also prevents us from seeing everything. A telescope, even the mighty ones used by astronomers, can take in only so much. This describes our human situation. We’re always looking at the truth through some kind of cultural telescope, the one provided us by our parents, teachers, and broader society. The good news about this situation is that our telescope enables us to see; the bad news is that it prevents us from seeing everything.
The answer to the problem Knitter highlights is surprisingly simple and is only possible if we overcome fear: borrow someone else's telescope.  By expanding our horizons, and examining the multiple ways that other people and cultures perceive "truth", we can metaphorically borrow their telescopes, and look at the sky through alternate lenses and from many different angles.  And by doing this we can begin to build a better model of reality.  And when we do this, we might find out that the people we've been afraid of aren't so scary after all - they are just fellow travelers searching for answers to the same questions you and I have been asking.  And when we overcome the fear that separates us from our fellow travelers, we might just find the antidote to our poison is in the possession of our new-found friends.

Next: Preaching the Gospel in the Paradigm of Religionless Christianity

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