"It is wrong - and dangerous - to believe literal truth can be found in religious texts. "
What a time it was in March 2003 when I read Karen Armstrong 's "The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. " War fever was running high outside. Inside, my mother was dying an agonizing death of cancer.
Upon my breaks, it was to Armstrong 's in-depth history of politics and religion that I turned for background to help make sense of what was then happening in the world. I couldn 't stop reading her book and feeling "flusterated " - a fusion of flustered and frustrated - on how little there does seem to be under the sun when it comes to destruction and mayhem in the name of the Almighty. Stupid sh*t has been going on for a long time.
Inside, when my mother was awake, it was a different reading that I was doing for her. Early on she saw that I had been editing printed pages of my writings. She asked what I was working on and I started reading to her. After a page or so, she stopped me and asked: "Son, isn 't that Jesus you 're reading? " I told her that it was. She said that she recognized it all but that she had never heard it read like that before. "Did they find a new Gospel, son, one according to Jesus? "
I told her, no, that I had interpreted Jesus into modern English and rearranged the passages from the Gospels so as to make a flowing sermon. I explained that only through experiencing the cadence, inflections and pauses could one really got a sense of the power of the words of Jesus. Words that were (and still are) so powerful that they lasted several decades before being written down. His parables and jokes are full of earthiness, humanity and humor. He is a master story teller who brings profound truths down to the level of the common person. Jesus did not sound like a theologian or professor. Nor did he sound like most preachers.
So my arrangement of Jesus was what I read to my mother as she lay dying. That and beautiful Biblical passages were what my mother wanted to hear. For the loving and tender reading of scripture is a healing art that had been practiced by her father, a minister. An art that my grandfather passed along to my mother. And my paternal grandfather was a minister who passed along the same art to my father, a minister. Comfort. Reassure. Uplift. Time after time, soothing reading of scripture of whatever tradition throughout the world has helped many suffering people.
The inside space of divine reading is totally different from sitting outside on the porch reading the complex history of modern fundamentalism by Armstrong. Divine reading is more a right-hemisphere holistic intuitive activity while the other is a left-hemisphere sequential meta-logical-analysis. The former is the world of symbolism and literary license. It is the world of truth which must be told by fantastic stories. The latter is the world that holds something is only true if it happened as told. Ironically, it appears that the more fundamentalists have come to believe their scriptures to be literally true the more volatile the fundamentalists have become.
For starters, there is the matter of conservative religious-political fundamentalism of the Christian, Hindu, Moslem or whatever variety. Likewise, by my definition of fundamentalism, there is also fundamentalism on the left. I hold that fundamentalism is any system which has an answer for all questions before they are even asked. The fundamentalist knows the highest truth and feels completely justified to take whatever action in accordance with his belief system. As such, I hold that communists and atheists can have their fair share of fundamentalists.
With communism for example, substitute the word history for God. Envision the prehistoric time when we still lived communally in tribes. Then came enslavement at the hands of the oppressors. The modern Moses, Karl Marx, brought forth the dictates of what must be done to lead the workers in their struggle with the bosses. When the final battle has been fought, then there will be the promised land of the proletariat. Communism is a variation of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition, especially in its emphasis on justice and triumph of the poor and enslaved.
Even so, many well-educated and sophisticated atheist "progressives " reject all religion as invalid or as some type of psychological disorder. Take for example, an article entitled "Widespread Ignorance " posted by Sam Harris at the HuffingtonPost.com. Harris basically says believers of intelligent design are "scary religious imbeciles. " He opines that:
"Political liberals seem to have drawn the wrong lesson from these developments and are now thumbing scripture, wondering how best to ingratiate themselves to the legions of men and women in our country who vote mainly on the basis of religious dogma. "
Harris also says that it comes down to clear choices: either Mary was a virgin or not, etc. I am afraid Harris and other similar thinkers make the same mistake right-wing fundamentalists make. They assume sacred scripture to be literally true or false. Both extremes seem to allow for the possibility of only literal truth. As such, both confuse the nature of science and religion. Both commit fallacies of oversimplification and the manufacture of false dilemmas. Both fail to appreciate the metaphorical, mythological and mystical nature of spiritual language.
Simply put, science is about the how while religion (or philosophy) is about the why. Science can tell us how life works. It can 't address the larger issue of universal meaning. Science, of course, can provide us with evidence by which we can rectify our views. Religion is not the vehicle for providing literal truth. Religion is the mechanism by which we are to experience and reunite with the Divine, which is essentially beyond all our feeble attempts at definition. Together science and religion reflect the two halves of the cerebrum and are like yin and yang. Neither side can eliminate the other without there being imbalances. Using all our brain is to make use of all our resources, both the scientific and the spiritual, but not as a mesh-mash or some slovenly stew of religious pseudo-science. Nor is it done by using quasi-science to answer religious questions. Together, both sides can seek a common good while maintaining their distinct roles. We can render unto God and the microscope. We start doing so when we value understanding over proselyting and championing our beliefs and opinions.
It 's rather like marriage. You can 't insist on being right and stay married. There 's a big difference between being right and being righteous in conduct and words. Instead of arguing, those who have ears need to start hearing. If there is anything that is truly horrendous then it is fighting and warring over something that we can 't begin to comprehend. What we don't know is enough to fill universe after universe for eternity.
Instead, we Americans wage war on each other, believing that we literally know it all. And judging by most of the nasty and vulgar comments on the internet, our war is none too civil. We fight over anything. I read an article today about the need for mental activity to stave off senility. The discussion board was nothing more than another jostling bout between conservatives and liberals.
Even more heated is the current holy war of evolution versus intelligent design. Both sides base their case on the literal reading of the creation story in Genesis. Both sides agree it happened either exactly like stated in the Bible or else it didn 't happen. The atheists say that evolution is responsible for life, not God. Therefore, the story in Genesis is not true, the Bible is not true and religion is not only worthless but the biggest evil in the world. The other side, of course, holds that God created the world like stated in Genesis and that if you believe in evolution then you are an atheist. The conflict over creationism versus evolution results from such a simple yet profound misuse of language, of confusing literal with mythological truth.
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