I am a deeply religious nonbeliever – this is a somewhat new kind of religion. (Albert Einstein)
If you are spiritually orientated, you may welcome the notion of a deeper universal truth that applies to all people in all circumstances. However these days there is often an uncertainty about religion.
North-western Europe is no longer mainly a Christian culture. It is a secular society. Transcendent reality tends no longer to be seen in terms of the traditional God of religion. Instead it is seen as one’s spiritual Source or a higher Power or a Being of love.
Some are uncomfortable with the idea of the Lord Jesus held by the Christian religion. Instead, one might be more attracted to the concept of ‘Christ consciousness’ or ‘the Christ within’.
A question therefore arises. Has religious conviction any place for those engaged in authentic spiritual search? Religion – does it have anything to offer?
There is now a widespread rejection of old-style western religion with its judgmental image of God, blood atonement, God interceding in the world as a result of placatory prayer, and salvation only for believers. Despite possessing such mistaken teachings as still part of their tradition, many Christian communities are beginning to put far less emphasis on such points of doctrine. Instead they are giving prominence to getting ever closer to loving their Lord and keeping His commandments.
According to lecturer David Tacey, the God of tradition is remote, detached, interventionist and supernatural. However, the divine Being of a new spirituality is said to be intimate, intense and immanent. This is not to say this idea of our spiritual Source is not transcendent and sublime. But this transcendence is imagined differently, not through miracles and magic, but through the radical presence of divine Being. The new conception is a mystery at the core of ordinary reality. A deeper dimension of the real that transcends our normal perception.
Some people want to be told what to think. I would suggest that such an individual tends to embrace the creeds and dogma of religion as a way of reducing the anxiety associated with uncertainty. Being religious believers they feel they are no longer obliged to deeply consider life but can take on board available off the shelf religious doctrines.
Most of us however, want to remain open to various considerations before others can convince us about what any one religion or spiritual movement teaches. Unfortunately a huge variability in the contemporary scene of spirituality confuses most people. Nevertheless we do assume conclusive answers may not be easily found. And so we dislike it when religious people communicate in a dogmatic way.
Basic concepts of religion
The adult looking for where their spiritual impulse lives and grows will appreciate the complexity of life and the need for self-criticism. There is an understandable unwillingness to accept ‘God in a box’ and ‘pat answers’ of traditional faith. He or she sees these as too simplistic.
Yet, as children we had to start our learning somewhere. So our parents gave us basic ideas and boundaries about right and wrong. This was done in a way that suited our simple ways of thinking.
The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg’s concept of ‘historical faith’ is relevant. He suggests that the learning of basic religious ideas, e.g. about the reality of the Divine and our survival after death, is an important stepping stone, albeit a temporary one, towards later inner enlightenment. All religion contains such basic ideas.
Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do – they all contain truths. (Muhammad Ali)
Swedenborg further argues that spiritual illumination cannot develop from natural facts and ideas. Instead it can only arise slowly from a basic awareness of ethical values and the stories in sacred writing of religion. A negative atmosphere towards religion at home or school or a denial of the idea of God or of life after death, will limit and confine deeper understanding of spiritual matters. However, he claims good elementary ideas we heard about when we were young, instead will act as receptacles for our later receiving deeper perceptions and good intentions from the spiritual world.
Life throws up all sorts of problems that upset our equilibrium – insensitive bosses, faithless lovers, ungrateful children, or bouts of chronic disease. Some of us suffer depression, disillusionment, a sense of futility or cynicism as a result of these. Despite these problems do we believe we can make ourselves a better person and a happy one? When what we feel all around us is black then we need some sort of light in which to place our hope. When we feel we just cannot deal with what life is throwing at us we need some power more reliable than ourselves in which we can place our trust.
Swedenborg’s religious view is we are responsible for how we choose to live our lives.
Religion is all about how we live, and the religious way to live is to do good (Emanuel Swedenborg)
In line with this he says we need to co-operate with the higher energy of divine love and truth to transform our character. We may feel we need a higher form of help, beyond the self-help we can give ourselves, to deal with our difficulties. If so, we might pray to a personal God for guidance and encouragement.
Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening. (Mahatma Gandhi)
The trouble is converting our thoughts to address an invisible presence is a leap of faith. And asking what God wants of us is making a huge personal commitment. We might not like his answer.
Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems