I have, in my life, felt the spark of satori, a perfect moment of crystal clarity. The first time was on a brilliant summer day in 1972. I was standing on a street corner in Big Spring, Texas when I had a revelation: God loves everybody.
Let me backtrack a little: I was raised a Roman Catholic, and spent most of the first through sixth grades in a Catholic school. At the beginning of every day, we would say the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. I remember sitting in first grade, across the isle from my best friend Gary Stevens, when we heard the news of President Kennedy's assassination. The whole school walked next door to the church to pray for him. It was pretty much like other schools, I suppose, teaching history, geography, science, math and other subjects, except we also had classes in religion. We were taught that God is a supreme, all-knowing, perfect being-- a being beyond the petty prejudices and faults humans carry all the time. By the time I was a teenager, I had accumulated quite a bit of (predominantly Christian) religious instruction.
That's why the epiphany I had on the corner of 7th Street was so amazing. It was like I'd been looking at a puzzle my whole life and suddenly got it. All at once, everything became clear. God loves everybody.
What exactly does it mean for God to love everybody? What it means is that it doesn't matter what church, synagogue, temple or whatever a person belongs to (or none at all), God still loves him. If God loved any one group of people more than another, that would imply that God had a bias against the other group, a prejudice, which would mean that God had a fault and was not perfect, and therefore not a true God. God doesn't love any group more than another– God is fair. God loves everybody completely, fully and equally, with complete fairness. God doesn't love men more than women, or Catholics more than Protestants, or white people more than Black people, or Americans more than Russians, or heterosexuals more than homosexuals, or herbavores more than omnivores, or anybody more than anybody else; it's all the same degree of love for everybody.
About that same time I lost interest in organized religion. I saw that it was too easy for a person to go through the motions of getting dressed up and attending mass and singing the hymns and putting money in the collection plate and smile right along with everybody else... and then screw everybody in the world the other six days of the week. If you don't mean what you say in church and act accordingly outside of church, it doesn't mean anything. A person could do that his whole life and still give the impression of being a good, religious person. That didn't seem right to me.
In Catholic school, the Sisters taught me that it's what you hold in your heart that's important. The Ten Commandments say "thou shalt not bear false witness," (Exodus 20:16) which means to not lie, but I always took that to include not lying to yourself, too. I saw people lying to themselves all the time in church. Going to a building once a week and saying words and going through the motions is not being a religious person. The time a person spends in church is not an investment, like putting a little away once a week for retirement, and anybody who thinks so is just lying to themselves. Going through the motions is no guarantee of salvation.
Several things bothered me about religion. It bothered me that it was wrong to pray to craven images ... but then, we turned around and prayed to patron saints. There was only one God... but then, we worshiped God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We weren't supposed to believe in anything other than God... but then, we believed in angels. There was just something mythological about the whole thing. It always seemed to me that the laws of the universe should be simple and direct, not that this would happen to you unless you did that, but THIS THING HERE would cancel that out, and so on. I also never liked the sanctimonious attitude of some religious people, the attitude that I'M a member of THIS church, which means I'M going to HEAVEN, and YOU'RE NOT. People have been fighting wars over this sort of thing for thousands of years, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed in the name of God. When it's really supposed to bring people together, organized religion sometimes puts people against each other. We live with biases and prejudices and other various faults every day. Religion is supposed to help us overcome these faults, but the "US versus THEM" mentality, fostered by organized religion, too often serves to nurture the faults.
I'm not putting down organized religion completely, because I know it makes lots of people feel really good... I just think we need to remember that the important relationship is between God and you -- not God and your congregation. Feelings, emotions, ethics and values can get clouded by social situations, and however we may choose to look at it, organized religion is a social situation. Religion is and should be a deeply personal matter, and it's the personal level that really counts. If there is a God, then that's the level He sees... and fancy clothes and loud singing and heavy tithing wouldn't impress God at all.
(...And don't talk to me about "ghosts," or "spirits," or "angels"-- I have trouble spending enough time with the people I can see.)
The "US versus THEM" viewpoint comes from the whole God versus Satan (good versus evil) situation. It's always bothered me that if God was all-powerful, why would Satan be any kind of threat? The whole business with sin is a big cop-out. If Satan makes people commit sins, why should people have to pay for committing sins? If someone made you commit a crime-- put you in a situation where you had no choice, you wouldn't be responsible and it would be wrong to punish you. Punishing a person when it's not their fault would be unfair of God, thereby making God imperfect and a false god. The free will argument is a cop-out, too. That argument is that people have free will to choose whether to sin or not, and if they choose to sin they'll be punished... but if that's the case, why does Satan have to be involved at all? I have found myself in the situation where I believe in God... but I don't believe in the devil. I don't believe in Satan because there's no reason for his existence.
I mean, look at a light bulb. A light bulb generates light, which goes off in all directions until it hits an obstruction, at which point darkness forms in the shadow. If God is the light bulb, generating the light, what generates the darkness? Nothing; nothing generates the darkness. The darkness is merely the absence of light. It's the same with God. God generates goodness, but there's no need for a devil; there's no need for a personality to generate and create the evil in the world; evil is merely the absence of good. If there's evil in the world, it's because people have allowed it to be put there. In the long run, we are all responsible for our own actions.
The problem with the whole THEM versus US mentality is there is no "them." We're ALL "us" ...and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can all start getting along.
...And don't get me started on the views of fundamentalist Christians, the guys who say every word in the Bible should be taken literally. That's a crock, because the words of the Bible were never meant to be taken literally. The Bible is too full of contradictions and errors for every word to be "divinely inspired." (The argument that the contradictions are just "mysteries we were not meant to understand in this world" is a cop-out, because that would apply to stuff that isn't contradicted, too.) If God is such a divine, perfect being, I think He could afford a proofreader. The words of the Bible aren't really what's important. What's important are the lessons learned from the words of the Bible.
When Jesus wanted to share a truth or teach people a lesson, He didn't lay down a bunch of restrictive rules and regulations. Instead, he told a parable– a story even children could understand. Jesus used metaphors to get His ideas across, and I think that's how the rest of the Bible goes, too. For example: When the Apostles are in the boat without Jesus, and it's really stormy and the journey is hard, Jesus appears walking on water, and things are okay after that. The lesson is pretty clear that without Jesus, life can be rough, but with Jesus, things will be okay. Whether Jesus actually walked on the water is irrelevant to the lesson of the story. The lessons in the Bible are supposed to teach us how to get along with other people and how to live a more fulfilling life, not how science should be taught in public schools. The Bible belongs in church, and science books belong in schoolrooms; end of story.
I'm reminded of the story of a man who went to visit a Zen master. The man said, "Master, I have always heard of this thing called... the Moon. What is it?" The Zen master pointed his finger up at the Moon and said, "That's the Moon, right there." The man went back home to his friend. The friend said, "Did you find out what the Moon was?" "Yes," the man said, holding out a pointed finger: "THIS is the Moon." After I read that, it occurred to me that some people do that with the Bible, too. They concentrate too much on the words without really listening to what the words SAY. They worship the book itself more than what's in the book. (This isn't limited to Christians, either; people from lots of different religions do this.)
The Bible also doesn't really say the world is going to end. When the Bible talks about "the world," it's talking about the world around us, or the age we live in, like the Dark Ages or the Reagan Administration. (Talk about your dark ages!) When it talks about "the world" ending, it means one age ends and another, completely different one begins. Fundamentalists like to look at the Book of Revelations as the flowchart for the end of the world, and take every word and verse and say that's what's going to happen in the future... but Revelations is just one big dream sequence. Fundamentalists forget that the books of the Bible were written to teach lessons.
So, what does the Book of Revelations teach us? It talks about Armageddon and the fight between good and evil and the ultimate triumph of good and New Jerusalem and the number 666 and the 1,000 years and all, but when you cut through all the imagery and rhetoric and sound bites, what I think Revelations is really teaching us is this: that after every major conflict, everything changes --nothing can go back to the way it was before. When you think about it, like how America was before and after the Civil War, or the world before and after World War II, Revelations is right. Great conflicts change everything. I think that's the lesson of the Book of Revelations, and everything else is mythology.
I'm also pretty sure that nowhere in the Bible does it tell you to stand on street corners and yell at people.
If you question your beliefs long enough, you start to question whether God even exists, or if the whole idea of God was invented by people. Looking for proof of God's existence is a waste of time; in the first place, it all comes back to faith, and in the second place we're only mere mortals looking for a being unbelievably more advanced that us. The most we can hope to find is clues of God's existence. Using the spectrum of light as an example, we now know that light comes in all kinds of forms, and our puny senses can only perceive one small percentage of what's out there. Our senses, therefore, would probably only be able to perceive part of God, a likewise small percentage. We would only be able to see, at the most, part of God.
I think we already do. It's love. When we feel love, we're feeling part of God. I mean, think about it: where does love fit in with science? We can't measure it, we can't contain it, we can't guard against it-- it's something completely beyond logic. There's also no need for it to exist-- people can procreate and continue the species and live out their lives without love. It doesn't need to exist... but it does. For all the heartache it sometimes causes, love is about the greatest gift people possess. Love helps make our lives complete and worthwhile. Love is simple, complete, elemental, just how I imagined God would be in my youth. These days, I don't think of God as a wise, old, bearded man wearing a bedsheet, but rather as a force of nature, like gravity or radiation... and if you've ever been in love, you'd have to admit it can overwhelm you like a force of nature. The old posters were right: God is love. I think if there is a God, then love is the part of God we are able to perceive with our puny human senses... And if that's just what we can see, imagine how much more there might be!
Before someone points it out, I realize the problem with this theory is obvious. If God, in the form of love, is a force of nature, like magnetism or heat, then there's no real need for a personality to be involved. There's no need for God to be what we would understand as a "person," with feelings and emotions, likes and dislikes, a sense of humor, a favorite color, and so on. The universe would still run along as it always has. The argument could be raised that such things are merely human characteristics, and that God would be above such trivialities. It would even logically follow that people are being anthropormorphic with God to give Him any human characteristics. The theory may be logical, but I can see how it might be less than emotionally satisfying. (I never said I had everything worked out.)
When I was younger, I thought I knew what happened to people after they died. I thought I knew what my place in the universe was. I thought I understood the existence of God. These days, I'm not so sure anymore. My background leads me to believe that God put all the wonders of the universe here for the benefit of people, but looking around it's obvious the vast majority of the universe is hostile to human life. (I also have to admit that if there was no God, the wonders of the Earth would still be here.) I know there's no proof of the existence of God, but you can't quantify mercy, or mathematically calculate compassion, or put love in a bottle, either. I don't know what happens in the next life, or even if there will be a next life. I don't have any control over what happens to me after I die. All I know about is this life, right here, right now. All I can control is how I live right now, today, with a degree of influence on how the future will be for those that come after me.
Like the song says, we're only dancing on this Earth for a short while. I think we owe it to ourselves to strive for a happy life, and all we owe to society and the people that come after us to try to be honest, help people that need help, protect the innocent, and work on leaving this world a little better than how we found it. I think we have all the tools we need to live happily in this world whether there is a God or not. I think that, if there is a God, He would want us to be happy, right here, right now, today.
I think if the only message people got out of religion, whichever one they may follow (if any), was that we'd all be better off if we try to love one another, things would be okay.
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