Saturday, 7 June 2014

Are we the religious animal? A Pentecost reflection

I was recently sent the following bit of wisdom by Robert Fulghum. It got me thinking about that often heard phrase about humanity "We are the religious animal"...anyhow here is the the little chip of wisdom...


To be human is to be religious.

To be religious is to be mindful.

To be mindful is to pay attention.

To pay attention is to sanctify existence.

Rituals are one way in which attention is paid.

Rituals arise from the stages and ages of life.

Rituals transform the ordinary into the holy.

Rituals may be public, private, or secret.

Rituals are in constant evolution and reformation.
Ritual refers to two kinds of acts: those things we do for the first time that, in fact, have been done by the human race again and again forever – and those patterns that we ourselves repeat again and again because they bring structure and meaning to our individual and collective lives. A consideration of human and personal history will remind us that rituals are not set in concrete – that public forms, private celebrations, and even secret acts get modified over time to more nearly satisfy changing needs.

Today is Pentecost one of the most important days in the Christian Calendar. Not that many will have noticed, it certainly does not come with the same fuss as Christmas and Easter and yet it is deeply significant.

The word Pentecost means the 50th day. Pentecost, within the Christian tradition, falls 50 days after Easter. The original Pentecost though was the Jewish holy day known as Shavuot, which comes 50 days after the Passover. Now Passover marked the Exodus from Pharoah’s enslavement. Remember the Last Supper was Jesus calling his disciples to commemorate this. So 50 days later those very same disciples and many other Jews gathered once again to mark the Jewish Pentecost, Shavuot.

Shavuot marks the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and was observed for centuries before the account recorded in the book of Acts when the presence of the Spirit is understood to have descended. Both Pentecost’s marked the dawning of a new era. For the Hebrews it was the receiving of the “Law of God”, which an observant Jew has to follow; for Christians it was the receiving of the Holy Spirit. They both came at a time when the people were lost and frightened and squabbling amongst themselves; they both offered the people a sense of unity across their differences; they both offered the people a sense of identity and understanding, a narrative to follow; they both were about creating a new religious identity and purpose.

Pentecost commemorates the beginning of a new revelation, a new step forward in religious understanding and practise. This it would appear, continues on and on. Religion, as does all life, continues to evolve, it has to or it will whither away and die. I wonder if ours might be a time for a new Pentecost.

Now there are those who will say that is the last thing that we need; there are those who will say that what we really need is an end to religion all together. Many see religion as the cause of most of humanities troubles and that really it’s for the weak, the feeble and mindless. It has been seen as a pill or an opiate or a crutch to keep us upright and moving forward. It’s not just the "New Atheists" either that hold this view, such thoughts have been around for some time, for all time to be honest. Sigmund Freud didn’t think much of religion. In 1927 he authored a book titled “The Future of an Illusion”. In it he argued that the belief in an almighty personal God who set everything in motion and authored the rules and who human beings depended on was like an obsessional childlike neurosis that humanity would one day outgrow as we developed and matured through scientific understandings of ourselves and nature.

Now what Freud failed to recognise was the capacity for religious understanding to evolve. He had a model for religion and he stuck to it, a bit like many of the "New Atheists" do today. I suspect that in doing so they are committing a fundamental error; I believe that even if we did do away with all religion that currently exists in our world today that a new form would eventually emerge. Why you may well ask? Well because I believe that we human beings are by our very nature religious animals. There is something within us that needs to celebrate life itself in all its pain and all its glory; there is something within us that wants to dance and to sing and re-enact the drama of what it is be; there is something within us that wants to acknowledge the mystery within and way beyond scientific knowledge and insight; there is something within us that wants to offer gratitude for what inspires us to be all that we can be; there is something within us that wants to offer hope, consolation, courage and endurance in the face of the fear and the many disappointments of life; there is something within us that asks the question why, when we consider the mysteries of life and death? These I believe are religious and spiritual needs and they are ones that humanity will never outgrow, because they cannot be outgrown.

Do you have these needs? I do and I believe that I always will. The darkest emptiest days of my life were when I tried to suppress and deny them.

Forrest Church in an interview shortly before he died said

“I have long believed that religion itself is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are the religious animal. We asked, “Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? What is life’s meaning? What is life’s purpose?” Now, we don’t always come out with religious answers. But these are religious questions we ask. We’re not the animal with advanced tools or advanced language. We’re the religious animal, and so at some point death requires our search for meaning. Without death, we would not have to search for meaning, and we would not have to search for purpose. My own sense of the purpose of life, it’s to live in such a way that your lives will prove to be worth dying for. And that puts an enormous moral, ethical impetus behind our work in this world. I take it one world at a time. I’m agnostic about the afterlife. I haven’t gone there. It could not be, though, any stranger than this. There’s no afterlife that could be stranger than life itself. And we need, first and foremost, even as we’re dying, to celebrate the miracle of this day.

I agree with Forrest in nearly every sentiment expressed here. Human beings will never stop asking these questions re the mystery of life and death, they are at their essence religious questions. This is why religion will always emerge and re-emerge even if it were completely done away with tomorrow.

We human beings are meaning makers and meaning seekers. We must not underestimate this innate desire within us. We have this need for connection to things both in and of this world; we have this need to feel loved and held too, by things that are beyond our understanding. We need a relationship to life. We need to love something. Most of us want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to help create a world that is more filled with possibility and hope than when we arrived. So we pay attention to what is going on all around us. We acknowledge it. We make meaning out of it. As we do so we make rituals out of the meaning. We make rituals to mark the stages of life from birth to death and all the stages in between. These rituals come in many and varied styles and forms and come from many sources, but they are there in every human culture and society. These rituals help us connect to a greater reality from which we belong, that we finite creatures are dependent upon.

We human beings are the religious animal. Therefore we need religion in order to live fully human lives. This is why I believe that even if we were to do away with all forms of religion it would once again emerge, although perhaps in a different form or forms.

Now maybe that’s what we need. Not so much an end to religion, but a new kind of religion, one that incorporates the best of the past but is not a slave to it, one that is not shackled by what has been.

I think that now, perhaps more than at any other time in human history we need a new Pentecost; I think now more than at any other time in human history we need the dawning of a new religion, something that will perhaps unite the whole human family.

Now I know there are many who will say, oh you are just a dreamer. Well maybe I am, but I don’t think I’m the only one. I believe that the fire of unity and hope can be lit once again.

The symbol of Pentecost is the flame. Every Sunday at the commencement of worship I light a flame. When I do so I believe that I am lighting a symbol of new hope, of what might be of what humanity can become if we live in unity and love.

If we light the flame of unity and love within our own hearts and carry that out into our wounded world I believe that we can begin the dawning of a new Pentecost. Instead of despairing at this our age, let us instead bring forth new hope, let us become symbols of new hope.

Our world needs a new Pentecost that will unite it and bring humanity out of its wilderness into the Promised Land. This must grow from within our own hearts and souls. It is a fire that grows from humility and leads to connection and interconnection and inter-dependence. The first Pentecost brought the Law, the one language. The second Pentecost brought love which called humanity to understand diverse languages. This new Pentecost, I believe, is needed to bring us together through our shared humanity through a genuine sense of humility that will allow us to see our interdependence.

We need a new Pentecost, a new beginning that will enable us to fully acknowledge our interdependence on one another, all life and that spirit that runs through all of life. For it is this that can bind us together if we would but let it.

Now there are those who say that in order to achieve this that the first thing we must do is bring an end to religion, that this is the cause of all of humanities ills, but I am not one of them. I say what we need is a new religion or at least a new approach to religion that can set us free from the chains that bind us; what we need is a way to join us in a unity with all that is, all that has been and all that has ever been. It begins within each and everyone of our hearts.

We need a new Pentecost, a new beginning that will bind us together in unity. We need it and our world needs it. We need to recognise the oneness, the unity of everything. We are all part of a vast and yet mysterious living system. By recognising this we begin to participate consciously in this vast oneness. The mystics of every faith tradition have proclaimed this divine unity. It is known as Nirvana in Buddhism, or the Brahman-Atman synthesis in Hinduism, when Jesus declares “I and the father are one” he is talking of divine oneness. We are all part of the one undivided whole. We are bound together in the ship of life.

Howard Thurman described this near perfectly in “Creative Encounter”, when he said "It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God."

How though do we bring about that “Creative Encounter”? Well I believe it has to begin in our own hearts and minds and souls. We need to open ourselves to it in our daily lives and to carry it out into our world that so desperately needs it.

We need to light the flame within us and we need to carry this spirit of a new Pentecost into our divided world and begin to bind up the broken.

Let us be lights in our world…let us be the new beginning…Let us bring a new Pentecost here in our time and place…our world needs it...We all need it...let us make it so...

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