monty python and the defense of organized religion

Soundtrack in my head: Bjork, “Human Behaviour”

A number of friends of mine consider themselves spiritual but not into “organized religion.” They look at the rather checkered history of organized religion and wonder why anyone would want to get involved. When I think about the question, I think about the Monty Python sketch about a soccer game between the great German and Greek philosophers. At the beginning of the game, the philosophers line up on opposite sides of the center line, the referee throws up the ball, and…the philosophers begin wandering aimlessly around the field, hands under chins in deep thought while the ball just sits there.

To me that sketch illustrates perfectly the difference in potential impact between organized religion and “going it alone” with one’s own personal beliefs. I could easily establish my own religion with myself as its only practitioner, with my own insights and thoughts about the state of the world and how humankind can overcome the many challenges it faces in this modern era. But then somewhere else is someone named Charlie with his own insights and solutions for the challenges of humankind, and he’s wandering around in a slightly different direction. Meanwhile, the ball goes nowhere.

Of course, religion and how one practices it is a personal choice.  And for many people, their understanding of spirituality is more of a philosophical one, having to do with questions of where we came from and the origin of the universe.

But if you are going to talk about organizing and actually moving the ball in the philosopher’s soccer game, that is, making a difference through your faith or spirituality, of course you have to talk about a goal. And that’s where things have often gotten tricky. There have been good goals and not so good goals, ones that have brought people together, ones that have caused strife, ones that have caused people to run in circles, and ones that have led people over a cliff.

My interest in spirituality grew when it became clear to me that something more than politics and political movements was necessary to respond to the challenges facing humanity. It was clear to me that change needed to occur on a more fundamental and revolutionary level, starting at the personal level. Having witnessed sectarian differences and strife, not only around the world but also to some extent, within my own family, I became most interested in a religion that wouldn’t put walls between themselves and those who had slightly different beliefs.

Over the last 200 years or so, there has been development of religious movements that tolerate and even recognize the validity of other religions. At some point during the 19th century the Unitarian Church became more and more a religion that embraced other religions besides Christianity. The Baha’I Faith was founded in 19th century Persia (now Iran), and its founder, Baha’u’llah made reference to multiple “Manifestations of God,” saying that “Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a a special attribute, fulfills a definite Mission and is entrusted with a particular Revelation.” (By the way, I read an article in the New York Times yesterday how the Baha’is in Iran have recently started facing more persecution under the current Iranian government, including more slander in government publications, and a greater number of arrests and interrogations.) Sukyo Mahikari says “The origin of all religions is one,” and talks about the need for them to cooperate to help humankind to overcome the challenges facing us. In 1893, the first Parliament of World Religions was held in Chicago, and there have been a lot of interfaith dialogues and efforts that have occurred since then.

My experience has been that all religions talk many of the same core values, but with emphases that are unique to the time and place of the each religion’s founding. I find that many of the differences cited are merely same teachings viewed from a different perspective. I was disappointed when Pope John Paul II criticized Buddhism as supposedly teaching salvation through detachment from the world, rather than union with God, and claimed that Islam was not a religion of redemption. I think Muslims would beg to differ and not only do most Buddhists believe in some sort of union with God but there are plenty of examples of religious orders within the Catholic Church practicing a form of detachment from the world. Most people are familiar with the parable of the blind men and the elephant—where one man feels the trunk of the elephant and declares it to be a long and skinny animal and whereas another feels the elephant’s torso and declares it to be huge and fat, etc.

So I would argue that there is, in a sense, a common goal that all religions aspire to—the love of humankind. I have generally tried to avoid religions that focus too much on the differences between themselves and others. I think it’s when religions come together to make a difference that we can start getting excited about kicking the ball into the goal. Or, as a famous soccer announcer would say, “Gooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllll!”

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