If I am Right, Do You Have to Be Wrong?

A recent post by Dwight Welch on religious pluralism, in which he described his experience at a symposium on that subject, initiated a period of intense thinking for me. Initially I planned to “like” the post and make a comment on the site, but I am someone who likes to cogitate, ruminate, and argue with herself for days on end before writing about anything important.  When his post and the comments he received combined with the spiritual intensity of Passover, my thinking on this subject grew into its own post!

The defense of religious truth has certainly caused immense human suffering.  With perhaps a few exceptions, most religious groups have been both the victims and the perpetrators of spiritual and physical violence and destruction during different periods of human history.  It has always been unfathomable to me how inflicting suffering and death on “others” can be justified in the name of providing them with the benefits of the truth as perceived by the perpetrators, especially when that “truth” is expressed in concepts of justice, compassion and righteousness.

Perhaps at least one of the core issues here is that we humans tend to see the world as having only two possibilities:  right or wrong, day or night, light or dark, you or me. Whether this is an innate tendency or not isn’t something that I am qualified to determine.  But operating under this world view requires that in order for me to be right, you must be wrong.  This viewpoint invariably creates problems, whether at the level of individual interactions within our families and neighborhoods or on national and international levels.

The question of what is ethical or moral behavior and whether the existence of divine power is necessary to enforce that behavior is a complicated one.  Those who favor traditional forms of religious and spiritual belief and ritual argue that these forms are necessary in order to define and enforce morality.  Otherwise, what would make my definition of ethical behavior any more compelling than yours?  It’s an appealing argument.  But there are many people who do not buy into traditional forms of religious belief, yet are still kind and ethical people in their outlook and behavior in the world. That is a compelling argument for the opposite position.

Recently there has been discussion among physicists about the possibility of parallel universes–that there may actually be universes other than our own and to which we have no direct access.  If so, “reality” and “truth” in those universes could be entirely different.  Could there potentially be truths in those universes that are opposite of what we see?  It’s mind boggling and somewhat scary to think so, but even if it isn’t true or possible, it exercises our limited outlooks by thinking about it.

Not too long ago a pair of friendly and polite young men knocked on my door.  While this does not happen frequently, it isn’t the first time that people who are easily identifiable as missionaries have appeared at my home.  I used to feel annoyed and struggled to be polite to them, or on occasion reverted to the ploy of pretending no one was at home. But as I have become more secure and confident in my own particular spiritual outlook toward the world, I have realized that they are living out what they perceive as their religious duty, just as I strive to live out what I see as my religious duty–though it certainly differs from theirs.  As long as they are not going to engage in harmful acts or spiritual bullying, I now smile and thank them politely and then say “no thank you.” The fact that they feel it is their spiritual duty to promote their view of salvation, and may indeed think they are saving me from eternal damnation, does not in any way diminish the validity of my spiritual construct or deny the reality of what I believe to be true.

I do not think it is a question of deciding whose truth is right, and therefore makes all other religious formulations false.  The divine presence is ultimately vast enough to encompass all of the various ways that human beings struggle to answer the questions that come with being human and mortal. What is the meaning of life? Why do good people suffer? How do we respond to violence and hatred? Why is the distribution of wealth, health and opportunity so unequal?  And perhaps the most difficult question: How do we face the loss of loved ones and our own physical aging and death? elegant-1769669_640

In the end, this is what I believe.  If there really exists a divine entity that we call God, who created an infinite, complex universe(s?), populated by thinking, creating, complex humans (made in God’s image), who see the world in so many different ways, is it in any way reasonable to think that there is only one true way to picture that entity, and only one pathway to bring that divine presence into the world?

What Marks Your Doorposts?

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Traditional preparations for Passover are detailed, complex and arduous. “Spring cleaning” doesn’t even begin to cover the hours and seriousness with which an observant Jewish homemaker would ensure that the house contains not even a crumb of leavened bread, crackers or even pet food that is not “kosher for Passover.”

I have to admit that I am not one of those dedicated and observant women. While I have sometimes performed a thorough house cleaning more or less because Passover is coming, my usual fall-back position is that I’ll just not eat anything leavened for the duration, and I’ll attend at least one Seder to mark this important holiday. I can come up with numerous reasons (excuses is probably more honest). Didn’t grow up Jewish; other members of my family are not so committed to observing; personality-wise I am very uncomfortable with what appears to me to be an obsessive position on any subject, but particularly in ritual matters.  I do feel conflicted about all this, because from my spiritual perspective Passover is a seminal and profound event. Perhaps the day will come when I can match my outward observance with the spiritual impact I feel, but I’m not there yet.

This particular narrative belongs to the Jewish people, and whether it literally happened the way it is told, or whether it is an apocryphal story is of no consequence to me.  But we are not unique in longing for freedom and redemption.  It is probably fruitless to rank suffering. Many people suffer unspeakable horrors at the hands of others, while some “only” struggle to free themselves from bad habits, difficult relationships, health or financial problems.  But we all struggle. The appeal of the Exodus narrative is universal because it is a story of deliverance from oppression, whatever form that may take.

Anyone who has attended a Seder will know that we don’t just tell the story. We discuss and debate, think and contemplate, teach our children, ask questions, wrestle with meaning or new interpretations.  We were commanded to tell the story as if we had actually been there and this is the heart of observing Passover.  To think deeply and spiritually about what we need to do in order to create and preserve freedom, to ask ourselves what we would risk to free our families, our neighbors, ourselves.  Who would we follow?  What would we choose to take with us on such a journey? Would we rejoice at the destruction of our enemies, gloating over their misery?  Or would we acknowledge the tragedy of human suffering in any form, and long for the time when it will no longer occur? Would we have the courage to step into the sea even if we were not sure we would survive?

And why do we need to mark the doorposts of our homes and gates?  The simple answer has always been so the Angel of Death would know where we lived and the final, most horrible plague – Death of the Firstborn – would not descend upon us.  But surely God knows where we live and could easily direct the Angel of Death where to strike and where not to.  A deeper layer of meaning may be this:   In order to journey to freedom, we first need to know who we are, in what spiritual home we live, what emotional gates we have built and what purpose they serve.  We need to know what we stand for, who we are willing to follow, and who will be our companions on the journey. We must not live in denial, but courageously mark the doorposts with our individual truth.