I have received inspiration from two disparate sources for my next "sermon" -which, though I am loathe to admit it, is probably an accurate term for what my writings are. I find myself in a slippery area, waffling between "sermon" and "discourse," as between "religious" and "spiritual." It's the nature of such distinctions that they are notoriously difficult to pin down, as we owe much of what passes for definitions of such things to history and culture, and yes, religions--yours, mine, and others'.
Thanks to author Robert Wright, some new synapses have begun to form in my brain after seeing him on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, discussing his new book, The Evolution of God. He has gone to a good deal of trouble to research and analyze how the three "Abrahamic" religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have competed and interacted with each other over the centuries, from hostility to mutual tolerance under varying conditions. His larger thesis is on the evolution of God, i.e., how the idea of God is a "construct" that has evolved over time in a multi-religious milieu.
This is a kind of social theology, very intellectual and well-reasoned, where any absolute statements about the nature of the divine hold no currency. Human societies on this planet have evolved within this setting, and conceptions about who/what God is and what He represents morally have also evolved. Wright spoke about "alignment with the moral axis of the Universe" as a measure of how successfully these religions become mutually tolerant while at the same time approaching a higher understanding of "the divine" or "the transcendent," even as he admits difficulty with the meaning of those terms.
Bill Moyers asked Wright a lot of very thoughtful questions, and I found Wright's answers remarkably cogent and eloquent. I've had the impression from past programs that Moyers is a man of faith in some fairly traditional, Southern Protestant way, but as his landmark programs with the late Joseph Campbell about the power of myths had shown, he is intellectually honest and open-minded. Robert Wright is a serious, "big-picture" thinker who is cautiously optimistic about humanity moving in the right direction, with religions having some chance of overcoming their destructive attributes and making the world better off with them than without them.
Since I am new to his ideas and have not read his book, I can't say whether I agree or disagree with his conclusions, but I always quibble with the kind of agnosticism he and even Moyers display, which assumes that ultimately, no definitive statements about the nature of God will ever be possible. He is whatever we think He is; even if there is some divine and/or transcendent essence or supernatural power that creates us and may also hold us accountable in terms of that "moral axis," we can only speculate, or "believe."
Though Wright objects to the kind of adamant, hard-core anti-religious ideology held by scientific atheists such as Richard Dawkins, both men have that one thing in common: neither believes that anyone can know for sure whether or not God actually exists, and both believe that whatever God's attributes are deemed to be, they are constructs of human imagination.
My contention is always this: knowing God by direct perception within one's own consciousness is actually possible, and there are many people, meditators in particular, who experience this. It is ultimately subjective, of course, but we mystics know what orthodox religious groups, agnostics and atheists all claim cannot be known. It is unfortunate that the word, "mystical" has a connotation that invites incredulity. In my view, throughout religious history, only the mystics have ever gotten it right.
Which brings me back to this idea that while I have a lot of anti-religious opinions and sentiments, my mystic inclinations tend to place me in the "religious" column, after all. Whether I know something about God with more certainty than other religious thinkers, or I only think or believe I do, I still end up a kind of theologian. I advocate for God, and for a certain way of understanding the most proper and beneficial relationship between God and ourselves. I may be in the smallest religious minority on the planet, with a total membership of one, but the deeper I go into yoga and mysticism, the more devout I want to be. I am becoming more serious about living up to what it means to be a devotee of the divine "Self" that is described in the Upanishads (my current reading material).
I know from history, however, that religions can make mistakes. The one mistake that they all seem to make is the sanctification of ancient texts, calling them "holy scriptures" or even "The Word of God." Most of what I have learned about God and religion have come from sources other than "scriptures." There are a lot of good books, and I find that God sends me clues toward higher realizations by way of lots of different books, films, television programs, and conversations with other people. I don't hold any of those as sacred, but for me, they are more meaningful because they are part of a dynamic, living interaction between me, God, and the mysterious workings of the Universe as a function of God's intentions to educate and enlighten me.