Why take an interest in religion?

I have been pondering why I have such an interest in religion.  All my life my primary commitment has been to understanding truth.  That led me to refuse to attend religious instruction classes at school, because even as a child I rejected the dogmatic method that promotes claims that contradict common sense.  One of my favourite lines in the Bible is John 8:32 where Jesus Christ says “the truth will set you free.”  Conventionally, the church has taken a dogmatic interpretation of this line, asserting that truth is encapsulated in Christian creeds and that freedom consists in assent to established doctrine, with salvation acquired by conversion from false to true belief.  The cultural clash between faith and reason resulting from this view pits obedience to traditional religious authority against the logic of experience and observation in the scientific method.

My reading of John 8:32 begins from the view that Jesus stands on the side of reason and science in this intellectual debate.  Truth is contestable, since as even the great Protestant reformer John Calvin argued in a pre-scientific age, if the evidence of our senses reveals that a claim is false, we should not assert it is literally true. I can’t find this reference, but recall reading it in A History of God by Karen Armstrong. The starting point of systematic knowledge, and therefore of systematic theology, should be the reliability of scientific truth.

And yet, there is a whole further dimension of truth that is not captured by objective data. The truth that sets us free answers the question of how human life connects to reality in a system of relationships.  Calvin saw scripture as a prism that enables us to decipher the mind of God written in the book of Nature, reading the Bible as a guide to interpreting the meaning and value of empirical facts in terms of relationship. 

This theme of connection in relationship opens the problem of the meaning of religion, inviting us to see spiritual faith as a psychological process that can ground our life together in a vision of how we connect to our actual context.  And our context is the stable reality of the natural universe.  As Plato taught, our constructed world of culture is often a deceptive shadowy appearance rather than a reliable truth.  The truth that brings liberation is a mystery, extending beyond our conscious knowledge to connect us in ways we do not explicitly see.

This is all rather abstract and general, but seeing spiritual truth as a path of liberation in this way calls us to question the reliability of received wisdom, and instead to constantly assess our cultural values against evidence, to find what Jesus suggests in John 14:6 is the way of life in truth.  One of the greatest moral teachings in the Gospels is that human salvation requires an ethic of universal love, overcoming tribal and national barriers to celebrate the shared humanity of all. 

The problem is that this messianic teaching confronts strongly hardwired instincts in our brains which have evolved over the millions of years of our clan-based ancestry.  Our natural instincts are tribal, teaching us to trust our friends and relatives and be suspicious of everyone else.  Loyalty, belonging to a group, provides instinctive protection. We face constant pressure from our tribal instincts to assent to the truth of appearance rather than questioning its connection to reality.

My view of the Gospels is that the story of Jesus totally challenges our tribal values and assumptions, calling all of humanity to use our minds to evolve into a new universal spiritual identity.  Naturally, the resistance to this cultural evolutionary step is immense.  This cultural resistance sheds light on the whole story of the crucifixion, that mutation into homo universalis is unacceptable to conventional opinion. Jesus says our salvation comes through an ethic of unconditional love, but this seems too risky and difficult for our dominant ideas of security and stability. 

So instead, the church has constructed an elaborate imaginarium in which salvation is defined as escaping nature into heaven after death, rather than in the Biblical terms of the transformation of the world of corruption to accord with the divine values of grace.  The church largely accepts the corrupt values of tribal identity, kicking the subversive divine values of messianic transformation upstairs into the too-hard basket, as requiring sacrifice that invites persecution, as seen in the story of the cross.

Looking at church history against these ideas, we can see the constant pressure to accept tribal hierarchy as the basis of our moral values.  And yet this ethic of deference is something the Gospels tell us is inadequate and dangerous, like the broad and easy road to destruction described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:13).   Paul wrote in Romans 8 that escaping our bondage to corruption is like the pain of a woman giving birth, opening the way to what he called the glorious liberty of the children of God, imagined as a social transformation of the world. 

A key theme in Christian theology is that humanity has fallen from an original state of grace into a state of corruption.  The profound irony in this perceived loss of divine blessing is that the dominant theology of the church is itself deeply corrupted by the tribal values of patriarchal monotheism.   Biblical teachings have been adapted to meet worldly needs, accepting comforting and convenient emotional fantasies.  And yet the exciting and inspiring message of Christ is that love will save the world.  This message of divine love stands hidden in plain sight as offering a rigorous and confronting vision of transforming liberation, the truth that will set us free.

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