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Two Roles of Religion

Sunday, August 26, 2018


Two Roles of Religion
Sunday, August 26, 2018

The chief fruit of Old Testament spirituality was a long-term education that gradually weaned the Chosen People away from their narrow concept of God as one among many other Near Eastern gods to the Transcendent One. The monotheistic God is the great gift of Israel to humanity. —Thomas Keating [1]

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all monotheistic Abrahamic religions; they all worship One God, the God of Abraham. At their most mature levels, there is much wisdom that each of these traditions can contribute toward healing our world. For the next few weeks, I will explore ways in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam reflect the image of God and support humanity’s transformation into the likeness of God.

Let me begin with one of my favorite passages from the brilliant philosopher Ken Wilber:

. . . Religion itself has always performed two very important, but very different functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This function of religion does not usually or necessarily change the level of consciousness in a person; it does not deliver radical transformation. Nor does it deliver a shattering liberation from the separate self altogether. Rather, it consoles the self, fortifies the self, defends the self, promotes the self. As long as the separate self believes the myths, performs the rituals, mouths the prayers, or embraces the dogma, then the self, it is fervently believed, will be “saved”—either now in the glory of being God-saved or Goddess-favored, or in an afterlife that ensures eternal wonderment.

But two, religion has also served—in a usually very, very small minority—the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it—not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution—in short, not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself. [2]

This second function is the ultimate goal of all mature spirituality. This is the contemplative dimension of religion. As Thomas Keating says, “The primary purpose of religion is to help us move beyond the separate-self sense to union with God.” [3]

In the weeks ahead, we will focus on the transformational level of the Abrahamic religions where God is central and the goal is to be transformed into God’s likeness, rather than what I would call the transactional level where our ego or false self is central and we are trying to control God.

[1] Thomas Keating, Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit (Lantern Books: 2007), 3.

[2] Ken Wilber, One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality (Shambhala Publications, Inc.: 2000), 25-26.

[3] Thomas Keating and Joseph Boyle with Lucette Verboven, World Without End (Bloomsbury Continuum: 2017), 24.

Image credit: Red and Orange Solar Flare (Rosette Nebula [detail])
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God reveals the essence of divinity to Moses: ehyeh asher ehyeh, most often translated as I AM what I AM. A more accurate Hebrew translation would be “I will be whatever I will be.” In either case, the Hasidic understanding of the text is the same: God is all that is. God is all that is happening at every moment. God is I AM—not a being or even a supreme being, but Being itself. . . . [Each of us is] a keeper of the I AM; just as a wave is a “keeper of” the ocean in its particular place and time, so are you a keeper of God in your particular place and time. To realize this about yourself is to realize it about all beings. —Rabbi Rami Shapiro
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