Religion today is largely losing its hold in what is essentially a post-metaphysical – a world that has no place for a heaven or hell. The attempt of religious fundamentalists to hold back the tide is unlikely to succeed; and where religious faith does continue, globalisation and the accompanying migration has made it necessary for different religious traditions to try to come to an appreciation of each other if they are to peacefully co-exist.
While there are those who might celebrate the decline in religious belief as a release from superstition, there are also ethical consequences associated with that decline. Many of the values of the Western World have been moulded by the monotheistic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If their influence fades there is the possibility that anyone’s morality becomes what suits them at the time, so it is important to understand what remains relevant to us today
Running through these religions there is what I would call a spiritual humanism – a view of what being human could really be – that can still be relevant today. (The same could be said for the Eastern religions, but their complexity and my own superficial knowledge means that this investigation needs to be left for another time.) A rediscovery of this spiritual element could help us tackle some of the ideological and religious conflicts we face in the twenty first century.
In the 17th Century the French essayist Pascal provided a guide to explore the spiritual in what appears to be a secular world when he wrote: ‘Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.’ In trying to understand the world, Pascal was saying, we must use both the ‘logic’ of the mind and the ‘reasoning’ of the heart. It is the richness of human languages, which bring emotions and logic together that enables us to do both.
In Australia, as in most Western Countries, the decline in religious practice has accelerated over one generation. In the 1950s, at least the forms of religious practice remained. In enrolling in school, one’s religion was recorded together with one’s name and date of birth. Most weddings took place in a church. On a Sunday all major shops were closed, and you could only buy alcohol if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’ which in practice provided good business for country pubs on the outskirts of the major cities.
When the American Evangelist Billy Graham came to Australia in 1959 it is estimated that in Melbourne 714,000 Victorians had come to see him over four weeks, when Melbourne’s population was only 2 million. On Sunday, March 15 143,000 people had crammed into The Melbourne Cricket Ground, filling both the stands and packed into the oval. For a couple of years following the Crusades Church attendance increased but by the mid-1960s, the children of those parents who attended Church out of habit did not actually reject religion but ignored it.
Census figures clearly demonstrate this change. In the 1966 census 88% of the population identified as Christian. A ‘No religion’ option was introduced in 1991 and by the 2016 census those identifying as Christian had dropped to just over half – 52%. About a third (30%) reported no religion and for those in the 18 to 34 age group this reached 39%. The total for the other major religions (Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism) was 5%
A more detailed view of the extent of belief in Australia is provided by a survey conducted regularly by Mccrindle Research on ‘Faith and Belief in Australia’ with the latest being in 2017. Instead of asking ‘What is the person’s religion’ the question becomes ‘What religion do you currently practise or identify with?’ The survey also adds an option for ‘spiritual but not religious’. This new category ‘Spiritual but not religious’ was responded to by 14% and it is the implications of this that I intend to explore. Of those who did nominate Christianity as their religion, only one third (15%) attended Church at least once a month and only 7% actively practiced their religion.
What does being ‘Spiritual’ imply? While not prescribing a particular set of ethical and doctrinal positions (which Religions purport to do) it does imply that there is an ethical position beyond the ‘survival of the fittest’; and it shares with a religious position a belief that life has a purpose and meaning that goes beyond mere existence and survival. Many Spiritual persons will also share with the Religious a belief that life is a journey during which one aims to remove the negative and destructive elements of one’s personality and develop the positive, life-affirming qualities. But, in contrast to most religions, for the non-religious, this process ends with one’s physical end – there is no concept of an afterlife.
Both beliefs one accepts and those one rejects can be traced back to one’s upbringing. My being brought up in the Methodist was an accident of geography. My mother was Presbyterian and my father Lutheran, but because my parents never owned a car, we went to the nearest Church we could walk to, the Methodist Church, which was one kilometre away. We attended almost every Sunday as well as during the week for social activities. I was involved until my early twenties as a Sunday School student, a Sunday School teacher, Youth Leader and Lay Preacher.
After graduating as a Lay Preacher, which involved correspondence courses in Biblical studies, Theology, Homiletics and the history of Wesley and Methodism, I took Church services when a minister was sick or absent. The role of Lay Preacher has continued, in a less formal way, in the Uniting Church in Australia.
While my beliefs changed over time I always felt at home in the Church. As a child the stories of Noah’s Ark, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples on the road to Emmaus – all depicted in pictures (with Jesus as a Northern European) - seemed real to me. When God told Moses, that after struggling forty years in the wilderness he was only allowed to see the promised land of Canaan from a hill top because he was about to die, my heart went out to him.
Over time, I came to see most of these stories as myths, but this did not lessen their impact. Like all great literature the stories of the Bible provided a framework through which one could explore the pressing questions of existence. Bible Studies I engaged in and Sermons I prepared were all about how to apply the messages of scripture to the contemporary world.
Through adolescence, I felt very much an outsider in the world beyond the Church, finding it difficult to engage in what was considered ‘normal conversation’ which to me seemed trivial. At High School, apart from a few friends who were also outsiders, I was considered something of a phantom. Within the Church however, I always felt that I was helped in understanding what life meant and there was an underlying acceptance of me as a person, that I was recognised and loved. And if God loved me he also loved those that might seem unlovable – the drunkard, the beggar and the prostitute. In the phrase ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ there was an acknowledgement that they were just like us, that God also loved them, and He wanted us to show them this same love.
Having a social conscience was at the core of Methodism in areas such as opposition to gambling, concern and care for the underprivileged and at that time having the Immigration Restriction Act changed. This was exemplified in the work of people like the Reverend Alan Walker. In 1963 he was in South Africa preaching against apartheid and from 1958 he was the Superintendent of Sydney’s Central Methodist Mission and continued in this role for 20 years. He was the first religion editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and the founder of the Life Line telephone counselling service which has since then spread to into more than 300 cities in Australia and over the world.
Fifty years on I can still look back on this period of my teens and early twenties without regrets. While I retain the social consciousness, and a broad Christian ethic – that of the Sermon on the Mount for example – this is now no longer dependant on a belief in such things as a Virgin Birth, in Jesus being anything other any a mortal Jewish ethical thinker who put his beliefs into action and who died a horrible death. I can no longer believe in the existence personal God to whom one could pray.
There are millions of people for whom a personal God is part of their living experience, and there are those I know for whom this is the core of an ethical life. At the same time, I do have a form of faith, by which I mean something I sense and am committed to, but which I cannot prove except by trying to live it. This belief is that I live in a world in which good is achievable, that to do good is better than to do evil and that to love is better than to hate. I do not accept the view that if there is no God ‘all is permitted’. Like one’s religion, one’s moral sense is something that begins in the home and develops and is modified by one’s own life experiences.
Of course, to most Christians the non-theism involved would be considered heresy and this attitude would also be rejected by most Muslims and Jews. I choose non-theism rather than atheism; I don’t reject a ‘God’ but to me the traditional concept of ‘God’ is an empty one.
One could draw a comparison between the concept of ‘God’ and that of the word ‘Infinity’. The word as generally used has no meaning because for any number, how large it may be, a greater number can be made by adding ‘one’. When I did maths at school I was told that parallel lines only meet in infinity. The sentence “Parallel lines never meet” means exactly the same thing, without the obscurantism of introducing a meaningless term. This is not to deny that in Maths such as calculus ‘infinity’ does have value in approximating irrational numbers by using the concept of ‘infinitely small’, which means calculations whose results are moving closer and closer to a result of zero, but here there is an end point, zero itself. The value of Pi – the ratio of the radius of a circle to its circumference, can be calculated to a million decimal points
In a similar fashion I cannot conceive a being that is above or beyond the world I know with my senses. Even many theologians would argue that the traditional ‘Proofs’ for God’s existence are not really proofs but instead are arguments to make such a hypothesis appear at least rational. The American theologian Paul Tillich argued that ‘God’ is not above and beyond our experience but instead resides in what underlies our experience. He expressed this as saying the God was a symbol for the ‘Ground of our Being’
The story of human origins told by cosmology and the sciences is at least as amazing as a creation by a God. From some primeval explosion suns and planets formed. On at least one isolated planet, hidden away in a corner of the universe, evolution followed a most circuitous path including at least one major extinction, that of the dinosaurs. Out of this protracted process, a creature called Homo Sapiens evolved and she possessed a mind that could look back billions of years to her own origins. And now, as evidence is emerging of the possibility of many more earth like planets in the universe, it is quite possible that other forms of highly intelligent life exist elsewhere.
By rejecting traditional theism, I am also trying to remove the inherent idolatry involved in claiming to possess the only ‘Truth’, the claim that one’s particular God is the only God or that one can go to war because your ‘God’ commands it. Countless millions have died because of such a belief.
Both Judaism and Islam rejected any attempt to portray God, and in Judaism this went even further in avoiding the use of the word itself. Also, what both Islam and Judaism shared was a strong belief that faith and reason could support each other.
This is evident in the development of Judaism in the early years of the Common Era, which reached its peak in the 3rd to 5th centuries of the Common Era. For over 300 years a Jewish Diaspora had been taking place. Jews had settled in Northern Africa, through the Graeco-Roman world and in Persia. With the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE there was no central authority of Pharisees to continue the living tradition and the role of the Rabbi in applying reason to understand the contemporary meaning of the scriptures became vital. As Jews of the diaspora adapted to their new world, they had their scriptures translated into Greek
The first stage of consolidation during the second century, was the compilation of the Mishnah, a written form of what had been originally a strong oral tradition. Over the next two centuries various Rabbis composed thousands of pages of interpretations of the scriptures. There was no problem if interpretations contradicted each other – it was the quality of the argument that was important. The Talmud, as this document was called, (the word is Hebrew for instruction) remains the basis of Rabbinic Judaism.
One of the greatest exponents of the Talmud in the twentieth century was the French (but Lithuanian born) philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. In a collection of his essays titled Difficult Freedom, first published in 1963, he wrote that the basic message of Jewish thought
… consists in bringing the meaning of each and every experience back to the ethical relations between men, in appealing to man’s personal responsibility – in which he feels chosen and irreplaceable – in order to bring about a human society in which men are treated as men. The realization of this just society ipso facto involves raising man up to the same society as God.
This ability to hold opposing thoughts in the mind at the same time as represented by the Talmud, and this enhanced humanism as argued by Levinas goes a long way to understand the disproportionate number of Jewish intellectuals and their influence in the modern world, even though many of them would have considered themselves ‘Secular Jews’. One could name individuals: Spinoza, Heinrich Heine, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould for example, but perhaps the most notable statistic is that as of 2017, out of 890 Nobel Prize winners, 201 were Jews or had Jewish backgrounds, when Jews make up only 0.02% of the population.
For Islam, also, human reason was highly valued. To say, as many do, that what Islam needs is its own “Reformation” is to be unaware, as most of us are, of the continual questioning and reshaping that has been going on in Islam since earliest times and which in the early Medieval period had its own impact on Jewish and Christian thought as it was through Arabic scholars that ideas from Ancient Greece and Rome were re-introduced into European culture.
In the history of Islam one of the main threads has been a strong rationalist and humanist tradition and often this is combined with mysticism. There is a link between these three elements as the application of reason leads to an awareness of the unknowability of the divine and to gain understanding one must move from the mind to the heart and to do use this one needs to use the full resources of language, both poetry and prose.
Just 200 years after the death of Muhamad, Yaqub Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi, based in Baghdad, wrote in his Treatise on the First Philosophy:
The noblest in quality and highest in rank of all human activities is philosophy. Philosophy is defined as knowledge of things as they are in reality, insofar as man’s ability determines. The philosopher’s aim in his theoretical studies is to ascertain the truth, in his practical knowledge to conduct himself in accordance with the truth.
This focus on humanism enabled someone like Abu Ali Ibn Ina (known in the west as Avicenna) at the start of the second millennium to make great contributions to medicine. It would be over 600 years before medicine in the west began to adopt the scientific approach of the Muslim States. It was also through Avicenna that Aristotle’s philosophical works were re-introduced to the West and his philosophical thinking was a strong influence on the theologian Thomas Aquinas and was also frequently mentioned by the Italian poet Dante.
Mysticism in the form of Sufism always had a strong presence in Islam, although its position has often been seen, and is seen in some places today, as a threat by Fundamentalists. The person known in Islam as the ‘Great Master’ of Sufism was Muhammad Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). He was born in Spain at a time when it was the centre of a cosmopolitan culture of Christian, Jewish and Islamic thinkers. He then travelled through the Islamic world, including time in Mecca and Aleppo and settled finally in Damascus. His great achievement, in extensive writings over his 75 years, was to bring together centuries of Sufi mysticism and from many disparate elements create a vast integrated system.
This provided the background for the great Persian poet, Rumi (1207-1273). His work is well known in the west and one of the reasons for its widespread appeal can be seen in its appeal to universalism. In his Diwan, a collection of poems from his middle years, consisting of over 40,00 lines, he writes
Tell me Muslims what should be done?
I don’t know how to identify myself. I am neither Christian nor Jewish, neither Pagan or Muslim
I don’t hail from the East or from the West, I am neither from land nor sea.
I am not a creature of this world …
Islam today is confronted with violence between the Sunni and Shia streams, which like most religious conflicts is also tied up with political nationalism. The history of Christianity, with its three main streams of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, has not been free from such conflicts.
Over the centuries millions of Christians have died because of their beliefs (although politics of some sort has usually also been part of this). In England between February 1555 and November 1558, during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor 313 women and men were killed, predominantly by being burnt alive. Hundreds were killed during the Spanish Inquisition of the sixteenth century. Jews on the other hand over the last two thousand years (with the exception of modern Israel, where again nationalism is involved) have largely been the victims of religious persecution, with nothing in human history to match the disaster of Holocaust.
Each of the broad divisions of Christianity can be further subdivided, with Protestantism in particular having a multitude of forms. This was in many respects a consequence of Martin Luther’s stand in April 1521, when Martin Luther placed individual conscience against the dictates of the Church:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen
It was in England in particular that Protestantism took a wide variety of forms, from High Anglicans on the one hand to the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the other. Charles de Gaulle is reputed to have asked: 'How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?' Two hundred years earlier the Enlightenment philosophe, Voltaire made a comment that also united custom and cuisine: England, he wrote, was a land of one hundred religions but only one sauce.
Over time the English came to realise that all perceptions of religious belief were subject to error and the Church should as far as possible be separated from the State. In effect, England became secular in order to provide a space for Christianity, and later for religion in general, to develop. A path can be traced in England from this stress by Luther on ‘clear reason’ and ‘not going against one’s conscience’ as opposed to submission to authority, through the multitude of sects, to a development of religious tolerance and eventually the modern liberal state
A militant atheism of a Christopher Hitchens or Steven Dawkins can be more life denying than the position of a genuine religious believer, if it imposes a certainty where no certainty exists. In their arrogance they fail to take into account that each of us has a moral centre but a limited perspective on truth; what truth there is lies between what Martin Buber called the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’, in that humanity which we both share. And it is through a respect for language as our means of communication that we can discover this
On an evening around 1985 I was out with my son who was then was about ten. He wanted to go to the toilet and all that seemed available were the toilets in a nearby pub. The pub was quite packed and noisy and as we left he said: ‘Everybody is talking but no one is listening.’ How often does this happen in public discourse today in, for example the ‘Culture Wars’ where slogans like ‘Black armband’ on one side or ‘Whitewashing’ on the other replaced genuine discourse.
In a world of Twitter and ‘Likes’ on Facebook we can easily overlook the wonder, richness and depth of the human language. Once we move beyond basic statements not only the words themselves, but also the meanings that lie within and between the words are part of the message. I must be alert to the fact that what I say and what you hear may differ; the same applies to your response to me.
In communication with others we must respect their individuality as much as we respect what we have in common. Stephen White, an American Professor of Political Philosophy describes the virtues of sensibility as being the ability to listen, the willingness to be emotionally involved and the capacity to actually encourage and learn from the personal particularities of the other.
The richness of language is best demonstrated in fine poetry and poetic prose, whether this is specifically secular or religious. This is language that is grounded in human experience but points beyond it or, I would prefer, points to what underlies our experience of the world, to our ‘ground of being’. To choose just three examples: the poem The Windhover by Gerard Manly Hopkins; the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which is in the form of a letter from an ageing Pastor in the small town of Gilead, Iowa to his young son born of a late marriage; or David Malouf’s Ransom, a retelling of the episode from the Iliad where Priam attempts to recover his son Hector’s body from Achilles.
We can also still learn from the Scriptures of all the religious traditions. Human society moves forward, not by neglecting the past but by seeing the past with fresh eyes. Just as the Greek myths and dramas have meaning for us today, so do the contributions of religious thinkers over the centuries.
As one example, over the past twenty years or so philosophers of all faiths- Jewish, Catholic and Protestant - as well as those of no faith, have taken part in a re-discovery of the Apostle Paul. For some time, it was commonplace to contrast the Christ as presented by Paul with the Jesus of the Gospels, but this was always a superficial reading, as it failed to take into account the unique position of Paul or his underlying message. Charges such as misogyny are based on letters to Colossians and Ephesians scholars no longer attribute to Paul.
Paul actually provides the earliest written evidence for the impact of Jesus. Although Paul’s letters are placed after the Gospels in the Bible, his earliest letters were written up to twenty years before the Gospels. He was also a true cosmopolitan: on the one hand a trained religious teacher - a Pharisee – but his native language was Greek, and he was also a Roman Citizen. He grew up in what is now south-eastern Turkey as a part of the Jewish Diaspora. He was about the same age as Jesus, but had never known Jesus personally. As a Jewish religious leader, he initially saw the ‘Jesus movement,’ that had developed within Judaism following the crucifixion, as a heresy to be wiped out, but within less than two years he became a convert.
There is only scattered evidence for Paul’s movements in the 15 years following his conversion experience, but after meeting in Antioch in 48 CE, where discussion took place on whether non-Jews joining the Jesus Movement had to be circumcised, Paul wrote: ‘They saw that I had been entrusted to take the gospel to the gentiles as surely as Peter had been entrusted to take it to the Jews’
By this time followers of the Jesus Movement could be found in key cities of the Greek world, such as Corinth, Ephesus and Philippi and then on to Rome. Paul even had plans to go to communities as far away as Spain. Paul communicated with these communities by visits and by letters.
Around 50 CE he wrote to the community in Corinth. At the time people who were ‘Speaking in tongues’ were considered to have extraordinary gifts, but Paul’s argument was that just as every part of the body worked together for the whole so should each person’s gifts be recognised for their contribution. But for Paul there was one gift that was the ‘best way of all’:
I may speak in tongues of men or angels, but if I am without love I am a sounding gong or clanging cymbal … I may dole out all I possess or even give my body to be burnt, but if I have no love, I am none the better.
Paul then went on to describe what such love looked like:
Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish or quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other men’s sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing that love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope and its endurance.
He concluded: ‘In a word there are three things that last for ever: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of them all is love’.
In Australia we are free of those conflicts that are tearing other nations apart and we have one of the highest standards of living in the world. Yet too many of us seem to have lost their moral compass and are buffeted in one direction by materialist desires and in another by those, who for their own purposes, want to sow fear among us.
We need to break through our differences and re-discover our common humanity, because as we learn about those others who appear to be different we at the same time learn more about ourselves. We need to re-discover a genuine faith, not one based on incredulity, but one tested by life itself. Then we can live in the belief that good is preferable to evil, that love is more important than hate and that we must discover the humanity of others, even those we fear.
Whatever religious or humanist traditions we have grown up in, our way forward requires an act of faith where the heart and mind can work together.