Monday, August 3, 2009

Common ground, please

I live a divided life, friend and companion to groups with contrasting beliefs among religious and non-religious, including atheists. I can see that they agree on how life should be lived but disagree on the value of religion. Many in both groups have no idea how much common ground they share with the opposite group.

I’m saddened when I hear one group maligning or misunderstanding the other. Often I say, “I wish you knew the beautiful people I know,” in the group just disparaged. From my conversations with both, I see how much they agree.

The common ground is morality because all of us have a space inside that tells us what is good, true, and beautiful. This space is imagined in various ways—Christians, for instance, personify this mysterious Something as Jesus or Father. We run into trouble if persons in contrasting systems think their way of imagining is the one true right way.

Dogmatism exists in atheism as well as in all the religions, but similar intolerance exists in persons who have no definite beliefs about the spiritual world, persons who don’t care to think about spirituality. In fact, some of them are dogmatic about discounting spirituality, but I think it’s because they conflate it with religion and hate the whole religious scene.

Here’s what atheists don’t know about educated and thoughtful Christians:
• They are faithful to our Christian tradition without claiming exclusive access to the Author of morality we call “God.”

• They are well aware that Christianity began as a Jewish sect and became powerful because the Roman emperor Constantine embraced it.

• They know about parallels between pagan deities and Jesus Christ but, I admit, most still view our God images as superior. But not all. Many stay faithful to our tradition because they recognize its value in their lives—Christian practices satisfy their spiritual needs, despite their awareness of the tradition’s shortcomings. What keeps me in is the good people and the sacred places.

Here’s what Christians don’t know about atheists:
• Their moral standards exceed those of most Christians. I know and know of many corrupt Christians, but I don’t know any corrupt atheists.

• They tend to lump Christians into one common brand—ignorant fundamentalists.

• They are spiritual, although few of them would admit it. It is precisely their integrity that drives their atheism, and they have little tolerance for pretense or compromise.

I’m sure both groups will find fault with my simplistic characterizations, but I hope to draw both closer to the common ground they share with the other. Deep down we are all pursuing truth, beauty, and goodness. That’s easier for religious people because they have the support of their tradition and most don’t have the probing questions of atheism. On the other hand, mature spirituality ALWAYS includes probing questions.

Click around in my index for more on this.
Again I quote an atheist whose name I need to protect from the consequences of being known as one. What does that say about our supposedly Christian society?
The words of an atheist:
Since serious scholars acknowledge that we don't know what a putative historical Jesus said or did, it is hard for me to find inspiration in the constructed character. Some boneheaded things were put into his mouth, so making that character inspirational would, for me, be a matter of constructing my picture of him out of values I already have--sort of like inventing my own superhero and then trying to be inspired by him.
Serious scholars agree enough on what the historical Jesus said to strike down claims that he never existed. I was attracted to atheism upon learning that much of the New Testament is not factual, and I see the atheist argument as an over-reaction. It seems clear to me that, once atheists discovered false Christian claims about Jesus—once they discovered the myth—they leaped to the conclusion that the man never existed. It’s an understandable leap, but lacks discrimination.

My conviction that a Jewish mystic named Jesus wandered in Palestine 2,000 years ago, teaching enduring spiritual truth, rests on his teachings. They are consistent with values everyone already has, yes. That is part of their beauty; it is one way we know he was authentic. More pertinent to the question of his existence is the distinctiveness of his preaching—his extraordinary verbal attributes and his centering on “the Reign of God,” which I detail in more than one chapter of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. Now a comment about “boneheaded things put into his mouth.” I’m puzzled. If it refers to self-exalting claims, that’s my whole point. The man was turned into a myth. But, readers, please also read what I say about the dignity and value of religious myth.

Now more about the values everyone has. I’m reading a lovely book by Quaker author/educator Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life. Palmer describes the source of the values everyone has. He himself calls it “this core of our humanity” and continues:
Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Quakers call it the inner teacher or the inner light. Hasidic Jews call it a spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul.
I, following Jesus of Nazareth, call it the Reign of God.
Kathleen comments,
This is an interesting discussion that needs to continue. We can learn only when we are willing to listen and understand each other.


Dave60 said...

You make very good points about how athiest and christians are blind concerning each others thoughts. I did not call them beliefs as the athiest I have talked to would object to the idea that they have beliefs. It seems that people get hung up on words and completely overlook the meaning an individual is trying to convey through the words. I have found that people don't even agree on the definition of god; and that's god with a small "g" meaning the idea of god not the devinity as defined by a specific religion. You ask someone what defines a god and they usually speak about their religion or lack of religion an total miss the point that inorder to talk about something you first have to have agreed upon definitions of what it is you are talking about. Without agreed definitions all people do is talk at each other.

Jeanette said...

And you make good points. Thank you.

If you sample more of my writings, you'll see that what we call "God" is embraced by diverse spiritual systems--differences are a matter of interpretation.