The Wisdom of Religion

Consider for a moment that religious belief has evolved over time – basically over all of mankind’s existence. Whether you believe in a particular religion or not, to say that any major religion practiced by billions of people, that has evolved since basically forever, could be devoid of wisdom, is frankly the must ludicrous belief you could possible have – in spite of the fact that many people do believe this.

You can view the search for wisdom in religion in purely secular terms, and ground yourself in a cultural morality through it, but to reject the cultural wisdom of the Judeo-Christian world as some kind of ‘Sky man worship’ is the height of arrogance. The wisdom within is real, and it is bigger than are any of us.  Even if the atheist is right and God is but a figment of mankind’s collective imagination, throwing out the collective wisdom that has evolved into the Judeo-Christian culture, which we might collectively call ‘the Enlightenment,’ is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

The same is of course true with other religions as well. Muhammed could not have billions of followers today were Islam devoid of wisdom, so of course wisdom is there. The question with Islam is one of how well it interacts with other religions and other cultural norms, and indeed, we can ask that of any culture and of any set of cultural norms.  What I would say about religion in general, is that though the people who wrote our various holy texts may have been inspired by God, they were still recorded by people, and as such they are only as true as the people who wrote them could make them.

We also have the problem of interpretation.  Every religion has multiple interpretations, and though we should of course try to interpret meaning as best as we are able to do so, we should always be open to the possibility that our interpretation may be imperfect.

If we want true wisdom, we would weigh our religious beliefs against other religions, for surely, given that all religions evolved and that all major religions believe in a single, all powerful, fully good God, there is more chance to find wisdom where religions agree than there is where they differ.  Perhaps God inspired all of them.  Whatever the case, an all-good God would not want harm to befall anyone, so I would suggest that any religious belief that entails harming other people should be considered highly suspect; I am 100% positive that God does not want us to harm one another.  There may be times when it is necessary to harm others, but that necessity comes from people – not God – and I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is true of any major religion.  People, by and large, do not want to be evil, and will gravitate toward good, when given a choice, so I do not believe it possible to build a large, lasting religion on hate.  Whatever your religion is, if your beliefs encourage you to harm other people, your interpretation is wrong, and the paradox of a wholly good God telling you to harm others should give you more than a moment of pause.  To justify violence on religious grounds is to presume that your religion is an absolute truth the way you interpret it, and if any religion had any interpretation that was absolute in truth, everyone would gravitate toward it, making violence in its name unnecessary.  That, incidentally, is what we are told to expect in Heaven.  On this world, we make due with something less than absolute truths.  If you believe your interpretation of a religion to be an absolute truth, then you believe you are God, and if you believe someone else is an absolute authority, then you belief that person to be God.  To believe in God is to believe that though there is an absolute truth out there, it is beyond our ability to fully comprehend.  God is the absolute truth, and until God reveals truth to us, we’re just guessing as best we can.

Our religions in fact teach us that we cannot interpret them correctly.  Look at any prophesy in any religious book that was later fulfilled.  All of these stories share one important attribute: none of them were fulfilled in the way people at the time had expected.  Not only is the fulfillment of every prophesy in every major religion a surprise in terms of when, exactly, it occurs, but also in specifically how it occurs.  If mankind cannot interpret prophesies well enough to make predictions based on them with any level of accuracy, then how is it even remotely possible for us to claim to be able to interpret anything else with enough accuracy to call it absolute?  More importantly, once you loose the right to claim truth as an absolute, you can no longer justify violence in anyone’s name but your own.  Try squaring that with God the next time you think about blowing up a building.

I was in the Marine Corps and the US Army, and was in combat fields in both branches.  I trained long and hard on many different ways to kill people, and had my country called upon me to do so, I would have.  My justification would have been the belief that my country is larger than I am – it would have had nothing to do with God.  When I hear people using, ‘God wills it,’ as justification for violence, I think, if an omnipotent God really wanted someone dead, He would not need the help of mankind to make it happen.  I would never harm anyone on the basis that, ‘God wills it.’  If God wills it, my faith tells me that God is more than capable of carrying it out Himself.  God wills love.  God wills harmony.  God wills compassion.  To the degree that there is a universal truth (and there is even if none of us are able to fully find it), God wills us to work together to better our collective understanding of it, and we work together by teaching, by debating, perhaps even by arguing, but not by committing physical violence against one another.  The idea that God can be wholly good while also willing man to kill man..  No!  God does not will it, and if you are using God as an excuse to harm others, you are assuming God’s role and willing it yourself.  There is nothing I am more sure of, from a personal perspective, a moral perspective, or a religious perspective, and there is no truth I believe to be more absolute than this one: God does not will mankind to kill mankind, and doing so in His name is probably the highest sin we are capable of committing.

If we can all learn to seek wisdom more so than truth from religion, and to respect the fact that there is invariably going to be a great deal of wisdom in any major religion, completely independently from how much truth there may be, we can then begin to build a more collective sense of wisdom, and in the process we can build a better world.  In a sense our culture would embrace our differences through the realization that we are not really all that different at all.  At the same time, the question of whether or not there is a God would become far less important, for we would see that the wisdom of His word transcends even that.

Update:  I’m getting a lot of comments on Facebook that make it necessary for me to clarify the intent of this post.  I’m not saying all religions are equal, and I am not conflating all religions together.  I am merely pointing out that it would be impossible to get billions of people to follow a religion unless it had some grain of truth to it, and that as such, there must be some wisdom in any popular religion.  As a Christian, obviously I think there is far more wisdom in the Christian Bible than there is anywhere else, but pushing Christianity was not the purpose of this post.  The point was to get people (primarily atheists) to accept that there are good reasons to keep our culture intact, and to get anyone who happens to be an Islamic fundamentalist and who might read this, to hopefully see that any true Islam must be peaceful.  If it is violent, then whatever the justification (and however justified it might be), it comes from mankind – not from God.

3 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Religion”

  1. Apologist C. S. Lewis once said there is a hint of truth in every religion. This is because we were all made in God’s image and he has left the concept of his existence and his moral law in the heart of all mankind. So, we all have some concept of the character and nature of God. Lewis also said that the challenge is to have the right theology. There can be only one truth. Your point is well taken that those who are so inclined can place the pursuit of truth on the back burner, but at least they can pursue the wisdom apparent in the religions of the world. There is of course a pragmatic aspect to wisdom, and that means the religion that works best for all of us is a religion that motivates us to behave decently towards each other. Islam sends out a confusing message, and therein lies the rub.

  2. The Bible and God’s Word is true wisdom.

    Our prime purpose in life is to love and obey God!
    In order to love and obey God, we have to obey the 10 Commandments.

    We are instructed to love others.

    Mark 12:30-31 New International Version (NIV)

    30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”

    We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves.

  3. Unfortunately, many people have interpreted their faith to justify violence, and this is always easy for them to do. The problem seems to be that the more literally you take a religious passage that favors the use of violence, the more religious justification you have for violence. One hundred years ago, a Muslim named Yusuf Ali published a commentary on the Quran in which he basically interpreted away the violent passages by saying, We are civilized now, so we don’t do such things anymore. Today, too many (meaning enough to be dangerous) of his fellow Muslims would disagree with him because they want to take the violent passages in the Quran literally, and they feel that this justifies violence. So the problem is that some take the scriptures literally without a grain of reasonableness, without any subtlety, without any room for live-and-let-live. While it is true that Judaism and Christianity used to be like this, the majority of members of these religions have re-thought the whole inquisition approach to those who disagree with the literal interpretation. Even though there have been Muslims through the centuries who have done the same and they exist today, a spreading militant movement today wants to take the whole Quran literally including the violent,cruel and hateful parts. Muslims will have work this out among themselves. What non-Muslims have to do is recognize those people of all faiths who are violent literalists and strive to be fair but vigilant toward them. Not easy when the undiscriminating among us want us all to turn our backs trustingly toward the literalists.

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