I recently attended a gathering of people who were discussing reconciling religious beliefs and reason. The gathering included people of different religions; it is not only Christians who face this struggle. Each person described their confusion and anguish in deciding to believe or to reject particular tenets of their religion. No one found it easy to reject beliefs imparted to them as children by their parents. There were about 15 of us attending that event, but I know that far greater numbers wrestle with the same inner doubt and anxiety.
Years ago, I knew a cleric who had no such inner battle. He believed the earth was flat, because in his scriptures he read, “… the four corners of the earth.” (Isa 11:12, Rev 7:1). In 1969, he told me that the lunar landing had been faked, that no one could walk on the moon. “Why not?” I asked. Because the moon was only a light referred to in his scriptures as “the lesser light to rule the night.” (Gen 1:16).
He believed the Bible as so literally true, word for word, that he dismissed scientific evidence to the contrary. For him, rejecting evidence that the Bible was not literally true demonstrated his loyalty to his religious beliefs. At my then-high-school age, I could not share his loyalty. I was already questioning my religious upbringing. I was not wondering whether the Bible was literally true, word for word. I was wondering how much, if any, could I believe the Bible at all.
And yet, while some people held what I considered to be blind beliefs, I also noticed their wonderful childlike, devotional trust in their Creator to care for them. Indeed, it seems that trust draws grace into their lives. Maybe we can call this devotional belief, versus blind belief. This kind of belief is of the heart, not of the head. We would all do well with more of this type of belief.
In time, I learned to distinguish inconsequential Biblical details (some of which are not literally true) and Biblical spiritual allegories (also not literally true) from timeless truths. For example, Jesus’ commandment to “love God, love neighbor, love self,” as the way to eternal life is as valid today as it was 2,000 years ago.
We have to keep in mind that the books of the Bible, written by about 40 authors over a 1500-year period, were written when the Earth was widely considered to be the center of a very small Universe. That “Universe” consisted of only our solar system, with Earth at its center. We cannot blame the people of those times for believing as they did; they did not have sophisticated tools to reveal how huge the Universe really is. Naturally, the Bible authors’ writings reflected the understanding of the times in which they wrote.
In centuries that followed, it was dangerous to question the word-for-word veracity of the Bible, even though it was written by men who cannot possibly be considered all-knowing or infallible. In 1633, the Catholic Church brought Galileo to trial, for stating that the Earth revolved around the sun, instead of the other way around. The Catholic Church forced him to recant his studies and confined him to house arrest for life. His astronomy book was banned. It took over 350 years for the Church to formally admit that Galileo’s view of the solar system was correct after all.
Today, astronomers have proven quite conclusively that our solar system is not the center of the Universe, nor is our own Milky Way Galaxy. Now, the general agreement among astronomers is that the Universe is gigantic (2 trillion galaxies!), with our solar system only a dot in its immensity.
Just as some of the “faithful” reject science, so many scientists reject religion. Indeed, both sides can be rigidly black and white in their stance. This leads me to make an important point. With our amazing, yet limited capacities, none of us can fully grasp the immensity of the physical or spiritual realities. Every single one of us is bound to be wrong in at least some, and likely most, of our scientific or spiritual beliefs. This, at least, is something we all have in common!
Fortunately, Paramhansa Yogananda, widely revered as one who truly communed with God said, “God doesn’t mind your mistakes. He minds your indifference.” To me, this means what is important is that we keep trying to understand. God doesn’t mind our questions – indeed, He likes them! Questioning and investigating shows we are interested in Him and His Creation. He wants us to seek and to solve the riddle of life.
We explore the physical world through the various disciplines of science. Science is strengthened by continual questioning and exploration. Science disciplines uses inquiry (seeking to find out), then experimentation (which can be reproduced or substantiated), to obtain results (sometimes very surprising). The results are then evaluated for possible further inquiry. With each new scientific discovery, new vistas open up for even more inquiry, experimentation and discovery. Through this process, understanding grows.
We can use the same process—questioning—to strengthen and grow our faith, through the various disciplines of spirituality (prayer, chanting, practicing the presence, yoga meditation). Jesus states these steps as: “Ask” (spiritual inquiry), “knock” (spiritual experimentation) and “ye shall find” (obtain spiritual results) (Matthew 7:7). Each step requires your effort, no one can do this for you. We must have the courage to as St Paul said, “work out (make the effort yourself for) your own salvation (saved from the fear-producing beliefs) with fear and trembling (knowing that it will cause fear and anxiety) Philippians 2:12.
Questioning and doubting (if it doesn’t devolve into cynicism), far from being grounds for condemnation, should be celebrated! It shows curiosity and initiative, a desire to grow in spiritual understanding. Start from where you are and resolve to keep improving your ability to love God, love neighbor and love self. There is no end to possibilities for growth!
A sincere longing to know the Truth will draw a divine response. Make the effort to sincerely ask, knock, and “ye shall find” communion with the Lord – ever-new, satisfying and sweeter than you can imagine. Practice a spiritual discipline (prayer, meditation, practicing the presence, chanting) to evolve spiritually – here and now.
“The soul loves to meditate, for in contact with the Spirit lies its greatest joy.” ~ Paramhansa Yogananda.