The issues of religion and politics are very touchy. People tend to hold their beliefs very dearly, regardless of the extent to which those beliefs shape their day-to-day lives. Many people are strong believers and live their lives accordingly. Many more cling to the fundamentals of one belief system or other that show little or no effects in their lifestyles. I, for one, have swayed back and forth between the two a great deal in my life. I have experienced a great deal of emotional turmoil at times, and have seen myself become rabid and brutal in defense of ideas and values that have very little bearing on my life or choices. But as I have progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve made a little headway in better living by the principles I claim to value.
One of the principles I’ve struggled with has been tolerance. My predisposition is to look at things from an all-or-nothing standpoint, and tolerance has not eluded that unfriendly gaze. I let myself think for a while that I must let everyone believe whatever ridiculous nonsense they choose to, because that’s their “right.” I later swung to the other extreme and thought that I must take (and give) great pains to “help” others part with their mistaken beliefs, even as my own were constantly growing and changing. I hoped that by unloading my beliefs on passersby, I might be able to nail down my belief system definitively and move on to other things, like living life. I didn’t necessarily need all of the gruesome details, but I wanted desperately to know the basic gist of the big picture. I felt compelled to lash out at all of the unsatisfactory attempts to explain things from society’s religions, especially atheism and popular forms of monotheism. I resented their audacious claims about the world beyond time and space. At the same time, though, I fumbled around desperately for some story about that world that I could buy.
Lately I’ve come to terms with the idea that I will never be certain about what exists beyond this world. My beliefs and understanding about this world and beyond will continue to grow and change as long as I continue to live and breathe. When I accept that, I learn to practice tolerance because the beliefs I ridicule today may be the ones I embrace tomorrow. But I am still much less likely to accept some beliefs than others. As I have explored different ideas, I have learned that some are simply too far-fetched. If these ideas were harmless, then tolerance would be in order. But in many cases, false beliefs do more harm than good. When that’s the case, I should look for opportunities to discuss the ideas and propose alternatives. Tolerance means respecting that each person is going to believe whatever he or she wants to believe. I cannot change what another person believes, but I can exchange ideas and perspectives so that we can each come to new understandings. Everyone is free to believe what they want, but that doesn’t mean that simply believing a thing makes it right.
Having said all of that, I am going to lay out some of my fundamental beliefs. The realm of possibilities in my belief system remains wide, but my experience in life thus far has provided me with a basic framework for understanding the world and my place in it. One of my core beliefs is that the driving force in the Universe leads us toward connectedness, integration, and depth and broadness of experience. Our job is to try to live life as fully as possible, seeking joy and avoiding suffering, and to help others do the same. These ideas aren’t new or original in any sense, and the spirit of these ideas has appeared in some form in countless traditions throughout the history of human thought. But in addition to our constant misinterpretation and misunderstanding of each other, I believe we supplement and distort very basic ideas about life in ways that disconnect us from each other, limit ourselves, inhibit joy and increase suffering.
I call the life force in the Universe love. Many other people call it many other things. A few common names for it in Christianity might include Grace, Holy Spirit, or Jesus Christ. Some would simply call it compassion. I believe that the Universe as a whole is simply an expression of it. Love has no opposite because love is all there is. In our exercise of free will and choice, we often attempt to suppress or subvert love. Our efforts are simply misguided or perverted forms of love. Love is a river and sometimes we try to swim upstream because we think that’s where we’ll find love. But we’re already drowning in it. When we fail to serve as conduits for love, we cause suffering, which creates more opportunities for compassion. We make lots of mistakes. We hurt each other in horrible, shameful ways. People are left to experience dereliction, degradation, isolation, and painful, undignified deaths. But the drive to empathize with each other remains even when we think we don’t want it. Love will prevail because life is nothing more than love experiencing itself in an infinite variety of forms. Consciousness is the sleight-of-hand that convinces us that we are separate from the rest of the Universe, thus allowing us to experience a broader range of suffering and joy in life. We are drops in a river that have convinced ourselves we are separate and distinct from the rest of the flowing water. The spirit that animates us is the same spirit that animates all matter.
In this framework, the closest thing to sinfulness is self-centeredness. This is basically indulgence in the illusion of separateness and failure to participate fully in the joy, suffering, and compassion of life. This is not in opposition to love; it instead is the failure to use all of the love available. Self-centeredness leads people to stumble around blindly when they could move forward into life and embrace and experience love, integration, and connectedness. In addition to limiting our ability to experience a full range of what life and love offer, self-centeredness shuts out the compassion of others, and short-changes people who would otherwise receive love through us. We must constantly work to expand our capacity to give and receive love and compassion. In doing so, we both help others avoid suffering and help them expand their own capacities for love and compassion.
This understanding of life and our role in it doesn’t easily translate into our modern society, which so highly values individualism. But while I believe that individuality is an illusion created by consciousness, it’s still the basis for our interaction with the world. The practice of compassion seeks to break down the artificial distinctions that we create between each other, but corporate capitalism and the American dream rely heavily on them. Our economy is driven by self-interest at the cost of the well-being of others, and failures to exercise love and compassion are greatly rewarded with material wealth. Yet as our world continues to experience problems of incredible magnitude, we continue to have further opportunities to exercise and practice love and compassion with each other. Even if our species faces great calamity, people will continue to have chances to love and care for each other until we draw our final breaths. I’m up to the challenge. Are you?