One way to think about religion to focus on belief, rules and accuracy. There is a feeling by some that worshipping Jesus and loving God come with a certain set of beliefs that everyone in that religion musts share. One must ascribe to these beliefs in order to “be in the club.” This religious mindset, if taken too far, can tend to be black and white and absolute, valuing clarity. Some beliefs are right and others are wrong. If religion focuses on a group of people sharing the same beliefs as its most important criteria, then people in other religions, who have a different set of beliefs, are wrong and we are right. In extreme cases, this can lead to religious violence, religious warfare, and hurtful breaks in religious communities.
My faith does come with a set of beliefs. Yet, I tend to like to think of religion, also, as a practice that leads me to be a more compassionate person. My religious practice helps me to slow down, to carry of worldview of abundance, and to work toward healing, equality, justice and reconciliation in the world. If someone has a slightly different practice than me, but it helps her become more compassionate, I can be supportive of both her and my practice. Karen Armstrong, an author and scholar who writes a lot about Christianity, Islam and Judaism, articulates this distinction well here in her TED talk. I do not agree with everything she says here, but her perspective is important and refreshing.
I bring up this distinction between religion as beliefs and religion as practice this week because of Spirit addressing the Gospel of Mark. Joan Mitchell does a great job of reminding us that Mark wrote his Gospel forty years after Jesus died by compiling stories to show the Good News that Jesus is the Messiah. He shows the disciples as failures so we can feel comforted in our failures, too. And the three Gospels that followed have unique differences in tone, stories and agenda. We would be missing so much beauty in our Gospel stories if we read them as fact, as a history textbook, looking for strictly what happened and what to believe. It is important to remember that the Gospels were translated into English and never meant to be read as history text.
It is true that we read the Gospels in part to influence our set of beliefs, but we also read it to learn from Jesus how to be compassionate people. Much is lost, I think, if we forget the second part. For example, Matthew’s Gospel quotes Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (5:3) while Luke’s Gospel quotes Jesus saying, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God,” (6:20). If we as a people become focused on what Jesus actually said and feel as though one Gospel must be right and the other must be wrong, we loose sight of the importance of Jesus’ message in this rich passage. At times, we need to let go of our desire for absolute clarity and seek a deeper truth. I think it is amazing that we have two Creation stories and four Gospels so that we can work to find truth in the intersection, the conversation of the stories as they interact with us in our context. It is not about right and wrong, black and white, fact and fiction. Jesus is bigger, more mysterious than that. We can, however, be grateful to Mark for writing the story of Jesus down so that we may build a religious practice that honors Jesus by becoming more compassionate to each other and to ourselves.
What are examples of differences in religious beliefs leading to violence, war, or schism?
What is your religious practice?
Does it help you become more compassionate to yourself and others?