The Contextual Nature of Religion

Not believing in God because of religion is like not believing in freedom because of politics.

I don’t know how the entire discussion about the existence of God got monopolized by the world’s religious institutions. For sure, there is no doubt that many of the teachings within Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam can offer powerful insights into the nature of God but I give none of them complete monopoly over the discussion, and neither should you!

The number one reason I feel this way is the intensely contextual nature of any spiritual discussion. For example, if you can forgive the pop culture reference… we’ve all seen The Matrix right? And we remember the scene where Neo has to go meet the Oracle to find out if he’s the one. Well she, the oracle, looks at him up and down, tells him to say awwww, and then says he’s not the one. We all know that was bullshit so what gives?

Neo believes he’s not the one (wrong). The Oracle says he’s not the one (wrong). And all of a sudden the truth emerges and he’s the one.

So how would history remember that interaction in the fictional matrix universe? It’s not that implausible to imagine separate religious denominations emerging: one that believe Neo is the one, and one that believes he isn’t. A separate denomination could even believe Agent Smith is the one if they happened to see one of those alternate theory YouTube videos.

Eckhart Tolle has stated that during a spiritual teaching the depth of his answer to a question depends on the depth of the question. There is this intense relationship that only exists in that moment. What all of these spiritual teachers give us is the ability to exist precisely in that moment with us and tell us exactly what we need to hear. When we only read the transcript or watch the video of such discussions afterwards they will never be as valuable to us as they were to everyone who was there.

There’s a wonderful description of David Godman’s encounters with the famous Indian Saint Nisargadatta Maharaj. In the following video David describes an incident where he was pointing out a number of inconsistencies in Nisargadatta’s teachings until finally the teacher interrupts him and says he is missing the point. He says he is not telling him these things so he can develop a philosophy that is rational and free of contradictions, he is simply planting them in his consciousness.

I believe religious texts are filled with such interactions.

Every individual or group in front of Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna brought with them their own combinations wrong perceptions, bitterness, and anger. All of which required different messages or teachings to give them what they needed. It is the intense presence of these powerful religious figures that allowed them to know what that was.

Now if someone were to document all of these teachings and compile them in a book together, they are not likely to provide a very consistent or relevant message to the reader. Especially if the scribe doesn’t always completely understand what the teaching was about, and even more so if it was 80 years after the fact as was the case with the gospels. The loss of context in this scenario is hard to recover from.

The problems always begins in our search for absolute truths. We want something we don’t have to think about, something that is black and white, and indisputable. So we latch on to these ancient books and turn off the discerning part of our brain.

The ideal way to approach any religion, and its corresponding text, is to search for a context you can relate to on a deeply personal level. Don’t look for consistency, don’t look to prove anything, and don’t look to ridicule it. Simply find a situation that seems familiar and hits close to home and read about it.

One of my favourite religious teachings comes from Hinduism.

Krishna and Arjuna were travelling through the forest and came upon a rich man’s house who hosted them for dinner. He had a beautiful home but was very rude, disrespectful, and spent most of their visit simply counting his money. As they departed Krishna blessed the man with even more wealth. A little time later they came across this poor man who had virtually nothing to his name except a sick and decrepit old cow. But he was thrilled that the magnificent Krishna came to visit little old him. He did his best to be the ultimate host with what little means he had. When Krishna left he gave a blessing that even the poor man’s cow should die.

We are all on our own paths, but going to the same place. The rich man needed more wealth to ultimately understand that his happiness does not lie in having more things. The poor man was so close to ridding himself of attachment to things that the most compassionate thing that Krishna could do is help him complete the journey. Now did this event actually happen? Who knows. Does that matter?

Don’t look for right and wrong in these texts. Simply find something that impacts you in a positive way. Something that brings you peace. And something that tells you who you are.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “The Contextual Nature of Religion

  1. One problem here is that religion is typically prone to decontextualizing itself insofar as it is constantly producing messages stripped of all the conditions that would make them valuable.

    Also, I would add that your last paragraph is telling. The idea that we should look for something that helps us personally in a religion is a very modern approach to the topic. It isn’t at all in keeping with the spirit of the Abrahamic religions in particular. Religion-as-therapy is interesting, but it clashes with much of the content of western religions.

    …unless of course you wish to ignore that context altogether.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! Religion is an attempt to organize spiritual teachings into a consistent and logical philosophy not subject to the infinite variability of context. I have added one paragraph to the version of the post you read talking about this. Where religion chooses to take the teachings as a whole we are free to choose the ones that speak to us. Because I believe that is closer to the original intent.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s