“If you were to say to the grown-ups: ‘I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,’ they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them, ‘I saw a house that cost $20,000.’ Then they would exclaim, ‘Oh, what a pretty house that is!'”
~Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
The following is an updated version of an essay I wrote in 2007.
< Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life
Part Three: I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder
The message I received growing up, from homeschool curriculums to highschool worldview camps, was a message about a dichotomy:
Everything is either for us or against us, us versus them, heaven or hell, Biblical Worldview™ or Bust.
Summit Ministries, for example, reduced every belief system in the world to only three — Secular Humanism, Transcendentalism, and Theism. And if you weren’t a member of that third category (and not just a member of the category, but also the sub-sub-sub-category of Biblical Worldview Theism), you were dangerous. You were to be kept at an arm’s distance, and it would be more than an arm’s distance, except that — if you were too far away, we couldn’t evangelize to you.
But as I left my youthful suburb behind, I realized life is far more complicated. The American Christian worldview was trying so hard to make everything neatly packaged, with a pretty bow on top, so that we wouldn’t “lose the faith” in college — that it forgot to take other people seriously. Looking back at Summit’s lesson plans, I cannot help but employ facepalm after facepalm. Reading quotations from Chuck Colson’s How Now Shall We Live?, which I remember made the rounds in my homeschooling community in highschool, I cannot help but cringe at its abundant use of straw men.
I wish I wasn’t raised to fear other ideas.
I wish I wasn’t raised to fit people neatly into summer camp categories.
Most of all, I wish I didn’t have to fight so hard to free myself from the Biblical Worldview™ or Bust mentality. Because it took a whole lot of energy to extricate myself from that.
Once I broke free, once I began to see that what I was taught as “Christianity” wasn’t some pure set of doctrines but rather a particular moment-in-time’s interpretation of doctrines — and also a whole lot more — I began to see other religions differently, too. I began to see that they had a lot to offer me. Buddhism wasn’t just a line in a binder that gets stamped either “True” or “False.” Neither was Daoism or Hinduism or any other -ism. They were complicated movements full of people and history and ideas and passions, fueled by heartache and hope and joy and terror.
They were made of humans. They were just like me. They were asking the exact same questions I was, and for the exact same reasons. They breathed, they felt, they lived, they loved, they hated — everything that made them relatable and understandable and beautiful and tragic was everything that was conveniently omitted from my education.
I was taught to refute. I was not taught to relate.
I was taught to analyze. I was not taught to love.
I was taught to argue. I was not taught to appreciate.
As I learned to approach life with humility and openness, I began to see the complexity. I began to see what other religions had to offer. I learned so many important life lessons from this process — I learned from Buddhism, for example, how to ground my mind when my depression got overwhelming. I learned from Daoism how censorship, control, and domination are not the only forms of influence and leadership.
I learned that there are so many beautiful and good things in other religions that have nothing to do with the Biblical Worldview™.
I can freely admit that beauty and that goodness without fear. Because I came to realize that religion is more than a set of propositions that are true or false.
It is a force that underlies and propels human thinking and interaction. At the same time it is also the final touch to that thinking and interaction, an acrylic fixative for the oil painting of human ingenuity. Human beings have a desire to make sense of their world, to find a meaning in that sense, and to be inspired by the meaning they find.
In this sense, therefore, religion is both true and false, Christian and pagan, personal and social, relative and universal, oppressive and liberating. It can be each and every one because religion is not one particular entity. It is an edifice of both the idiosyncratic and the profound. As propositional truth about the universe’s origin, it can be true or false; as revealing the delicacy of human nature, it can be beautiful or ugly; as a particular society’s intense struggle to understand itself and its universe, it can either be faithful to that struggle or unfaithful; as encompassing disciplines such as meditation or yoga, it can either be healing or aggravating; and so forth. In short, it is so much more than what the evangelical culture believes.
One cannot divide religion into the simple categories of “right” and “wrong” based on whether it affirms the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
Even if one does affirm Jesus as such, one cannot say this is the essence of religion.
To see religion from a broader perspective doesn’t need to threaten anyone. For example, Christianity’s understanding of the universe can easily be understood as underlying this analysis. According to the Book of Genesis, the God of Israel created humanity in His image. He created humanity with the tools of reason, a blistering curiosity, and the insatiable need to put together the puzzle pieces of the world into a coherent picture that makes sense of this world. No matter what religion one adheres to, therefore, since one is still human in the sense of being made in God’s image, one will experience this insatiable need for a coherent portrait of reality.
Religion as such is the product of this need. The various religions are the attempts of human cultures throughout the history of the world to create a coherent picture of reality.
Even the contemporary American interpretation of Christianity is not a flawless deduction from the Old and New Testaments but rather one more human attempt at coherence.
To some people, of course, this necessitates a cynicism or pessimism regarding religion. (To the contemporary American Christian, it just implies heresy.) If religion is interpretation, how can anyone claim to have the right interpretation? While an important question, this inquiry all too often implies that interpretation as a process lacks any sort of inherent value. I simply disagree.
Maybe I read too many children’s books, but I am a big fan of process. I am forever unfolding, learning new things each day.
I will hold onto my wonder until the day I die.
Even if the process becomes tedious, it bears many gifts. It bears treasures unto the painter, the musician, the lover, and the logician. While religions have no doubt caused catastrophic pain and suffering (and I don’t mean to diminish this fact, but my personal struggle is appreciating other religions, not hating them; I was raised to hate most of them), religions are also the artifacts of cultures worthy to be preserved in the grandest of museums—remnants of the human struggle to understand an alienating and a chaotic world; the courageous refusals to cave into meaningless; the unparalleled artistry and creativity employed to justify such refusals.
Consider the poetic fury of the Rg Veda, or the kaleidoscopic narrative of the Mahabharata, an epic unparalleled in mass and muse by the greatest of Greek and Roman artists. (Really, just read the Mahabharata, period. It makes the Iliad look like a Young Adult novel.) Plumb the depths of Dante’s Inferno. Bask in the apocalypse of St. John in his Book of Revelations. Know the deeply felt vibration of the mystical Om, or the karmapa chenno of the Diamond Way. Hear the austere men of faith solemnly chat their divine liturgies, especially the “One Hundred and Second Psalm” by the Russian Patriarchate Choir; adore the children who delight in their Sunday School rhymes.
Say what one may about these people and their faiths, yet think about how amazing it is —
Human beings have created art, song, and dance; tens of thousands of gods; histories and philosophies and mythologies — all to figure out life.
And then think about something else.
Think about the negatives, too, for one moment.
You cannot escape the negatives, no matter how beautiful your religion is, no matter how “biblical” your view of the world is.
Think about all the wars, all the violence, and all the other abuses caused by or justified with religion.
This is the human element of religion.
It is the element of Midas: everything humanity lays its eager fingers upon transforms into a human endeavor, no matter how superhuman the endeavor might have first manifested.
When the Buddha left his palace home to seek enlightenment, he did not intend to create a worldwide movement full of sects that constantly bicker and would try to oust each other out of power. Neither did Jesus. In the 1950’s, Jim Jones had a seemingly simple goal: to create the People’s Temple, an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless. Decades later, the movement would end with over nine hundred adults and children drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid. The so-called Moral Majority seemed to have the blessing of God in 1978; by 1989 it fell apart, with many of its adherents later appearing in the news for sexual transgressions and drug abuse.
We cannot avoid this human element, any more than I think we can avoid the sense of wonder that provokes us to fashion religion. These things are essential to human being. To be human is to have a personality. And personality gives birth to the great fire that is the drama of human becoming—a drama in which religion plays a central role. It is the canvas on which we portray our search for truth.
I have come to appreciate that canvas, where it comes from. I have come to appreciate and love what each religion I have studied has to offer, and I do so with open arms, with a sincere desire to know and relate and understand.
I reject attempts to make myself and other people afraid to know and understand other humans and how they view the world from their own eyes. People who attempt that are snuffing out wonder, one book and one summer camp at a time.
I think of the child that Antoine de Saint Exupéry talks about, who sees the beautiful house and the grown-ups cannot understand the beauty in anything other than dollar amounts. Those of us who are learning to see the beauty in religions are scary to the “grown-ups” of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling because they cannot understand the beauty in anything other than disembodied doctrines:
“Does it fall under the Theism category?”
“Well, no, but I learned the most amaz—”
“Then off with its head!”
“But it contains an important truth about—”
“It’s not part of The Biblical Worldview™! End of story! Off with its head!“
“But I really appreci—”
“No! Off — With — Its — HEAD!”
I left that world. And I am not looking back.
If that’s what it means to be a grown-up, I’m choosing Neverland. I will live Where The Wild Things Are. Because I choose to celebrate my childlike wonder.
I choose to live in awe of the world, of humanity, of the amazingness that we — for whatever reason you want to say — have named tens of thousands of gods and created the Downward Dog pose; we sing songs and clap our hands and we eat wafers and say blood is wine; we laugh and cry together and we do all these things because we are that passionate about figuring out this maddening world we live in.
I mean, how amazing is that?
It’s fucking amazing.
When I realized that, I stopped being afraid of other religions.
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