Ordinary Godliness

Sunset 4

“. . . I believe that [Christ’s] ‘through me’[1] meant through the place where he was, spiritually.  Along the path he had taken, interiorly.  Not through him as an individual. . . . ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,’ he said, and that comment can be applied to every soul on earth. . . .”
-Spoken by a character in Roland Merullo’s The Delight of Being Ordinary (New York: Doubleday, 2017), p. 334.

In The Delight of Being Ordinary, author Roland Merullo imagines that Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and Paolo de Padova (the book’s fictional narrator, supposedly the Pope’s cousin and first assistant) sneak out of the Vatican and join Paolo’s estranged wife, Rosa, for a road trip through Italy.  They travel in disguise—and in a Maserati.  Recent dreams have prompted the Pope and Dalai Lama to undertake their adventure.  The places and people they encounter[2] on their rollicking excursion not only inspire reflection by the holy men but also help Paolo and Rosa to examine their own beliefs and their rocky relationship.  Both lighthearted and thought provoking, The Delight of Being Ordinary has helped me to clarify some of my thoughts about the gifts and dangers of religion.

In their pure forms—before they are tainted by our striving for power and supremacy—the world’s faiths are different approaches to the same goal: to become better human beings.  But what does it mean to be a good human being?  I would answer: it means to be kind, to understand our unity with all others; it means knowing we are called on to love, serve, respect, honor, and uplift every person and God’s magnificent Earth.  I am a Quaker in part because I share the Quaker belief that “there is that of God in everyone,” no matter how buried by the challenges and mistakes of living.

So far we humans have generally trampled the best possibilities of religion.  Such is the case when we imagine that our religious affiliation offers individual salvation unavailable to those outside our chosen circle of sanctity.  By practicing our particular religion, we may think we are demonstrating to God that we know all the special passwords and have mastered the secret handshakes that will let us soar into heaven, past the multitudes of uninitiated, unchosen, inferior folks—i.e., those not like us.  But does God only want people just like us, only accept those who recite the right prayers, pray on the correct days, fast by the rules, finger the proper beads?  Rituals are valuable if they help us not just to feel nearer to God but also to feel closer to all the souls across the planet and throughout time.  On the other hand, if we think that our traditions and precepts serve to show our superiority to every outsider, they are among the causes of misunderstanding, bigotry, hatred, poverty, violence, and war.

We are each part of God and loved by God, regardless of our religious affiliation.  Christ does not say, “You are a Methodist, and I only take Presbyterians.”  God does not say, “You are a Muslim, and I only favor Christians.”

During our lives, none of us can know the entire truth of who and what God is and how creation came to be.  (Okay, so there was a big bang, but what was the source of the mass that exploded to create the stars and planets?)  The words and histories of our greatest religious figures have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries, filtered through our imperfect human understanding, the vagaries of language, and the siren song of power and control.  Over the course of our lives, we have the opportunity and responsibility to use our own seeking to accept or refute, expand, mold, and clarify the religious teachings we have encountered.

Because there is that of God in each of us, we have the capacity to listen to and learn from the best within ourselves.  And a range of personal experience can be a masterful teacher.  I am absolutely convinced, for example, that consciousness is not confined within individual brains but links us all.  And the strongest reason I am convinced of this fact is that I have had direct evidence of its truth—including a visual image I saw in my mind during meditation at the time of the September 11 attacks (before I knew about them) and a couple of personal experiments with remote viewing.  In addition, feelings of connecting with my parents on the other side have helped to shape my sense of what “heaven” may be like.

The wisest of our religious leaders preach universal kindness and love.  But all those leaders who preach division and who seek to control through fear and feigned superiority are false prophets.  We see religions providing the would-be powerful—leaders and followers—with an excuse to harm those of different faiths and cultures.  Also pernicious are those who claim that by following their spiritual program, congregants will see their problems evaporate—especially if they tithe sufficiently.

The sermon delivered by the minister who presided at my maternal grandmother’s funeral included a commonplace—and flawed—message.  He spoke of his conversations with my grandmother, Martha, about her spiritual health and salvation.  But I think the minister lacked understanding of the meaning her life had had for all of us who knew her: It was not my grandmother’s late spiritual “rebirth” according to evangelical doctrine that assured the peace and wellbeing of her soul.  It was her well-lived life, filled with love, kindness, humor, determination, and generosity, as well as with plenty of mistakes from which she could learn.  The minister said to us, “If you want to see Martha again, you will accept Christ as your savior.”  No,  I believe that what God asks of us is to live the kind of life for which Christ set an example:

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. . . .”[3] (Ephesians 4:32)
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

What kind of a God would rank and judge religious affiliation?  Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian, shaman . . . atheist: all of us are loved by God, and all of us are Godly if we are loving and kind to one another.  I have a long way to go to become the kind of person I want to be.  But I don’t think that my church membership makes one bit of difference to God, unless it helps me to become more loving and kind and to see that we—all people—are one.

[1] John 14:6 (English Standard Version) – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

[2] Some of the characters that appear in the climax of The Delight of Being Ordinary appear as main characters in Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha (2008), Lunch with Buddha (2012), and Dinner with Buddha (2015), which I also recommend.

[3] The quotations from Ephesians and 1 Corinthians are from the English Standard Version.

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