Pre-Requisites: If you haven’t read them already, please read Our Lives Aren’t Supposed To Feel Complete – Here’s Why (OLFC), and Counting Blue Cars – A Blueprint for World Peace (CBC-WP), since this blog post builds on the material presented in these two articles.
A few months ago, as I was walking through my neighbourhood, I passed by two churches, side by side – Trinity Anglican and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian – and at that moment I had an epiphany. I don’t know why I didn’t realize this before, since I’ve walked past these churches dozens of times, but there it was, staring right at me. As I wrote in CBC-WP “it was always there, but not always in my sight”. This ecclesiastical juxtaposition revealed to me, a way to create a more peaceful and civilized society, and a new way to look at the world’s religions.
The first paragraphs of the OLFC article recount a group exercise in my high school English class – we had to solve some kind of mystery. We assembled into groups of five, and each person received a sheet of paper with a story typed on it. We then had to answer a series of questions based on our story. What we didn’t realize was that each of us had a slightly different version of the story, and each version contained information that the other versions didn’t. It was only by discovering this and then pooling our resources that we were able to answer all of the questions.
Further on in OLFC I said that the complete inventory of human talents and abilities has been scattered, seemingly randomly, across millions of people. We each possess only a fraction of these abilities (enough to survive, but not enough to do whatever we want). After seeing the two churches side by side, it occurred to me that the collaborative lessons in this classroom exercise could also be extended to our multitude of religions. I believe that Humankind’s theological knowledge, wisdom and life lessons aren’t contained in a single religion or religious book, but are scattered among the holy books and scriptures of all the world’s faiths. No single religion can answer all of our questions, so if we as a species are to achieve anything approaching enlightenment, then we must pool our theological knowledge, and work together toward a common goal.
Trinity Church was built in 1867 and St. Andrew’s was constructed in 1892. For over a century, they have stood there side by side, as if to tell the community “We’re next door neighbours. We should get to know each other”. It reminds me of the movie National Treasure: luminaries from an earlier time left behind clues for future generations to find and interpret. If they can be decoded, they will lead the discoverer to a treasure beyond their comprehension.
Immediately after experiencing my ecclesiastical epiphany, I began to see other signs suggesting to me that I was onto something – that the idea of inter-denominational collaboration and the sharing of theological wisdom was not only a good idea, but may actually be the natural progression of things. For example:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whom I quoted In the OLFC article, said “Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that I learn of him”. Everyone I meet knows things that I do not. Everyone has skills or talents that I do not possess. I believe that this philosophy can also be extended to religions as well as individuals. Every religion contains wisdom and lessons that I have yet to learn.
- There are twelve people on a jury. Each individual jurors will notice different details in the testimony, and bring their own point of view to the case. Working together, a jury will have a more complete understanding of the events, and be able to make a better-informed decision than one person possibly could.
- Leonard Bernstein, in the introduction to his 1973 Harvard lecture Musical Phonology, said “Perhaps the principal thing I absorbed from Professor [David] Prall, and from Harvard in general, was the interdisciplinary spirit – that the best way to ‘know’ a thing is in the context of another discipline”. While my suggested pooling of our theological knowledge isn’t strictly inter-disciplinary, it can be considered at least inter-denominational, and certainly just as valuable.
- We can also look to computers as a behavioural model for humankind. During the early years of the personal computer era, there was a plethora of models made by at least a dozen different manufacturers: Apple II, Macintosh, Lisa, BBC Micro, Coleco Adam, PET, Vic-20, Commodore-64, Amiga, Atari 400/800, Timex Sinclair ZX-81, TRS-80, Texas Instruments TI-99, and even the IBM-PC. These models generally weren’t compatible with each other; you had to choose one model, and then buy software that worked only on that machine. The floppy disks (and cassette tapes) were also formatted specifically for each machine. Today, computers are networked, and can share information with each other, even if they were built by different manufacturers or have incompatible operating systems. An Android phone can send a text message to an iPhone, and a PC can e-mail a document, photo or video to a Mac. Ironically, the machines we’ve created are better than we are at communicating with each other and sharing information.
I now believe more strongly than ever that pooled religious knowledge and shared communication among disparate faiths is something that we should embrace.
So, Why Aren’t We Collaborating?
If cooperating and pooling our knowledge is so advantageous, then why do we remain theologically sequestered? Why are the vast majority of us reluctant to explore a variety of different religions as we travel along our spiritual path? The answer lies in the polarizing nature of the religions themselves. Most of them proclaim (to varying degrees) that theirs is the one true path, and by doing so, they implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) dismiss the tenets of all other religions.
I’ll use my own religion, Catholicism, as an example. In the CBC-WP article, I wrote that the First Commandment – which presumably is the most important since it’s number one – states “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me”. Our God is commanding us not to listen to anyone else. While this may make its adherents feel special – after all, the appeal and prestige of an exclusive club is not based on whom you include, but whom you exclude – and this exclusivity – while giving us a sense of eliteness and grandeur – tends to makes us unaccepting of the views of outsiders.
In the corporate world, a reluctance or refusal to share information with other departments or divisions is known as an information silo. The term “silo mentality” is used to describe employees who are reluctant to share information. While there are some notable exceptions, such as Apple Computer and its legendary culture of secrecy, information silos are generally considered detrimental to a corporation.
It’s Time For Humankind To Mature
I’m probably going to offend a few of you, but it’s time for us to grow up, or more specifically, to complete our maturation process. Our various cultures have made remarkable progress, and this religious exclusivity is the only thing that holds us back. Maturity, as I define it for a species (or even for a society), is measured not only by our compassion for each other and by the way we treat our society’s weakest members, but also by the reduction or eventual elimination of centrism – the belief that we are the centre of the universe. Over the centuries, Humankind has slowly (and wisely) nudged its perception of itself away from the centre of all things. Here are some examples:
An infant naturally believes that s/he is the centre of the universe, and that adults exist merely to tend to his or her needs. This attitude is called egocentrism. As we get older, we realize the importance of sharing and being accommodating.
On a larger scale, we once thought that the Earth was the centre of the solar system and that the sun and planets all revolved around us. This philosophy is called geocentrism. In 1543, the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus published a book called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which proposed that the Sun was at (or near) the centre of the universe – a philosophy called heliocentrism. The Catholic Church condemned Copernicus’s idea of heliocentrism and added his publication to its Index of Forbidden Books.
Up until quite recently, we used to behave as if we owned the planet, and could do whatever we wanted to it. That’s because the Bible pretty much told us we could. Look at this passage in Genesis 1:26 “God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground.'”. Now we know better – we realize that we are only one link in a vast network of living things, and if we continue polluting and depleting the planet of its resources, life will eventually become quite unpleasant.
During the past century, there has also been a reduction in ethnocentrism – the belief that your own ethnic group is superior. The invention of the airplane meant that we could travel to any spot on the globe within 24 hours. This led to exponential increases in emigration, and eventually to the diversification of large cities (and even smaller towns). Today, large urban centres contain many ethnic neighbourhoods. We also love to eat at restaurants that serve food from other cultures.
However, there is one area left in which we remain centric – the belief that our particular religion is the best one, and is the only true path to a pleasant afterlife or salvation. In the 21st century, we’re still clinging to that belief, and in my opinion, it’s time for us to complete our collective maturation process, admit that we have much to learn from each other religions, and finally abandon our (if I may invent a word) “denominational-centric” view of life and the universe. It’s not only an inward-looking philosophy, but ironically, it also imbues us with one of the Seven Deadly Sins: hubris.
We All Want The Same Things
As I stated in the CBC-WP article, it seems to me that despite our multitude of religions, we all have similar spiritual needs – could it be that there may be more than path to our ultimate destination? I suspect that we are all taking the same journey but merely travelling on different paths. Imagine that you and all of your friends were planning a road trip from one end of the continent to the other. Your destination is the same, but you may each take a different route. Some may plan a scenic route, some may visit historical points of interest along the way, some may drive through urban areas and others may deliberately visit only small towns. There is no “best” route, but if you got together and shared your knowledge, then you might discover hidden gems on your journey that you otherwise would have missed.
What if all of the group members in my English class decided that their piece of paper contained all that they needed to know, and refused to collaborate with anyone else. To me that seems very self-centred and immature. Yet this is pretty much what we’re doing when it comes to religion. We are all trying to solve the same mystery – Why are we here? How did we come to be? How was the universe created? What is our ultimate purpose? – yet we refuse to unshackle ourselves from our ecclesiastical manacles. Why do so many of our religions share this mutually-exclusive view – that they alone possesses the one true path to happiness or salvation, and that followers of other faiths are misguided, or expressed somewhat less politely, are destined to spend eternity in some version of hell.
We’re Not As All-Knowing As We Think We Are
The first thing we need to do is stop patting ourselves on the back. Despite what Genesis 1:26 tells us about being made in God’s image, and despite occupying a lofty perch at the top of the evolutionary ladder, we (individually) are not as clever or as superior as we think we are.
First of all, we’re experiencing only a small fraction of our world. Imagine that you’re standing on top of a hill, taking in a majestic mountainous landscape, and listening to the soothing sounds of nature. It sounds wonderful, and you may feel that you are “smelling the roses” or “living the dream”. However, we humans are practically blind – we experience only a miniscule part of what is happening around us. Dogs can hear frequencies that are far above the upper threshold of human hearing. Their range of hearing is 40Hz – 60kHz; ours is 20Hz – 20kHz. Bees can see light well into the ultraviolet range, and most animals have a better sense of smell than we do. We humans can perceive only a narrow range of the sights, sounds and smells in our environment, yet we behave as if we are taking it all in.
Start Taking The First Steps
Here’s how we can free ourselves from this last bastion of inward-looking, centric behaviour, and finally emerge as a mature, tolerant and wise species:
- If you’re a member of a Christian faith, then don’t use the First Commandment as an excuse to criticize people who belong to different religions, or to criticize those who are secular. Also, don’t be smug about your own religious choices. We each believe that we’ve chosen the right spiritual path, and nobody wants to hear that they’re going straight to hell. They might be thinking the same thing about you. Remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson – people who follow other religions know things that you don’t, and you can learn from them. If we hope to make any progress solving the mysteries of our existence, then we need to work together in an atmosphere of sharing, cooperation and mutual respect.
- Get to know people of other faiths, and ask them about their beliefs (as detailed in CBC-WP). Don’t merely ask out of politeness; ask sincerely and listen carefully to their answers. Walk the proverbial mile in their shoes. Ask them about their holy books, or if you have the time, read them yourself and learn as much as you can.
- Ask friends of other faiths if you can attend one of their religious services. Then invite them to attend your place of worship – but not to try and convert them or to brag about your own religion. Do this only in the spirit of mutual learning and respect.
The next time you’re attending your own religious service, don’t sit smugly while someone waves a book at you and tells the congregation that this is the only path to eternal happiness. Look beyond the walls of your ecclesiastical silo, and make an effort to get to know and understand those who worship differently than you do. That’s the first step in our collective quest for knowledge, maturity and enlightenment.
Whenever you see two places of worship side by side – especially disparate ones – they are telling us something: we’re not finished yet; there are still lessons to learn.