Do myths in religious culture reflect a real humane side to transcendence?
Love and light as real
Love wants to love someone and wants to be with them. It shares, gives, and unites. I offer the notion that love and light are two sides of the same coin. My reason is, without wisdom, love is ineffective and without love, wisdom is inert. Consequently, I believe love and wisdom combine together forming the universal Source of what is truly humane in us all.
Whether or not you refer to love and light as ‘God’, you might decide to believe and put trust in this universal reality. A reality you may be aware of within your soul. Whatever its source, some mystics and philosophers who do not interpret the phenomenon in a religious framework, nevertheless have assumed this illumination is both within oneself and comes from beyond oneself at the same time. A presence of transcendence within our deepest being. Do you have this consciousness of an ultimate reality behind the workings of the universe? In other words do you acknowledge there is a humane universal spirit of compassion and wisdom?
When people try to speak about this spirit, they often get stuck for words. As the Hindus say, what is real often hides from us because we immerse ourselves in appearances. Similarly, I would suggest if there is an infinite truth about existence, our finite mind is in difficulty comprehending it.
Yet, even when not committed to any faith tradition, many people seem to appreciate new ways of knowing and loving. For they have noticed a guiding light that inspires hope and confidence.
What is humane and inhumane
A clearer idea of the humane spirit of love and light comes when we consider what is inhumane: a spirit of hate and darkness. Turning away from humanity involves terrible behaviour, such as genocide, torture and other terrible crimes: the corruption of love and light shown in man’s inhumanity to man.
Having humanity is consequently all about having love and wisdom – not a shallow whim, nor an in-effective sentiment, nor an imprudent, albeit well motivated, impulse. But rather a kind and thoughtful act: a sensible concern. This means having consideration for others, their needs, their potential. When a sense of togetherness, an affinity with others, and a caring attitude all inspire us, we realise these feelings are real and present within us. At the same time what inspires originates from beyond. I receive the inspiration but believe it flows in from outside of me from what is universally humane.
Humane side of mythical beings
One example connecting humanity with a religious attitude is Freemasonry which is a movement claiming great antiquity. Its members join together in an association based on brotherly love and a belief in a supreme Being.
Another example is the Hare Krishna movement which promotes human well-being by promoting consciousness of God based on the ancient Vedic texts of India. Devotees encourage this awareness through constant chanting in public.
These two traditions speak of a Divine Being as do many parts of the world of religion. ‘Supreme Spirit, ‘Divine Being’ or more often just ‘God’ are terms these people use. They think of this Divine figure as something of which no greater can be conceived, an ultimate arbiter for what is right and wrong and an intelligence behind the design of the universe.
Do these myths about transcendence as a kind of person represent something true? Or are they merely fantasy strongly influenced by cultural influences? Do you suppose that images conjured up to satisfy unconscious wishes create these myths? Those, who do not buy into a particular faith, assume its pictures represent important human qualities, such as wisdom, kindness, benevolence, but which nevertheless, do not point to any reality beyond oneself.
On the other hand, we may suspect that claims about experiencing transcendence from all kinds of people in every historical period are too varied and widespread to be reduced to people’s invention.
Different images of humane transcendence
Clinical psychologist and mystic Wilson van Dusen once wrote: “Religions are easily distinguished by their representations. What represents God in one religion may be merely a curious artefact to other religions… Below the level of a culture’s principal representation of art there are always a host of the lesser figures which are aspects of God, or God -like persons, or messengers of God. Most of these are some mix of the human and the divine. The great pantheon of figures in Hinduism and Buddhism are not multiple gods, but different aspects of God. The Hindu Kali represents the creator/destroyer aspect of the One. The Buddhist goddess Kuan Yin represents the gracious compassion of the Divine. Below this level we have all the saints and god-like persons. Gods correlates with critical points of a world where humans are most open to the power of ‘the other’.”
In a part of Hindu sacred writings known as the Upanishads, the conception of Brahman becomes personal.
“It becomes possible to pray to Brahman in human terms and to hope for an answer… in one’s prayers.” (T. Patrick Burke, professor of religion)
Compared with the world of appearances, Buddhists believe that the eternal Buddha nature is the sole true reality. The Buddha is a humane image. The devotional form of Mahayana Buddhism turns for aid to the Eternal Buddha nature. Devotees pray to the various forms of the Buddha. They pray to obtain help with the trials of this life. For example, many Japanese Buddhists think of Amida. This is the popular Buddha of Infinite Light. They often see him as nothing more than a name of the Absolute. Yet they still find the beloved image of this compassionate deity to be an invaluable aid in their spiritual lives.
Many people take the religious view that something humanly Divine comes from beyond the self. They think of this as an ultimate reality each can find, connect with, relate to and gain benefits from.
Negative connotations of the word ‘God’
If one wants to interact with what is higher than oneself, then one needs some representation of transcendence. However, for many people who see themselves as spiritual but not religious, the word ‘God’ can be a problem. There are even those who have broad religious sympathies, and some sense of a higher presence in their lives, but who are uncomfortable about calling this ‘God’.
Perhaps the term God has reached its used by date. I would suggest the reason that there are several negative connotations associated with the word ‘God’, is because of the questionable doctrines and hypocritical misconduct that can be found sometimes where belief in God is promoted.
According to Wilson Van Dusen, if asked, the average person says the worst aspect of most religions is a remarkable tendency to intolerance. This extends all the way from, ‘I have found the one right way; all others are lost,’ to feeling totally justified in killing members of any other religions.” (Wilson van Dusen, clinical psychologist and mystic)
Van Dusen also points out that on many occasions when people of different religions appear to be in conflict, it is actually due to cultural and economic differences. In such instances, religion is just a convenient way to identify adversaries.
Nevertheless, I would say that through the attitudes of some people who identify with Christianity, the term God these days has become linked to dogmatism, sexism, racism, and power and control.
The notion that God is male also puts many people off religion these days. Feminism has alerted us to the way culture tends to prioritise the male point of view. Traditional society has been organised around male authority figures resulting in injustice for women.
Actually, I believe at least for some religious people today, deep down the idea of God implies no specific gender. This is because the God of scripture as male is not taking literally by them but rather symbolically. Masculine and feminine correspond to different human tendencies both originating in their concept of God.
If human beings are created human in God’s image, as Christianity teaches, then presumably God has both masculine and feminine qualities. There are passages in the Bible where the Divine is likened to having qualities in keeping with compassionate, longing and tender qualities found on average more in mothers. May I suggest the idea that this humane idea of God does not mean an individual human being and thus not a male human being.
Seeking a transcendent source of humane qualities
In life, change is inevitable. At some point, our situations and circumstances alter in unwelcome and unpleasant ways. We’re required to find qualities of courage, patience, tolerance, self-control, kindness, etc. Perhaps figures of deity have a human form because people seek a spiritual source for these ideal human characteristics.
Philosopher Roger Scruton, wrote the book ‘The Face of God’.
“Scruton examines the view that God is to be understood through one’s communion with fellow humans, and not through philosophical speculation about the ground of being. ” (P.K. Moser, Loyola University Chicago)
According to the author, the human face gives expression to the subjective consciousness of thoughts and feelings. The human face occurs in the world of objects as though ‘lit from behind’. It thus shows a higher and moral dimension of life. So, I would say that his idea of our spiritual source has a human dimension.
I once saw a woman walking into a council refuse tip to get rid of a long fluorescent light tube. She unfortunately tripped over and dropped the tube that exploded in a puff of smoke. It looked and sounded dramatic. Her elderly friend was following on behind. At that moment seeing the prostrate woman and hearing the explosion, she exclaimed ‘Oh God, God’ and rushed forward. This friend may not have been religious but was she not asking for her idea of God’s help without even realising it? Perhaps her God did answer her prayer for although she was a bit shocked, the fallen woman got up and dusted herself down. It turned out that she had suffered no injury. If the help needed is beyond the capability of loved ones or friends, we may decide to ask the human face of transcendence for assistance.
12 Step Programme
Those attending Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meetings feel it easier to confess their misconduct with others who are in the same boat and thus are seen as not being in judgment over them. In the same way, it is possible for them to turn to a higher power whom they assume accepts them for what we are, warts and all.
According to AA and other self-help groups that follow the Twelve Step Programme, the focus of Step 7 of is humility, asking a higher power to do something that cannot be done by self-will or mere determination. I would suggest this spirit can inflow into those members who pray for help as long as they take personal responsibility for their own conduct. This image of transcendence is one of human acceptance and encouragement keenly felt by those who are honestly facing up to their failings.
You might be thinking that the alcoholics turn to the idea of a rescuing deity out of desperation. But many religious people are not ruined by lack of self-control nor at the end of their tether. Nevertheless turn to religious faith for help with their fallibilities. There may be some, but do all of these need to feel despair before they can believe in the spirit of humane transcendence?
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