The practice of being spiritual is not exactly a precise science, is it? Spirituality dwells in the realm of mystery, metaphor and inner growth which are all so hard to measure. I equate it to watching the weather channel. If you use language that is ambiguous enough and statistics that are pliable enough, you can prove anything. The weather channel says there is an 80% chance of rain. Great. They can’t lose. If it rains, it’s the 80% chance. If it doesn’t rain, it’s the 20%.
Did you know that 42.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot?
I read a great example of this during the week. Brad Pitt came out as an atheist. Sort of. He was asked if he believed in God. He said he was 20% atheist and 80% agnostic. That doesn’t leave much room for his Southern Baptist upbringing. And it answers the age old question- Yes, you can be an atheist and be extremely hot. I’m sorry- You can be an atheist and be an extremely moral person.
Statistics about religious affiliation and belief in God have been intriguing over the last couple of years. Only 73% of church going Protestants are absolutely certain that a personal God exists. That means that 27% of Protestants are agnostic. At least I think it does. But I’m agnostic about what the statistics mean.
At the same time, 72% of US adults who never go to church do believe in God. Why don’t they go to church? It has nothing to do with God. It has to do with the people who work for God. 72% of them don’t go to church because the church is full of hypocrites. 44% say that Christians “get on their nerves.” view article
Here is my favorite statistic: 21% of atheists say that they believe in God. 12% of atheists believe in heaven and 10% pray at least once a week. Over 50% of agnostics say they believe in God.
In the same study, 75% of American Buddhists say they believe in God. That is really surprising considering that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. view article
Drilling down the results one step further, respondents were allowed to choose between a personal God and an impersonal force. Atheists and Buddhists were more likely to opt for an impersonal force. So maybe there is something in that distinction. Today I want to explore what it means to believe in God, and how it relates to spirituality.
Belief in God and Religion?
Clearly organized religion (or “organized superstition” as Bill Maher calls it) does not have a monopoly on God. Maybe more to the point, Christianity does not have a monopoly on God. In the same study, 61% say the Christian God is “no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.” This is exciting, as it indicates a trend towards a more open and accepting theology.
Enough statistics. Lets dig into the language and the trends a little.
Spiritual interest includes but is much larger than religious practice. Or to put that another way, practicing religion is one valid way of being spiritual, if we define spirituality as life’s journey of growth, connections and meaning.
I suspect the problem with the surveys is that they are missing a box for people to check. Asking people whether they believe in God or not doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. I want to explore this point further.
One of the features that I think many modern people share in common is the trend away from a second hand God.
No More Second Hand God
No More Second Hand God is the title of a book by Buckminster Fuller, 20th century inventor and visionary. Bucky, as he was known, was SBNR (Spiritual but not Religious) in the 1940s. He had no interest in religious doctrines such as the afterlife. There is too much to be done and experienced in this life. But he did speak about God. God for Bucky was a verb and not a noun. God was the evolutionary process, the unity of the universe. He took seriously his own role as part of this universal process.
He had a radical sense of activism that grew out of his own life experience. When he was 32, his life was hopeless. He was unemployed and bankrupt. His first born had died, he was trying to support his family, and he was drinking heavily. He contemplated suicide. In the moment of contemplating suicide, as he stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, something shifted in him. He was convicted that his life was not his own. It belonged to the universe. He decided to work on behalf of all humanity.
He tirelessly practiced God as a verb. He sought ways of doing more with less. He pioneered ground breaking structures, like pre-fabricated dwellings and streamlined cars. During WW2 his geodesic dome was widely praised as a solution to world housing shortages. Many of his ideas would now be out of date. However for the time, he was a leader in ecological design.
Bucky was a pioneer of the type of experience of God that translates into practical compassion that many people in and out of the church today aspire to; where God is a personal experience and not a being in the sky, and this experience is direct and first hand.
One story stands out for me in relation to Bucky and a first hand experience of God as a verb. Bucky was great mates with the American poet, E.E. Cummings. The two of them would awaken early when they were together and greet the rising sun. They would face east, and feel the quiet solitude and rhythms of nature. After the colors of the sky began to emerge, Bucky would raise both arms to the sky and welcome the morning with the words, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
First Hand Experience of God
Bucky is one of the SBNR pioneers. He captured the spirit of what I believe many people today mean when they use the word God. Brad Pitt may have been influenced by his other half, Angelina Jolie, who is also an atheist. When she was asked if she believes in God, she said, “There doesn’t need to be a God for me. There’s something in people that’s spiritual, that’s godlike.” Ah, I like that. A first hand experience of something godlike. Does that resonate for you? Maybe that gets at part of the reason why some atheists can still say they believe in God. They may be referring to the nameless mystery that compels life forward.
It’s inspiring to hear people like Angelina Jolie offer an SBNR view of spirituality, and one that resonates so much more clearly for many people than the literalism of The Passion of the Christ. Have you noticed how hard it is to be critical of The Passion of the Christ? It’s as if you are criticizing Jesus himself. People, it’s a movie. Jesus is not actually in the movie. It’s an actor playing Jesus.
Monica-Bellucci, the actress who played Mary Magdalene in The Passion of the Christ was asked if she believes in God. She said,
“I’m agnostic, even though I respect and I’m interested in all religions. If there’s something I believe in, it’s a mysterious energy, the one that fills the oceans during tides, the one that unites nature and beings.”
Nice! A mysterious energy and a unity, maybe like the impersonal force that many religious and non-religious people in the surveys refer to. I wonder how many people would tick the box if surveys offered language such as “mysterious energy and unity”?
Arriving at your own Convictions
One of the features of a first hand experience of God is arriving at your own convictions, rather than being told what to think.
Mark Twain expressed this nicely in his 1959 autobiography:
“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”
All the spiritual traditions encourage you to think for yourself, examine everything. Accept nothing you hear from others without first passing it through your own inner wisdom.
There is a beautiful Jewish story related to following your conscience. It revolves around a poor family in Poland. It is told by an old man about a time when he was nine years old. The family ate very plainly during the week, but on a Friday the mother would cook up a luxurious bean stew. The boy was so excited he could barely contain himself. He played outside waiting for dinner, until he heard a blood curdling scream. His mother had mixed the stew with a spoon that had dairy traces on it. Mixing dairy and meat was strictly forbidden. The stew would have to be thrown out. The boy was devastated and convinced his family to wait while he sought advice from the local Rabbi. After telling his story, the Rabbi said to him, “You are too young to be dealing with such a weighty matter as this. Go home and tell your parents to come and see me.” When he got home, his parents asked him what the Rabbi said. He answered, “The Rabbi said to throw away the spoon and eat the stew.” As an old man, retelling the story, his point was to follow your own convictions, especially when it comes to bean stew.
Your Loyalty is to Convictions, not Tradition
There was an inspiring example of this same point during the week. Jimmy Carter left the Southern Baptist Convention over its treatment of women. He has been a lifelong member and leader in that church. This is a monumental decision. He has been working with a group of elders around the world, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. The elders include leaders from all religious traditions as well as non religious leaders and atheists. They have been discussing how to respond to the various global challenges in an integrated way. Jimmy Carter’s decision came as a result of the group’s discussions. There are countless men around the world who oppress women because of unexamined acceptance of second hand interpretations of ancient Bible texts. There are countless women around the world who accept such hatred because of the same unexamined beliefs.
I’m not for a second suggesting that the Elders were concluding that atheism is the true perspective, or even that all religion is destructive. I do however think that the Elders are arriving at the same conclusion as millions of people worldwide; that God or spirit is the consciousness of that which is greater than all and yet present in each. It is unity and awareness. And it manifests as a calling to serve a greater good, and be part of a greater whole. Religion is not the only place to practice God as a verb, and in many cases it’s the last place you will experience God first hand.
This is a one minute video of Carter speaking about religion and oppression:
Do You Believe in God?
I’m often asked the question, “Do you believe in God?” This is my answer- If by God you mean a personal being who is like a puppeteer controlling our lives from outside, loving some over others and condemning some people to eternal suffering, then no. If by God you mean a racist, misogynistic being who manipulates people and situations to further his own ends, then no. If you mean the God who is possessed by Christians alone, then no. I see no evidence for this God, I feel no need for this God and I won’t allow this God in my life. It adds nothing of value to my life.
If by God you mean an impersonal force that is the unity of all things, a force that belongs to no religion, and is not even contained by religion, the Source of life that resides within me and yet compels me to stretch beyond myself, then sign me up. I can check that box.
I believe that it is part of the human psyche to worship something. Choose carefully what you worship. If you worship money or possessions, they will eat you alive. You will never have enough, never be enough. You will always be striving. If you worship your ideas or your beliefs, it will be like chasing the wind. You will be like the greyhound chasing the mechanical rabbit, always out of reach because it is constantly moving.
If you choose to worship the God of your understanding, and by whatever name, you will come to a place of deep peace and contentment that will compel you to serve the world and be all you can be.
This is a time of crisis for many people. Many people stand at the edge of hopelessness just as Buckminster Fuller stood at the edge of Lake Michigan. At a time in my life when I experienced that hopelessness, I gave up the personal interventionist God because it made no sense to me and it didn’t help me in the crisis. What I discovered in its place was a first hand experience of a presence so palpable, and a power so passionate that I took responsibility for my own choices. I gave up trying to control the circumstances of the crisis, and took control of my inner character.
What do you worship?
Do you believe in God? Does a fish believe in water? Its all there is. Do you believe in air? Of course you do. You feel it blowing against your face. Do you believe in the sun? You see its blinding radiance and its warmth against your body.
You believe in inner peace. You believe in love and compassion. You believe in beauty and nature.
Make it a daily practice to stand before life with your hands outstretched, take a deep bow and say, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”