Crafting Religion: Ritual and Ethics

Religion can be defined, and therefore crafted, in more ways than one. It’s common to speak of religions in terms of their beliefs and doctrine. Thus we would say that the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) are monotheistic — they believe in a single God — while Hinduism is polytheistic with an underlying monism, Buddhism is atheistic with provision made for worship of deities as part of the illusion, most paleo-pagan religions were polytheistic with at most the beginnings of monism expressed by a few philosophers, modern Neopaganism is polytheistic with all sorts of philosophical ideas flying about as to the ultimate nature of both the gods and reality, et cetera.

The problem with this, of course, is that all such ideas are metaphors. The reality of anything so cosmic is far beyond the ability of human language to express. When Muslims say that there is no God but God, while Hindus say that there are many gods and goddesses but underlying their diversity (and that of the world) is a Unity, is one of these faiths “right” and the other “wrong”? No. The idea that not only the gods but all things in the world are One is lacking in Islam (except among the Sufi), but then again, the simplification of the multitude of deities to a single universal spirit is itself a strong expression of that idea which is lacking in Hinduism. And it’s not as if a person can understand the reality of Brahman merely by hearing it talked about, anyway.

One God or many or none, Brahman or the Void, all of these ideas may serve as myths to help the mind in its non-rational capacity to awaken the god sense, which is the only way to understand what they are all pointing at; if however one believes any of them to be literally true and others false, then the idea has ceased to be a myth and become a jail. None of them is true. None of them is false. All of them are valid metaphors. Clinging to such ideas leaves a believer far out on the rim of the wheel, unable to approach the hub, and trapped in an expression of the divine fixed by doctrine, unable to adapt.

To my way of thinking, it makes more sense to allow religious ideas and beliefs to float freely in a cloud of myth, akin to the universe of fantasy fiction, and instead concern ourselves with two other matters which bear more strongly on the quest to awaken the god sense and live a sacred life: ritual and ethics. Looked at from that perspective, for example, Christians would not be defined as those who believe in one God in three persons and the sacrifice of Jesus and so on, but rather those who engage in a periodic ritual of symbolically consuming the body and blood of the incarnate God and so taking his divine nature into themselves, who once in their lives undergo a ritual cleansing and dedication to God known as “baptism,” and who believe and try to follow (at their best anyway) an ethic based on compassion and love. Muslims, on the other hand, are defined as those who ritually pray five times a day to God while facing towards the holy city of Mecca, go on a pilgrimage to that city once in their lives, and believe and try to follow an ethic based on submission to God’s will, humility, and compassion. (By these measures I am myself neither Christian nor Muslim, regardless of any agreement or disagreement I may have with those who profess either of those faiths.)

What these people say they believe is less important than what they do.

And so we come to the final installment in this series of crafting religion. What shall we do? By what rituals shall we live? By what moral principles shall we try to live a sacred life? In keeping with the theme I’ve played throughout this series, these are not constants, but must grow and change as our openness to the god sense increases, and as our lives change.

And yet there are some constants. I’m not saying otherwise; I’m only saying that those constants are not sufficient to build a morality by which we may live our lives or a body of ritual by which we may orient ourselves to the sacred in a meaningful manner. It’s fine to promote something like the Golden Rule or the Wiccan Rede, but such principles are necessarily vague and beg the question of how we would have others do unto us, or of what causes harm and what is our will. What is right livelihood — what actions are unworthy in the pursuit of wealth? What are the rules of sexual conduct? By what oaths do we bind ourselves and for what purposes? What are our moral obligations to family, to authority, to strangers, to guests? All of these are important questions that don’t have universal, timeless answers; they change with the times.

One very significant change that is percolating through the universe of moral and religious thought at this time involves the relationship between men and women. A lot of traditional sexual morality (common to most agrarian-age religions) is founded on the idea of women being inferior or subordinate to men. This places obligations on both sexes which don’t make sense in a world where the genders are regarded as equal. This change in our culture has no bearing on the truly universal dicta such as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but it makes a lot of difference to the specific ways in which that dictum is to be carried out when your neighbor is of a different gender than yourself. If you are a man and your neighbor is a woman, does right action consist of respecting her position as the property of another man (as either his daughter or his wife), or does it consist of respecting her right to choose her own path? In the past, the former; in the present, the latter. The nature of marriage, the morality of premarital sex, the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality, all change in a moral climate when men and women are equal.

Another crucial change involves the relationship of our species to the planetary biosphere of which we are a part. Religious teachings of the past have made nature subordinate to man’s desires, expressing in one way or another the idea that nature exists to serve the needs of man, and that the only competing interests (other than purely religious ones such as sacrifice) are those of other people. With the global ecosystem threatened by human greed and irresponsibility, clearly we cannot approach things that way any longer. What impact does this have on the ways in which we may honorably make a living, or on our lifestyle choices, or on how we organize our lives and our economies? As in the area of sexual morality, many things that were once acceptable must now be questioned.

We must anticipate more changes of this nature in the future, as we continue our transition from the agrarian-age past to wherever it is we’re going. The morality by which we try to live a sacred life, at any level more immediate and practical than the most lofty and universal of principles — all the ways in which we draw in the details — must be free to change, and likewise the rituals by which we express this morality and bind our will and purpose. On a moral and ritual level as much as on the level of myth, crafting religion is not just our right but our duty.

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