First hand religion

     “I have been a God-guy virtually all my life. You might say that was inevitable, being raised in the context of conservative white American Christianity as I was. I was singing Bible songs and memorizing Bible verses before I could read. My skinny boyhood butt sat in a well-padded church pew two or three times a week. On Friday nights I went to Bible club, and in the summers I went to Bible camp. My dad led the family in Bible reading and family devotions almost every night at dinner. One way or another, a religious upbringing like that makes an impression.”

     Like pastor and author Brian McLaren, many of us have been God-guys and girls since our youth; we have been influenced from earliest times by the religious attitudes and opinions of our elders. But even if our religious upbringing was less intense than                                                     his, it’s a pretty safe bet that what we learned has had a significant impact on our lives.

     McLaren has become famous, or infamous depending on your outlook, for having outgrown much of what he once held to be unquestionably true. He has given himself permission to honor what he has learned though education and experience that is inconsistent with his former beliefs. He has “thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater” – rejected some specific beliefs, but held onto the spiritual essence of his faith tradition.  

     Whether it was the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or the scripture of any other faith tradition that formed our early impressions of matters religious, it is important to maintain an open mind and heart when it comes to what we have learned. Openness enables growth, and counters stagnation, it allows for dialogue, and resists judgment. What is often the case, however, is that in the realm of religion, what is mistaken for faith is to remain steadfast and unchanging, to believe what we were taught from womb to tomb.

     Philosopher William James coined the phrase “second hand religion” when referring to the beliefs that have been handed on from others. And psychiatrist Gerald May makes the distinction between tradition and traditionalism – the former being the living faith of the dead, while the latter is the dead faith of the living. For James, May, and perhaps for us as well, what is important is not merely believing what we were taught, but making those beliefs our own by grappling, doubting, questioning, and, possibly, rejecting them, when doing so is for the sake of integrity.

     Although religion has been at the heart of many conflicts interpersonally and internationally, it has been a positive force for good throughout human history. But in the last analysis, the purpose of religious teachings is not merely to believe them, but to live them, not to use them to distinguish ourselves from others, but to find in them the common spiritual bond that unites us to all peoples.

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