Stop being so religious
like that!

The poet Hafiz wrote

Do Sad people have in
It seems
They have all built a shrine
To the past
And often go there
And do a strange wail and
What is the beginning of
It is to stop being
so religious

This poem was written more than seven hundred years ago; it addresses the perennial issue of the place of change within religion. Should religion remain forever set in stone or should religion change and develop over time? This is an important question particularly for Unitarians; we are often accused of not having core beliefs.
          In the Judeo Christian tradition we are told that God is eternal - God has always existed. That God created human beings in his image. Being created in the image of God allocates to humans a privileged place in the created world and has led to the quip that “if God created humanity in his likeness then humans have been quick to repay the compliment”. Meaning that God is a human construct used to keep social order and as a crutch to help humans live with the reality of death. Just to reiterate that I have no definition for the word God I use it to include the mystery of our origins, existence and destiny.
          We are also told that from time to time that God directly intervened in human affairs. God did this in order to inform humans how they should live in order to be in right relationship with God. So God sent the prophets, he gave Moses the commandments and in due course sent Jesus as a messenger.
          This is the story of one religion - it is the one we inherited. But there are other stories and other faiths. Are we the inheritors of the only true account of God and his interaction with humanity? Or is it more probable that all religions are the fruits of human endeavour to understand the puzzle of existence?
          Are Unitarians wrong when we say that there are many paths to God all of them valid? The path we follow is probably due to the accident of where we happened to be born. Is it acceptable to pick and mix our spirituality from different faiths or should we remain firmly within the bounds of a liberal form of Christianity?
          I am sceptical of accounts that several thousand years ago God communicated directly and exclusively with one particular nation. I believe that as human beings we have within us an element of the spiritual. To put it differently humans are spiritual beings living a human experience. I believe that through out history that many people have explored the spiritual part of human nature and that they have gained valuable insight into how we can live the best life possible.
          What constitutes the best lived life differs over time and in different circumstances. None of the ancient religions directly address caring for the environment; this was not an issue in their day. It is important for the people that inhabit a world of seven billion people. There is no single answer to how humans should live. When we look at the history of religions we see that often fresh religious insight emerges from the times of wars and upheaval.
          An example of this is the teachings of Confucius. Confucius lived in the 6th century BCE at a time of political upheaval. His teaching emphasised tradition, ritual and duty; Confucius was very rigid about how people should live. We can see that at times of upheaval and uncertainty Confucius sought order in society.
          Then we have Lau Tzu who was born around or shortly after the time of Confucius. Lau Tzu is the author of the Tau Te Ching. In contrast with the teachings of Confucius Lau Tzu told his followers to relax and just be:-

“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are,
when you realise that there is nothing lacking
the whole world belongs to you.”

He said of ritual that “Ritual is the husk of true faith,
                                       The beginning of chaos”.

In these two ancient faiths we see how they developed in response to the experiences of ordinary people of their time and as a reaction to one another. This pattern is repeated in the history of Hinduism and Buddhism.
          Hinduism is one of the most ancient religions. It is a religion based on rituals performed by members of the Brahmin priestly cast. It is important that the rituals are performed in exactly the correct manner. Sidharta Gautama who became the Buddha grew up in the Hindu tradition. Having dedicated himself to Hindu practices he found them to be unsatisfactory and went on to develop his own spiritual path. Buddha’s insight was that rituals do not change the individual. Through meditation the Buddha penetrated the true nature of existence. According to Buddhism the knowledge of the truth of existence is transformative. This knowledge cannot be achieved through prayer or ritual it must be experienced by the individual.
          Christianity developed from within the Jewish tradition. It divested itself of most of the Jewish laws but with one important exception. The practice of sharing bread and wine which is a central part of Christianity is in fact an ancient Jewish tradition.
          There are other examples where religion developed in reaction to perceived problems within an existing tradition. Disputes between Hindus and Muslims led to the formation of Sikhism; the reformation was in part a reaction to traditions that had grown up in the Catholic Church.
          From this morning’s reading we saw that Anthony de Mello used the riches of other traditions to vitalise his spiritual practices. We saw that his students, those who attended his retreats and the readers of his many books found the practice to be beneficial. The official church felt threatened by them and it tried to silence him.
          The Dalai Lama spoke about the merits of different religions. Religions he said are like medicines the best medicine is the one that works for you. A particular antibiotic may not work for one person but may be a perfect cure for someone else. So too with religion different religions suit different people.
          For example this church has its roots in Christianity; however I can’t imagine members of this church at an evangelical prayer meeting!
          Despite the differences between different religions all of them have as their starting point, the golden rule, treat other people as you would wish to be treated. If we all followed that rule the world would be heaven on earth. However religion is more than just the “golden rule” it is about self knowledge and tuning into the spirit.
          Sages tell us we do this through quiet meditation and contemplation and through experiencing our connection with all living things. It is work we must do ourselves – it cannot be delegated to a priest or a church. Every soul has the knowledge of what is the right path for them. When de Mello followed his right path his teaching inspired his students. When he followed an inauthentic path this work was meaningless.
          Religion that is alive changes and develops. Real religion is life enhancing it is generous. It brings out the best in us. Genuine religion is not something we inherit or read in a book that is the first step we grow our faith within ourselves.

Rev.Bridget Spain                                                           Dublin 3rd January 2021
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church