Nowadays, faith is a loaded word. But when hasn?t that been true? People have been getting themselves killed for one faith or another since earliest times. In ancient Rome, the emperor Nero lit the Vatican Gardens with torches made of Christians dipped in tar. During the middle ages, the Inquisition burned Cathars, Jews, witches and just about anybody who was denounced by anybody else, all for faith. Or against it. Then the Reformation came along, and soon Protestants were merrily burning their own heretics.
Nowadays, the Moslem faithful are blowing themselves up to kill the Jewish and Christian faithful, and the image of the firebrand Ayatolla has replaced that of the firebrand Inquisitor.
It?s worthwhile, at this wonderful season of rebirth and affirmation, to take a look at what that word faith actually means.
To a fundamentalist, it means absolute belief in their particular holy book, as interpreted by them?and death to all who don?t believe. In fact, death to the whole world, when it comes to Moslem and Christian fundamentalists. Both groups believe that they will be transferred to their particular heavens in the event of apocalypse. If only they could somehow cause Armageddon, the Christians would disappear in a ?rapture.? Apparently ?do unto others? and ?love thy neighbor as thyself? would be suspended for the occasion. Astonishingly, many Christian fundamentalist leaders are so sick with this selfish insanity that they actually encourage the most warlike Israelis, in the hope that instability in the Middle East will touch off their imaginary war of Armagaddon. These people are so lost in evil that they don?t stop to think just how vile it is to hope and pray for the end of the world so that they can enjoy heaven, without regard for the billions who will be ?Left Behind.? To long to destroy the world out of greed is a fantastic distortion, indeed.
But it is not only Christian faith that is presently suffering from hideous and evil distortions like this. As we see every day, Moslems eagerly embrace suicide terrorism in order to reach a heavenly reward involving, for the men, the deflowering of virgins. What the female suicide bombers get is unclear?a testament, one might think, to this particular religion?s utter lack of communion with its female members.
But, in truth, if we can get past all the ugliness of the screaming fundamentalists, isn?t there something quite beautiful about faith?I mean, healthy faith? I consider faith and belief two different things. I consider belief irrelevant. I have no idea which deity is ?real? and which is not, or how the afterlife actually works. Much of religion is at present dominated by three cults of the same god: the Moslem Allah, the Christian God and the Jewish Yahweh are historically the same deity. The imagery and ritual surrounding Christ is similar to that surrounding other savior deities, most notably Mithra. "He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved,? is an inscription from a Mithraic altar that predates the gospels by 90 years. The early Christian author Tertullian went so far as to claim that such inscriptions had been placed on these altars by Satan, who had gone back in time to do it in order to confuse Christians.
Indeed, the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity are so numerous that it cannot really be denied that the older cult influenced the more recent one. The Mithraic Holy Father wore a red cap, robe, and a special ring, and carried a shepherd's staff. All Mithraic priests were called ?father,? and, despite Matthew 23:9, Christian priests adopted the same title. Mithra's bishops wore a mithra, or miter, as their badge of office. Christian bishops also adopted miters. The Mithraic mass involved the eating of a sun-shaped bun embossed with the sword of Mithra, which was a cross. The Catholic communion wafer continues this Mithraic tradition, and the structure of the old Catholic Tridentine Mass closely mirrors the Mithraic mass.
So, are we to conclude from all this that Christianity is just another cult that does not reflect any real truth? Or that the Koran is simply a fiction created by a paranoid schizophrenic? Or the bible, as some reformed Jewish scholars contend, a novel?
Well, of course. All these things are quite correct. The story of Christ is not based on history as observed and agreed by many, but on the hearsay of just a few people, none of whom were witness to the actual events. And there is every evidence that the structure of Christian ritual is taken from other cults. So, why should we think it special?
And this goes for any and all religions. Should we literally believe that Krishna rode from Madagascar to India on a giant bird? Or are we to believe that the Garuda was actually an alien space ship? Perhaps we should also consider that Christ?s miracles were possible because he was a space alien come here to provide us with a moral code, or that Yahweh was a genetic specialist from the beyond who transformed us from animal into human.
The truth is that the past is unknowable to us, and there?s no use screaming about it. Only the sketchiest evidence has been found by archaeologists suggesting that there is any truth in Bible history. The word of God as it appears in the Koran is, much of it, nothing but palaver. And Krishna, if he existed, did not catch a Garuda to India.
So why, instead of fading away, are the old religious cults actually gaining ground in so many places? Catholicism is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa. Fundamentalist Christianity is spreading in Latin America and parts of the United States. Across the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism has become a shrieking horror.
What are they screaming about? In my experience, when people find it hard to believe something that they want to think is true, they will soon be yelling it to the rooftops, in an effort to drown out their own doubts. The truth is, modern life is having a devastating effect on the old cults. They?re increasingly being challenged by a new reality so devastatingly powerful that it leaves no room for their stories and robs their rituals of magic.
This is not a new situation. After the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam, there was a flowering of science among the Arabs. During the eighth century era of the Abbasid Caliphs, Arab literature, arts and, most especially, science, reached heights that would not be equaled in the west for another half millennium. Hidden in the Abbasid glory, though, was Islam?s fatal weakness: the fact that the Koran demands a return to Shari?a, the time of Mohammed?s life. The weight of this demand eventually caused the flowering of Arab culture to fade away, until we see it as it is now, a complete failure, so far out of touch with its own lost greatness that it seems as if that greatness must never have existed at all. Generations of false education that concentrates on religious texts instead of the sciences and literature, for example, have meant that Arabs have thought less well about the world for hundreds of years at this point, and the abandonment of women means that half the intellectual capacity of the culture is simply ignored. It?s no wonder that the Arab world is a moral quagmire and a cultural and economic failure, despite the fact of its incalculable wealth.
Since oil brought money to the Arabs, their rigid and incompetent culture has received a tremendous shock, ironically, from the civilization that did embrace the scientific advances the Arabs invented and then rejected: the west. Because Islam was thrown back from Europe, the advances of Arab science were not stifled there. When Islamic fundamentalists scream their hatred of the west and its sectarian and humanist values, they are actually crying out against their own lost and glorious past, for it was their mathematics, their logic, their principles of scientific investigation, that formed the basis of what has become mankind?s greatest engine of truth: the modern scientific method.
What, then, does this have to do with the idea of faith? Everything. Because there is something in the old idea of holiness that haunts the books of the great religions. When one takes a sufficiently broad look, quite an astonishing thing happens: it becomes abundantly clear that there is a spirit alive in the world, and a response to it in the form of a vast yearning that emanates from the human heart, toward this presence or force or being that seems to be among us and part of us, and yet also of itself and alone, accessible to worship, to companionship, to a shattering intimacy, despite the sense one has that it is very great.
One also finds in many of the great books, the Bible, the Upanishads, the Gospels, the Koran, the Buddhist writings, succor for this longing that keeps us striving toward God. Even though all of these books are also full of rubbish written by people that is designed to enable to them to exert control over followers, there are teachings in them that feel so pure that they induce joy just to read. For example, when Micah says, ?He has told you, o man, what is good, and what the lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God,? you feel the quiet and graceful presence of the other, and your heart tells you that it is true.
Again, when Christ pronounces his own mystery, as Mithra pronounced his, and Osiris and all the resurrection gods of history, there is a sense of truth that runs very deep, that feels like blood it is so close to the roots of being. This is faith, this blood-knowledge. It has nothing to do with belief in one religious story or another. For a Moslem, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu?for all of us, it is the same.
?Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.? What does it matter who said it? What if it was written down by some sweating scribe to whom Jesus was just a myth? It matters not at all. What matters is that, because of what those words do to the soul, they came from God. Whatever ?really happened? is irrelevant.
So, if some time traveler came back with proof that Jesus had never existed, it wouldn?t shake my faith at all. Nor does the corruption of Islam shake my faith in the word of God that sifts through the Koran like a sublime perfume.
In fact, nothing shakes my faith. Nothing can. Faith is far deeper than belief, and the two should not be confused. I am just like any person. I can hear the screaming from the pulpits and smell the fear in the air, and see the lies in the holy books. But I can also hear the truth, and if I give up the lure of the liars with their easy answers? burn the witches, confine the women, hurt this one, reject that one?then what is left is a message that is consistent across all the sacred books that have ever come about, and contained in one way or another within all of them, reflecting the glory that we came from and to which we seek to return, the simple love that is our covenant with the dear old friend we call by all the names of God.
From the Gospel: ?Abide in me as I abide in you.? From Isaiah: ?The spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him: a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the Lord.? From the Koran: ?There shall be no compulsion in religion. True guidance is distinct from error.? From the Tao te Ching: ?The master is content to serve as an example, and not to impose her will. She is pointed but doesn?t pierce. Straightforward, but supple. Radiant, but easy on the eyes.?
And this call, echoing across all the books, sublimely concentrated in the alembic of the Gospel: ?Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.? (Matthew 11: 28-30)
What does it matter who said it and when and where? Perhaps Matthew said it. Perhaps Jesus said it. Maybe it?s Mithraic. Who cares? The soul knows the truth of it, feels it: whatever the means he used, God said it. Any religion that imposes a heavy yoke of rules or a burden of ritual reflect man?s desire to control man, not God?s desire to love and be loved.
God is wild, but we are tame. To take on the burden of God is an easy thing indeed. It is the secret of this season, the truth of resurrection. Did Jesus really get up and walk out of his tomb? In faith, it doesn?t matter. No matter what Jesus did or didn?t do, God is within us, living in the kingdom of faith that most of us have so tightly closed and locked up inside that we feel no sense at all of the living presence that is there.
But how can we? Look at what science is doing. We are gaining powers of creation so fundamental that it?s beginning to look as if we ourselves ARE God. Or, worse, are in danger of becoming God.
But of course we are God. We always have been. So, also, are the little birds that flitter, the snakes, the old stones. We cannot be other than God. All else is illusion, lies and pretense. And there is nothing wrong with us. Religions that tell little children that they are born with some sort of basic ?sin? that caused the suffering of another creature are simply lying in order to exert control. Sick souls who have lost touch with God make up stories like that.
The truth is, that coming to the kingdom is simple, it is easy, and it can be done anytime and may be done again and again, whenever you miss God or want to feel the pleasure of the dear friend within. The Gospels offer the simplest instruction: ?And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, ?Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.??
Faith is easy: to see, always that the world in every moment and in every way, is stunningly, miraculously and joyously new.
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