"Almost midway through Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists. He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it. This happened on ‘an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,’ Harris writes. ‘As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.’ Harris is actually up to something more complicated and interesting than that. He’s asking a chicken-or-egg question too seldom broached publicly in America … Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? … Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?” (Op-Ed Column, New York Times, “Between Godliness and Godlessness” By FRANK BRUNI, August 30, 2014)
I, for one, can’t wait to read Sam Harris’s book. I am eager to read what this well-known atheist writes about a universal human experience, the feeling of transcendence. And I whole-heartedly agree with him that the feeling can be separate from a religion or any specific faith. However, I am not willing to take the ‘leap of faith’, and postulate that religion is “piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, with a lexicon grafted onto it.”
Most world religions address transcendence and offer many different paths to this experience. Some world religions have forebears that had some kind of experience of transcendence and tried to find the words to explain it, a process our language is not well suited for. Transcendence, however, is not he be-all of religion. Religion offers other life-changing, worldview-altering experiences.
From my perspective, a religious community is a place to explore the great questions of existence and this community provides a keystone for a grounded moral/ethical life. Granted, some religions answer the questions for you, and some people want the answers given to them. And granted, some religions tell you how to live a moral/ethical life, sometimes in very absolute terms. But if one looks deeper into religions, whether we are talking Christianity, Buddhism, or really any religion, we find people struggling with the great questions of existence and how to live a moral/ethical life. Answers to the great questions that sages came up with hundreds of years ago are contained in certain writings, religious texts, holy books. These texts can be used today by spiritually oriented people to explore the great questions, if one doesn’t try to see these books as having absolute answers. Even ambiguous texts—and, let’ face it, most of the texts are ambiguous—can offer a different way of thinking about things. For example, the parables in the Christian New Testament encourages listeners to struggle with and determine “answers” within their own hearts and minds. I don’t see any of the holy texts of any religion as absolute truths or history, but as a spiritual community considering meaning, purpose, life, existence, and how to live ethically. Yes, some writers of holy texts offered answers, but not due to transcendence; they came up with answers for themselves, in a certain culture, at a certain time. The questions these holy books ask still resonate with people today, even if the answers espoused by some religious leaders do not resonate as universally.
Frank Bruni, who wrote the oped about Harris’s book, also says “ … many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.” I would respond that the scriptures are not the problem; it is the interpretation of the scriptures that can be a problem. The vast religious writings of the world can be guides for those willing to open them and explore with their own heart and mind, or explore them in open, loving community where a freedom of worship can be found. They do exist in this country, in fact, I would bet most of you reading this can think of one particular denomination where the open mind and questioning heart are not only welcomed, but nurtured and celebrated.
There are ancient and modern religious writings available, and liberal religious communities for people to explore their spirituality, to consider meaning and purpose, to discern morals/ethics, and to find paths to the experience of transcendence. I invite you to take time to read, explore, visit and perhaps find what you are looking for in religion.