Tuesday, 12 January 2016

What value can be found in religious contemplation?

I find a lot of theological writing to be tortured, laborious, inaccessible and uninspiring, a real chore to wade through and a thoroughly unrewarding investment of my time. Other examples I find lucid, powerful and thought provoking. In this article I'm going to consider what value can be found in religious contemplation.

Avoiding absolutism

I'm of the opinion that much of value can be taken from things that have stemmed from religion and religious contemplation. I don't necessarily have to agree with something for me to see some inherent value in it, or for it to have at least impacted and informed my worldview.

To give a rather crude example of how good can be found in religion, many years ago I did repair work on a number of Church of England churches. I've never been Church of England and I have deep reservations about the entanglement between the CofE and the UK political system. As a child I attended a number of state funded Church of England schools and grew to deeply resent the religious indoctrination I was subjected to from a very young age. The idea of an official state religion with special privileges in the political establishment and in society at large concerns me deeply, especially as I have studied the terrible persecutions of heterodox religious groups and individual thinkers enforced by the Church of England-UK state nexus in the past.

However my deep revulsion at this anachronistic Church of England status as an Official State Religion with special social and political privileges could never be enough to destroy the beauty and wonder of repairing an ancient building in the English summer, the tranquility of the Churchyard, the wind in the yew trees, the centuries of dedicated craftsmanship invested in the building and the profound sense of shared community history.

For all of the bad that has been perpetrated by man against man in the name of religion, good has sprung of it too. Beautiful religious architecture is one example and thought-provoking religious philosophy is another.

To deny that there is that of both good and bad in vast entire aspect of human endeavour is to take a militant absolutist stance.

Swami Vivekananda
"Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy - by one, or more, or all of these - and be free.  
This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details."
In my view this Swami Vivekananda quote contains great truths born of religious contemplation.

I sincerely believe that you don't have to be of a religious persuasion to see the truth in what Swami Vivekananda was saying, although I can understand how stuff like the concept of "divinity" could be offputting to those of irreligious sentiments. However I don't consider the replacement of the overtly religious concept of  "divinity" with the philosophical concept of "transcendence" or the more psychological concept of "self-fulfilment" to be unacceptable debasements the essential meaning of the first paragraph.

"Any person can achieve transcendence. The goal is to achieve self-fulfilment through self-discipline and active engagement with the world. Freedom can be found through constructive activity, contemplation or both."
To rephrase and slightly simplify the first paragraph in this manner does not eradicate the essential meaning, but it frees it from the kind of overtly religious undertones that many find offputting. Could anyone now disagree with this statement?


The second paragraph is particularly close to my own beliefs about the fundamental distinction between spirituality and dogma.

It is possible to believe in God(s) without believing in organised religious dogma, just as it is possible to for people to devote their lives to practicing organised religious dogma without ever really contemplating the existence and nature of the God(s) that their religious order is actually dedicated to. The two things are separate, but linked by centuries of association.

A declaration of the primacy of individual enlightenment over religious dogma resonates strongly with my libertarian and anarchist sympathies. Of course we should be free to develop our own personal worldviews, whether we believe in God(s) or not. Thus if religion is to exist then it should exist to encourage and support people in their own self-enlightenment, not to enforce an ideological orthodoxy through indoctrination and the punishment of transgressions.


Of course people are still free to contest that nothing good has ever stemmed from religion and sneer at the use of words like "divinity" if they want to see the world like that. However such a stance betrays naive absolutist thinking. To witness attempts to occupy some kind of intellectual high ground by decrying anything that has ever stemmed from religion is to witness a bold scrabble towards an imaginary plateau of rational enlightenment, the like of which will forever remain unobtainable to those who close their perceptions through simplistic absolute judgements about incredibly complex issues.

However you define your goal in life (enlightenment, transcendence, self-fulfilment, divinity ...) there are many paths to achieve it, however one of the most impassable obstacles on any path is closed-mindedness.

Like I said in the intro, I find an awful lot of theological writing to be turgid, unrewarding and often deeply hypocritical or contradictory stuff, but amongst all the dross there are still many gems to be found. Concepts that are concisely expressed and thought provoking to those with the openness of mind to contemplate the meaning of things without necessarily accepting them at face value.

To conclude I'll leave you with another Swami Vivekananda quote:
"To believe blindly is to degenerate the human soul. Be an atheist if you want, but do not believe in anything unquestioningly."

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