Religion is a Game

Religion is a game.  I do not mean this in any kind of a reductionist or derogatory sense (e.g., “Catholicism is just a game—play by the rules (the Ten Commandments, the sacraments) and you win.”)  I mean it in a deep sense; religions are systems that, if understood and interpreted correctly within context, can provide us with the means of personal development and transformation.  There are tools, rules of discipline, and boons of hope and encouragement.  Some of these elements can even be transferred to other religions, just as elements of some games can be added to other games.  But we cannot just borrow the pleasant things from each religion, no more than we should adopt just the self-sacrificing practices.  We need to adopt one of them games wholeheartedly (customizing it within reason), or else create a balanced and complete mixture of needed elements from many religions, or we can create our own religion— which would be reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Just as Wittgenstein illuminated language as a “game” that we play, so too is religion.  Languages are games that are very different in their look, their sound, their feel, and their rules, but they are all games that, when played, generate meaning for their players, meaning within the games themselves and meaning in relation to the world “out there” to which they refer.  No language can perfectly refer to the world out there, but the inner coherence of the whole allows it to refer to the world as a whole in some useful and meaningful way.  Religions, too, are games.  Each has its own look, sound, and feel; each generates meaning within itself for its players; each generates meaning in relation to some reality “out there,” whether natural or supernatural.  Just as with languages, people can have more than one religion.  But, just as with languages, people must keep the games somewhat separate.  One can intermittently insert a word or phrase or even borrow a grammatical idea; however, just as one can only speak one language at a time, so too can one play only one religion at a time.

This insight into religion as game came to me when I attended an Episcopal mass in the St. Joseph of Arimethea chapel in the belly of the Washington National Cathedral.  I had been to mass at the cathedral and had never been much moved by it.  However, a friend of mine invited me to attend the mass in the chapel one Sunday to hear her sermon.  This mass moved me greatly, and for many reasons:  It was in the crypt of the Cathedral, a crypt containing two special people (the bodies of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan).  It was just the kind of place early Christians practiced their rituals in secret.  It was candlelit, dark but warm, circular, with amphitheatre-like steps leading down from all sides into the alter area.  The backdrop was a massive fresco of Joseph retrieving Jesus’ body, the whole thing glowing in its golden palette.  It was underneath the Cathedral, in the belly, the ground, inside of Mother Earth.  Emerging from the mass into the crisp spring air was like being reborn again from the womb, similar to the experience Native Americans create with their sweatlodge ritual.

One can imagine the ambience, the feeling, the meaning of such an experience, and even the reasons why it might have been preferable to the magnificent, awesome, light-filled, airy experience of the main nave.  But none of those reasons, none of that meaning, none of the specialness of that crypt would have been possible without the existence of the gigantic structure on top of it.  The chapel simply could not exist without the cathedral.  Nor the cathedral without the chapel.  They are integral parts of the game I was playing, the game called Christianity, in which I preferred to play the apophatic, underground, contemplative rebel.

This is how we create access-points to religious meaning.  I recognize that the same meditative state can be entered through Roman Catholic rosary beads, Islamic prayer beads, Tibetan meditation beads.  It is the repetitive motion and chanting that creates the space needed for contemplation.  But I cannot just hand my kid a string of glass beads and tell her to rub them until she is awakened.  We need the context of the “Hail Mary’s,” of the immaculate conception, of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, of Mary’s assumption into heaven.  Or the context of the ninety-nine names of Allah.  Or of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  The access points are not easily identified in thin-air (although I am quite sure the Divine leads people to such invisible access points quite often).  It is helpful to have signposts.  It is helpful to know where the game is being played.

Again, in Christianity:  There is one level of meaning that is created in a Methodist church that breaks bread together, somewhat informally, one Sunday a month.  There is another level of meaning created by the weekly ritual of the Episcopal mass, culminating in the breaking and sharing of bread by all.  There is still another level of meaning created by the Roman Catholic mass that demands that only those who have attended a year-long First Communion class may partake of the bread at the end of mass.  And still another level of meaning for one who has grown up the Catholic way and who is therefore touched and humbled by the liberal sharing of bread at the Methodist service.  Meaning, meaning, and more meaning, all created by these games we play.

Students have been fond of asking me, “Why do you choose to be Catholic?  How can you choose to be Catholic, when you have learned about and practiced all of these great religions?  How can you settle for Catholicism when you at the same time affirm the truth of these other religions and even practice Buddhist meditation, Hindu Yoga, Native American sweatlodge?”  My answer is always this:  All of these religions are games.  Each of them has its own inner logic, and each of them approaches the truth.  None of them is perfect, just like no language can perfectly describe the world.  Each of them provides a road map to the truth, but you need to pick one.  “Why can’t we just pick and choose what you like from each of them, like you do?” they ask.

My reply is that I do not just pick and choose what I like.  I do select practices and beliefs from other traditions that augment my spirituality, but I believe that we should still pick one main thing to follow, one main game to play.  Why?  Because this will help to protect us from picking just the things that are easy, just the things that are agreeable.  It will also protect some of us from focusing too much on the self-denying things, from overdosing on an ascetic path in an attempt to reach our goal (too) quickly.  I do not yet trust myself to select a balanced set of practices, rituals, and beliefs!  Each religion is a different road map to the same place.  Each has different mountains to climb and valleys to rest in and rivers to cross.  We cannot just take the valleys from each religion, and leave out the mountains.  We need to play the whole game.  So, being forced to choose one game out of many, I chose the one that was the most comfortable, the one that I grew up with.  I do liberally borrow from the other games.  And I do recognize that they are all “just” games.  But not so much “just.”  The reality which they approximate, which they imitate, is not “just” anything.  It is all.

I encourage everyone to explore all the different games we can play, to make a commitment to one of them, and to customize this game in the ways that are most helpful to one’s spiritual, psychological, and physical health.  Play this game with all of your heart, mind, body and soul.  But, at the end of the day, know that it is just a game.  Shake hands with your teammates and with your opponents, for they are opponents no longer.  The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, as a Zen master once said.

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God-as-Nothing

“When you are art gone forth wholly from the creature [human], and have become nothing to all that is nature and creature, then you are in that eternal one, which is God himself, and then you will perceive and feel the highest virtue of love. Also, that I said whoever findes it finds nothing and all things; that is also true, for he finds a supernatural, supersensual Abyss, having no ground, where there is no place to live in; and he finds also nothing that is like it, and therefore it may be compared to nothing, for it is deeper than anything, and is as nothing to all things, for it is not comprehensible; and because it is nothing, it is free from all things, and it is that only Good, which a man cannot express or utter what it is. But that I lastly said, he that finds it, finds all things, is also true; it has been the beginning of all things, and it rules all things. If you find it, you come into that ground from whence all things proceed, and wherein they subsist, and you are in it a king over all the works of God.” -Jakob Boehme, The Way to Christ, 1623

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Quote:

“Behold the One in all things; it’s the two that throws you off.” –An Islamic Mystic

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Perennialist Catholic or Catholic Perennialist?

I have gone back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth about whether to use the term ‘Perennialist’ as a noun or as an adjective. For example, am I a “Catholic Perennialist” or a “Perennialist Catholic”? Or “Perennialist-Catholic,” the double-noun, which still presents the problem of whether to place the ‘Perennialist’ designation first or last. I recognize the power and importance of words, and so this discussion doesn’t come down to merely a matter of style or aesthetics, but to the different meanings these arrangements of words represent, however subtle those differences may be.

When a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Yoruba, Aborigine, or other person decides to add the word ‘Perennialist’ to her description of herself, does she consider herself to belong primarily to the group of “Perennialists,” with her traditional religion being secondary? If so, she might prefer the term “Jewish Perennialist,” for example. Or does she consider herself to be primarily a member of her religion, but with the qualification that she understands all valid paths to truth to be valid paths to truth? In that case, she might prefer to be called a “Perennialist Jew.” So which should it be? Or, should it depend on the person and her relationship to her religion and to Perennialism?

I am completely in favor of leaving the nomenclature up to the individual person. But having thought through this a bit, I thought I might share with you my reasoning for choosing the designation “Perennialist Catholic.” First of all, there is the fact that Perennialism is a meta-religious idea, an idea that strives to see all religions and philosophies from some bird’s-eye view. Now this perspective may not be possible for a human being to attain, but it is certainly approachable for the learned human being who possesses reason, imagination, and inspiration. (It may also be possible through a mystical seeing, but that is a conversation for another time and place; despite the fact that such mystical experiences are responsible for my forays into Perennialsim!) As Perennialism is a meta-religious idea, rather than another religion among religions, I did not think it proper to use it as a noun. “I am a Catholic Perennialist, and I hope you will someday become a Perennialist, too” sounds too much like I am trying to start my own church. This is not another movement among movements. It is a movement beyond any one religion. It seeks to transcend the problems of religion while retaining all of their wisdom and truth. It would be a tragedy to throw-out tens of thousands of years of collected wisdom, not to mention all the good institutions and communities that arose with it. So, I place ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective, a particular way in which I belong to the community of Catholic Christians.

Secondly, and following from that, I do not think Perennialism is a way to truth, at least not by itself. Perennialism does not provide religious practices and myths that will guide a person to truth, not unless you recognize all the valid rituals and myths of all the religions of the world to be Perennialism’s myths and rituals. Instead, the myriad religious and philosophical traditions are ways to truth that can be better understood and deepened through a Perennialist interpretation. I say “interpretation” because I do not think there is one ultimate Perennial philosophy. I think it is the work of trying to be a Perennialist that is important, not whether we succeed at it. All of this points to a better use of ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective.

Finally, I want to sincerely recognize and honor the truth and beauty of the diversity of religions and philosophies, not to mention the benefit gained by the fact of their multiplicity. There is a multiplicity of religious and philosophical traditions, and within each of these is a multiplicity of viewpoints, beliefs, practices, and myths. Using ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective seems an appropriate way to unite all of the members of these various traditions while still acknowledging each person as being grounded in his “Roman Catholic Christian-ness,” “Lutheran Christian-ness,” “Baptist Christian-ness,” Zen Buddhist-ness,” “Pure Land Buddhist-ness,” “Orthodox Jewish-ness,” “Reform Jewish-ness,” etcetera.

Further, without this diversity, the comparative work that led to the Perennial Philosophy would not have been possible or necessary. And what a beautiful idea it is! More importantly, what a wonderful and transformative journey it is. Without diversity, this transformative process would not be available for all of us. Perhaps someday it will not be necessary, but from my limited, year-2012 human perspective, it is a beautiful and worthwhile process of development for all of us to engage.

So, for now anyway, I use the term ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective, ultimately recognizing the truth of Gandhi’s insight that there are as many religions as there are men and women. I cannot name even two Roman Catholic Saints whose paths to God or even whose prayers were exactly the same. If we are as unique as snowflakes, with ourselves—our very lives—being our deepest prayers, it follows that there are no two prayers that are alike, nor two paths to God. I guess, in the end, we are all Perennialists, but to claim so would be too dangerous. I would be wary of anyone who did. From our human perspective, it would be safer to leave “Perennialist” as a secondary term, quietly doing its job of letting others know how we strive to see the world, not demanding any kind of allegiance to itself, letting us be and letting us become, giving as only God can give.

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You

“You” is a story you and others tell yourself.

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Perennialism and Religious Institutions

If more religious institutions embraced (or at least acknowledged) perennialism, it would tremendously lesson the impression and/or reality of dogmatism, and membership would increase. Why should we care about membership? I can immediately think of a three reasons: 1. So that more people have places in which they can approach the sacred as a community, 2. Using the symbols and stories with which they have grown-up and which they find most powerful, and 3. joining in the good charity work that most of those groups do. (e.g. “I would like to feed the homeless with you, but please spare me your self-righteousness and your exclusivist vision of God!”) As it is right now, many religious groups (I am thinking here about many Roman Catholic churches, some Episcopal and Anglican churches, many evangelical churches, and some Muslim communities) are retracting and becoming less ecumenical, less perennialist, and more exclusivist. My hope and faith is that this is part of the ebb-and-flow, a minor setback on the way to a brighter future. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, at some point had to see the pendulum shift away from the progress gained during Vatican II. I wish it weren’t so, but that is the way of things. Luckily, as Martin Luther King, jr. said, “The arc of the universe, though long, always points toward justice.”

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All the Roads are Getting Paved: Liberals and Conservatives Have Nothing to Complain About

I’ve just realized that a whole slew of our country’s problems are essentially nonexistent.

As I see it, the main quarrel between liberals and conservatives is over how tax money is spent. Almost none of us likes to pay taxes, but almost all of us agrees that they are necessary. The bulk of the argument is over how this tax money is distributed. Liberals want their money spent on paving roads, education, and social programs. Conservatives want their money spent on paving roads, business-friendly programs, and the military. What no one seems to realize is that everyone is getting what they want.

The money that liberals pay in taxes is going toward education, social programs, and paving roads. The money that conservatives pay in taxes is going toward the military, business-friendly programs, and paving roads. So what is all the fuss about? You are all getting what you want for your money, and wanting to dictate how the other side spends their money is very un-American of you. Knock it off. All the roads are getting paved.

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Wealthy Families: Please Don’t Work So Hard

If you are a wealthy family and you are categorically opposed to paying a high tax rate because you have worked so hard for you money, my suggestion to you is this: Please don’t work so hard.
Don’t work so hard. Go home and spend time with your kids. Or on a hobby.
Don’t work so hard. Lower the price of your product or service. Lower your salary.
Don’t work so hard. Stop making profit your bottom-line.
Don’t work so hard, so the rest of us won’t have to either.

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Some Mystical Songs

  1. Almost Like Being In Love King Cole Trio
  2. Resurrection Remy Zero
  3. My Sweet Lord George Harrison
  4. All At Sea Jamie Cullum
  5. King Without A Crown Matisyahu
  6. Upside Down Jack Johnson
  7. Connected Katharine McPhee
  8. Higher Love Steve Winwood
  9. Show Me John Legend
  10. Who Cares Bobby Sweet
  11. In Your Eyes Peter Gabriel
  12. Born This Way Lady Gaga
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G.K. Chesterton’s Aversion to Perennialism

In so many of the religious dialogues I have with people, whether they be classes, sermons, discussions, or blogposts, there always seem to be one or two who disagree with me (which is welcome, of course) and they almost always cite the work of G.K. Chesterton. Consequently, I would like to clear up a misunderstanding of perennialism that is present in Chesterton’s work. This is not to say that Chesterton wouldn’t find some other reason to disagree with perennialism, ecumenism, or pluralism, but I think it might be helpful to those influenced by him in their encounters with these ideas.

In 1925, G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:
“These Theosophists build a pantheon; but it is only a pantheon for pantheists. They call a Parliament of Religions as a reunion of all the peoples; but it is only a reunion of all the prigs. Yet exactly such a pantheon had been set up two thousand years before by the shores of the Mediterranean; and Christians were invited to set up the image of Jesus side by side with the image of Jupiter, of Mithras, of Osiris, of Atys, or of Ammon. It was the refusal of the Christians that was the turning-point of history. If the Christians had accepted, they and the whole world would have certainly, in a grotesque but exact metaphor, gone to pot. They would all have been boiled down to one lukewarm liquid in that great pot of cosmopolitan corruption in which all the other myths and mysteries were already melting.”

In what appears to me to be a highly emotive reaction to perennialist ideas, Chesterton fails to make a not-so-subtle distinction. There is an importance difference between asking Christians to place their God alongside the gods of other religions, and asking them to consider the idea that Jesus and the rest of those deities and avatars are all manifestations of the one true God.

It is true that Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But what does “through me” mean? This can soundly be interpreted to mean “through the type of life I have shown you,” which means that anyone who follows the way of Krishna or Gandhi or Mohammad or Buddha is also following “the way the truth and the life.” Similarly, Christian tradition tells us, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ has come again.” Who is to say that Christ hasn’t died, risen, and come again dozens of times, in the forms of the spiritual luminaries of other traditions?

Perennialism may seem to be asking Christians to give up the exclusivity of Christ’s salvation, but in another view it’s really just expanding the reach of that salvation. Perennialism refuses to put human limits on Christ. Perennialism may seem to be asking Christians to lower their God into a pantheon of lesser gods, but it is only asking them to entertain the idea that all of these Gods are ultimately One.
If anyone wants to continue to believe in an exclusivist form of Christianity–or of any religion, for that matter–I understand. But I would ask you to understand the perennialist view for what it is: Not a paganism offered over and against Christianity, but a transcendent theory preserving and enhancing the legitimacy of all wisdom traditions.

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