I have been reading Karen Armstrong's new book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions
. It is an intriguing look at four cultures and their religions during the Axial Age, the time roughly from 700 BCE to 400 BCE. During this time, Greek science and philosophy produced many remarkable ideas; the Jewish religion was transformed, in part, by prophets who asserted that God cared more about compassion than ritual sacrifices; India produced sages who sought to uncover enlightenment through examination of consciousness, including the Buddha; and China produced the great sages of Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, and Chuang Tsu.
Although I've read less than half the book so far, it is clear that during these few hundred years, all these cultures thrived in part because there were people willing to depart from the traditions handed down from generations past and explore new ideas and new ways of understanding ourselves and our world. The people responsible for these changes would be what we today would call "Religious Liberals."
is a distasteful word to many in our society, without liberals, no culture could endure. Liberals are intellectual adventurers, willing to leave behind the comfortable, well-worn ideas of the past and explore other possibilities. Liberals are not interested in change for the sake of change, but change that enhances our world. Without liberals, slavery would never have been abolished, women would not have the right to vote or own property, indeed, our country would not have its constitution. Science would be impossible without liberals, because science must be willing to accept change, is actually happy for change when it is supported by evidence that the new will be better than the old. Without science there would be no high technology, no medical miracles. We would still be afraid of our shadows, burning witches and books in an effort to preserve what exists unchanged.
Science has helped us understand this by giving us the ability to see into the past, to understand what life was like for people in many different places and times. It is remarkable that I can sit in my living room and learn what it was like to live in Israel, Greece, India, or China twenty-five hundred years ago. Science has made this possible. History is a science. It advances our understanding by applying reasoning to the evidence left by events of the past. A scientific history would never believe something is true just because it is written in a well-respected or allegedly sacred text.
Most all the people in the three major Western religions are guilty of tunnel vision, of ignoring this wealth of information about other people's lives, peoples whose lives were informed and shaped by ideas other than those that shaped our own ideas. These people mean well and are honestly trying to do the responsible thing, but they fail to appreciate how different the world is from what they understand of it.
Consider the fundamentalist Christian who insists that all the books of the Christian Bible are divinely inspired. They say that without this book, we would know nothing about God and our place in the world. But if that were true, what does it say about all the people who have strived for religious truth in all the other places and times of the world? Are their blood, sweat, and tears worth nothing? Did they live and die in vain, forever cut off from the divine revelation without which they cannot hope to understand God?
Each religious person should be required to explain whether or not the truths of her religion can be determined independently from that religion's traditions and texts. Most members of Western religions would have to say no, without their tradition, one cannot know the truth. But in saying this, each of these traditions is contradicting the idea that God is a universal God, the same for all people, valuing all people equally. For how could God favor the Jews but not the Chinese, the Moslems but not the native Americans?
Or are religions more like scientific ideas? Are they theories that need to be explored, tested, enhanced, changed? Can they be right about some things and wrong about others? If so, we have something to learn from all traditions. Christians should be happy to have Buddhist or Hindu missionaries come live in their communities to enlighten them about the religious tradition of their lands.
Instead, we have fundamentalists in all three major Western religions who would gladly incinerate the infidels and pagans to make the world safe for their own religious ideas. If you are interested in more information about the roots of fundamentalism, read Karen Armstrong's book, The Battle for God
. Fundamentalists have been made to feel alienated or injured by the advances of modern science and technology and have retreated into the presumed security of a religious text. In so doing, they cut themselves off from the bounty of God's wisdom as revealed to people in all places and times. This, to me is blasphemy and an insult to God.