My day job has been a bit busy for me lately, which is great but can sort of bog my head down if I don’t decompress in some capacity. So like any other normal person, my channel of choice for decompression is an ever intense search for spiritual understanding. (Ya know, your regular Tuesday evening activity.) Couple that with either a long walk through nature or a platforming video game, and I’m one happy camper.
This generally takes the form of a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. So, a couple favorite podcasts:
- The Robcast: Hosted by Rob Bell (whom I CANNOT wait to see live in September for his Introduction to Joy tour)
- The Bible For Normal People: Hosted Peter Enns and Jared Byas (of which I am a proud Patreon supporter)
- You Made It Weird: Hosted by comedian Pete Holmes (no special notes here; sorry folks)
The last one in particular has become an increasing favorite because a) Pete Holmes is such a lovable, fun guy that you can’t get tired of listening to him and b) he runs the FULL gamut of spirituality in talks with all sorts of people. All that to say that today’s blog post comes to you inspired by a chat between Seth Rogen and Pete Holmes about tripping balls on chocolate mushrooms.
(Yes, that is really how I’m introducing this post. I know — sometimes I impress myself with my own work.)
On a tad more serious note, it’s no secret that I’ve been exploring my faith semi-publicly in the form of these blog posts, particularly trying to make sense of my own evangelical Christian upbringing. I’m sure by this point that I’ve had a number of people concerned for my eternal well being, but I can assure you that I have never felt more spiritually alive, even through a Christian upbringing.
Perhaps one of the strongest question I wrestled with growing up is the one post in this post’s title: Which god is the right god? I remember distinctly a special Sunday school class series taught at my home church in junior high that “taught other religions.” I put that term in there loosely because, clearly, the only thing they were interested in doing was talking about how wrong other religions are. And this isn’t necessarily to say these people were bad people; they simply have faith in this one picture of God that we have that the others must surely be wrong… right?
Well, let’s take a minute to examine that. I don’t mean specifically like comparing Yahweh to Allah, but I mean exploring the very general options of what we think God could be.
Before moving forward, let’s put out a very quick definition for God. I recently wrote a whole other blog post on what God is not, so go check that out for a longer explanation. But if I had to give a very, very quick definition, I would say God is the name of the mystery we give to things we intuitively understand on a gut level but have not yet been able to scientifically verify. Which, of course, is a lot longer than simply saying “God”, and I personally like still calling that mystery God. So let’s keep that name, shall we?
Okay, so back to the three options. Well… four. There is a fourth that I don’t really want to explore here. That has to do with the tenets behind simulation theory, and if we get me started on simulation theory here, we’ll be here until Christmas.
Door #1: There is no god.
This is a pretty popular door these days with the advent of science, and I’ll be honest, for as much as I am totally okay with giving ambiguous answers about spirituality, I can be fairly confident that this view is incorrect. The reason it’s incorrect is that is narrow limited to the traditional “old man in the sky” God and doesn’t take into account the way many people are now defining God as I displayed above.
It’s just so… narcissistic? We’re basically saying, “Don’t worry, my pal science has nipped this in the bud.” Except we don’t, at least not today. So how do we explain all the intuition we have in the world? Writing it off as incorrect isn’t fair because science is constantly affirming things that were once simply intuited in times past.
Take meditation, for example. Now, I personally don’t meditate, but people have been doing it for thousands of years believing it to be good for their health. It’s only been in the last few decades that science has been able to empirically verify that meditation does good things for the body like helping to lower blood pressure. So if we’ve figured out that meditation isn’t a crock of bull after all, what else are we intuiting that may be verified by science some day?
I’d wager to guess a lot, but I’d also wager that I will never see most of those things in my lifetime. So at some point, yes, we do have to step out in faith, but in my mind, that step is very scientifically grounded even if it is ultimately a spiritual step.
All that to say, I think we can close door #1.
Door #2: One interpretation of God is correct, and the others are wrong.
When it comes to religious communities, this is definitely the door of choice. This was that junior high Sunday school class of my church telling me why our God is the biggest, bestest God in the playground. And I’ve been picking on Christianity simply because that is my heritage, but this is truly every religion/worldview, even ones that have a “no god” view, like atheism.
But how can you really know that your religion got it right? Here’s what we do know about every religion: at some point, somebody (or group of people) in a single point of time or even across time was “divinely inspired” to believe that what they believe is true, and they likely wrote it down in what is now a sacred text for that religion. This is true for Jews and the Torah, Christians and the Bible, and even far more recent religions like Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics.
So the question is… which group was being real and which ones are bullshitting their experience for some random reason? I think it’s important to frame the question that way because you have to wonder… what were these people in it for? And sure, of course, there are some religions that are famously critiqued for being established for nefarious purposes (the aforementioned Scientology being one of them), but if you think about the largest world religions — Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism — these all have origins of people who truly think that what they believe is beneficial for the soul and the afterlife.
Back to the first question then: which religion got it right? The most honest answer is, you don’t know. I used to hate, hate, HATE admitting that myself, but now I’m totally okay because it is a very honest answer. As somebody with Christian origins that used to think Christianity was the ONLY way, I refused to think about what it would have been like if I was born in India into a Hindu family. Tell me, Christian friends, would the gracious God of the Bible really cast somebody into eternal punishment just because they were born into the “wrong” family?
I know hell is a hot button question (puns!) because even some of the most conservative professors at the Christian university I attended struggled to answer that. I can think of one in particular — one of the most conservative older gentlemen I know — openly admit that he couldn’t reconcile a loving God with an eternal tormented, so he believe that somebody like Gandhi simply ceased to exist, neither going to heaven nor hell. (By the way, this view is called “annihilationism,” and if you think there’s little evidence of hell in the Bible, there’s absolutely no evidence of this view anywhere.)
But for as much as I just bashed on this option, I have to admit: this remains a plausible possibility. Instead of continuing to knock on this door (more puns!), let’s move onto our third option.
3. God exists, and all religions are merely giving one view into this same God.
Ah yes, the door that atheists and theists alike can unite in their disgust toward. This universalistic view is widely panned by both sides with equal fervor. I remember very distinctly when Rob Bell released his book Love Wins in 2011, the student body of the Christian university I attended was up in arms about it. Remember, Rob Bell used to be everybody’s hero. With his popular Nooma videos, he was so cool, edgy, and artsy that you couldn’t help but love him. So when Rob put out this book that goes against what everybody held most dear… the backlash was STRONG. I vividly remember thinking that Rob Bell’s career was over at that point, and I’m so glad to have been totally wrong about that.
So the early proponents of this view love to use the analogy of three blind men feeling an elephant and experiencing different things, not realizing the same animal. (e.g. One man feels the trunk and thinks it is a snake, etc.) And I’ve heard the popular counter argument that that whole analogy is predicated on the assumption that there is a single elephant to begin with. Fair enough, both sides make good points from a philosophical perspective.
The kicker for me, interestingly, comes in the form of science. Let me try bringing this full circle by talking again about the lovely Pete Holmes and his You Made It Weird podcast. Pete (and to a smaller extent Rob Bell) was the one to turn me onto Ram Dass. Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) was this renowned Harvard psychology professor who was introduced to psychedelic substances by another fellow associate — Timothy Leary — at a time when very little was known about things like psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms). So early, in fact, that these drugs were so new to the public eye that they were technically legal. (Fun fact: All this stuff became illegal during the Nixon Administration, which tells you how little time has passed since these events took place.)
Despite his clinical experience as a Harvard professor, Alpert’s perspective on life was totally flipped around by his psychedelic experiences, and long story short : he travelled to India, studied spiritual matters under Neem Karoli Baba (aka Maharaj-ji), and became a spiritual teacher himself under the name Ram Dass. Despite the illegality of it all, Ram Dass and Timothy Leary remained strong proponents of psychedelic experiences as a means of “turning on” to new spiritual insights. (Another fun fact: This is well chronicled in the great documentary, Dying to Know, which you can conveniently watch on Netflix.)
And again, despite the illegality of it all, clinical research of these psychedelic substances has continued behind closed doors. At this point, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with door #3. Well, it is thoroughly documented throughout many people’s psychedelic trips that these people experience many similar patterns. Things like a unity toward love, glowing white light, and more. This is even coming from people who would call themselves atheists but cannot deny these experiences. Go on YouTube and watch the documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule to see what I’m talking about. When you start hearing regular people talk about their experiences in that documentary and compare what they have to say to Ram Dass’s writings… it’s eerily similar.
Now, I feel like I have to throw out this point: I have no personal experience with these psychedelic substances myself. I feel that I have to say that because a) I don’t think my employer would be too happy if they thought I was using illegal, mind-altering substances and b) it is the God’s honest truth. But the good news is that I don’t think you necessarily have to experience a psychedelic trip to know this is true. I think about folks like Father Richard Rohr who — and I say this lovingly — is probably as square as they come, and he shares many of these same sentiments as spiritual teachers like Ram Dass. One of my favorite quotes of his is that he believes that we are still collectively in “baby Christianity” and that spirituality will likely continue to evolve in big ways over time.
That excites me, and I think we’re on the cusp of it already. The old ways of thinking are passing away to make way for new ones, and if things like psilocybin continue to become more legalized, I think we in the West may fast track ourselves there more quickly over the next century.
Still, it would be naive to rule out door #2. Ultimately, this remains a faith question, and it is entirely possible that Jesus is real and that some other god is a demon in disguise. Yes. Sure. Fair enough. My point for this post isn’t necessarily to draw a hard line somewhere to but simply to open your minds to other possibilities.
It’s just plain fun for me. I know, I clearly have a weird idea of what is fun! But hey, I just spent an hour straight hammering out this post and had a blast writing it. I hope you, friends, equally enjoy reading it. Catch you in the next one.