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These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. – Matthew 15:8-10.
In the previous essay in this short series, I looked at one answer for the question as to why—if they are from the same God—the religions we follow appear so different to the casual observer. I summarized the answer in two words: progressive revelation.
Knowledge is cumulative. In order to learn something—calculus, say—a child needs two things: 1) the foundational concepts necessary to comprehend advanced mathematical ideas; 2) the capacity to grasp the implications of those concepts and ideas. The child’s teachers, regardless of their own deeper capacities and knowledge, deliver only what the child can grasp, stretching her capacities a bit more at each stage.
The prophets of God, likewise, bring us foundational concepts; we must comprehend them and act on them. This reality provides the second part of the answer about the differences in the world’s religions—human capacity:
Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock.… But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand…. – Matthew 7:24-27.
When a child is small and another child hits him, he will reflexively hit back. Most parents try to explain that hitting back doesn’t solve aggression. In a religious home, this often takes the form of teaching the child seemingly simple spiritual principles such as the Golden Rule (do to others as you would have them do to you), or Muhammad’s exhortation about small kindnesses, or Baha’u’llah’s teaching that one should return ill with good. The Baha’i teachings sum up those lessons this way:
Act in accordance with the counsels of the Lord: that is, rise up in such wise, and with such qualities, as to endow the body of this world with a living soul, and to bring this young child, humanity, to the stage of adulthood. So far as ye are able, ignite a candle of love in every meeting, and with tenderness rejoice and cheer ye every heart. Care for the stranger as for one of your own; show to alien souls the same loving kindness ye bestow upon your faithful friends. Should any come to blows with you, seek to be friends with him; should any stab you to the heart, be ye a healing salve unto his sores; should any taunt and mock at you, meet him with love. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 34.
Those lessons don’t take hold overnight. Every child grows in capacity with age, and only gradually comes to recognize the truth of the message and trust that it can be proven in practice. Even after accepting the ideal of turning the other cheek or being the aggressor’s healing salve, most children may still occasionally explode when taunted, or return criticism with an outburst of petulance. Even adults fail to “get it.” They lose their tempers, sometimes tragically. They give in to their fears, prejudices, and rage every day.
Humanity is that child struggling to learn divine calculus. We’ve been hearing the Golden Rule for uncounted millennia and yet, as a species, we seem not to grasp it as a life’s goal, a charter for a better world, a divine commandment and a logical premise—hence the repetition.
As we grapple with our own lack of aptitude, we fall short of the goal. We construct dogmas that explain away our need to transform. We recreate God and religion in our own image. Instead of striving to find unity with people who are “other,” as every religious teaching bids us, we engage in scriptural cherry-picking and extrapolation to explain why they fall outside of God’s admonitions about love for our fellow human beings.
When I started reading the Gospels and Epistles to extract my own understanding, I realized something disturbing—the things theologians and pastors identified as the core principles of the Christian faith (my faith) were not the things Jesus taught in the Gospels, but things they had extrapolated and reduced to a doctrine. Christ’s words about the essentials of his faith were included in sermons, but they were taught as if they were not foundational to salvation or to the way a Christian integrated with the world at large.
The reason that religion looks so different at a casual glance is that we have taken the message given to us by Christ, by Muhammad, by Krishna, by Buddha and edited it to conform to our juvenile sensibilities. The logic of sectarian doctrine, ritual and practice is often a child’s logic: Yes, you should never hit anyone, UNLESS they hit you first… or if they’re looking at you as if they might be thinking about hitting you… or if you’ve heard rumors that they hit people.
I frequently hear the argument that though God loves all His children, He doesn’t love gays or non-Christians or illegal immigrants because they aren’t really His children. They are not covered by the Sermon on the Mount or the Golden Rule or the parable of the Good Samaritan because (insert rationale here).
The reality is that it’s so very hard to love someone who’s not US.
Jesus spoke to this difficulty when he gave us the Golden Rule:
Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Enter by the narrow gate… Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. – Matthew 7:12-14.
Next: The Way, the Truth, the Life