My good friend Jack was raised as a Catholic, and had been a dutiful follower of church teachings throughout his life. At some point in his religious travels, he became disillusioned with Catholicism and began attending independent Bible study, in search of some clarity in his spiritual thoughts.
I learned of his religious upheaval during one of our regular Tuesday morning coffee gatherings. What began for Jack as misgivings about the Catholic church were transformed, through his Bible studies, into an obsession with the question of whether God exists. This was all he could talk about, and it seemed to be getting in the way of him living his life. I wondered aloud why this question and his inability to answer it had paralyzed him so.
I listened to Jack muse and agonize over the existence-of-God question for more than a month, before I posed a different question to him—a question we would debate but never truly resolve.
I do not know whether this question and the subsequent answer brought Jack any peace, but I do know it has reshaped my thinking about my own spiritual journey, along with the hypocrisy I have long found troubling in formal religion and those who are most devout in their practice of it.
The question that I posed to Jack was the following:
Would the way in which you lead your life, treat other people and have them treat you, change based on whether God exists?
I submit that someone who answers this question in the affirmative does not really know the true meaning of God.
When I first posed this question to Jack, he did not say a word for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. He stared blankly at the wall behind me, as if he expected to find some revelation there.
You see, just as Jack did not know quite how to respond to my question, I had no real idea where the question even came from, much less whether I actually believed what I had just asserted.
We were both seemingly caught in a strange stasis, recognizing that the answer to the question would define each of us in a way that would perhaps reveal too much about who we really were.
The formally religious and the morally challenged
Whereas I do not know precisely where the question (and the subsequent answer) that I put to Jack came from, I believe that I do know something of its origins, or at least what I believe to be its origins.
Some 40 years earlier, I had attended Yom Kippur services with my family. Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement,” and the holiest day of the year in the Jewish faith. It involves a day of fasting in which you are cleansed of all your sins before God.
I was walking out of the synagogue with my father (which, for me, a 10-year old with a limited attention span, was infinitely better than walking into the synagogue), and I recognized a man in the congregation that had business dealings with my father. These dealings were, to be kind, of an ethically questionable nature. This man was standing, wrapped in his Tallit (prayer shawl), rocking back and forth with his eyes closed and tears streaming down his face. He was literally praying his heart out.
Somewhat puzzled, I turned to my father and inquired: are all the disreputable business practices and other sins this man committed over the past year erased on Yom Kippur, as if they never happened?
My father looked at me, smiled and said, “he thinks they are.” I have thought about that moment countless times over the years, usually when I encounter the formally religious and yet morally challenged.
The pursuit of a moral and righteous life cannot be a one-day-a-year or a one-day-a-week commitment. It must be the way in which one strives to lead their life in each moment of every day, not the way in which they purposely live it badly and then seek repentance.
Even when a chalkboard is erased, there remains a faint imprint of what was inscribed there. How much of the imprint is left behind will depend on the diligence of the cleansing. Atoning for our sins is similar: the more sincere the penitence, the more faint the imprint on our chalkboard is.
Wiping the slate perfectly clean, regardless of the sincerity of the penitence, gives rise to the problem of moral hazard. The sinner recognizes that they do not pay a steep price for their transgressions, and therefore, they have an incentive to sin again. This is what I believe my father was trying to tell me that day in the synagogue. The unscrupulous businessman had repented today, but he would revert to his old ways tomorrow.
For most people, formal religion is about charting a moral and righteous path through life. Individuals who are formally religious but lacking in moral character may adhere to the letter of their religion, only to forsake its spirit.
For some people, formal religion’s teachings and practices are the life-equivalent of gutter guards in bowling—they keep a person in their lane. They would be lost in the wilderness without the rigid practices and customs of their faith.
A ‘social Cuisinart’
Whereas I respect the freedom of everyone to practice their faith as they so choose, I have long since lost the reverence that I once had for formal religion. The well-publicized failings of the leaders of religious institutions have only reinforced these sentiments. When did morality cease to be essential for those who would lead the flock?
I have come to view formal religion as a ‘Social Cuisinart’ that slices and dices to create artificial divisions between people, an instrument of destructive, societal stratification. It does not nurture the human spirit as much as tear it apart, and for what purpose?
How many wars have been fought, how many people have been slaughtered in the name of formal religion, and to what end? By what measure has it served to create more unity than division, more love than hate, more joy than agony?
I have observed Christians treat people in a surly and dismissive manner, only to abruptly reverse course when they observe a cross hanging from their neck. Shouldn’t the behaviour of a true Christian be independent of whether it is a cross, the Star of David or some other religious symbol that is displayed?
I do not wish to single out Christians, because I know that those of other faiths conduct themselves similarly. No religion has the market cornered on godless behaviour.
I confess, somewhat in jest, but only somewhat, to be a disciple of the Church of The Lone Ranger. In one episode of that television series that I remember vividly from my youth, the main character (Clayton Moore) resolves a dispute between two groups warring over their different faiths, by observing that religions can have many origins but the same destination.
For whatever reason, those words and the message they imparted resonated with me, despite the 50 years or so that have passed since I first heard them. For those who would question the wisdom of taking religious doctrine from a mid-1950s television character, I would remind them that the spiritual path that billions of Christians now follow was blazed by a common man who carried more tools than books.
The important lessons in life are not always taught by those we designate as teachers.
Choosing the righteous path
The pursuit of a moral and righteous path through life cannot be an economic calculation. If you lead your life in a certain way, only because the reward for doing so is heaven and the punishment for not doing so is hell, you are neither moral nor righteous. You are simply hedging your bets.
Our behaviour in life cannot be based on an expected return in the afterlife. If it is, then it is nothing more than an exercise in economic calculus. A person who conducts their life a certain way, only because of the bountiful rewards if they do (and the dire consequences if they don’t), cannot be a moral or righteous person. They are being “paid” for behaviour that should not command compensation. As Emerson (Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Good Press, 2019) observes,
The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough.
I would like to think that I had something like this in mind with the question I put to Jack. Why was he so consumed with the existence of God, if his behaviour did not turn on the answer? He would have cause to be troubled only if his conduct in life changed based on whether or not God exists.
Was Jack suggesting (without actually saying it) that if there is no God, why bother? That without the reward of heaven and the punishment of hell, humans have no natural tendency to walk the righteous path?
The paradox is that a godly life can be so only if it is independent of the existence of God.
We are each our own gatekeeper
Do we behave in a certain way in our lives, simply as an economic ‘hedge,’ just in case God exists and we do not want to risk eternal damnation? How would you behave if no one could discover what you have done?
It is what we do when no one is watching that defines us. I was reminded of this truism many years ago, when I set out on a hike with my young son. At the trailhead was a donation box and a sign requesting that all hikers contribute two dollars for trail maintenance. When I deposited the funds into the box, my son looked around, presumably for park rangers or cameras, and stated, “No one would ever know if you did not make that contribution.”
I looked at him, paused for a moment, and replied, “But I would know.” My hope was that this would engender the same introspection in him that my father had inspired in me decades earlier.
Despite what I consider to be rather intensive religious training as a young man, I distanced myself from formal religion long before I had reached my third decade of life. This has nothing to do with whether I believe in God, and everything to do with my belief that the spiritual journey is not always enhanced by formal religion, but is (regrettably) too often impeded by it.
Proselytizing is a noteworthy case in point, because its purpose is ostensibly to convince you of the wisdom inherent in one religion and the ignorance of all the others. As each formal religion preaches that they alone are the gatekeeper for the path up the mountain, those on a different path must, by definition, be on the wrong path.
Yet, if humankind is created in the image of God, it is incumbent upon those who would make such a claim to explain why a just and righteous God would elevate one religion above another. Is that God deserving of our worship?
While my spiritual journey raises more questions than it answers, it is important to know when to “leave unanswerable questions unanswered” (Creative Ministry—Henri J.M. Nouwen, Doubleday, 1971, p.12). What I have come to appreciate is that a human’s greatest sin lies not in straying from their religious path, as we are all imperfect, but in reflexively dismissing all the others.
You can find more of Dennis Weisman’s writing here:
“The Beasts that Walk Among the High Priests“—Weisman, The American Conservative, January 29, 2019
“An Essay on the Art and Science of Teaching“—Weisman, The American Economist, 2012
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