In this series, I’m asking myself, a former preacher, what my current religious ‘paradigm’ is, meaning, what do I think, and feel, I can reasonably and credibly believe? So far, I’ve argued that the existence of an infinite and eternal God, by definition, ought not to be presented as a ‘fact’, but simply a ‘belief’, but one which any human being should be free to hold without fear or favour. I’ve also argued that the world’s ‘sacred books’ are not ‘the Word of God’, but are fully human productions. As such, they’re rightly subject to the same historical and critical scrutiny as all other kinds of literature and, however sometimes insightful, ought not to be regarded as the final and authoritative word on any issue.
To take this a step further, it seems to me that the question of whether or not there exists Objective, Universal, Final Truth, (if not in ‘God’, perhaps in some ideal Platonic realm), has been, and will continue to be, a source of disagreement and debate. This being so, there are no substantial and definitive grounds to enable any religion to claim to possess “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, in relation to its beliefs and teachings, and the ‘rightness’ of its attitudes and activities.
There are many thousands of religions worldwide, and the idea that one of them is entirely ‘true’, and rest more or less ‘false’, has to be insupportable hubris. If there is, in fact, any ultimate ‘Truth’, some of them may, perhaps, share some of that but only among themselves. What seem to me outrageous, is that some religions have linked belief in their monopoly of ‘the truth’ to the eternal destiny of men and women. Believe and do all we tell you to, and you’ll enjoy the blessings of heaven, reject it and you’ll suffer the torments of hell, without end. What power that has given religious potentates over their fellow beings, as well as justification for giving dissidents a foretaste, (including burning alive), of what awaited them. I think Christopher Hitchens overstates the case in saying “religion poisons everything”, but I can certainly see where he’s coming from.
As an example of how belief in possessing ‘the Truth’ can result in the building of a pseudo-scientific and quasi-philosophical closed system, I’m reminded how I once held firmly to the Calvinist TULIP paradigm, as a self-contained, logically tight, holistic belief system. T is ‘total depravity’ – all humans are irretrievably sinful and deserve eternal damnation. U is ‘unconditional election” – God’s choice of some to be saved, can never be deserved. L is ‘limited atonement’ – if the death of Jesus saves sinners, then he died only for the ‘saved’. I is ‘irresistible grace’ – those whom God has predestined for salvation, cannot choose otherwise. P is ‘perseverance of the saints’ – if it’s the eternal destiny of some be ‘saved’, they can’t possibly thereafter be ‘lost’. It’s all so logically neat and tidy, but preposterous poppycock, satisfyingly lampooned in the Robert Burns’ poem, Holy Willie’s Prayer.
There are believers today who have jettisoned or de-mythologised such ludicrous and pernicious beliefs, which is to be welcomed. It’s an admission that religions haven’t been. and so aren’t now, custodians of ‘the Truth’. There is no ‘one true’ religion, no ‘elect of God’, no ‘chosen people’, and all religions ought to be known to accept and acknowledge that.
My religious paradigm, then, would involve all the religions, like all the sciences, acknowledging that no one is in possession of ‘the Truth’. There will be no definitive ‘Summa Theologica’, and no ‘Theory of Everything’, but an ongoing search, which doesn’t cling on to what is no longer credible or ‘workable’, but is ever open to fresh insights and new directions. Christianity, after all, is about dying to the old, and rising to the new.