By R J Cowley Jr
I have always had difficulty with religious dogma and, for want of a better phrase, the God Thing.
The dictionary defines dogma as a set of principles established by an authority and held out to be unassailably true. For our discussion let us say that the authority is the Church, it could be any religious institution that defines itself as a “Church.” (I happen to have been raised as a Roman Catholic.) The Church authorities have decided that there are certain precepts that are undeniably true and that must be accepted as a matter of faith; for example, “This is the Word of God.” Not only does the authority claim to know the nature of God, but they presume to speak for God.
Really? Here is my conundrum.
A. Humans, more than any other known species, have the capacity of abstract thinking. A simple abstract representation for the oxygen we need to survive is O2, for the water we drink H2O. Our ability to think grows as we develop into fully functioning adults. An infant of about six months, for example, learns the concept of object permanence. He/she learns that if Mommy goes into the other room that Mommy continues to exist and that she is likely to return very shortly. Stephen Hawking’s thinking is on the other end of the abstraction continuum. His work in astrophysics has taught us to think differently about time, said time being an abstract that is considered linear. His work with such things as black holes and the impact of gravitational pull on time has, at the very least, caused us to think differently. Perhaps time is not linear, perhaps it is circular. Perhaps time is neither.
The point is that the human genome, for better or worse, has given us the ability to think about things that have no physical presence whatsoever.
B. Humans throughout recorded history have demonstrated the capacity to believe, especially to believe in a higher authority. What child in America has not believed his/her parents’ assertions about Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy? We believe at least until our cognitive processes develop to the point that we begin to question myths such as Santa coming down the chimney with a sack full of toys for us.
As fully formed adults we continue to want to believe in a higher power, a “God-head” for want of a better term. It seems to be part and parcel of our genetic make-up. The question I ask is, “If there were no humans capable of abstract thought would the idea of God exist?” My guess is that the answer is “no.”
Is there a force beyond human comprehension? That is an entirely different question and one for which I do not have an answer. That said, clearly it is possible that the behavior of a creature such as a mouse that does not appear to exhibit abstract thinking is indeed governed by a force of which it is not aware and over which it has no control. It is possible that the same can be said of humans, that species that so wants to believe.
C. I am a certified homo sapiens and as such I want to believe in a higher power, and I want to adhere to a religious dogma that appears to work so well for so many of my fellow humans. Yet to do that, I am required to adhere to tenets set forth as absolute truth when, in fact, my ability to reason dictates that it may not be factual or truthful. One fact that does appear to be irrefutable is that all religions aver that they know the true god or the true gods, or the many faces of one true God. Again, really? They know with absolute certainty but they don’t agree?
Here is how it works.
The act of naming is where it all begins. The human ability to assign a symbolic name is a way for us to own, and therefore control in some way, that which we have identified by name. Naming, or labelling if you will, is a way of segregating and isolating. That appears to work well enough with tangible things or simple ideas. A small child sees a brown furry creature wagging its tail and bouncing up to the child and we tell the child that it is a doggie. The next day the child encounters another little brown furry thing eager to play with him/her and the child squeals in delight, “Doggie!” We correct the child and tell the child it is a kitten, or a bunny, or whatever.
Labelling doesn’t work so well with abstractions. Is Yahweh the real god? Allah? God? Is there one god? Multiple gods? By naming our gods we take possession of that view of God. This ‘something’ that is beyond human comprehension exists on some plane, perhaps a spiritual plane. We sense it rather than know it. We are blessed with the ability to think in abstract terms. Yet, this ability has failed to penetrate the essence of this spiritual something.
First we name our god or gods. We then assign our god or gods a form. In the Christian tradition we are familiar with a tripartite God comprised of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We then assign him (or them, but rarely her) specific duties and/or responsibilities. For years, decades, centuries and millennia the authority sets about selling the idea to the masses. At some point the story has been told so many times for so long that it becomes for the believers ‘the word of our God.’ Labels are assigned to those who may disagree or simply question the established authority’s firmly held beliefs. Words like apostate, heathen and heretic are heard bandied about. There is a strong urge to punish nonbelievers. There is a strong urge to go to war in the name of our god against any body politic that is seen as antithetical to the religious authority’s way of understanding the almighty.
The ancient Indian parable of the Six Blind Men and The Elephant is a metaphor that can be applied to an overview of worldwide dogma. Six blind men were positioned at different locations around an elephant and then asked to describe the elephant. Depending upon the location and their sensory perceptions the blind men had different observations about the nature of the elephant. For example, the first positioned at the elephant’s side described the creature as a wall. The second positioned at the tusk described it as like a spear. The third at the trunk claimed it to be much like a snake. And On… The upshot of the parable is that as far as each blind man could sense, each was able to describe an aspect of the elephant’s physiology but they were not able to describe the elephant in its entirety. Assume we replace the elephant that has physical attributes with the abstract notion of god that, as far as we know, is a concept. Assume we replace the six blind men with the world’s major religions (of which there are many more than six). It is not difficult to draw the conclusion that while each religious dogma may in part be correct in their assertion of the nature of the God-head, the dogmas could well be, and often are, in conflict over the true nature of the God-head. While the three major world religions Christianity, Islam and Hinduism comprise over seventy percent of the total population, it would be incorrect to deduce that religions represented by smaller population figures are any less fervent in the assertion as to the true nature of the God-head.
Despite all the thought given to the God-head figure over the centuries, I suspect we are not even close to having a full grasp of the forces that impel this world of ours forward.
The closest I have come to divining what this force might be comes from the Tao Te Ching. The first verse does it for me. The following is my interpretation of what that first verse says: Tao or Dao (think Peking vs Beijing) can be equated to what has been called God, Mother Nature, the creator, etc., but the Tao has no name and cannot be named if it is the true Tao. The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
By attempting to name (label) this force moving the world forward the religious authority takes possession of it, makes it theirs and subject to their human frailties. The God-head is then simply a part of a dogma that in all likelihood is an affront to other religious authorities that see it differently. Analytically and intuitively, the concept of the Tao/Dao makes the most sense to me primarily because it obviates the need to give whatever the force is a name.
Mr. Cowley’s literary work reflects his multifaceted life experiences as an educator, corporate executive, entrepreneur, coach and mentor. His writing includes contemporary fiction, family histories, poetry and business communications. His photography adorns his literary fiction.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org