Dogma : Obstruction to Intercultural Peace
“Are you saved?” Growing up in the American southeast, colloquially “The Bible Belt," I’ve often had this question posed to me by non-family and family members alike. After much thought on the subject, having been raised in a family of devout Protestant Christians, I find this question is loaded with presuppositions regarding the nature of religion. That being said, I’ve asked it to others before in the innocent, blind faith of my childhood following in the footsteps of my elders, but now my conclusions lead me to other questions with religious and cultural paradigms at their center.
To someone steeped in the dogma decided by a succession of church fathers, this question simply asks, “Are you a Christian?” Christian denoting identity in terms of belief, and as I see it, culture. How children are raised, how the sexes interact, and all other aspects of social mores are determined by the framework of the society’s religious values; therefore, to hold an ontological view denoting a specific belief system as the correct belief system leads to a kind of bigotry that creates gaps in equality. The kind of gaps that lead to social injustice, imperialism, and as can be seen over the course of history, war.
Piety need not override justice and should reasonably create an atmosphere of egalitarianism. So, why do the words of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and masters outside the Abrahamic traditions, often lead people to express faith through oppression and violence? Most people would agree, it’s doubtful that this is the true meaning the great sages imparted in their prolific teachings. Though many would extricate the idea of dogma from extremist attitudes, I wonder how one can genuinely respect you with the background noise of a theological mindset alerting him that the way you live and what you live for are wrong, or at the very least not wholly right. Are they so righteous to pass judgment in a realm where they are supposedly aware of their imperfections and submit to that which is perfect? Now, I find myself faced with my own hypocrisy.
Due to the things that have opened truths to me, my personal experience of God, I question my right to criticize. What anyone knows is right, is due to personal experience of the spiritual. There’s no need to negate my experience to strengthen a differing experience, and out of respect there should be a mutual ground on which the things that are personal can be exchanged. Tolerance is an elusive word suggesting understanding, but if another person really wants to show humility it must be done in respect. Respect trumping tolerance, in that, it does not connote a decision to tolerate mistaken ideas; instead, attempting to share in the belief that all we know and do can be fallible.
Many adults coming of age are participating in a spiritual revolution that can be characterized by an increase in agnosticism. We’re finding the prejudice inherent in our values while attempting to remain respectful of our teachers. Most of the code of conduct we were taught are similar to all other codes: treat others as you wish to be treated and be vigilant in protecting the freedom of others as you assert your own freedoms. Self-awareness, the inner joy and peace attainable by focus and careful discrimination, is becoming my reality gained after years of misdirected efforts; with no blame to place, just the realization and calm acceptance of what is. The revolution taking place is cultural in the peripheral and spiritual in its core. Dogmatism created the background for imperialistic foreign relations. Transcending partisanship, the spiritual realm calls us to remove boundaries of creed exchanging them for a purer embodiment of ecumenism.
Recently, I attended a church which is rare for me considering my views, but in trying to adhere to what I have learned, why does it matter if I believe differently than those around me as long as my presence is guided by love and acceptance. Not acceptance of what they teach me, but on a larger scale of our parity. It’s a difficult balance to maintain and I still question its soundness, but my ideal is unity which is nothing but a symbol if not supported by action. Trying to achieve betterment can manifest as a strengthening of image or ego and these must be left behind to attain what some call salvation and what others call enlightenment. These are simply two different terms that call on the same idea, an idea that cannot be found on the surface of a religious text but only deep within its esoteric meanings. I’ve been told before that I don’t understand the theology and true message of the Bible because I don’t read it with the Holy Spirit as my guide, but each time I pick it up again the depths of its verisimilitude unfold as my ego recedes. I feared, at the beginning of this dubious journey, it would lead me to hell, as what I had been taught told me that there was only one belief that could save a person from damnation. What I’ve come to recognize now is that I was in hell. As Eckhart Tolle interprets Jesus’ meaning of heaven, it is not a location to be arrived at upon death, but a state of consciousness obtained at any moment you choose to accept it (Tolle,23).
Original sin in Christianity as interpreted from the Greek means to miss the mark, or point of human existence (Tolle, 8). Hinduism relates the reality we live in as maya, or delusion (Tolle, 8). Dukkha, or suffering, is the state in which most people live according to Buddhism (Tolle, 8). What is the separation between these ideas? Each is trying to create freedom from a bond with our ego and awaken the divinity that resides in each of us as we are all, of the same substance. Though the manifested form of the substance may be distinct, being or God or whatever else one chooses to call it, is the crux of all that is. Forgiveness and relinquishing of false attachments provides freedom.
Religious pluralism is a means of delving into the depths and origination of a culture and its mindset via interfaith dialogue. The beginnings of cooperation and healthy interchange lie at the end of absolutism and proselytizing. To many devotees where the dogma of their religion requires a healthy serving of intolerance, this may seem heretical; yet, how can a infallible text demonstrating respect and tolerance produce dogmatic theories in its followers that betray the tenants of that same text? Literalistic interpretations make a reader of these documents feel secure in knowing that they are doing their upmost to uphold the truths of their religion with conservatism. But it is imperative to look deeply to find the true meanings of faith and submission, prophets and writers who founded these metaphysical paradigms intended.
“What we need is everywhere a vivid consciousness of the new ideal,” as quoted from Trans-National America, an essay written in 1916. Randolph Bourne’s ideas are concentrated more on social values than spiritual but to me these are inextricable. Though his writings are almost a century old, the lessons hold fast and translate to more than just the American public. National exclusiveness leads to war while intercultural exploration increases respect, not just tolerance, of other cultures. It leads to an exchange of ideas born of different mindsets, to an intricate cohesion of people contributing their uniqueness for the creation of a code of conduct that does not take away from any one culture to glorify another. The seeds of these ideals must reside in the values of those who wish to reap its benefits before its fruit can blossom. One religion presiding as correct will never produce such a fruit. “What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity,” (Bourne, Trans-National America). With the influx of global information and sensibilities available, one’s identity must hold true because, if it is more of a station than a mode of being, it’s no identity at all. Your identity is not where you work; it’s not where you live. It’s something you take wherever you go regardless of the person you’re speaking with, or your next goal to attain. It’s not something that can be taken, but only be given away.
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Each nation must remain intact as each person within those nations must for that is the only thing constituting it as a whole. There need be no laws to guide this shift; the shift will create the laws in its image. But, if we continue to allow the indigenous roots of cultures to fall by the wayside in attempts to progress, we’ll have left behind the significance of their contributions and the wisdom learned from their experience. Each spiritual tradition experiences change and must, to reflect its time and place. Clashes in our social and belief structures are inevitable and must be welcomed. War is not a necessary consequence; it’s simply the current paradigm’s norm. We can still be truthful to our origins while obtaining the new consciousness and spiritual constitution necessary for peace. “Just so surely as we tend to disintegrate these nuclei of nationalistic culture do we tend to create hordes of men and women without a spiritual country, cultural outlaws, without taste, without standards but those of the mob (Bourne, Trans-National America).” Absolutism slowly strips reason of its place and replaces progress with a rigid conformity, a comfortable numbness; one that silences the minority in turn creating a comfortable stagnancy in those with power releasing them of the burden of responsibility. Minorities are not free from this responsibility, however. People seeking pity for their plight lack the motivation to change it. Of course, certain sympathies are quintessential for the haves to understand the changes needed to eradicate the category of have-nots, but these won’t be evoked by indulgent self-pity. Concisely, “It will be an intellectual sympathy which is not satisfied until it has got at the heart of the different cultural expressions, and felt as they feel. It may have immense preferences, but it will make understanding and not indignation its end. Such a sympathy will unite and not divide,” (Bourne, Trans-National America).
Peace within and between nations must be precluded by discernment and accountability amongst the populace which is unattainable under current religious paradigms. Dogma creates an intellectual prison for its followers wreaking havoc between sects, even of the same religion. The seat of understanding lies on the foundation of freedom: freedom from tyranny, hypocrisy, and most essentially self-righteousness. That is not to say that we should forget our beginnings, but exact from them the truthful reality which a new consciousness can divulge. Know that divinity resides in all things, including you, and give it reverence. No one holds the key to salvation but you. Enlightenment comes only when you are ready and loose the bondage of your desire for suffering. The external world can only reflect what is internally present and we are all an important part of that. Our collective unconscious must become conscious and rather than seeking a melting pot or pushing our standards on others, we must find the basis of all standards which will allow a forum that produces results instead of the current forums that run similar paths of cyclical logic. I know I’m tired of running in circles.
- Bourne, Randolph. “Trans-National America”. Atlantic Monthly. (July 1916). 86-97. 18 July 2009. <http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/rbannis1/AIH19th/Bourne.html>
- Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Dutton/Penguin Group, 2005.