Much of mainstream religious dialogue centers on ‘God Talk’. It’s how we think and converse together about the Divine. Many of our world’s faith traditions ground their God Talk firmly in the cause and effect of sacred history. We believe in God because we also believe that very concrete and specific things happened in the past by or through God. We worship a God whom we believe has definitively acted in human time —through God’s own acts, through saviors, through prophets, through saints, through disciples, and through followers. We lean into the stories that we read and re-read in our worship. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course… unless history is taken as exclusively literal and inerrant. When this happens, we can forget that our foundational, ancient faith stories came from another person. And they are, therefore, contextual.
What do I mean by ‘context’? Contextuality signifies that the authors of our religious stories orally shared and subsequently wrote them down at particular times in our history. Further, the respective storytellers had different intended audiences. They had different objectives to achieve in their sharing of the narratives with listeners. Simply put, they were striving to make a point around how they, as individuals, interpreted what they had heard from oral traditions passed onto them from prior generations. It’s even possible that the storyteller’s own anxieties, needs, hopes, and wants were also somehow projected onto God in their thinking— which, in turn, morphed into God’s purported actions as documented in their version of the stories. In other words, what happened was contextually interpreted as having been caused by God, whether or not it actually was in fact.
What’s more, most ancient stories about God were received second or third hand at best. They weren’t typically eyewitness testimonies of someone who had actually seen these things. The passage of time also played a part. While ancient societies became quite adept in preserving the general integrity of shared oral accounts from generation-to-generation (before they were later committed to written form), it’s also likely that the stories were expounded upon to some extent. Symbols, legends, and allegories around these stories may have evolved into indelible and infallible ‘fact’ with each new interpreted retelling. Further interpretation occurred when the stories were later committed to writing. Or when the documents were subsequently translated into new languages or re-written to use more ‘contemporary’ words over the years. And yet, so many of us engage with this history as if it was necessarily ‘literal’ in its accuracy and veracity. As if it was given to us untouched by generations of human minds and hands before us.
There’s another, even bigger problem here. When we ground our religious beliefs in a supposedly inerrant historical accounting, the narrative of ‘what happened’ can sometimes subsume the larger, more profound existential meaning contained within the story. Discrete forms and persons can overshadow a more inclusive spiritual energy and personal experience of the Divine. When this happens, we can lose the deeper, underlying, and imaginative power of our religious stories because of an insistence on their details and accuracy. Said another way, if it didn’t actually happen in the manner that it’s written (and interpreted), God must not have been speaking or acting. Yet, who’s to say that God can’t talk through symbolic or allegorical stories? Perhaps God speaks via many different stories offered to diverse peoples and religious traditions around the world. These stories may be historically and factually true. Or they may contain some elements of factual truth. Or, alternatively, they may not. If not, it shouldn’t make these stories any less ‘true’ for us at a heart-level in their spiritual impact. In fact, allegorical stories and parables can be quite powerful and transformational in our lives. Humanity should never arbitrarily limit the channels through which God speaks to us. Or the myriad ways in which we can experientially feel God’s presence around us each day.
The problem goes far beyond just the limits of history as a basis for our faith, though. That’s because many of us depend so heavily on external religious dogma, traditions, rote prayers and rituals more generally in order to firmly ground ourselves in our respective religious beliefs. In the process, we risk losing something critically important in our broader human spirituality. We can too easily abdicate our own personal agency for continuous growth. It’s comforting to simply stop when we think we have it all learned and ‘down pat’— especially when we’re relying on the same, limited outside sources for our spiritual wisdom and sustenance each day. To be sure, we can grow to some extent when we re-read the same things repeatedly. Or when we recite or hear the same words more than once. The same written or spoken word can speak to us differently depending on our situation in the moment. But it’s inherently limiting to think that one book, one source, one practice, one history, or one interpretation is exclusively right. And it seriously retards our future spiritual growth.
This, by no means, requires that we discard or ignore our externally mediated religious sources, belief systems, sacraments, and respective shared faith tradition experiences. These things all have a role to play in our becoming spiritually wiser, more peace-filled, more compassionate, and more loving. But I firmly believe that we must embrace our own internal integrity before we look outward for things that are externally mediated for us in this regard. We must seek and find wisdom, peace, compassion, and love from within us prior to trying to do so from without. Why? Because we cannot wisely, peacefully, compassionately, and lovingly reason, reflect, inter-relate, act, or maturely follow external belief systems around these things unless we first become that very wisdom, peace, compassion, and love already inside us to begin with. Nor can we genuinely share these characteristics with others unless and until we first get in closer touch with these things within. In fact, looking outwards to initially define ourselves is ‘self’ defeating. It co-opts our very beings from the outset. As such, the first principle of lasting and growing spirituality is inward facing.
This is because our sense of self and individual identity must first draw upon the universal spark of Divinity firmly embedded within– the very spark that God lovingly, abundantly, and creatively placed in each of us as human beings at our birth. When we draw from the inside first, we can effectively interpret and respond to what we externally learn, based on our existing well-centered and experientially grounded spiritual core. Building this core requires some courageous, sustained, and disciplined work on our parts. The work can encompass a variety of practices, including regular and intentional personal stillness, reflection, meditation, internal visualization, mindful awareness, prayer, time in nature, and journaling. And, by the way, this introspective process isn’t simply (or even necessarily) just a ‘side-door’ into subsequent religious denominational membership and its associated belief systems. No. It is intrinsically worthy in and of itself.
Once we’ve connected with our internal foundation within, we can subsequently read any religious book, interact with others in God Talk, explore our past sacred experiences, and enjoy our fellowship in community with successful discernment, learning agility, and personal developmental acumen. We can act with authentic, grounded wisdom, peace, compassion, and love in our lives each day. And we can make a lasting difference for others. The wise, peace-filled, compassionate, and loving difference that we make is driven by a God-given, abundant living pool of universal spirituality that already lies deep within our respective souls. If we’re in closer touch with our inner selves, it’s a pool that we can return to often in order to replenish, energize, rest, and grow in our own daily faith walks. Not only that, it’s the very first thing that we can share outward as we relate to and interact with our world.
Because, of course, first things should always come first…