The Secret Key to Understanding Religions

The Secret Key to Understanding Religions May 15, 2022




A while back BBC produced a wonderful six-part History of Christianity written and presented by the scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch. I recommend it.

In the first episode Professor MacCulloch talked, briefly, about the Oriental Orthodox churches.  He interviewed a professor from a seminary of the Syriac Orthodox Church, which is a monophysite church in communion with the Coptic Church in Egypt & the Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia.

The Monophysite (there’s actually a ton written on why the Monophysite churches are not Monophysite) professor opined part of how things went so terribly wrong in the Latin Church was that their theologians were all philosophers. As opposed, he offered, to their churches, where theologians were all poets and artists (technically he said Icon painters).

I was so taken with that.

I’ve spent a lot of time of late reflecting on my natal tradition, Christianity. I really love it. And it has such big problems. Almost all of which, it seems to me, can be boiled down to the human problem of literalization.

The Buddha noticed this problem as part of the core cognitive disorder of our human condition. We want things made concrete, once and for all. When, as it turns out, everything is wildly dynamic, composed of many instances coming together for an instant. And, then reconfiguring in new ways. It is nearly impossible to capture such a thing in prose. Although we can get close.

But, as the Monophysite professor noted, poets and artists get much closer to the reality of things. The Unitarian minister and theologian John Haynes Holmes elaborates a little.

“(W)hen I say “God”, it is poetry, not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything that poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race, and God — whoever that may be — has at one time or another reached my soul. The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears”

For me, when I survey the range of the Christian story, what some like to call the “religion about Jesus,” I find much truth. But, the truth is dynamic, it is elusive, it consists of hints and pointers. It is poetry.

Matthew Sherling, who leads a writing group at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles observed, “In my view, that’s also why Jesus said we have to become like children again to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To me this Kingdom is the infinite surplus of love, wisdom, energy, & creativity inside of us that we can tap into & express outwardly.”

And, I think that’s right.

If we want to touch reality, we need to allow reality to be. And what it presents as is a wonderful pageant, a tapestry, an icon.

A poem.

If we allow ourselves to be guided by religion as poetry, as something subtle and dynamic, as something to be experienced, then wonders await.

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