Religion and Identity: Spiritual Growth Outside the Box

By Eric Stetson — July 25, 2010

(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C.)

Recently there’s been a ubiquitous and unforgettable commercial on TV for the Kia Soul, in which hamsters dressed as gangsters compare that particular automobile to other alternatives. Lip-synching a catchy rap song, the anthropomorphic rodents depict non-Kia cars as flimsy, uncool cardboard boxes on wheels, and point back and forth from those horrible options to the far superior Soul. “This or that. This or that. This or that. This… You can get with this, or you can get with that; you can get with this, or you can get with that. You can get with this… ‘cause this is where it’s at!”

This is how many people think of religion: “This or that.” And one and only one option, their own preferred vehicle for the transportation of the soul to higher planes of spirituality, is presented as the obvious choice in comparison to all other, pathetically flawed religious traditions that are suitable only for driving on the highway to hell.

But what if this is altogether the wrong metaphor for religion. What if we were to envision religion as food — food for the soul, so to speak. Just like physical food, there are many different forms of nourishment and styles of conveying it from the farmer’s field to the plate on the table and into the stomach. There are vegetarian meals and there are whole hog affairs. There are diverse spices, seasonings, cooking methods and techniques of preparing the same ingredients. And once the food is prepared, even the way of eating it differs: Some use a knife and fork, while others use chopsticks and still others eat with their hands. Indeed there are as many kinds of cuisine and ways of eating as there are cultures in the world; and nobody says that your eating choices must be limited to your own culture of origin.

Similarly, one’s partaking of spiritual food should not be restricted only to one religious tradition. Certainly we have the right to prefer some religious meals and cuisines over others — just as many would say that Italian food is better than British — but even the most patriotic Roman might enjoy a good Shepherd’s Pie now and then. So why shouldn’t the Christian crack open the Bhagavad Gita or the Quran from time to time and peruse its pages to receive of its wisdom — or even quote it in church? What terrible fear holds most people back from such spiritual eclecticism?

That fear is the fear that one’s identity is defined by one’s religion. It is the fear that religious identity is like a tribal identity, and that one must therefore always remain loyal and exclusive to one’s particular tribe: “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Jewish,” “Hindu,” whatever. The labels of the world’s religions become like corporate brands, national citizenship papers, or the tattoos of urban gangs burned into our spiritual flesh, filling us with competitive fire and binding us in chains.

The labels of the world’s religions become like corporate brands, national citizenship papers, or the tattoos of urban gangs burned into our spiritual flesh.

Do people really need to choose one and only one label for their religious identity? Why can’t a person be Christian and Muslim and Buddhist? Can one who loves Christ and recognizes him as the messiah of the ancient Hebrews and the wise spiritual teacher who saves the world not also consider Muhammad as a great prophet to the Arabs whose message united diverse peoples and gave rise to a flourishing of civilization that kept the light of science and culture alive during the dark ages of Christendom? And can one who believes the Bible or the Quran is the word of God not also believe that the Buddha discovered and taught a mighty path to enlightenment which has elevated and transformed the souls of millions? Must we insist that every person of faith use one and only one word to denote his religious identity as apart and incongruent from others?

Words are powerful. They can lift us up or put someone down. They can create understanding or increase confusion. Fighting words can erect insurmountable barriers and wreak unimaginable destruction, and words of love can make the mountains crumble and the valleys be filled.

Words can inspire action, but they themselves are not the action that is needed. For no amount of doctrinal discourse can feed a hungry child, dispense life-saving medicine to the sick, bring the wicked to justice or bring justice to the persecuted and downtrodden of this world. No, what the world really needs is people whose deeds exceed their words — people who know that the essence of faith is how we live our lives, not how much we talk about our religious identity.

Many religious people seem to feel that it is more important that a person use the right words to describe themselves and their beliefs, than the substance that emanates from that which may remain unspoken, the convictions within our hearts that so often transcend the limitations of language. Is the native son of India, who is verbally identified as a “Hindu” and has never said that “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” but who devotes his life to elevating the status and improving the lot of the Untouchable, more or less of a disciple of Christ than the American self-identified Evangelical Christian who worships in an air-conditioned megachurch every Sunday where they believe that billions of human beings who profess the “wrong creed,” such as the aforementioned Hindu, are headed for hell?

Dogmatic linguistic conventions are designed to divide humanity into groups based on whether they talk the talk of a particular religious faith. Have you had your “sins washed away in the blood of the Lamb” and “received the Holy Ghost through the outpouring of signs and wonders”? Are you “walking on the straight path of submission to Allah”? If one does not identify with the particular religion or denomination associated with such sayings, one is regarded as not one of us, outside the tribe of God’s chosen people, among the heathens and heretics, so to speak.

Those who believe religion should be about bringing people together rather than splitting and sequestering them in ideological tribes must be careful to avoid religious language that serves only to divide people from their brothers and sisters in the human family.

But religious language can also be used to move people to look beyond their present limitations to new horizons, growing and maturing as spiritual beings, and acting accordingly. Listen to the words of the prophets of seven world religions:

  • “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ … They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” [Isaiah]
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be heirs of your Father in heaven.” [Jesus Christ]
  • “It may be that God will grant love and friendship between you and those whom you now hold as enemies. For God has power over all things; And God is Much Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [The Quran]
  • “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” [Baha’u’llah]
  • “Be good, be kind, be humane, and charitable; love your fellows; console the afflicted; pardon those who have done you wrong.” [Zoroaster]
  • “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” [Buddha]
  • “Just as the flowing rivers disappear in the ocean casting off name and shape, even so the knower, freed from name and shape, attains to the divine person, higher than the high.” [The Upanishads]
  • “Truth is one but wise men speak in many ways.” [The Rig Veda]

Can you hear the same Voice speaking through these inspiring and inspired words spoken by religious leaders of diverse times and places? Can you hear It? It is the Voice of the Holy Spirit, thundering down from on high and emerging from the throats of all the prophets, gurus, saints and holy men and women of history and the present day. Our spirits inwardly know this Ancient and Everlasting Voice, hear it and cry out to It, saying “O Source of Inspiration, we receive your teaching!”

And yet, in the flesh, so often we deny that Voice, seek to stifle it, ignore it — all because its words come through a different vehicle than the one our soul has become accustomed to.

There is much to be gained when we dare to put our religious identity aside and embrace our true identity as the children of God. Nothing more are we than that. We can call ourselves by whatever names we will, but in Heaven we are all known by one identity universally: the beloved offspring of our Creator. Brothers and sisters we are: black, white and brown; men and women; the straight and the gay; the people of every nation; the adherents of every divine religion.

There is much to be gained when we dare to put our religious identity aside and embrace our true identity as the children of God.

When we discover this true identity, no need remains to divide ourselves into religious tribes. No need is there to lock ourselves into our respective cells of the prison of fancy, imagining that the cramped quarters of our religious compatriots is heaven and outside is the fire of hell consuming all others. No, let us fling open the doors, unloose our chains, break the shackles of tribalism of all forms! For it is only by worshipping outside the box that we can find the Divine Being that resides within ourselves and us all.

I once saw a great flock of birds — many hundreds, even thousands — flying through the air in remarkable and ever-changing formations. They circled around and around from one place to another, generally moving in the same direction. But within the great flock there were a multitude of smaller groups of birds. And as I looked, I could see that individual birds would move from one small group to another; and groups would form, grow, diminish and dissolve, creating a vast cycling vortex of birds on a complex and remarkable journey.

I also noticed that some birds would spend long periods of time flying alone, or surrounded by only a few other individuals with a similar independent streak, before eventually returning to a larger community within the flock. In the big picture, no one is ever truly alone. And from a perspective outside ourselves, we human beings are but one flock flying through the limitless heavens.

The groups we create for ourselves — whether religions, nations, races, languages or creeds — are temporary and fleeting phenomena in the eyes of the Omniscient and Omnipresent Observer. All of these things come and go, changing, rising and falling; remaining not discrete and everlasting divisions but merging, sometimes suddenly, more often slowly and imperceptibly, into the vast sea of human experience and potential. The Ancient and Eternal One sees us not by our divided formations and affiliations, but by our common humanity and our intrinsic divinity. For as one of the oldest scriptures ever written declares, God created humankind in God’s own image and likeness.

Looking with the eyes of the spirit, let us learn to see ourselves and each other as God see us.

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