For about 12 years I was quite a fanatical Christian and my church was in one of the more conservative Pentecostal denominations. But my religious beliefs began to change dramatically, and unexpectedly, when I was assigned a presentation on the Higher Criticism of the Bible in a college class I was taking.
During my first trip to the library to do some research on the topic I saw that the Higher Criticism often contradicted what I was taught in church. What the Bible scholars were saying made a lot of sense, and I soon began to realize just how uneducated was my church’s approach to the Bible.
Afterwards, I began to read whole books by Bible scholars. The first I read was Burton Mack’s “Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth”. By the time I’d finished that one, everything I thought I knew about the Bible had crumbled and fallen all around me.
I was now reading some G.A. Wells, and I felt like I was sitting on the ground, my hurricane-destroyed house all around me. I was angry, feeling like I’d been duped – though I knew those Pentecostals were sincere, they just didn’t really know anything about the writings that make up the Bible, though they imagined they knew a great deal.
So where was I to go now? Am I to become an atheist? And then this night I was listening to a radio program where a guy was describing his near-death experience. I’d heard of these experiences before, but this was the first time I’d actually heard someone talk about having one.
When he got to where he was describing what it felt like to be in the presence of the Light, it was like WHOA! The words he used were exactly how I would have described my experiences with what the Pentecostals called the “Holy Spirit”. I knew what he was talking about because I’d experienced it many times, though probably to a lesser degree. As I pondered this, I realized something for the first time: Religions are comprised of two separate components: dogma and direct experience. And these two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.
Now this may seem simple and obvious to some, but for me at that time it was something that had never occurred to me before. I had converted to Christianity ONLY because I had a direct experience with a “Greater Reality” (which the Pentecostals called “God” or the “Holy Spirit”). I accepted the dogma they taught because I just assumed it was part of the package. After all, God wouldn’t give these people such a real experience if their dogma was all wrong, would he?
But now I had an enormous amount of evidence that their dogma WAS WRONG, their whole way of interpreting the Bible was simplistic and uneducated, and I was assuming, therefore, that I must have never really experienced anything real either. But this night I’ve suddenly realized that anyone can experience a spiritual reality directly, in any religion or no religion at all. And it has absolutely nothing to do with whatever they believe doctrinally. It is not “God’s” stamp of approval on their dogma.
And so it is. People experience Ultimate Reality in many different ways. You don’t need an organized religion. But it can happen within any of the religions also. These experiences are often genuine. People are tapping into something real (or at least, humans perceive it as “real” subjectively). But religious dogma is always man-made. Dogma is a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of someone else’s experience long ago. The formulators of dogma have probably never had the experience themselves.
This also explains the conflict between the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists. Both are half-right and half-wrong. The fundamentalist has some kind of experience with Ultimate Reality which he calls “God”. He KNOWS he has experienced something real. He blindly accepts his dogma because he thinks it comes with the experience. He clings tenaciously to it because he knows he has FELT something real. It never occurs to him that his dogma has nothing to do with the experience itself.
The atheist looks on at the obviously foolish things the fundamentalist believes and rightly rejects such nonsense. He also rejects any possibility of there being an Ultimate Reality along with the dogma. Because he KNOWS the dogma is false, he assumes EVERYTHING in religion is false. He throws the baby out with the bathwater without a second thought. And so they’re at verbal war with one another. They both set up camp at opposite ends of the spectrum, and both cling tenaciously to their extreme positions.
But wait. Isn’t there a lot of space in between these two extreme camps? Of course there is. And that is precisely where you will find all of the most advanced, sophisticated and insightful spiritual traditions throughout history. This becomes obvious when you live in a Buddhist country for 14 years. Having removed myself from the extreme positions so common in the United States, and having read numerous books presenting far more reasonable positions, the whole theist versus atheist debate seems pointless to me now. Neither side really understands what is going on.
[This article was previously published by the same author on www.thezenspirit.com.]