der_m called me on relativism in my last post. I agree that using such a basic religious question as the nature of god was probably a poor choice of examples, if only because for many, the nature of god is not relative.
The thing is, there’s a part of me that agrees with him. In my essentially fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught that theological truths are never relative. Some are more important than others, but you are either right or wrong about something; the answers don’t vary by individual. In this view, just as you don’t get to choose your physics, you don’t get to choose your metaphysics. Believe what you will; the spiritual laws don’t change to accomodate you.
In a sense I still believe this. I simply can’t wrap my little rationalist mind around the idea of a universe in which, say, Krishna and Jehovah coexist. Sure, I can understand the concept of multiple facets of a single God/force/whatever; but Jehovah and many other gods are exclusive by definition – the same scriptures which describe his attributes define him as the only true God. Similarly, the various ideas of where you go when you die are pretty incompatible.
However, there’s an essential difference between the physical and the metaphysical. Physical truths can be verified by experience and experiment. But metaphysical truths are by nature unprovable. By their very definition they are beyond our senses and ability to comprehend. According to apologists for nearly any religion, they must, ultimately, be taken on faith.
My current belief, or rather lack thereof, resulted from coming to the realization that I had no concrete reason to believe that the faith of my youth was any more likely true than any other. It amounted to arbitrarily choosing a conception of the universe, albeit an extroadinarily beautiful one when looked at from the right angle. The only thing I could be sure of was my inability to ever be sure when it came to god, religion, and spirituality.
Since then my approach to spirituality, in lieu of any reason to believe one view more accurate than another, has been to treat the various spiritual practices as “mental programming languages”. I know that as a human being I am wired to respond to certain stimuli in a way that has come to be called “spirituality”. I see the practices of most religions as more or less organically evolved programs for achieving certain behavioral and emotional goals. Spritual practices condition good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour, where “good” and “bad” are defined as behaviours which would have been harmful to the community in which the religion evolved. They also engender mental states which can be beneficial – joy, peace in the face of suffering, a sense of oneness with the community, a sense of rootedness, hope, centeredness.
As a computer programmer, I have a number of computer languages at my disposal, which I choose from when I want to solve a problem. Each language has strengths in different areas. But none of the languages models the underlying reality of the computer particularly well. Instead, each language is a kind of mediator, acting as a conceptual go-between that maps the alien world of the computer on to mental patterns that I can more easily conceptualize and manipulate. At a point in my life where I feel completely in the dark as to the true nature of the spiritual world, the only meaningful way I can understand religion and spirituality is as a set of mental programming languages. I see it as a way to hack my own wetware.
So if I talk about religion in relativistic terms, it does not mean I’ve become a New Ager who believes everything is subjective and that honest-to-goodness spiritual reality is whatever I percieve it to be. I haven’t a clue what the reality is. All I know is that we humans seem to have some deep-seated cerebral hooks where spirituality is concerned, and that different belief systems make use of those hooks in different and interesting ways.
To those who have found any of this interesting or thought-provoking, I highly recommend the essay “Dancing with the Gods“, by Eric Raymond. It has been influencial on my way of thinking about spirituality.