PART II: BROADENING PERSPECTIVES
Chapter 3. They Can’t All Be Right: Perspectives on Evolution of Religions
The religions conglomeration
In hope of gaining some broader perspective on the over-trod subject of religious beliefs, let’s try looking at it in a new way—a bottom-up way I call The Conglomeration.
To a geologist, “conglomerate” is a type of coarse grained rock formed over time by the compression and compaction of mud- and sediment-bound gravel of various sizes ranging from granules, pebbles and cobbles up to small boulders. Conglomerate looks rather like a bunch of rounded irregular circles of all sizes well squeezed together—a view we shall put to use momentarily.
“Conglomerate” has similar meaning in economics where a very large corporation contrives (plans; manipulates; schemes) to control various smaller corporations and businesses that are seemingly unrelated to each other—e.g., one runs fast food restaurants, another sells life insurance. This usually results from the usual way of corporations eating each other, shape shifting, splitting and coming back together in ever new configurations that have no sensible meaning other than to create non-productive wealth for the persons controlling the conglomerate. By adding this particular economic element—which also will be put to good use in a later chapter—we achieve the nuance best appropo for the explanation of organized religions which follows. You will need a standard page-size piece of paper, a pencil and some quiet. Get them now and begin.
Near the middle of the page draw a circle about the size of a dime. Label it “Baptists.” Inside that circle draw a bunch of little squares to represent the very many different kinds of Baptists—Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Congregational Baptists, Free-will Baptists, Foot-washing Baptists, Apostolic, Conservative, Cooperative, tongue-speaking, snake-handling…and many—believe me many—more subdivisions of the overall denomination “Baptist.” You will not have room for them all inside the circle.
Now right beside that first circle and touching it, draw another circle roughly the same size though slightly smaller. Label it “Methodists.” Here again, subdivide the interior with lots of lines indicating the much-subdivided denomination known as Methodists—Free Methodist, United Methodist, United Reformed Methodists, etcetc. You’ll no doubt discover you never realized how very many different kinds of Methodists there are.
Now draw another circle touching the first two. Label it Lutherans. You know the drill by now. Another circle—Quakers. Keep going—Presbyterians; Church of God; Church of Christ; Congregationalists; Mormons; Seventh day Adventists; Pentecostalists… Keep going, you’re not even well started yet. If your memory starts to run out of labels for your growing conglomerate of small circles, refer to breathtaking web sites such as:
Don’t forget to subdivide each and every circle in your attempt to reflect the ever-growing number of subdivisions within each major denomination. Take a break when you get tired, for you will never complete this task—breakaway congregations and new denominations are being created this very minute by petulant-to-angry differences over minor theological points of doctrine even as you work through this little exercise.
Now draw a circle tightly surrounding all the circles you’ve completed so far; label this larger circle “Protestants.” Protest-ants—those who protest.
Second task: Draw a new circle almost as big as, and touching, the Protestant circle. Label it “Catholics.” Subdivide it into all the different kinds of Catholics. You didn’t know there are different kinds?—shame. For starters list “Original Roman Catholics,” “Eastern Orthodox Catholics” and “Oriental Orthodox.” See how many others, and subdivisions of others, you can find—they most certainly are out there to be found but ferreting out the whole truth about almost anything can be a challenge.
Draw a small arc between these two large circles and label it “Anglican/ Episcopal” to denote a kind of hybrid Catholic-Protestant set of twin denominations that are neither quite one nor the other. Label another small arc “Coptic” (oldest Christians in the world if you didn’t know). See how many more Christian sects you can find that are neither quite Catholic nor Protestant. You’ll probably have to dig through lots of religious doctrines you never knew existed, and be amazed by the breadth of theological ground they cover.
Around all the foregoing draw a new and larger tight circle labeled “Christianity.” Attach a couple of parabolic appendages in the originated-as-Christian-but-now-uncertain category, respectively labeled Unitarian-Universalists and Swedenborgianists.
Now: Draw another new circle, about the Christian size and touching it: Label it Islam. Perhaps you see where we’re headed. Divide this circle into subdivisions for “Sunni” and “Shia,” as well as Kharijite, Kalam, Ibadi, Zahiri, Ja’fari, Zaidi, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’ and Hanbali. See how many other Islamic sects you can find, all evidencing the human proclivity for disagreeing and subdividing. Sectarian, they call it. Sects.
Building momentum, do the same for Judaism and its four main subdivisions—Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform. For each of these subdivisions, see how many lesser subdivisions you can find. Never doubt they’re out there to be found.
Now draw a large circle tightly encompassing Judaism,Christianity and Islam, and label it “Abrahamic Monotheistic Religions.” Pause, go back, look up and enter the various mystical sects that overlap into a less doctrine-bound arena better known as “spirituality” yet occupy places of honor in all three of the great religions descended from Abraham. It is important that these not be overlooked for they constitute a kind of perceptual borderland that is of some interest in this writing.
Pause a moment and be reminded lest we forget: the perpetual subdividing of so-called “World Religions” into new denominations is a never-ending process that, from its most ancient beginnings, has ever continued—dividing, multiplying. Through this present moment and as we speak, somewhere in the world one or more break-off splinter groups are acting out the unending process of religious evolution—(yes, evolution of religion)—separating themselves from a parent religion and going their own way, writing revised doctrines, usually taking a new name that expresses some nuance of difference thought meaningful among themselves. They sometimes depart with emotions so intensely felt they express them through homicidal actions toward the believers left behind because their opinions differ, amen.
This constant divisioning of the world’s religions is no minor thing to be lightly taken. I once observed an Amish man in severe depression because he had been “shunned” by the elders on a point with which he conscientiously disagreed. Members were not allowed to deal with him, speak to him or further recognize his existence as a member of their community. He was to be treated as an outsider, a stranger, his family ties ceased to exist. Poor fellow, he visibly suffered in silence before my eyes.
Continuing our conglomerative process as above, draw a new circle, likewise touching the others, to represent the Hindu religion—and its hundreds of internal subdivisions. One of these could be Buddhism and its own subdivisions, except that it is now so far evolved along its own path [many paths] that a Hindu connection is no longer recognized and so Buddhism ranks as a separate circle merely touching the Hindu circle. Continue making circles: incorporate into your conglomeration as many of the other recognized “major” world religions as you can think of or discover—Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Sikhism…others. Be thorough.
As to counting major religions and their significant subdivisions, somebody made an “official” list identifying 4,300 of them, more or less. It had to be immediately obsolete.
We’re approaching culmination in this exercise. Draw a big circle surrounding all the other circles you have by now drawn on the page. Label it “Recognized Major World Religions,” or perhaps “Organized Religions”—though it’s not easy to discern actual organization in some of them.
Organized or not, they all have in common that they possess doctrines—the ideas they each believe, respectively, that differ from what the others believe. With few exceptions, each religion requires that anyone wishing to be a member must profess to believe its particular doctrines, or at least pretend to. To join us you must believe as we believe.
We now move beyond “religion” to the broader, more encompassing term “spirituality.” Perspective is immediately needed.
Consider the hundreds of native American tribes (e.g. Apache, Iroquois, Cherokee and so on), along with New Zealand’s Maoris, Australia’s so-called Aborigines, Japan’s Ainu, Arctic Europe’s Sami peoples, and the dozens of relatively isolated tribes living their lives (mostly) apart from conventional civilization in the remote rainforests of Borneo, the Amazon and elsewhere. Many of these native peoples around the world have so far managed, remarkably, to maintain lifestyles close to the natural world, in considerable measure separated from and despite modern culture’s enormous gravity and tendency to tug in every living soul.
Well known to most anthropologists and unknown to all missionaries, many indigenous peoples possess, and daily live by, spiritual ideas—some of which are at least as sophisticated as those of the recognized/organized world religions, though usually expressed in more naturalistic language. These native beliefs ordinarily have no labels and thus, being adaptive and flexible over time and from person to person, cannot be called doctrines. They are best called spiritual beliefs held in common by the members of a tribal group.
All around the biggest circle lately drawn, now add spiritual beliefs to the conglomeration by entering the names of as many tribes as you can think of and look up. Tribal names may be used as stand-ins for their religio-spiritual beliefs which have no names, they just are. There should be far more—hundreds more—of these than you have room to enter.
When you have filled in the remaining white space with tribal names, get ready to draw yet one more circle, the last circle, which will surround everything—all of the above. It is to be labeled “Spirituality,” which is bigger than any religion, contains all religions, and is bigger than all of them put together. How big should this circle be? Find an empty room, the bigger the better. A gymnasium is good. Lay your sheet of paper on the floor precisely in the center of that room.
You are now ready to draw your final circle. This circle will represent the concept of an Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omniscient Intelligence of Inconceivably All-Knowing Enormity sufficient to plan, create and unleash the big bang that birthed this universe and ushered into existence the natural forces and processes of evolution which subsequently produced all the energies, galaxies, stars, planets and infinitude of life forms from bacteria to businessmen. This circle will reflect a level of understanding of reality which is The Whole Truth. This circle will be that Supreme Level of Understanding which all the little human believers in their small conglomerated encirclements ought to be seeking.
This circle must be very large indeed.
The corners of your paper, with its conglomeration of all the little religious sects and denominations, are not nearly far enough out for this Big Circle. You will have to draw this circle outside the edges of your page-size sheet of paper. How far outside?
How big is your imagination? How big is the God-Allah-Tao-Manitou-Great Spirit-All-Knowing Creator of Everything—who knows how to invent and launch a big bang to create, from out of nothing, a whole universe?
Stand on your insignificant piece of paper and look around your large room. How far out must your final circle be—this biggest circle of all—to represent the immense glory that can make a big bang—and then fling it, like Zeus’s lightning bolt, into existence as the almightiest explosion of all eternity? Walk outward, away from the paper, across the big room. Where should you draw this largest circle? Should the circle be bigger than the room? If you just draw an arc across each corner of the room will that be big enough? Or should the circle be bigger than the building your room is in? If you reach out to a radius of one mile from where the page-size paper lays, will that be big enough? Or do you need to go out a hundred miles? Perhaps ten thousand? How big is this ultimate circle, really?
Is it infinitely big? How big is this Creator-Who-Is-Bigger-Than-The-Big-Bang—by whatever name you prefer for this infinitely powerful creator of universes? Whatever name or no-name you may choose, you are now prepared to make the comparison that is the point of this entire exercise.
Remember all those little pieces inside your circles. Remember: They differ from each other, therefore they cannot all be right. However you may define that biggest circle, compare it with the cluttered little conglomeration of circles you drew on that small page-sized piece of paper. Then ask: Is God a Baptist, a Methodist or a Catholic? Or maybe a Buddhist? Perhaps a Taoist? A Holy-roller? Anything? Which church does God go to?
Doesn’t the very question inappropriately misrepresent the infinitude of a prime-moving Creator? Could God exist as less than GOD OF ALL THAT IS? Isn’t any concept of limiting God to human-made churches self evidently absurd? How must an almighty creator of universes regard humanity’s thousands of silly little doctrines and our petty little differences? How important, do you think, can all those conglomerated little doctrinal differences be in the sight of the almighty God Of The Greatest Circle?
We set forth here in hopes of gaining a tad of new perspective on the over-trod subject of religion. Did it work for you? Or does your mindset exhibit faith that cannot be moved?
We’re by no means finished with questions about all those man-made-and-evolved religions. Walk back to the center of the room, pick up that paper on which you drew the conglomeration, and stare at it. What do all those circles have in common?