We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience that has been called God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Tao. What I now realize, from my study of the different religious traditions, is that a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy. Indeed, it is in itself ekstasis. Theologians in all the great faiths have devised all kinds of myths to show that this type of kenosis, or self-emptying, is found in the life of God itself. They do not do this because it sounds edifying, but because this is the way that human nature seems to work. We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.
~The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (2004)
The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology. Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tsu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads.
~The Spiral Staircase : My Climb Out of Darkness (2004)
I tremble for our world, where, in the smallest ways, we find it impossible, as Marshall Hodgson enjoined, to find room for the other in our minds. If we cannot accommodate a viewpoint in a friend without resorting to unkindness, how can we hope to heal the terrible problems of our planet? I no longer think that any principle or opinion is worth anything if it makes you unkind or intolerant.
~The Spiral Staircase : My Climb Out of Darkness (2004)
"My thoughts are not your thoughts. For as high as the heavens are the above the earth, so are my thoughts above your thoughts, my ways above your ways." … should be written over every … pulpit. … Because so often we think that God's ways are our ways.God's thoughts are our thoughts. And we created God in our own image and likeness saying, "God approves of this. God forbids that. God desires the other."
This is where some of the worst atrocities of religion have come from. Because people have used [it] — to give a sacred seal of a divine approval to some of their most worst hatreds, loathings, and fears. Whereas to the great theologians — what I found when I was studying for A History Of God — the great theologians in all three of the monotheistic religions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim — all insisted that yes, God was personal. But God went beyond the personal. You shouldn't speak glibly about God … in Judaism you may not speak God's name as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is likely to be so limited as to be blasphemous. But God should challenge your assumptions … you shouldn't imagine you've got Him in your pocket.
A project like Pangea, which enables us to enter in to the situations of others, imaginatively, is fulfilling what the religions call the Golden Rule... going into one's own experience, and going into other's experience, and seeing the world from another perspective — that's what we desperately need in our dangerously polarized world.
I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.
~As quoted in Profile at TEDprize.org (2009)
NOW interview (2002)
There are some forms of religion that must make God weep. There are some forms of religion that are bad, just as there's bad cooking or bad art or bad sex, you have bad religion too. Religion that has concentrated on egotism, that's concentrated on belligerence rather than compassion. … But then you have to remember that this is what human beings do. Secularism has shown that it can be just as murderous, just as lethal … as religion. Now I think one of the reasons why religion developed in the way that it did over the centuries was precisely to curb this murderous bent that we have as human beings.
Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it's the sine qua non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, "what's the point of having religion if you can't disapprove of other people?" And sometimes we use religion just to back up these unworthy hatreds, because we're frightened too.
Ironically, the first thing that appealed to me about Islam was its pluralism. The fact that the Qur'an praises all the great prophets of the past. That Mohammed didn't believe he had come to found a new religion to which everybody had to convert, but he was just the prophet sent to the Arabs, who hadn't had a prophet before, and left out of the divine plan. There's a story where Mohammed makes a sacred flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount. And there he is greeted by all the great prophets of the past. And he ascends to the divine throne, speaking to the prophets like Jesus and Aaron, Moses, he takes advice from Moses, and finally encounters Abraham at the threshold of the divine sphere. This story of the flight of Mohammed and the ascent to the divine throne is the paradigm, the archetype of Muslim spirituality. It reflects the ascent that every Muslim must make to God and the Sufis ...the mystical branch of Islam, the Sufi movement, insisted that when you had encountered God, you were neither a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim. You were at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a church, because all rightly guided religion comes from God, and a man of God, once he's glimpsed the divine, has left these man-made distinctions behind.
All fundamentalist movements… whether they're Jewish, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, all begin as an intra-religious debate, an intra-religious struggle.Then, at a later stage, fundamentalists sometimes reach out towards a foreign foe and hence the Muslim feeling that American foreign policy ... is holding them back. At the beginning of the twentieth century, every single leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the west, and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France.Some of them even said that the Europeans … were better Muslims than they themselves, because their modern society had enabled them to create a fairer and more just distribution of wealth, than was possible in their pre-modern climates, and that accorded more perfectly with the vision of the Quran.
Then there was the experience of colonialism under Britain and France, experiences like Suez, the Iranian revolution, Israel, and some people, not all by any means… have allowed this ... these series of disasters to corrode into hatred. Islam is a religion of success. Unlike Christianity, which has as its main image, in the west at least, a man dying in a devastating, disgraceful, helpless death. … crucified, and that turned into victory. Mohammed was not an apparent failure. He was a dazzling success, politically as well as spiritually, and Islam went from strength to strength to strength. But against the West, it's been able to make no headway, and this is as disturbing for Muslims as the discoveries of Darwin have been to some Christians. The Quran says that if you live according to the Quranic ideal, implementing justice in your society, then your society will prosper, because this is the way human beings are supposed to live. But whatever they do, they cannot seem to get Muslim history back on track, and this has led some, and only a minority, it must be said, to desperate conclusions.
The Case for God (2009)
Religion is hard work. Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be developed.
~Ch. 1 : Homo religiosus, p. 8
Ode interview (2009)
A lot of the arguments about religion going on at the moment spring from a rather inept understanding of religious truth … Our notion changed during the early modern period when we became convinced that the only path to any kind of truth was reason. That works beautifully for science but doesn't work so well for the humanities.Religion is really an art form and a struggle to find value and meaning amid the ghastly tragedy of human life.
The cosmology of the ancient world was telling you about the nature of life here and now. Genesis is not about the origins of life. There were many other creation stories current in Israel at that time and no one was required to believe in that one.
People like Thomas Aquinas would say we can't talk about God as a creator because we can only have in our heads the idea of a human creator and that can't apply to God. We can't even say that God exists because our notion of existence is too limited to apply to God. People were instructed to think about this in those terms.
Newton and Descartes started to try and prove that God existed in the same way as they would try and prove something in the laboratory or with their mathematics … And when you try and mix science and religion you get bad science and bad religion. The two are doing two different things. ... Science can give you a diagnosis of cancer. It can even cure your disease, but it cannot touch your grief and disappointment, nor can it help you to die well.
It's not easy to talk about transcendence, just as it's not easy to play or listen to a late Beethoven quartet … You have to practice quite hard, like you do with any art form. Religion is hard work.