The Great Courses

There is One True God...and His Name Is...

May 28, 2009 at 4:22 PM
5 years ago

An examination of how our upbringing shapes our religion.

Somewhere in Asia, a child is born to Buddhist parents. The child is taken to Buddhist temples, prays to Buddha, pays homage to Buddha statues and is surrounded from birth by all things Buddhist. His philosophy for living is that there is one true god, and he is Buddha.

Somewhere in Saudi Arabia, a child is born to Muslim parents. The child is versed in the Koran, prays to the East five times daily, and is indoctrinated in the culture of Allah. His philosophy for living is that there is one true god, and he is Allah.

Somewhere in Alaska, an Aleut Eskimo mother gives birth to a child. That child is taught that he is the reincarnated spirit of a recently deceased friend. He is under the spiritual guidance of a Shaman who, through trance-like meditations, receives messages from the spirit world. The child’s philosophy for living is that there are many gods, including the Sedna (Sea Woman), Aningaaq (The Sun) and Sila (The Air).

In the American Midwest, a pair of Christian parents gives birth to a child. That child is raised in Christian schools, sent to Christian churches, and lives at all times under the instruction of the Holy Bible. His belief system is patterned by his family unit (as are all of the examples above). His philosophy for living is that there is one God, and he is Jehovah.

For me, the question must be: Why am I a Christian?

If I’d been born on another hemisphere, to different parents, isn’t it a foregone conclusion that my belief system would be completely different?

If I was conceived in Haiti, isn’t it likely that I’d be immersed in the rituals of voodoo or some ancestral religion that required painted dolls, tribal dancing and potions made from some hallucinogenic root?

A Buddhist family doesn’t create a Catholic child. Or a Muslim one. Or a Christian one. The child, at least for its vital formative years, is Buddhist. Period. Any “conversion” or apostasy happens well after the child has grown to adulthood and left the nest, and probably often happens after they begin a dialogue like this one: Am I the product of my god? Or am I the product of parental indoctrination and local culture?

We as minute, tiny blips on the radar of history are desperate to believe that our lives have some deeper meaning. Our 80 year lifespan is invisible against the billion-years backdrop of time, so we readily embrace (often without testing) the belief that we must be here for a reason. There’s a higher calling. We were preordained before the beginning of the world. We are destiny.

I remember the televangelist Peter Popoff, whose healing rallies would attract the wounded and oppressed from coast to coast. He’d touch the afflicted, and through his hand, God would transmit the lightning strike of healing. The cancer would be cast out. The lame would walk. The depressed would find joy.

Even after Popoff was exposed as a fraud in 1987, using electronic devices to “hear” about the ailments from audience members (his wife was behind a curtain reading prayer cards into his earpiece), the man continues to attract a loyal and loving crowd even today. People still make the pilgrimage to hear God’s voice through an antenna that has been completely and thoroughly debunked.

Such is the yearning for deeper meaning in this world. The source needn’t be credible, as long as we find comfort. So strong is the desire to believe that many of us put aside the common sense, the “acid tests” we employ in every other area of our lives. Outside of our religions, we’re usually pretty skeptical.

If a man shows up on my doorstep and tells me he can sell me 12 magazine subscriptions for $1.99 a month- no strings attached, I’m suspicious. I ask questions. I research the company. And I send the guy packing.

If my internet browser shows a pop-up ad for a 2009 Toyota 4-Runner at 1/3 the regular list price, I’ll probably just close the window and keep browsing. It fails the common sense test.

If my sister tells me she found a DVD proclaiming to teach someone how to play classical guitar in only 3 lessons, I nod and smile and say, “uh…Good luck with that.” Sounds nice, but it doesn’t wash.

But when it comes to my belief system, the questions are taboo. Everything can be explained away by “having faith.”

When I traverse the maze and run into a wall, I might protest that this avenue leads nowhere. And everyone shrugs and simply assumes that God’s mysterious ways are greater than mine, and I need only surrender my reason to find peace. I’ve gotta have faith. But wait! I’m still stuck at the wall!

If I apply the same rigor and skepticism to faith that I applied to the magazine salesman, or the Toyota ad, or the guitar DVD, I find that the spiritual foundation I erected my life upon begins to crack and crumble. Instead of a path, there are only dead ends. Instead of answers, there are only questions.

And the touchy-feely platitudes of the church do little to mask the fact that the congregation members, despite their enthusiasm, seem untouched by any kind of Divine Intervention, either. Their lives are affected by the same questions, conflicts, disease, violence and frailty that affect non-believers.

In the church, they’ve found a place to belong, a place to find significance, a place where their radar blip might be magnified to the point where it FEELS as if it has real meaning.

And in Haiti, there’s a person at a tribal dance experiencing the same thing.

And in Alaska, there’s a person at a reincarnation ritual experiencing the same thing.

And in Saudi Arabia, there’s a person in a mosque experiencing the same thing.

And for all of them…there is one true god. And his name is…


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