It is time to flip our literal point of view of religion.
At its core, religious thought is the process by which humans have looked up into the infinite from a limited planet to make sense of a complex world. The planet was not always thought to be limited, and religious thought turned into organized religion along the way. Concerning current understanding, I believe we are overdue for another change: in our literal point of view of religion.
From our limited planet, over the course of evolution and history, human pondering resulted in the identification (or construction) of a variety of notions, meanings and entities usually understood to exist in some otherworldly realm, to be more powerful than ourselves, and in some cases to be responsible for creation itself. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this variety with a catchall word, “God”.
“God” has been vested with both earthly (human/animal) and divine traits. “God” has been multiple beings, one person, a trinity, simply a state of being or awareness, a connection to ancestors; it has had different levels of divinity, has addressed humans directly or remained aloof, has given laws, has incarnated, etc. What is inescapable is that “God” has tended to look, speak and think as the group that defined it, its culture and environment, even its particular history: “God” has been represented by the landscape, flora, fauna, skin color, body characteristics, language and history of the human group that defined it. In other words, humans have defined the infinite in their own images throughout time.
This is a predictable outcome. It is a down-on-up perspective that can’t but have the human on her limited planet at the center. Predictable, also, is the confusion that the large number of religions have caused, and the accusation that their very number can disprove God altogether: if God were to be real, wouldn’t there be one, universal understanding of God available to all humans? The question contains its painful core, as so much of our history is made up of groups clashing over individual views of God, proclaiming one to be superior to the other, the results devastating.
But because we live in an age with an increasingly greater understanding of the universe, I am proposing that it is time to flip our literal point of view. Doing so can give clarity to the existence of so much divergence in religious thought, and reestablish it into a rather beautiful, celebratory light.
To begin, we can now measure our place in the universe: we know our planet to be relatively small, within a relatively small galaxy, one of billions, contained in an ever expanding, fabulously complex and large universe. This knowledge did not exist even 100 years ago. And for the past ~60 years, we have been able to literally look down on ourselves from the rest of the universe, rather than only up towards it.
A contemporary understanding of the catchall notion of “God” colored by our larger view of the world points to some sort of ultimate intelligence or consciousness that exists outside of our normal abilities and is responsible — fully or not — for the universe’s existence, therefore planet Earth’s. So if we look at our planet, and at the beliefs that have sprung upon it in the course of human civilization, from its point of view — from outside ourselves, the picture that emerges can change our very understanding of religious thought.
From the universe outside planet Earth and with the context of contemporary understanding of evolution, the view is of the potential for our species seeded at the very conception of life 3.5 billion years ago. Single cell organisms became multiple cell organisms became bodies that adapted to their environments, evolved, changed and continued to adapt along with the ages of the Earth. In the process, several different species achieved intelligence, thus understanding, taking on human-like features. Their comings and goings created civilization. But religious preoccupations (shamanic rituals, temples) came well before other human institutions or settlements, including agriculture. This implies an innate human need to understand the world, rather than religion having been invented as a social means of control (as I was often taught).
Following this up-on-down vantage point to its logical conclusion, the multiplicity of religious expression — practices, theologies and divinities — is nothing but a manifestation of thought as spectacular as the diversity of life itself. From this point of view, it is clear that the life-giving force “God”, should it exist, can only delight in the many ways that humans have used their environments, developed over billions of years, to connect to this life-giving force: by using physiology that took just as long to evolve. From this point of view, no religion can take precedence.
The only thing that can take precedence from the up-on-down point of view is a hierarchy not of belief, but of consciousness and connection to this large life-giving force. This exists within most religions, usually in some contemplative form.
Lastly, from the up-on-down point of view, religious wars and individual groups’ claims of superiority over a particular idea of God are indefensible.