Fear and Hope in the Search for Meaning

Religious practice continues to act as a pressure point in so many cultural contexts. Belief versus unbelief, accusations amongst traditions, the sort of bickering that results in societal fractures, deep and irreconcilable. For what, at its source, is meant to foster holistic living and goodwill toward mankind—hope, really—the level of animosity related to theology seems more heated each day, even manifesting in racial, sexual, and ethical prejudice, backbiting, and flat-out violence. Can we all at least agree interfaith animosity is so old-hat?

Pulling the discussion out of whose beliefs are correct and whose aren’t are impressive voices less akin to a fed up parent saying, “What are we going to do with you?”—more readily compelled to ask, “What are we going to do with us?” A critical eye focused acutely inward.

Greg Epstein’s Good Without God was a New York Times bestseller in January 2010, when it shifted atheist and agnostic attention away from what’s wrong with religion and toward what benefits the nonreligious population has to offer the world. Epstein outlines in his book the hope Humanism offers, with its emphasis on community and ethics. Good Without God offers a constructive perspective on how practicing morality and compassion doesn’t have to be the baby thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak, and how faith in humanity offers goodness and purpose alike. Epstein seats his arguments well within atheistic enlightenment in a way that doesn’t bother with debating the existence of God at all.

Likewise, Swiss Muslim and scholar Tariq Ramadan engages a similar question of practice firmly planted in the texts and teachings of Islam. Instead of asserting Islam’s merits above other religions, much of Ramadan’s work is concerned with radical reform in the Muslim tradition. Still, reform isn’t enacted easily. In 2009’s What I Believe, he argues in favor of Muslims being capable of full Westernization, and for a more generally pluralistic understanding of moral, human identity for Muslim and non-Muslim alike. A consistently contentious figure, Ramadan recently spoke as one of two keynotes at Seattle University’s Search for Meaning Book Festival, along with notorious Christian and accidental spiritual guru Anne Lamott (Grace (Eventually)), whose own decidedly nontraditional approach to established monotheistic faith have earned her a similar cult following, although much less in the way of vehement detractors.

No, lately, the Christian spokesperson getting all the attention is Rob Bell, the evangelical pastor accused by his peers of heresy for his re-evaluative eye on the long-established conceptions of Christendom’s afterlife. Fervor surrounding the release of this year’s Love Wins spawned a New York Times Book Review headline “Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views On Old Questions” and a slough of articles for and against Bell’s proposed unorthodoxy, what some have labeled as “universalism.” The uproar sounded a series of simple questions regarding the ins and outs of Heaven, as in who’s in and who’s out. The questions, implicative of sweeping consequences, seem worth asking in a public forum. Questions themselves, despite instances of opposition from within one’s own tradition, can present a refreshing perspective of peace when staunch certainty has resulted in a considerable mess. Just because beliefs are established does not mean they shouldn’t be revisited now and again.

Which seems to be the point of Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein’s recent book Gonzo Judaism, a book hailed by American Jewish Life Magazine as a “defiant manifesto against old-guard Judaism”; the book readdresses 6,000 years of tradition not, as one might assume, to do away with the old, but to infuse each day with Judaism, namely its “very uplifting and inspiring and joyous approach to living the life.” Unafraid to be creative, even experimental in his religious convictions, Goldstein has yet received altogether positive responses for the type of Judaism he asserts—one that “calls truth to power,” to use his words, and models itself (loosely) on the journalistic practices of one Hunter S. Thompson—unlike Bell or Ramadan, whose receptions have been thoroughly divided amongst their respective traditions.

Religious thought evolves and revolves around that search for truth and meaning. Whether that meaning is found in monotheism or not seems it should be a more individual endeavor than a democratic affair. Furthermore, when the individual, who gazes critically at one’s own practice, rallies for the sake of hope instead of hatred, is there really any contest? -Dave

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