Human beings care very much about being right. So it should be no surprise that we put quite a lot of energy into worrying about which religion is right. And it would be easy to be flip about such a question, or to simply assert that my religion is right but I think that’s letting us all off too lightly and not giving the question the weight it deserves.
First Principles: What is religion?
So if we’re going to really answer the question of which religion is right, we first need to know what religion is. There are various accepted definitions for religion, some more or less helpful than others. If you ask Google to define religion you’ll get this helpful tidbit: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”
However, the above definition would call a single person’s set of beliefs a religion, even if they were the only human in history with those particular beliefs, and that seems odd and unhelpful. So for the purposes of this discussion I will be operating under the following (slightly more specific) definition:
Religion: a shared set of beliefs, practices and experience of the Divine held in common by a group of people.
What do we mean by right?
So the second big question then becomes: what do we mean when we ask if someone is “right?” And of course the corollary: how do we decide who is wrong?
For some questions this is easy. We can say pretty emphatically that you are wrong if you claim that the world we live on is a square. We have mathematics, and shared observation that show us this is not in fact the case. Likewise, if you were to look at me and say my hair is green we could disprove that pretty quickly given a shared definition of green and some simple measurements of wavelength, or just a bunch of people saying “clearly her hair is brown.”
However, when we enter the realm of meaning, spirituality, and personal belief things get stickier.
I could say that the Divine is a giant turtle and there isn’t (empirically speaking) any way to prove or disprove that statement.
So Which Religion is Right?
This might surprise you, but my sincere hope is that we all are (and that we’re all wrong too.)
Any God/Divine Being who is small enough for finite, fallible human beings to fully understand and describe is (I believe) too small to be worthy of worship. Such a being might be exciting to find, and might even be worth forming a relationship with as a species, but they wouldn’t be any more than a rather awe inspiring “big sibling.”
The Divine that so many human beings have experienced, across cultures and throughout human history, is bigger than that. Our religions assert, over and over again that the Divine is bigger than we can wrap our little human brains around, and that means something. When we believe people’s experience of the Divine as overwhelmingly Other we are left with a problem if we insist our religion be “right.”
Human beings are limited finite creatures. We can hold only so much knowledge, we can have only so many experiences. And we cannot really even imagine something too far out of our own experience. No human can really imagine what it would be like to be a jellyfish. Even our language is limited, so limited that nearly all religions use human allegories for the Divine.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam describe God’s relationship to us in terms of human relationships. God is somethings a king or ruler, sometimes a mother or nursemaid, sometimes a father or parent. God might be a shepherd, a potter, a farmer, etc.
It should go without saying that God is not a King, a Father, a Mother, or a Potter. God is not male, even if all our traditional language for God has been male. Because God is not a human.
But the language we have to share our experience about God or the Divine is human language. And that’s not wrong, it simply is.
The Freedom of being Wrong
The truth is human beings are limited by what we can imagine, experience, and communicate. That my experience of the Divine is different than yours is good news. It speaks to something greater than either of us, to a truth we’ve only been able to lift the edge of the curtain and peek at. I welcome the possibility that I am wrong about all sorts of things about the Divine because otherwise the God I was experiencing would likely be nothing more than my own imagination.
The certainty that God is too big for us to fully understand frees us from the obsessive need to be right. It means that we can learn from other people with different experiences from our own. That we can find gifts in religious traditions other than ours. And that we don’t need to argue or bludgeon our way to consensus.
It means our own experiences, or beliefs can change over time and we can let go of the anxiety of needing to get things right, all the time.
So, Who Is Right?
I hope we all are. I hope that we all have brought the honest experience of our lives to our wrestle with the Divine, one another, and deep meaning. The truth is you and I live very different lives, around this little globe are people as varied as fish in the sea or birds in the air. We may all be human, but we experience life in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.
It would be strange indeed if a Pacific Islander and I (a middle aged lady in Seattle, USA) had the exact same experience of the Divine and our own inner lives. Our context is radically different, and that means the ways we experience the Divine, or even express ourselves and our religion will vary as well. That isn’t to say we don’t share experiences, emotions, knowledge, and a common human connection: we do. But we don’t need to share everything.
My sincere hope is that I am right in this: God (however you experience Her/Him/Them) is just as delighted by our variety of offerings as we are. That our attempts at figuring this life thing out are like finger paintings on God’s fridge. Everyone of them is true in it’s own way, even if dogs are not in fact purple and the sky isn’t green.
My fridge painting and yours, and everyone else’s will differ. That doesn’t make me right, or you wrong. Because in the end the religious quest is about relationship more than it is about anything else. It is about growing up spiritually, emotionally, relationally. With ourselves, others, and God.
The Right One Where you Meet God
In the end, the right religion is about where you personally meet God. Where is your soul fed, where do you find people who push you to grow, lift you up when you fall, and carry you with them when you need help?
The right religion is less about finding the One True Faith and more about finding the path where you can experience the Divine, where you can grow into the best human being you can be, and where you can contribute to the good of the world. I have found that within the religion of my birth, in Christianity and especially the Episcopal Church. But I would be foolish to think that everyone was like me.
I am introverted, drawn to the mystical, enchanted by words, in need of structure and formality.
Where does you soul resonate? On what hallowed ground do you best feel God moving? And with which people do you find your soul settling in for the long haul? These more than any question about “right” and “wrong” are the most important questions we can ask when we are searching for “right religion”