Nothing is essential, necessary or fundamental to living decently, happily, or with empathy for others. I mean this mostly in religious terms. There is no one God, one figure, one religion, one denomination, one scripture, one translation: there is no one of these that is essential, necessary, or fundamental to everyone’s life. One is as good as another. No religion at all is as good as any one religion.
As the Dalai Lama has said, “I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.”[i]
Orthodoxy is a fiction, and variety and change are the norm for religion, as for all else.
No form or way of prayer, meditation, or practice is necessary or essential for anyone, even if it is essential for you. Thinking otherwise suggests that anyone who lived before a certain teacher or religion somehow lived a religiously deficient life, a judgment I at least am unable to make.
I say none of this to disparage your faith or the sense of community or tradition you find in your religion, but rather to not allow any religious faith or sense of community to be disparaged.
All religious revelation—even our own personal and life-changing experiences—are encountered in such a way that none of them has yet been articulated convincingly to “prove” that any one religion is the only way.
And the fact that revelation does not lend itself to easy demonstration suggests that its use as a merely human tool to “prove” one religion over another is a mistaken one.
If you say, then, that it’s a matter of faith, not reason; or of conscience and tradition; or simply the intuition of trusting this rather than that religion, then you must allow that such a position is as strong as someone of another religion saying the exact same thing.
Neither reason nor faith can be used as the hammer that fundamentalists want them so desperately to be used for.
And so the same with politics: no one party, personality, or philosophy; and so with art: no one school, artist, or technique; and so with everything else. None of them are essential. No one living before any of these appeared were worse off for not having them, and no one living in the future when they’ve been forgotten or changed out of all recognition will be any worse off.
Meaning and experience are both in abundance, and will find their own way, as they always have. Meaning and experience are no less for being a messy combination of personal choice, chance, intuition, and faith, all of them lacking in certainty.
The religions of the world are sharing a leaky boat, and each religion has a forefinger plugging up a hole; each time a religion raises that finger to say they are the best one, the boat begins to sink. And the same with everything else. When asked in the first century BCE to sum up the Torah, Rabbi Hillel famously responded, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow-man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go, learn it.”[ii]
To call the vast religious literature of Judaism, or of any religion, commentary, is marvelous indeed, but it is important that Hillel still says one should learn that tradition, even if it is secondary. It seems impossible to be religious, or just alive in a world living with history, without such traditions and stories specific to our time or place or persuasion. After all, that remainder and that commentary amount to all of our interests, everything specific about religion or culture that divides us from other religions and cultures, everything that gives our lives meaning and which have built and supported civilizations, and everything slightly or hugely different from out own, that informs others. The challenge today is to hold to that basic teaching of treating others as we would be treated, and to never let our specific traditions convince us otherwise. The specifics of our traditions are provisional and conditional and temporary, but if we choose to allow it, that basic norm remains, shining and whole.
What we believe is irrelevant; what those beliefs require us to believe about others, is paramount.
[i] Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, 19.
[ii] Quoted in Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 65, 214.