There is a great push to unite the people of the world through a shared spirituality. Barbranda Lumpkins Walls interviewed Oprah Winfrey who narrates the Belief film series:
- …which she said is an effort to “connect the dots of every heart’s yearning for something greater than ourselves.” (AARP Bulletin, Oct.2015)
However, Oprah doesn’t simply want to connect dots but also to connect people:
- “I set out to really build this universe of interfaith connectedness, where people could see that other people in different parts of the world are very much like them. Although they might have a different word for the yearning of the heart and the yearning of the spirit that is looking for what I call “God,” it still is the same thing. It is the heart’s yearning to know the origin of its mystery. It’s a heart’s yearning to know the power of the divine in each of our lives. It’s a heart’s yearning to be connected to that.” (“condensed” by AARP)
While Oprah’s idealism is admirable, it requires some examination. We humans already have many things that we share and that should provide common ground. We are born; we die. We have families, and we sacrifice for them. We suffer and find solace in others. We respond to caring concern. We share the same needs for love, appreciation, and significance. Why then must we find a way to meld our religious beliefs or experiences together in light of all the other things we share?
Writing for the Washington Post, author Diana Butler Bass argues that Oprah’s Belief series is a breath of fresh air:
- At a time when many people in Western countries criticize religion as hypocritical, divisive or dangerous, and while large numbers are rejecting religion altogether, Winfrey’s project is a worthy reminder to viewers that religion can heal, restore and transform — and not only fracture. For this reason alone, the show “Belief” deserves respectful attention as it provides a much-needed alternative narrative to the increasing public disdain of faith.
The show delves “into spiritual experience by telling the stories of people within various religious communities.” Notice, it is not about beliefs but experiences. Why only this perspective? It is argued that our differing beliefs have created an impassable chasm, which only bullets can bridge. Instead, both Bass and Oprah hope that our common experiences can bridge the chasm and provide the needed road to inclusiveness:
- In all the world’s religions, older forms of remote and hierarchical authority — not to mention the very idea of a distant and monarch-like God — are being challenged by ordinary people as they pray, worship, walk pilgrimages and seek the divine in nature and neighborhoods…The age of top-down religion is over. That age is being replaced by an age in which even people who faithfully maintain distinctive religious identities are engaging in do-it-yourself spiritual journeys that often lead in remarkably similar directions of love, healing and justice toward a God (or gods) close at hand.
However, “top-down religion” has created community. What makes Bass suppose that this move towards the New Age of the subjective and experiential will provide a better glue? For one thing, Bass thinks that with the move away from doctrine and religious authorities, a “spiritual democracy” will arise, based on everyone’s private experiences.
- As people remake religion for themselves today, they are replacing adherence to fixed doctrine with the personal power of spiritual experience to transform their lives.
But how does this move transform their lives in a positive way? How does it bring world harmony and inclusion?
- The shift amounts to a storming of heaven and dragging the holy here, to earth. All around the world, people are discovering that God — or the gods, or the Goddess, or the spirit of awe — is nearer than has often been taught and that the divine can be accessed by anyone anywhere. Indeed, every person has a responsibility for his or her own spiritual life.
How do we know that we can connect with God through these experiences alone? Perhaps instead, this “storming of heaven,” is actually a storming of the demonic. Sadly, New Age thinking seems to be unwilling to consider this possibility.
Bass seems to assume that, if the old dogma set put aside, we will share common spiritual experiences and will be able to achieve world peace based upon this. However, it is questionable that, as we assume “responsibility for his or her own spiritual life,” we will be drawn together rather than drift apart in our own subjective, idiosyncratic worlds, linked only by the lotus position.
- Ultimately, “Belief” is about the relocation of religious authority and the return to an experiential definition of “belief.” It reveals that ours is an age of spiritual uprising: In every faith tradition, in every corner of the globe, men and women are discovering that faith is an encounter of love and that human beings can trust themselves to find God and grace wherever the sacred might be discerned.
When experience reigns, the pursuit truth has to be set aside. How do we know when we are discerning the sacred? Well, we are just supposed to focus on the experience itself. However, Bass is giving her own interpretation of the experience as “sacred” but without any rationale. She is imposing her own theology but without any attempt to justify it.
Although there are many common elements in our experiences, is there any reason to believe that this will contribute to human connectedness? It reminds me of the various communist attempts to create a paradise. They built towns where everyone lived in the same apartments and performed the same work. The apartments were purposely constructed with thin walls to bring people together and remove the inevitable barriers. However, this unsustainable system bred alienation, suspicion, and distrust and, of course, the extermination of 100,000,000 in a very short time.
Idealism can have a high price tag. In this case, Oprah’s Belief series is not merely at attempt to find more commonalities but to eliminate the differences. This can be costly. It is also intolerant.
But some destructive differences should be exposed and not tolerated. Some religions promote peace through their shared beliefs, while others teach murder and conquest to achieve their goal of world domination. Wisdom requires us to discriminate among these vastly different religions and not to indiscriminately lump them together under the category of “religion.” Such an unwillingness to appreciate their differences is an unwillingness to understand and to exercise the very justice that will lead to peace.
Why are Bass and Oprah unwilling to make these critical distinctions? It seems instead that they would rather re-invent the wheel and to radically create a new religion characterized by the “relocation of religious authority and the return to an experiential definition of ‘belief’.”
Wouldn’t it instead be better to merely tolerate those religions that seek peace and the well-being of others? Why must they demonize these religions as Bass does:
- “Belief” narrates this often-ignored but startling story: The age of top-down religion is over. That age is being replaced by an age in which even people who faithfully maintain distinctive religious identities are engaging in do-it-yourself spiritual journeys that often lead in remarkably similar directions of love, healing and justice toward a God (or gods) close at hand.
Are all of these religions “top-down?” Do some also promote “love, healing and justice?” Bass implies that they don’t, throwing them together into the same coffin.
Instead, New Age thought would have us believe that if everyone finds their own corner to meditate to seek their own subjective experiences, the barriers that separate us will suddenly come crashing down. For them, our common experience represents the ultimate model of tolerance and acceptance. Ironically, they too are unwilling to accept those religions that make definite truth claims. However, a close reading of Bass or any New Age thinker reflects the fact that they have their own set of truth claims.
Eckhart Tolle, Oprah Winfrey’s New Age spiritual advisor, degrades ideology (theology), but uses his own ideology to do so:
- If you go deep enough in your religion, then you all get to the same place It’s a question of going deeper, so there’s no conflict here. The important thing is that religion doesn’t become an ideology…the moment you say 'only my belief' or 'our belief' is true, and you deny other people’s beliefs, then you’ve adopted an ideology. And then religion becomes a closed door.
This entire statement is ideological. It is a statement truth, albeit Tolle’s own brand of truth. Tolle complains that ideology creates a “closed door,” but he has just closed the door on many who believe differently.
Do these proponents offer any historical analysis to prove the superiority of experience-based religions? Is there any reason to believe that experiences will promote harmony while believes and certitude about the pursuit of love and justice will not? No!
Instead, in the vacuum created by a religion that demeans objective and universal truth, other ideas and beliefs will inevitably fill this vacuum. We have minds, and they will be thinking thoughts. We can either be proactive, self-reflective, and systematic about our thinking and believing or we can passively and uncritically absorb our thoughts.
Where will these thoughts come from? From society and also from our selfish, self-centered, and arrogant impulses! However, maturity requires that we exercise some degree of self-control over our impulses. Where would this self-control come from after our beliefs about objective love and justice have been disparaged? Well, if experience is the ultimate goal, let’s just act out what we feel!
In contrast to the New Age, it is the teachings of the Bible that have led so many to say “no” to drugs, adultery, hatred, cheating, lying, stealing, and hurting others. These teachings continue to encourage us to overcome our selfish impulses and to put the needs of others before our own.