I’ve heard the song “Imagine” many times, the one released by John Lennon in 1971, asking us to imagine no religion, no warfare, no hunger, a brotherhood of man. It seemed odd, at the time, to hear of religion as something on a par with war, something that wouldn’t exist in an ideal world.
Back in that era, I knew only one person who’d grown up with no experience of religion. She viewed it with a mixture of disinterest and distrust. The evening news spoke of cults, communes, and fighting in Ireland and Israel. Meditation and mindfulness were only beginning to open the public imagination to spirituality as a healthful personal pursuit.
So why not eliminate religion, or at least shrink it to a manageable, mystical core where human beings can find themselves and the transcendent? It’s tempting to think that the more harmful aspects could be neutralized by discouraging the potentially problematic cultural shell. But the inner reality of belief will always find outward expression, whether in sweat lodges, feasts, menorahs or cathedral choirs.
I remember a pivotal moment, asking a Jewish friend about a specific practice that made no sense to me at the time. She described the inner significance of it, the full state of heart it was meant to engender, the memories it carried from the deep past into the present moment. The rite became alive, animated with spirit and meaning.
Perhaps this is the source of integrity, the outer expressing the inner, following it, the two joining seamlessly. A passage I particularly love in the small Bahá’í book, “The Hidden Words”, reminds us that our connection to the Creator and our true selves is found within.
“O son of spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.”
Personal reflection and adherence to what uplifts us, draws us together, and causes us to recognize the nobility of all beings – these are essential to rational, beneficial religion. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who exemplified those ideals, was unequivocal:
Bahá’u’lláh says that religion must be conducive to love and unity. If it proves to be the source of hatred and enmity, its absence is preferable; for the will and law of God is love, and love is the bond between human hearts. Religion is the light of the world. If it is made the cause of darkness through human misunderstanding and ignorance, it would be better to do without it.
Religious groups can be led to hatred and violence when people forget their essential teachings: compassion, trustworthiness, generosity, courage. Blind allegiance to any individual or ideology, not necessarily religious, has the capacity to lead to horrific behaviour. Among the worst examples were the 20th century regimes of Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler, costing tens of millions of lives. Similar tendencies towards hatred lie in today’s world of siloed social media feeds. Vulnerability to extremism and othering are exponentially increased through neglect or ignorance of the world’s unifying spiritual teachings.
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Principles, meaning and moral guideposts, evolve though they may, are intrinsic to our well-being. Lennon’s ideal world of peace and brotherhood will never succeed without them. The solution instead is to look for the virtues and values that uplift us and teach them to our children, lovingly and thoughtfully. We need to find 21stcentury religion. Religion that’s at one with all religions, in agreement with science, and fully committed to social progress.
Video of John Lennon's song, Imagine - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkgkThdzX-8
Sheila Flood is a member of the Bahá’í community and Secretary of the Victoria Multifaith Society.
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE