Can One Be A Realist And Religious?

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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
JACK MCLEAN is a Bahá’í scholar, teacher, essayist and poet published in the fields of spirituality, Bahá’í theology and poetry.

There are several parameters to today’s question , but let’s start here: the life of faith, or the practice of religion, is all about making the ideal one with the real. To strive for this oneness is a life-long quest. To be religious/spiritual, we must be an idealist, otherwise we would never be motivated to transform the human condition, either in ourselves or in the wider society. The so-called “realism,” touted by those who claim that we can never change ourselves, or the world around us, because of our animalistic, biological inheritance, is actually a form of pessimism, if not cynicism. It gives in to the status quo, shrugs its shoulders and walks away. By contrast, spiritual life means active engagement with and service to the world of humanity.

The reality of religious life requires that we strive to make the reality of our life conform to the ideals we espouse. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), the son of the Prophet-Founder Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), and the authorized interpreter of his father’s teachings, said in Paris in 1911: “What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless. The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice” (Paris Talks, p. 16).

But we can point to the lives of the Prophets as those for whom the ideal was one with the real. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained the key difference between the philosopher and the Prophet: “This is the difference between philosophers who are Spiritual Teachers, and those who are mere philosophers: the Spiritual Teacher is the first to follow His own teaching; He brings down into the world of action His spiritual conceptions and ideals. His Divine thoughts are made manifest to the world. His thought is Himself, from which He is inseparable” (Paris Talks, p. 18). Based on this assertion, we may say that the Prophets were ideal realists. They practiced their teachings in the face of imprisonment, exile, persecution and death. They were living embodiments of their own words.

Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa

This week’s question is another way of asking if reason and faith are compatible. Modern society often sets reason and faith against each other but the reality is that they are both necessary if we are to live as complete, whole, human beings. If being ‘a realist’ means to have an accurate view of life and the world, then it is indeed very ‘realistic’ to acknowledge the importance of faith. Most often as a Roman Catholic priest I deal with people who know from their own experience that reason by itself is not enough to answer their most important questions about life, suffering and death. They are searching for reasonable answers that make sense to these questions based on their faith. Their realism and pragmatism is what brings them to the Church to find the answers that reason by itself cannot supply. Perhaps the most famous definition of “theology” by St. Anselm of Canterbury captures this quest: “theology is faith seeking understanding”. In 1998, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote a very important encyclical letter on the relationship between faith and reason entitled “Fides et Ratio” – Faith and Reason. In it he discusses the compatibility between reason and faith and how they are both necessary for us to be truly human and to achieve our life’s meaning and purpose. One of the things that I really appreciate about my Catholic faith is how realistic and reasonable it is. In my experience, the most realistic people with a grounded sense of their own worth and a healthy, balanced view of human nature and our relationship to the world, each other and God, are intelligent people who find happiness and fulfillment regularly practicing their faith.

KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the centre for Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.

For some of you who read my weekly musings, I am sure, on occasion, I have unintentionally made your eyes bulge with rage. While a breath of fresh air to some, I’m a windbag of hot air to others. It depends on your definition of reality.

The question of what is reality has been discussed and debated by our greatest thinkers for centuries. It’s probably one of the key reasons that philosophers’ brains keep whirling and more than likely why many of them ended their lives as lunatics. It’s a big question with no real answer.

Most people live in Descartes’ world. He was determined to present a foundation for reality that couldn’t be dismantled by skeptics. His famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” came from his belief that it’s impossible to doubt you are thinking, so a thinking mind does exist. He concludes that God is the creator of the natural world as well as our minds: the supernatural and the natural world co-existing. God is as real as the sun, which of course He created.

There are others who would subscribe to, “I think critically, therefore I am.” They don’t accept explanations about the world until they can be tested and verified, repeatedly. The supernatural becomes the natural world through science.

It’s no surprise that I fall under the latter. In fact, I believe that atheism should be the default position for our view of reality. While religion has always made great attempts to explain the mysteries of life, a kind of reality-for the-times, science has always taken human knowledge of the universe further. If God is real, we would have to dismiss every scientific fact. The world as we know it would not exist.

And that is my reality, I think.

Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.

These are two nebulous concepts, so the response will have to assume some more particular meaning for ‘realism’ and ‘religiosity’. For me, a realistic person is someone who grounds themselves in their personal experience, that is the evidence of their senses combined with their mental resources - logic, imagination and insight. In fact, Buddhists define six senses - five physical ones plus the mind. As for religious, it seems we fill this page weekly with a discussion of what it means to be religious, and, no doubt, we could spill over onto many more. I won’t venture a definition here, but rather relate realism to the practices and teachings of the Buddhist tradition, inasmuch as I would call that religious.

Our readers need go no further than the teachings of our founder, Shakyamuni, whose own life represents one person’s quest for understanding in the face of the reality of human suffering. A famous story tells of a woman pleading with him to revive a child who had just died. He agrees to do so if she can find a household which has not experienced death. She sets off and goes house to house for weeks. Later she returns and explains to the Buddha that she has given up on trying to revive her child because, after confronting the reality that death is a fact of everyone’s life, she accepts her own child’s passing with equanimity.

A favourite piece of advice which the Buddha gave to his followers was that they accept nothing he taught on his word alone. They each must investigate matters for themselves and confirm what he claimed to be the way of the world. Should their own enquiry not match his, he encouraged them to find a teaching which did.

Finally, a caution that realism does not simply mean “what I can hold in my hands”. Without the reflective and interpretive capacity of our minds, we would be little better than calculators. Both realism and religiosity are ultimately searches for meaning, and that requires the engagement of senses and mental capacities, the whole person.

BALPREET SINGH is legal counsel and acting executive director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada

By definition, a Sikh must be a realist as the goal of a Sikh is to discover the ultimate reality.

But what is reality? Often our perception of what is real is inaccurate. What appears to be real, often is not. The world around us appears to be solid when it is in reality mostly empty space. What we see or hear is in fact a very small portion of the spectrum of sound and light that surround us. So, just because God and the spirit are not visible to the naked eye, doesn’t mean God isn’t real or can’t be realized. Just as science aims to help the individual understand reality which is beyond our normal perception, spirituality aims to do the same with respect to the ultimate reality.

God is all around us and within us. True fulfillment is only possible once we experience this. The Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is composed of verses of the Sikh Gurus and also of saints from different backgrounds who experienced the ultimate reality of God. Through their verses, they teach how we also can do the same in a practical way. Sikhism is therefore the science of spirituality which allows an individual to experience God.

The experience and realization of God is not something that is limited to after death but something that must happen in life. If one hasn’t experienced the reality of God in life, it can’t be expected after death.

The method for experiencing and understanding the reality of God is to meditate on naam or the name of God as revealed by the Guru. While faith plays a very important role in the spiritual journey, Sikhs believe that the spiritual path must lead to an actual experience of God, without which religion is unfulfilling. Meditation on naam is that practical method by which the reality of God is revealed.

So in short, to be a Sikh is to dedicate one’s life to the search and experience of the ultimate reality. That to me is the true realist.

ABDUL RASHID is a member of the Ottawa Muslim community, the Christian-Muslim Dialogue and the Capital Region Interfaith Council.

All meaningful actions of human beings stem from certain convictions, generally called faith or belief. It is the belief of a person that moulds his or her thinking that, in turn, motivates the behaviour in a certain way.

A belief may be secular or spiritual/religious in nature. In either case, beliefs provide strong motivation for their followers towards a particular action. However, unlike religious view, secular beliefs are divorced from spiritual or moral principles. Furthermore, secular beliefs are subject to change as circumstances change, without any consideration for the underlying moral implications.

In contrast, religious beliefs cover both body and soul. The moral standards underlying these beliefs are not subject to human manipulation and apply equally to both spiritual and mundane affairs.

The Islamic view is that the human being, to be at peace must know about his Creator, the purpose of his creation and his relationship with the Creator as well as with His creation. It is not possible for the human being to answer these fundamental questions which are free of space and time constraints through his own efforts. These questions relate to matters that are outside direct human observation. Furthermore, these

It is also the Islamic view that there are realities beyond the reality of our world. But the human mind can understand, comprehend or analyze only those things of which it has past experience. One of these realities is the life after death but it is impossible for us to conceive its metaphysical nature

Just as the Creator satisfied all our physical needs in this world, He also provided, out of His mercy, answers to quench the most fundamental intellectual and spiritual thirst of human beings. Islam takes the individual beyond the limited physical world into the mysteries of other worlds and realities.

Like most religions, Islam establishes a strong link between religious faith and righteous deeds. Whenever God’s mercy is mentioned in the Holy Qur’n for those with faith, it is almost always combined with righteous deeds (19:96, 22:50, 98:7).

RADHIKA SEKAR holds a PhD in religious studies and taught Hinduism courses at Carleton and University of Ottawa. An aspiring Vedantin, she is a devotee of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission.

In western thought realists view ‘reality’ in terms of external material objects rather than abstract and speculative ideas or spiritual explanations. According to this criteria, Vedanta, and indeed all faith-based religions, fall under idealism.

Indian philosophy however perceives ‘reality’ differently. In Vedanta ‘real’ is defined as the ‘unchanging’ and the core idea is that the Brahman is the only Reality; everything else is an illusion.

Putting aside the spiritual aspects for this discussion, let us examine this statement more closely. “Everything is an illusion”—but try walking through a brick wall and see how painfully real it is. But Vedanta is not talking about walls or other tangibles in our way. It is pointing to the way we construct the world around us.

Most of us take the material world to be ‘real’ because we believe that what we are experiencing is real. But is it really? For example (the famous snake and rope illustration) a traveller sees a snake in the dark and screams for help. But when light is cast on it he realizes that it is only a rope. But until he knew otherwise, his reactions were as if it the snake was ‘real’. He was reacting therefore to an illusion.

Sensory experiences generated by the mind are not always real, and therefore should not be taken at face value. Nor can Reality be taught or imposed by dogma. It has to be self discovered through investigating beyond the obvious. Western realism rejects abstract, speculative and spiritual explanations, but Vedanta does not dismiss any mode of enquiry, be it realism, atheism, idealism, materialism or any other type of ‘ism’, which leads us to the goal. For after all, in principal, all paths are subjective and Truth is the only Reality!

Thus from this point of view, a Vedantin cannot but be a ‘realist’!

Rev. RICK REED is senior pastor at the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa.

Actually, one can’t be a realist any other way. A realist sees things as they really are. So denying or ignoring God leaves us with an unrealistic view of life. On the other hand, faith in God helps us become more realistic in a number of significant ways.

We gain a more realistic view of who we are. Instead of seeing ourselves as the product of time and chance, we realize we were purposefully designed by a Great Designer.

We gain a more realistic view of how we measure up. Instead of comparing ourselves to others and concluding we

are basically good, we view ourselves in light of God’s perfection and realize we are deeply flawed and fallen.

We gain a more realistic view of why we’re here. Instead of trying to make life revolve around ourselves, we come to understand that life is meant to center around God.

I must add that simply being religious doesn’t guarantee a realistic view of life. There is a spectrum of religious views. Since they are conflicting, they can’t all be correct. It’s possible for any of us to be sincerely religious but sincerely wrong.

So how can we hope to gain a realistic outlook on life? As a Christian, I’m banking everything on Jesus. If Jesus is who He claimed to be, then He came from heaven to reveal the truth about life (John 3:13). He also came to give His life for us, making it possible for those who believe in Him to be forgiven and given eternal life (John 3:16).

Christians believe Jesus provides a realistic view on life. As C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

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