Religion as Pearls and Ashes

Finding the truly transformative aspects of religion isn’t this hard, but it does take a significant effort!

We humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize parts of our lives: to simultaneously hold conflicting sets of worldviews or perspectives.  This is useful because the world Is a complex place.  We need multiple tools and approaches for coping with life and pursuing wholeness.  But this kind of compartmentalization can be extremely frustrating when it comes to discussing and analyzing the relationship between, say, science and religion.  One example is Francis Collins, an atheist/agnostic turned Christian apologist, head of the National Institutes for Health, and a highly regarded scientist in the human genome project.

Collins is a prolific writer on science and religion, with titles like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  But according to his own words, what ultimately resolved his search is that he was hiking and saw a really striking three-part waterfall.  It reminded him of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God = God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  Boom, his searching, wondering, and struggle was done.  He was a Christian.

I’d never knock this story as forming part of someone’s spiritual journey.  I recognize he went through a long process of figuring out what he believes and why.  But if you’re then going to become an apologist and make it your point to argue in the public sphere why Christianity is right (and for him, implicitly why other religions are “wrong”) then that story really doesn’t cut it, especially running with the scientist angle!  I completely sympathize when atheists get flummoxed by such a subjective explanation of religious belief.

Some of my own views on religion align with those of two prominent personalities: Leo Tolstoy (not many seem to know he wrote extensively on religion!), and the American physicist Richard Feynman.  Tolstoy described religions using a metaphor – they are each like a sack containing pearls of infinite worth mixed up with and often hidden by a lot of ashes.  In other words, religion comes with its own baggage: all sorts of corruption, in-fighting, violence in the process of creating doctrine, hypocrisy, and forms of “idolatry” that infiltrate scriptures, such as nationalism, tribalism, and sexism.

My own journey resonates with this.  When I read that Jesus says to “knock and the door shall be opened to you” and “search and you shall find” I think of this metaphor.  It makes sense that there’s a lot of sifting and sorting to do.  There are pearls to find, but it’s an ongoing process, not a quick journey that’s over all at once.  Through a lot of searching over a decade or so (questioning my beliefs, exploring contemplative Christianity, living in a couple of monasteries, learning about other religions, being involved in interfaith groups), I came to see some of the pearls within Christianity, and to understand its limitations and the problem areas: the ashes.

During part of Richard Feynman’s career, he was a professor and mentor of graduate students.  Some of his students struggled the conflicts between their religious Christian upbringing and the science they were learning.  Feynman ultimately came to describe the challenge of the science vs. religion debate as one of being able to distinguish and preserve the wonderful moral teachings and inspiration of religion while being able to challenge specific worldviews or claims about objective, scientific reality that they make.  I think this is an especially important point for prominent atheists to engage in.  I think much more progress will be made extending the conversation to the pearls of religion and the many internal tools and teachings they contain to weed out the good from the bad and point to the dangers of hypocrisy and power.  Many atheists are motivated by a humanist desire to decrease suffering related to religious belief, so this could be a fertile ground of exploration.

I believe Sam Harris, despite my disagreements with him on some topics, is one of these.  I love his metaphor of the Moral Landscape, in which he envisions a 3-D map with many different peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to different ways of human flourishing and the valleys correspond to the many ways we can make ourselves and others suffer.  He could contribute to the transformation of religion by focusing more on the peaks of well-being specifically within religious traditions.

As Feynman’s viewpoint alludes to, religion often makes claims about the world or universe that it isn’t qualified to and doesn’t need to make such as the idea that Earth is the center of universe, back in Galileo’s day.  That was (taken to be) an important theological idea then, but come on, it’s not actually essential to Christianity.  Something similar today happens over topics like evolution.

My own experience in the interfaith group Religions for Peace, exposure to monastic interfaith religious dialogue, and love for food has led me to my own metaphor.  Each religion (with exceptions like Scientism) is like a culinary tradition from a nation or region of the world.  Each has many things beautiful, tasty, and wonderful to offer.  While foods are clearly different across the world, they are also the same in many fundamental ways (nutrition, chemistry, aesthetics and creative pursuits, etc) as well.

Each cuisine of the world also has its own types of junk food.  I think the discourse on religion, science, atheism, and ethics will improve as we increasingly recognize that the world’s religions have tremendous and wonderful commonalities, and when we are also keenly aware of and open to talking about their limitations – most especially the ways that they can be and are used (or abused/warped) in ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  It’s especially important to have a deep understanding of a religion in order to understand if negative actions or beliefs ascribed to the religion are an integral part of it or are instead a parasite, addition, or perversion of the original teachings and spirit of the religion.

On its own, I recognize that many people will find my food metaphor too simple.  I look forward to getting into more depth on all of this!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions!


People featured in this post

People featured in this post: bonus points if you know who they all are!

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more
– Haddaway, What is love (90’s song)

What is love? In this post I’ll tackle this question drawing from some of the world’s greatest thinkers and movers, and will follow up in the next post with a discussion on the relationship of love and religion.

From Mozi (ca. 400 BC), a contemporary of Confucius:
Where do disorders – the world’s ills – come from? They arise from lack of mutual love. The son loves himself but does not love his father, so he cheats his father for his own gain. The younger brother loves himself but not his brother or his father so he cheats his older brother for his own gain.

Robbers and brigands likewise love their own households, but not the homes of others and so rob these homes for their own benefit. State officers, princes, and rulers make war on other countries because they love their own country but not other countries. They seek to profit their country at the expense of others.

This is what the world calls disorder. This all comes from the lack of mutual love.

The ultimate cause of all disorders in the world is lack of mutual love.

For if everyone were to regard the persons of others as his own person, who would inflict pain and injury on others? If they regarded the homes of others as their own homes, who would rob others’ homes? In that case there would be no brigands or robbers! If the princes loved other countries as their own, who would wage war on other countries? In this case, there would be no more war.1

Paul of Tarsus (ca. 40 ad)
The commandments … are summed up in this one command: Love your neighbor as your self. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends. On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.2

Leo Tolstoy (ca. 1900):
Some people are able to foresee and point out the path of life along which humanity must move: a new theory of life that will change the whole future conduct of humanity and will be different from all that has been before. In this divine theory of life, humanity does not find the purpose of life in fulfilling his or her own desires (the animal theory of life), or in fulfilling the desires of societies of individuals (whether the family, clan, political party, or nation) but only serves the eternal source of life itself. The motor power of this life is love.

It is natural to love yourself. It is natural to love your immediate family, extended family, friends, social group, and fellow citizens. But this love gets weaker – more dilute – the farther out we go from our self. It is possible, though, to have a love that extends to all of humanity. We all have to discover it for ourselves, but there are some who can help others internalize it and experience the depth, richness, and transformation behind it.3

From Lao Tsu, in the Tao te Ching
In nature the softest overcomes the strongest. There is nothing in the world so weak as water. But nothing can surpass it in attacking the hard and the strong. There is no way to alter it. Hence weakness overcomes strength, softness overcomes hardness. The world knows this but is unable to practice it.4

There are many ways, many paths to this type of love. Yet each path is narrow, is difficult. Not enough people tread this difficult but rewarding path. Those who do are filled with the love, strength, and passion of God. This God is not a being, does not give laws or doctrine, and does not belong to any one religion. Wherever this love exists, there God is. God is love.


1 Kurlansky, Mark. Non-violence – The History of a Dangerous Idea
2 Romans 12 and 13 (Bible)
3 Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God is Within You (with some paraphrasing and summarizing from yours truly)
4 Kurlansky, Mark. Ibid

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog!  This is my first post, the traditional “Hello, World!” message.  I hope to be saying hello to people all over the world through this website and the discussions it will foster, taking a “big picture” perspective on topics of religion, science, and spirituality.

I chose the banner at the top of this site because it reflects different perspectives that I bring and hold together in tension – ones that are not often brought forward in public discourse about science and religion.  I recognize something valuable in atheism and its critique of religion, as well as Jesus, Buddha, and interspiritual approaches.  Forward progress will be made as topics such as these are synthesized and integrated.

I am critical of much of religion but see its potential for spirituality and know that its strong mark on culture, art, and daily life cannot simply be erased.  The trick is to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.  The transformation will seem like a destruction for those within it who cling to rules, dogma, and the comfort of the status quo.  Others are ready to push religion forward, to deal responsibly with its flaws and to ask the questions we are afraid or at least hesitant to ask.

Prometheus is the center of the site’s banner – a very interesting and multi-faceted figure.  He is known for bringing fire to the earth when the gods withheld it out of fear that humans could come to rival them.  Prometheus is also a symbol of the danger and recklessness of humankind when tempted by power and the urge to shape the world to our every whim.  He represents an adversarial attitude toward God or the gods, one in which the gods are remarkably petty like we can be.


Although I recognize the validity of critiques about God and religion – even religion as an opiate of the people – I understand and experience someone like Jesus as instead bringing fire to the earth through peoples’ hearts – a passion, joy, spontaneity, and joyfully rebellious nature.  Christianity usually stifles this as well as his questioning, critiquing nature and his emphasis on God as spirit that cannot be contained, controlled, or limited to one practice or idea.  I admire and respect those like Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, Bede Griffiths, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and Martin Luther King, Jr. who have come to similar understandings of Jesus and spirituality that cross the boundaries of religion and led them to simultaneously challenge and broaden religion.

So much of religion hinges on what we make God out to be.  Do we think of God as vengeful, jealous, and irrational as we often are, or accept it when we’re told this by our religion or scriptures?  Or does God represent the very best of what humanity can be, something and some spirit that we can always aspire to, recognize, and access within ourselves?

Check out other parts of my website detailing more about my background, perspective, and a couple of other interests.  I welcome your comments and questions as we delve into the strengths and weaknesses of religion, atheist critiques and voices, interspirituality, contemplation, and science.  It’s time to move beyond a narrow, divisive view and practice of religion and to recognize the spiritual truths and practices at the core of many world religions and secular philosophies.  With these, we can move forward beyond religion to a spirituality and science that are aligned.