1. Ken’s Introduction to Religion and Universalism
It is my nature to see the forest rather than the trees. Indoctrinated in the discipline of social science, my automatic response to any claim of “truth” is usually, “Where’s your data?” So when it comes to world religion, it should not be surprising that I’ve been on a life-long quest to find the “universal truths” common to them all.
Before I begin, I’d like to share some of the vital events in my own religious life that may help to explain the metamorphosis into mystic and Universalist. During my childhood, I loved wandering in the pasture of my family’s West Texas ranch where I became a “junior mystic 3rd class.” God‘s presence was always with me there (although I knew it was my own responsibility to watch out for rattlesnakes)!
About the same time, I first learned of religions different from my own Methodist doctrine when three of my best friends told me they were Jewish. Some grown-ups contended that God would condemn my non-Christian friends to eternal hell, but I knew that idea was clearly incompatible with the God in the pasture! My own parents countered that they thought my Jewish friends would go to Heaven, but my Great Aunt Alice — who was a Universalist — went one step further. She was positive that ALL people went to Heaven! Even though she couldn’t explain the theology behind Universalism, she had planted the concept of Universalism in my growing brain and heart.
Fast forward to my freshman year at Baylor University where I took the required religion classes. Reading the Bible, I discovered that the dogma emphasized by the denomination was either absent or contradictory. Jesus liked to eat well and drink alcohol, and the Trinity could not be found. Also, there was no mention of abortion at all! Instead of morphing into a nice conservative Christian, I became a Unitarian at age 18 — what we in Developmental Psychology call a “lateral” change. My developmental level had not increased; I had merely changed perspective. During this “Taliban” phase as a new Unitarian, I would fanaticize about climbing to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to destroy the image of God as an old man and replace it with God as pure LIGHT!
Two very positive things did happen at Baylor. First, I was introduced to Zoroaster — wonderful, wonderful Zoroaster! It was the first time I’d realized that God talked to somebody who wasn’t a Jew! Second, I discovered Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic with an “attitude.” My search for the “generic” God had begun! Many years have passed, and I can say with some assurance that I’ve graduated to “senior mystic 2nd class,” but my quest is far from over.
Whether the high God (or if you prefer Ultimate Reality) connects with creation in a personal way or not, there are two things that are true about God: God is REALLY BIG and God LIKES CHANGE! The further our science “sees” into the universe and our physics postulates other realities, the bigger God becomes. Change is a constant in the universe, and the only thing that is permanent is God.
For clarity, it is important to understand that all my references to “God” should be understood as a “generic” God. Some people have difficulty using the word “God,” usually because it conjures up images of a scary God who is angry and judgmental. Jesus called God, “Father/Abba,” an affectionate, personal term. In world religions, God has many names: Ahura Mazda, Allah, Brahman, Tao, Yahweh, etc. These names are “God” in ethnic garb. In the 20th Century, it became fashionable to come up with alternative names for God, such as “Ultimate Reality,” “Ground of Being,” “Holy Other,” or my personal favorite which appeared in the UU World a few years ago, “The Evolutor!” So feel free to translate your favorite word for “God” when I say, “God.”
Some folks like to claim that their religion offers the one, exclusive path to God. But confining God to one religion would automatically make God small, petty, and in a very real way, evil. The God of the mystics and the God of religious revelation is constant. Fundamentally, the trappings of culture and the limitations of language are what make one religion different from another. So any “truth” about God in world religion must be universal or nearly universal. Right now, you probably realize that this is going to be a VERY short list.
2. Ken’s Five “Universals” in World Religion
So, as promised, here are the five things that I find to be “universals” in world religion:
a. Spiritually Transformative Experiences
Virtually all religions are based on spiritually transformative experiences a.k.a., mystical/religious/spiritual experiences. These experiences the basis for their founder’s authority, and one need only look at Christopher Partridge‘s book New Religions to see that this is still true. Religion itself continues in large part because a substantial number of believers have their own mystical experiences, and this has been demonstrated by over 100 years of scientific research. William James‘ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, was published in 1901 but is still in print today. Using the basic tools of observation and case studies, he began to research religious visions and mystical experience. James was able to formulate some working hypotheses on the nature of religious experiences, and many of these have been validated by subsequent research projects.
The big news today in the study of spiritually transformative experiences is sheer numbers! Social scientists now have documented thousands of people who have come forward to tell of their direct experience of God.
Large-scale surveys on mystical experience began in 1969 when Alister Hardy founded the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University. In order to research mystical religious experience within the general population, Sir Hardy made an appeal to the general public via newspapers and pamphlets which asked the question:
“Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it ‘God’ or not, which is different from your everyday self?”
Readers were invited to send him their responses. Ten years later, Hardy published The Spiritual Nature of Man based on the first 3,000 responses he had received to this question (of which 95% were positive). Over the years, organizations like the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, the Gallup Poll, and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago have found the numbers of people responding positively to survey questions on religious experience in developed countries range from 35-50%. When people are interviewed rather than surveyed, the response rate goes up to around 65%. In one study, one-fourth of the respondents reported that they had never told anyone else of this experience for fear of being thought “mentally ill” or “stupid.”
Xinzhong Yao and Paul Badham have completed a major research project entitled, Religious Experience in Contemporary China. They surveyed 3,196 Chinese using a semi-structured questionnaire. Since religion is suppressed in China, it should be no surprise that few gave a religious affiliation; however, 56.7% reported religious/spiritual experiences. Using Buddhism as an example, only 2.3% of the Chinese reported being Buddhist, but 27.4% said they had worshiped Buddha within the past year and 18.2% reported a religious experience involving Buddha or bodhisattvas at some time during their lives.
Spiritually transformative experiences that point to an afterlife (e.g. near-death experiences, death-bed visions, and after-death communications) also show a remarkable similarity across time and culture. Regarding afterlife, the unresolved difference is reincarnation, even though it retains a minority opinion in virtually all religions.
In one of the most important cross-cultural studies ever done on spiritually transformative experiences, Osis and Haraldsson‘s At the Hour of Death documents 1,708 cases of deathbed visions recorded by physicians and nurses in the United States and India. The study also included 120 near-death experiences. The apparitions of the dying in both the U. S. and India primarily involved dead relatives and religious figures, and in NO case in both the U. S. pilot study and the cross-cultural study was the “take-away” person (the relative or religious figure who came to take the patient to the afterlife) an apparition of a living individual. It should be noted that virtually all reincarnation religions have an intermediate state of Heaven and Hell before rebirth. In general, death-bed visions were similar in both countries, but there were some differences. The most striking difference was that the religious figures that came to take the person into the afterlife corresponded to the person’s religion. Christians saw God, Jesus, angels, and Mary; Hindus saw Yamaraj (the Hindu god of death), as well as Krishna, Rama, Durga, etc.
Regarding the research to date on spiritually transformative experiences, it is valid to say that:.
- They happen to a large percent of the population.
- The overwhelming majority of those people are normal, healthy, and no more apt to be mentally ill than the general population.
- They change people’s lives for the better.
b. Prayer / Meditation
Virtually all religions practice prayer and/or meditation. Interestingly, there are religions that believe that the high God does not communicate with humans. This is true of most all Buddhists, many Hindus, and Unitarian Deists. In these religions, religious experience (e.g. Buddha’s enlightenment) is possible because it is put into the workings of the universe, and prayer is to lesser divine beings. It is important to realize that the angels, saints, and jinn of the West are the small “g” gods of the East because they perform the same functions. Some of these lesser gods/angels were created by the high God, but most of the entities prayed to around the world are dead humans. Humans have worshiped the dead since the beginning of recorded history and quite probably before. Two dead humans, Osiris and Isis, were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians for over 3,500 years and are still worshiped by some New Agers. One should remember that Roman Catholics who make up 2/3 of all Christians pray not only to God and Jesus, but also to the saints and angels. Jesus and St. Mary are dead humans; so are Lord Krishna, Rama and Seta, the Amida Buddha. Rama and Krishna have a similar relationship to Vishnu of the Hindu trinity as Jesus does with the Cosmic Christ of the Christian Trinity.
When people pray to lesser divinities, it would appear that the ancient Hindu idea that all sincere worship to God in all God’s forms is acceptable and heard. The Bhagavad-Gita (7.21) says:
“Whatever form any devotee with faith wishes to worship Me, I make that faith of his steady.”
“A second possibility (the first being atheism) is that of religious exclusivism; our own God — whether we be Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim — exists, whilst the others are figments of the human imagination. This possibility, however, is rendered implausible, in my view, by the fact that the effects in human life of devotion to these different Gods are so similar — both the good effect of the overcoming of self-centeredness and the growth of love and compassion…”
c. The Golden Rule
Virtually all religions have a positive or negative statement of the Golden Rule:
“Treat others as you want to be treated.”
I am indebted to John Hick and John Morgan for continually pointing this out.
d. Faith Healing
Faith healing is universal if you include healing prayer. In their 800-page book, Irreducible Mind, Edward Kelly, et al. devote 124 pages to psychophysiological influences, many of which are directly or indirectly related to faith healing. The short answer is: If you pray for yourself, it does help. The data are mixed about other folks praying for you. Also, there are some rare individuals who appear to be gifted with genuine healing abilities. For whatever reason, Rasputin could stop the bleeding of the little prince, but there is no record that he could will a severed arm to grow back. If meditation is added to prayer, even more positive research has been published, as in Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’ Leary‘s book, The Spiritual Brain. In Wondrous Events, James McClenon (www.jamesmcclenon.com) notes that indigenous priests and shamans often supplement what appears to be genuine psychosomatic healing with fraud and trickery.
e. Miracle Stories
As Kenneth Woodward‘s The Book of Miracles demonstrates, all major religions have miracle stories, not only in their ancient holy books but also in their ongoing literature. There are stories of a rabbi bringing a child back from the dead, a Christian monk using a holy relic to do the same, and a Sufi named Habib walking on water. A Hindu saint named Shankara assumed the body of a dead king, brought it back to life and ruled in his stead for a while. The special powers of Buddhist yogis include: flying through the air, walking through walls, and the ability to disappear. Prior to the Age of Enlightenment in the West, truly supernatural miracles like Moses parting the water, Jesus walking on water, and Buddha levitating and gliding over the water could be found in all religions. Interestingly, the few actual writings by the ancient mystics themselves don’t include truly supernatural miracles. St. Paul is a good example of this; although he based his authority on his own spiritually transformative experiences (1 Corinthians 15:8, 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Galatians 1:11-12, Galatians 1:15-17), his letters describe no miracles. Contrast what St. Paul wrote about himself with what was written about him in the Acts of the Apostles where he performs numerous miracles, including raising the dead (Acts 20:9-12).
3. Religious Practices That Are NOT Universal
Psychic powers such as mediums and divination are part of some religions but are not universal. The use of placebos when practiced by physicians is not “religious” faith healing. Charity and social justice programs exist independent of religious organizations, as do social clubs.
As mentioned earlier, there is a lot about religion that is NOT about God but IS about culture, and for many people, their religion and culture are inseparable. It is all right for religion to have cultural elements, provided they are not evil or destructive, but it is important to know the difference. When you read genuine first-hand accounts of spiritually transformative experiences — whether they are ancient, medieval, or modern — one thing that becomes abundantly clear is that God rarely provides details. Examples of human embellishment to religious practice include fasting, circumcision, self-flagellation, and abstinence from certain foods, alcohol, or sex. It is obvious the religious rules in books like Leviticus were written by priests in need of Prozac! Additionally, they often enable the person following the rules to feel “holier than thou” and to judge those disobeying the rules to be less favored by God. In contrast to cultural rituals that serve to say you are in the “club,” the Golden Rule serves everyone.
To summarize, when thinking broadly about the “universals” common to all religions, the most important is the spiritually transformative experience — the very basis of all religion. Prophets, gurus, and saviors base their authority on them, and the spiritually transformative experiences of ordinary people help sustain religion. In fact, without spiritually transformative experiences religion would probably cease to exist. Second, prayer and/or meditation enrich the lives of those who practice it. Third, the Golden Rule is the essence of mature religion in practice. Fourth, faith healing appears to help some people, although how it works is far from settled. And fifth, miracles will always impress the naïve and uneducated, but we all can enjoy them from the standpoint of mythic reality.
Beauregard, M. & O’Leary, D. (2008). The spiritual brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul. HarperOne.
Hardy, A. (1997). The spiritual nature of man: A study of contemporary religious experience. Oxford, England: The Religious Experience Research Centre. (Original work published 1979).
Hick, J. (1993a). Disputed questions in theology and the philosophy of religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
James, W. (1958). The varieties of religious experience. New York, NY: Signet. (Original work published 1901).
Kelly, E. W. & Kelly, E. F., et al. (2007). Toward a psychology for the 21st century. In E. F. Kelly, E. W. Kelly, A. Crabtree, A. Gauld, M. Grosso, & B. Greyson, Irreducible mind: Toward a psychology for the 21st century (pp. 577-643). New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
McClenon, J. (1994). Wondrous events: Foundations of religious beliefs. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Osis, K., & Haraldsson, E. (1977). At the hour of death: A new look at evidence for life after death. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Partridge, C. (Ed.). (2004). New religions: A guide: New religious movements, sects, and alternative spiritualities. New York. NY: Oxford University Press.
Woodward, K. L. (2000). The book of miracles: The meaning of miracle stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. London: Simon & Schuster.
Yao, X & Badham, P. (2007). Religious experience in contemporary China. Cardiff: University of Wales.