What Two Cultural Memes Teach Us About All Religion and Spirituality: Humility

This past week, two cultural memes got their time in the public spotlight. One of them was new and one was a generation old. I’m speaking about The Dress and the fictional planet named “Vulcan.” Both of these memes teach us something about real human spirituality, politics and relationship. Please let me explain.

At the end of February 2015 the social media world was sending lots of messages discussing the color of a dress. (1) Was it gold and white, or blue and black? The bottom line was that different people saw the same picture and described the scene differently. Apparently, our sense of sight is as unique as our physical appearance. But that is nothing new. Scientists have known that all our senses gather different inputs and our brains process the signals differently for all our senses. We all taste foods differently. (2) We all smell differently. (3) Just like our DNA and fingerprints, our sensory inputs and processing produce a unique result for every person. This is nothing more than the physical manifestation of the law of entropy, which says the physical world seeks diversity in all things. (4) But isn’t it also true for the spiritual world?

During a radio interview hosted by my good friend, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, I made the statement that we all have a unique “sense of God in the world.” Every culture of humans has developed their own definition of God and a worldview to describe our relationship to the world and spiritual things around us. Some of us “relate to God (or not)” as theists, as polytheists, as deists, as pantheists, as panentheists, as atheists, or some as agnostics. But even within each of these “camps” there is a vast set of beliefs and understandings. Even within each denomination there are many differences. Even my own theological background of Christianity will show over 1,500 variations. Every one of these variations will claim “truth” and each seeks to be “right.” So who is right? Or is that a question that has a “right answer?”

VulcanIDICBefore we answer that question let’s look at the second cultural meme that got lots of attention last week. The Baby Boomer generation lost a cultural icon with the death of actor and producer Leonard Nimoy. He is best known for his role as the alien character “Spock” on the 1960’s television show “Star Trek.” Spock was from the planet Vulcan which contained a culture of humanoids that mastered their feelings and looked to science as a worldview. During one episode Spock wore this pin on his uniform. This is the IDIC pin which represented the “philosophy” of the planet Vulcan. IDIC stood for “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” Their worldview was that the universe had such a large number of scientific variables that everything and every life was unique. When I recently mentioned this to my fellow military chaplains, I was reminded that this was a “fable religion.” But is it?

I recently read that “belief is an emotional activity.” We see this in religion and in politics. One of the first lessons from my first theology class was that “people will believe the most outrageous things for social acceptance and standing.” The point was that acceptance by our “tribe” was more important than the “truth.” We see this in the symbols and the “labels” that we choose to identify with so that our life has meaning, purpose and validation. Robert Sapolsky recently wrote in his column about the strange scientific power that we humans place on symbols. (5) We humans are able to get “feel good” chemical changes in our bodies from “symbols” that we place great meaning in. As a former military member, I knew the stories of soldiers who willingly died defending a colored piece of cloth called a “unit flag.” But it is in religion that we really see symbols with impact. They can be religious symbols such as ancient sacred texts like the Bible, Torah or Qur’an, or as recent as the book by Brother Dr. Wayne Teasdale called “The Mystic Heart.” They can be icons of a saint or a savior. They can be in rites like the Eucharist or the water of baptism. They can be the name of the divine written in an ancient language or in words spoken aloud. They can be in the practice of reading, or in sitting still in silence studying our breath. When we couple these symbols of material things or practice with real social acceptance and community we have a powerful combination.  If you add power and money then it becomes very dangerous.  It is a combination that we are willing to kill for and “defend.”

So now I go back to the question of “whose worldview is right?” If we accept that every human has a unique set of sensory organs that allow them to gather information that they experience, and that this includes the ability to sense the divine and/or transcendent nature of their own life in relation with the world around them, then perhaps everyone is right. For the worldviews that acknowledge a third-person spiritual force that is infinite, how can we say that there is only one way for us very limited humans to sense or know it? I go back to one of Rami Shapiro’s most profound comments, “The moment we humans think we know God, is the moment we have made ourselves bigger than God.” Humility that springs from an understanding of the limitations of our earthly bodies is a must for every human. Respect for the uniqueness of the human condition is a maturity we can all seek.

(1) http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/26/us/blue-black-white-gold-dress/

(2) http://www.webmd.com/diet/science-how-we-taste

(3) http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/12/15/the-scientific-reason-everyone-smells-things-differently/

(4) http://www.entropylaw.com/global.html

(5) http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-people-think-in-symbols-from-lab-experiments-to-charlie-hebdo-1422641203


Image courtesy of CNN.com

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