By David Benner
Not long ago I received an email from a young man who asked me how he could know which religion was right for him. It’s a question I am not used to hearing from people in their twenties or early thirties who are more likely to have rejected religion and define themselves as either spiritual but not religious or more frequently, uninterested in both.
Historically, most people have stayed within the religion of their family and culture, or, if they have drifted from this, they have more often moved toward non-practice than conversion to another faith tradition. Some of those who change religions do so for reasons of marriage although others convert on the basis of compelling truth claims. The problem with conversion on the basis of conviction is that it is often based on the mistaken assumption that truth is propositional, not a way of living in relation to transcendent realities. This was not a mistake this young man was making.
As a psychologist with a primary interest in religious and spiritual issues, I notice that religion either makes us more or less whole and deeply human. What I shared with this man were some questions that I suggested might be helpful in evaluating which was the case for him in relation to whatever religious tradition or spiritual path he chose.
This is not to say that all paths lead to the same place or that all religions are the same. If they were, there would not be a choice involved. And there is – and quite an important one at that. But he wasn’t asking me to make the choice for him, simply to help him evaluate the health of a religious tradition.
The following questions provide a start in evaluating the extent to which religion is making a person more whole and deeply human. Consider them and see how you assess the way you are responding to the basic human need to find your place in relation to transcendent realities.
- Does it help you know what it means to be human and how to live with authenticity, purpose, and meaning?
- Does it ground you in your body and reality while connecting you to all of humanity, the world and transcendent hope?
- Does it teach you how to journey through the great mysteries of life rather than try to eliminate them?
- Does it provide you with the broad contours of a story that is big enough to make life meaningful and suffering sufferable?
- Is that story one that connects all facets of your being – body, soul, spirit, senses, imagination, conscious and unconscious – and provide a framework for integrating all of these?
- Do the symbols that are part of that story engage you in your depths and help you connect with the Divine in your unconscious?
- Does it lead you toward a deeper trust of that which is beyond yourself?
- Does it help you respond to the inscrutable with wonder and awe rather than analysis and attempts at control?
- Does it help you genuinely know yourself and, at the same time, involve you in a community that both honors your individuality and invites growing together?
- Does it help you live more honestly, passionately, compassionately and courageously?
Healthy religion integrates and weaves us together in deep places and ways. It makes us more whole. But it also connects us with others, not just within our own tradition but beyond the borders of any one of the human wisdom traditions. It connects us to everything that exists.
It is not just organized religions that can accomplish these purposes. The religious dimension of life is foundational to being human and can be expressed in many ways. When these expressions are healthy, we become whole and more deeply human. When it isn’t, we don’t. It is as simple as that.