First, full disclosure: I am a progressive Christian. This means that I subscribe to a point of view that takes into account the application of the teachings of Jesus Christ to my life. I believe that the quest of faith is better served by the concept of dynamic wondering, searching, and practical application of moral and ethical principles. I have trouble with literal interpretations of scripture, do not use the Bible or any other religious document as a historical reference, and do not subscribe to many of the miraculous notions about the figure of Christ, namely the resurrection and the virgin birth. I do, however, respect individuals that do. I also realize the struggle many might have with my still calling myself a Christian, but I can save that discussion for a later time.
With that confession in mind, it was with great enthusiasm that I cracked open Sankara Saranam’s God Without Religion: Questioning Centuries of Accepted Truths. As an interesting side note, I’ve noticed that many reviewers and customers on sites like Amazon are comparing Saranam’s book to Sam Harris’ books and that it seems to have gathered a rather interesting following from atheists.
Indeed, Saranam’s arguments do have some of the same basic points as those of Harris’ The End of Faith or even those of Michael Hampson’s God Without God: Western Spirituality Without the Wrathful King. The case is made rather easily about the harms of organized religion and about its imagery. Saranam’s vision of “God” is that of an ever-expansive “something” and the rigid approach of organized religion serves to destabilize such a free-flowing vision.
To this notion, Saranam adds an interesting concept which serves as a sort of guidepost throughout the book. He suggests that religious texts are like “inkblot tests.” These texts, expressed by human beings ingrained in religious tradition or “divine inspiration,” are subject to the elucidation of the reader. Those who wish to find “divine inspiration” through religious documents to perform atrocities are likely to find it, as are those who wish to find words of comfort or compassion.
Saranam’s contention is likely the most coherent and attractive way to view scripture, as the incalculable years of exegesis and hermeneutical work that I have partaken in has given way to far more questions than answers and a far more unruly discarding of narrow principles than a ham-fisted vision of clinging to some sort of elementary idea of certainty. As such, Saranam’s words were already ringing in my ear. But does he hold fast to that principle?
It is clear to see how the Rorschach test impressed itself on Saranam’s understanding. He proceeds to evaluate religious texts, using basic models of textual criticism used by individuals such as Karen Armstrong or Elaine Pagels. Saranam’s critique of the Qur’an and of the Bible is reasonably brisk and lacks modernism, but this isn’t a book about textual analysis. It’s a book about fashioning a deistic concept without the meddling of organized religion. Still, that Saranam chooses to centre a lot of his textual arguments around the weakest Gospel in the canon is somewhat less than satisfying.
Saranam goes on to make the point that religious rivalry is bad and injurious to our societal health. By believing in various nuggets of doctrine, he argues, religious individuals rationally abandon the sensible world and create a sense of supremacy. Continually dubbing the beliefs of adherents to organized religion as erroneous and injurious and ascribing notions of reason and intelligence to those outside of organized religion does not, to Saranam, reflect any sense of supremacy.
Saranam takes the notion that God is expansive and delivers it on his own terms, suggesting that God cannot be found in organized religion. It seems to bother him that individuals might find God through miracles or through supernatural means, which is compelling considering the idea of an inclusive God that he espouses.
An appraisal of organized religion is certainly justified, but the bulletproof vest often worn by its opponents seems convenient. Saranam’s critique contains many justified points, but for the most part he travels ground already worn rough by those before him. Critiques of religious dogma have come in broader and healthier forms from Bishop John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and the incredible Honest to God by John A.T. Robinson.
While the critiques of religious dogma lack muscle, it is Saranam’s ambition that deserves a better look. He follows principles based around 17 Techniques. Each chapter contains a technique and an account of the logic behind it. Saranam’s techniques are designed to get one closer to the image of God, which is really just comprised of an image of self and a protrusion of one’s values. Saranam assumes that this wished-for image will help fuse and further compassion among human beings because, as we know, adulation of self has worked out pretty well so far.
Any honest critique of “new philosophies” will hold the idea to unsympathetic analysis. Saranam advocates the road to inner peace and suggests that it is organized religion that is the barrier to such harmony. In fact, he suggests that it is organized religion that is deeply accountable for most, if not all, of the world’s ills. The division caused by inferring that “we have the Right Way” coming out of the camps of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity all weigh profoundly on the minds of people and it is easy to attribute many great evils to religion today. Many wish it would simply go away, but is that a sensible way out?
Saranam argues that a turn inwards would draw people closer to God. By using his 17 Techniques, individuals will be able to discover their formation of God and draw upon it for internal strength. They will be able to view the world through coherent eyes and will discover the legitimacy and stability that only self-worship and self-actualization can bring.
“Spiritual investigators might conclude that for the ethical advancement of humanity we are obliged to assess the religions according to whether their values benefit humanity, as opposed to whether their beliefs empower us and allay our fears of death, appeal to our social and economic survival instincts, or claim to be beyond the necessity of proof (pg. 62).”
Truer words were never spoken. It is our duty, both as religious individuals and as non-religious individuals, to test the processes and organizations of mankind to see if they are truly advantageous. As Bishop Spong has said, “Any god that can be killed should be killed.”
But here is the issue: who is the arbiter of the classification of the word “benefit?” How does one settle on what is favourable for mankind as a whole without seeping into generalizations? Is it to my grandmother’s benefit, for instance, to flee the comfort of her church existence for that of an ambiguity that would doubtlessly drive her nuts? Or is it to anyone else’s advantage that she does that?
Saranam suggests, correctly, that God is an unbounded concept. In order to achieve intimacy to the knowledge of this boundless perception, we need to take infinite avenues and we need to escape the boxes created by religion. Part of the reason I subscribe to progressive Christian theology is just for that reason. While I believe that Jesus Christ’s message and words are not at odds with other religions unless interpreted dogmatically, I find myself subscribing to a notion of a more collective formation of faith and, as such, greet God as infinite.
The “god” in God Without Religion is basically a character or an image built from all of the good stuff of the mind. By venturing within, one ascribes a god-image built out of sympathy, acceptance, love, and pleasure (Technique 2). To his credit, Saranam advocates asking the god-image questions. He suggests choosing an image of God “that your heart recognizes as universal, all-pervasive, and profoundly meaningful.” He also cautions: “An image containing divisive elements, while equally capable of focusing the heart and mind, will give rise to a divisive attitude (pg. 25).”
Other techniques have more practical ideologies behind them. Technique 3, for instance, is Affirmation. “For best results, temper the power of your mind with introspection, remaining continually aware of your desired outcomes and cultivating an increasingly expansive sense of self (pg. 35).” This sounds an awful lot like Freud’s “wish fulfillment” philosophy of religion, although it is tempered with more good advice. Saranam defines Affirmation as that which “uses the power of the mind to gain needed things – such as good health, suitable employment, or caring friends (pg. 34).”
In the second half of God Without Religion, things get even more convenient. Saranam suggests “A Meditation on Cycles” as Technique 7. Physical instructions follow: “To begin, sit in a meditation pose with eyes closed and attention focused on the forehead, mentally aware of your breathing, which represents the cycle of existence that began with your birth and will end with your death…while ‘watching’ your breath with your attention focused on your forehead, allow other cycles to come to mind, such as day and night…calculate your birth date in terms of the cycle theory(pg. 109 and 110). ”Saranam’s instructions are designed to help the reader “battle time” and “shoot through the roof of impositions that time places on your faculties of perception (pg. 111).”
Technique 8 (“Commonsense Asceticism”) advocates balanced living, but remembers that “while religionists of the past often glorified ascetics who gave their lives to God in these dramatic ways, today we are wisely motivated by the ideal of balanced living (pg. 143).”
Saranam also spends time discussing pranayama, a term meaning “breath control” in yoga and meaning “lengthening of the prana or breath” in Sanskrit. For Technique 9, he suggests “Forming Energy Seals” and describes a method by which one can work with the energy seals which “lock the body’s nervous energy to muscles along the cerebrospinal axis that, when tense, establish the potential for intuitive awareness (pg. 156).” The instructions as to how to work with energy seals are, again, very practical and easy to follow.
Saranam realizes the importance of breathing properly and fostering suitable attitudes because, after all, the god-image as fostered within should be a fit god-image. Techniques describe how to help the body tense and relax (Technique 11) and how to expand your heart (not literally) as in Technique 13. The techniques make for interesting reading and their practical application can open some doorways to a broader internal spiritual understanding.
Overall, God Without Religion is a unique book in that it appears to prescribe some fairly dogmatic and specific notions of meditation, breath control, and yoga postures to dig through the tenets left by religious points of view. Saranam is an empathetic writer, however, and his critiques of the dangers of organized religion do not sting with the ire or the drunken revulsion of a Christopher Hitchens. In fact, Saranam’s gentle amendment seems to have more power behind it and his heart for genuine social restructuring is backed by a concrete belief in his method and a desire for change.
Saranam believes that all conceptualizations of God are based around projected self-images. Those evil gods and goddesses from early mythology represented the consciousnesses of the people, as does the God of monotheism. Saranam advocates projecting a god-image from a self that is more centered, healthy, and all-encompassing. This, he suggests, is the key to moving forward in unison as one human race.
Naturally, as Saranam himself says a number of times, the idea of a selfless, loving, compassionate God or deity depends entirely on having a selfless, loving, compassionate self to articulate it. So in that respect, I question what use Saranam has for a deity at all. Why not simply compel a world of “self” and ensure that “self” is able to meet up to the model of what “benefits” society as a whole?
Questions like this dogged me as I closed the book, content with a rather educational and kind-hearted description of the philosophy of this son of self-exiled Iraqi Jews. Saranam is a former monk and his perspective is indeed informative and captivating. I’m just not sure I was entirely sold on it.