Just as religion has helped shape our modern culture,1 religious faith has also helped in shaping the architecture of our personal identity, our perception of ourselves and of the world around us.2 How has religious belief in a supreme being shaped the landscape of our personal experience and the scope of our individual exploration? Has faith interfered with individuals’ ability to take charge and change their destiny? In what ways has religion promoted or curtailed the exercise of free will and freedom of expression, which are the highest qualities of our human nature? For many people of faith, even in our modern society, their religion has had a stifling effect in their personal lives. Instead of promoting a better life and openness to something greater, certain religious traditions often limit, condition, and keep their people in stasis, or worse.3 As a Catholic seminarian and student of theology, I experienced such limitations, and their subsequent effects, firsthand.
The heaviest weight I found was the sharp sense of guilt growing inside me for still wanting to enjoy life.
I remember clearly the words of a close friend of mine, an orthodox monk who had lived and studied in one of the oldest monasteries in Cairo, Egypt. He was relating the opening speech of his patriarch when he took office. The man apparently announced that all the good deeds he would perform as patriarch were to be attributed to God and not him, and that any shortcomings in his actions were to be attributed solely to him, as a product of his imperfection and sin. He became widely revered for the perceived humility and holiness of his words.
This way of thinking is typical of Christianity and other monotheistic religions that see a sharp distinction between deity and the person, between the creator and its creation, between God and reason. Unfortunately, the first casualty of these belief systems is our ability to create anything good for ourselves by our own hand, as the famous words of the patriarch clearly illustrate. In this worldview, our free will ultimately collapses under the overwhelming weight of God’s will and predetermined design. God is wholly other and supreme above all and even though the appearance of free will may seem to exist in this belief system, it is bound within the constraints of the divine will. Human experience — our thoughts, our words and actions, even our dreams — are thus under the close scrutiny and predetermined will of a supreme being outside of ourselves. It is important to recognize how belief in such a being is in direct contention with the concept of personal free will.
At the end of the day, the casualty is always our free will, our individuality and personal identity, our ability to create our own destiny.
I remember too well wrestling with this dilemma while in seminary school, the sense of being devoid of personal identity, uniqueness, individuality, and experiencing a lingering sense of hopelessness. No spiritual practice seemed able to convince me that I was becoming something, someone. Rather, I had to cease to be, in a way, to allow God to take over me.4 During this period, I developed a sense of disregard for the physical and anything that brought me enjoyment in my attempt to disappear and please God. My bishop told me that the only worldly joy that was acceptable was food. I immediately started compromising my health and putting on weight, which I soon recognized was the trend with most other clerics around me, but the heaviest weight I found was the sharp sense of guilt growing inside me for still wanting to enjoy life.
I still chose to live life as passionately and fully as I could and for this reason, among others, I left my training. But according to everything I’d been taught, this meant I was choosing against God’s will. This choice had obvious consequences from my relatives and community over the years for I was going against the grain of religious faith and my cultural tradition.
In this worldview, our free will ultimately collapses under the overwhelming weight of God’s will and predetermined design.
I understood the reasoning behind the faith. Basically, how could humanity be responsible for creation when science itself could not explain the full depth of its mystery? Certainly a supreme being or intelligence had to be the source for such magnificent creation, and as the source, could not be included as a part of it. For God to be God, a clear distinction and separation from the world had to exist. Even in the case of pantheism where everything is viewed as God and there is no separation at all, our key feature of freedom of expression and individuality cannot survive either, as we are all seen as merely minute drops of water in the formless and vast ocean of God’s body.
This chasm widens beyond proportion when fear of God and fear of punishment for not submitting to God’s will — either in this life or the unknown life to come — are added to the mix. The unanswered questions about where to place natural catastrophe, tragedy, and the unjust suffering of the innocent in the face of belief in an omnipotent God have been largely responsible for inspiring some of these fears. At the end of the day, the casualty is always our free will, our individuality and personal identity, our ability to create our own destiny.
Who are we? What are we capable of becoming? What choices can we make? Can we freely change the course of our destiny? One thing we clearly learn is that whatever we profess to believe in intimately colors how we perceive who we are.5 Belief in God is as much a statement about ourselves as it is an attempt to understand the nature of reality, our ultimate origin, and destiny. How can we believe in ourselves and the power to change our destiny through the exercise of our free will and still account for an intelligent universe that surpasses our understanding and overwhelms us, when its mystery continues to make us tremble in awe and fascination?6
The ability to exercise our free will to create a greater life for ourselves is an expression of the highest quality of our human nature that edifies, defines, and evolves us as a person.
A new framework is in order for understanding ourselves and the world that does better justice to all the variables in the mix. In fact, the interpretation of reality we find in current versions of Christianity and other related religious beliefs, such as Islam and Judaism, were not always so clear-cut when it came to describing the relationship between the individual and the divine. Earlier versions saw creation as a continuing process of evolution where the ultimate destiny of the creature was to become divine itself and resemble God in everything, including the ability to create reality.7 This approach survived almost exclusively through mysticism, in traditions such as the Jewish Cabala, Sufism from Islam, and the work of Christian mystics from the Renaissance,8 and in the ancient traditions of the mystery schools of wisdom.9
We see the recognition of this longing to be divine in the ancient oral tradition recorded by Homer in the great epic of Greek mythology the Iliad and specifically the story of Achilles. One of the running themes is the constant anguish that cries, “Why are we not immortal like the Gods? Why are we at the mercy of their designs and will and have not the power to decide our destiny?”
Delving as deeply as I could in these topics and discovering new knowledge has helped me immensely in getting rid of the old lingering sense of guilt which I developed early in my search for God through the way I perceived my faith. I recognized that many, many years later, I still had those early beliefs and guilt coloring my sense of self, my perception, thoughts, and decisions I was making. Oftentimes, faith and upbringing go far deeper than we initially give them credit.
Instead of promoting a better life and openness to something greater, certain religious traditions often limit, condition, and keep their people in stasis, or worse.
The ability to exercise our free will to create a greater life for ourselves is an expression of the highest quality of our human nature that edifies, defines, and evolves us as a person — without the need for fear of punishment or failure from an external source. It is part of who we have always been as conscious beings with the power to make choices. When we understand this, the world around us does not become some kind of deterministic materialism or godlessness. It simply includes us in the picture,1 and we can then begin to intentionally become the creators of our own destinies.
1. Smith, Huston. The Illustrated World’s Religions. New York: HarperCollins, 1994
2. Jung, Carl Gustave. The Portable Jung. New York: Penguin Books, 1976
3. Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. Infidel. New York: Free Press, 2007
4. Avila, Teresa de. I Live Without Living in Me. Sixteenth Century Poem, Spain
5. Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1989
6. Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. London: Oxford University Press, 1923
7. Ramtha. A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Reality. Third ed. Yelm: JZK Publishing, 2004.
8. Leal-Anaya, Jaime. Christological Soteriology in Fray Luis de Leon, from the Perspective of His Trial by the Inquisition, (Dissertation). Maynooth: St. Patrick’s College, 1993.
9. Grof, Stanislav. The Adventure of Self-Discovery. Albany: State University of New York, 1988.
10. Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge, 1980.