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Religion as Encounter v. Religion as Belief

I would like to build on Carl Krieg’s recent essay in the resource section of the website entitled “The One You Feed.” His article reminded me of my past life as a political scientist studying public opinion and voting behavior.

Krieg begins “The One You Feed” summarizing the recent findings of scientists studying the brain who argue that the brain needs order to function. (1) There is too much stimuli out there in the environment for the brain to effectively process without creating its own vision of reality. This is not a conscious process. It just happens. Though we believe what we experience is the real world, it is unfortunately a reality of our own creation. Each person sees the world out there in his own way. It’s part of human nature for each of us to have a limited, ego-centric view of the world.

The human mind creates filters through which to process the seemingly infinite stimuli from the environment. Robert Ploomin in Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are presents convincing evidence that genetics play an important role in determining who we are psychologically. Kindness, generosity, altruism, anxiety, fear, optimism/pessimism, trust/distrust can be explained for the most part from our genetic inheritance. These psychological predispositions act as a filter in defining the world we see. Optimists and pessimists, both genetically determined psychological dispositions, see the world differently.

Filters can also result from environmental experiences. My mother played a prominent role in determining my political outlook. We lived in Toronto Canada while I was growing up as a young boy. My mother loved Toronto, but she wanted me to understand my heritage as an American. She would often tell me at the breakfast table or before going to bed that America was unique in the world because of the core belief that all people are created equal. She emphasized that it was the responsibility of the government to make equality happen.

Her lessons provided the lens through which I came to see the political world. As a consequence, I have spent a lifetime working on issues of economic and social justice. If we were to reroll the cosmic dice, however, I could have had a mother that preached individual freedom as the core American value with an activist government seen as the enemy. Such a filter would have redefined the political world for me.

Moving to religion, I am a person who welcomes religious proselytizers into my home. This flaw in character led to a four-month relationship with the Mormon church. While I find their beliefs rather strange, I do possess a copy of the Book of Mormon, and I have read through it in part. When the two teenage male missionaries came to my door and I went for my Book of Mormon, they thought they had a “hot one.” Their initial visit led to several visits from different members of their church.

My favorite was Henry whose last name eludes me mostly because our visits took place more than forty years ago. Henry was a prominent businessman in Jacksonville Florida. He was smart, a gentle soul with a great sense of humor. He spent several hours over two visits explaining to me why he was a Mormon.

I was impressed with how Mormons take care of their own. If all Americans were Mormon, there would be no need for a social welfare system. More relevant for this essay was the special relationship he had with his father as a young boy. He remembers sitting on his father’s lap learning all about Mormon heroes like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. These sessions took place three or four nights a week while he was growing up. If we were to reroll the cosmic dice and give Henry a Muslim father, he would have emerged into the world as an adult with a very different religious filter for understanding the world.

I learned fifty plus years ago that we form political opinions and vote based on our limited perspective on the world. Krieg argues in “The One You Feed” that this fact of the human condition should create humility. With such humility we can learn from others and build bridges to begin dealing with the vast chasm of our current political divide. These are important points.

Religious belief arises from a similar dynamic. We create ideas about God and sacred scripture from a limited perspective on the world. For most of us, our religious beliefs are inherited. They would be very different if our early childhood experiences had been different.

An encounter of divine love has nothing to do with belief. It happens because of another important characteristic of human nature. We are decision makers. We can choose to enlarge our perspective. We can move away from a limited, self-centered perspective. We can choose to see others as they would like to be seen. Martin Buber points out that when we make such a decision to enlarge our perspective toward another and that person responds in kind, divine love flows between them. The hearts of the two individuals fill with love. They come to see the world differently. Jesus makes the same point when he teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Awe and wonder can shock our mindset from its narrow, self-centered perspective into a much larger view of the world. When I witnessed first-hand the birth of our second child, I was taken to a different place. Divine love surged through me. I looked out on the world as beautiful and good. The petty concerns of self were overwhelmed and the needs of others became my paramount concern.

Krieg points out that building bridges is a continuing process. There is no such thing as one and done. The encounter of divine love by reaching out to others in terms of their interests is also a continuing process. To live in God’s world, to attain a perspective defined by goodness and love, has nothing to do with what we believe, but what we decide. To decide for others changes the way we see the world. It’s a religious perspective that is open to all people regardless of what they happen to believe.


  1. Readers interested in reading about the fascinating new research on the functioning of the brain can start with Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Demasio and Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are by Joseph Ledoux.

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