I think the central story of Christianity is not one of the parables of Jesus, or even his death and resurrection, but a simple story of a meal shared with friends. The story goes like this: Jesus took a loaf of bread in his hands, blessed it, broke it, and shared it with those around him. This story tells me how to live a good life. If I take each moment as it comes, if I enter into the moment, if I don’t hold back, if I share the moment with those around me, then I am living a good life–solving a problem at my job, sharing the road on my way home, sharing dinner with my wife, reading a good novel while she practices at the piano, making love, taking out the trash, and walking the dog.
Religious people argue with atheists and scientific materialists over the existence of God. Agnostics, people who may have a sense of the sacred in their lives, who claim to be spiritual, but not religious, reject any formal organization of religious thought and practice. There is truth in every perspective, but I want to try to answer the atheists and the agnostics. I’ll use poet Muriel Rukeyser in my answer to the atheists. She wrote “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” There are scientific stories, such as the Big Bang theory about the origins of the universe, or Sir Isaac Newton’s story of a canon ball’s trajectory from the mouth of a canon. And there are religious stories like the one I described above.
Scientific stories and religious stories are qualitatively different. Maybe scientific stories tell us how things work and religious stories tell us how to live a good life.
In my answer to the agnostics I will use poetry as well. Poetry is particular. Jane Kenyon wrote a poem about a man in a coffee shop eating yogurt out of a container with a white plastic spoon. She could have written about eating in general, but I don’t think it would have made a very interesting poem. Religion is particular and interesting, while spirituality is general and boring. Someone who samples a number of religious traditions is still being religious, I think. They just may be missing the benefit of going deeply into any one tradition.
Religious traditions tell different stories about what it is to be human and what it means to live a good life in a particular culture. I wonder if Catholicism would make more sense in Asian cultures if, instead of using bread in the Mass, we used rice cakes. Christianity took root in Latin America only after the Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego, a poor peasant, in the form of a “mestiza,” a woman of mixed European and American Indian descent. Buddhism, with its story of Siddhartha finding enlightenment beneath the Bodi tree, seems to make perfect sense to many people in the West, and many people in the West find enlightenment and wisdom through the Sufi poet Rumi, an excellent story teller. The central Jewish story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt has had meaning for other oppressed peoples, especially those in Latin America.
I think the universe is made of stories–scientific and religious types of stories. I could not imagine life without either one of them.