In the final of a five-part series, features writer ANGELA YEOMAN wraps up reflections on the changing role of religion and faith in our lives.
Presbyterian Reverend Dr Lloyd Geering took New Zealand by storm 60 years ago when he said that the key conceptual pillars of Christianity are symbolic, not literal.
He was looking for a way for Christianity to provide people with hope and give them an incentive to live well, even if they could no longer accept a literal interpretation of some Christian beliefs.
It didn’t go well for Geering.
Since then, the number of New Zealanders identifying as Christian has halved, while the number saying they have no faith or religious beliefs has risen from one per cent to 48 per cent, or even higher in some Wairarapa regions.
Contributions to this multi-part feature indicate that both literal and symbolic views of worshippers regarding key concepts [such as God, life after death, the Bible as the word of God, and the resurrection of Jesus] can be accommodated by at least some Christian denominations. Even when they are, however, the clergy’s views remain literal, so people do not always see their views reflected in their clergy, which may have contributed to falling numbers identifying as Christian.
There are also significantly divergent views about the church between churchgoers and non-churchgoers. One contributor calls this the ‘disconnected church’.
Whether we have a literal or symbolic understanding of the conceptual pillars of Christianity, one constant is the behavioural pillar of moral conduct. Finding ways to reduce our own suffering and the suffering of others, living with hope, and living well are concepts that resonate with most Christian denominations – and they resonate with other religions too.
The Times-Age spoke with a local Sikh and a Nichiren Buddhist to find out what it is about their religions that resonates with them.
We also applied the conceptual pillars of religion to Sikhism and Buddhism, to see how much these religions share with Christianity.
Faith in something of reverence
Sikhism has the One Universal God who created the world and is also known as Ik Onkar. The Nichiren school of Buddhism has the three jewels: Buddhahood [in which cycles of rebirth are ended], Dharma [cosmic order and universal law], and Sangha [monastic renunciation].
Belief in the potential
for a different life
“The soul carries on,” says Jagroop, a local business owner and Sikh. Sikhs believe that the soul goes through cycles of rebirth, with the ultimate objective of breaking that cycle “through good deeds”, and being reunited with God.
Buddhism has the concept of nirvana or enlightenment, which also ends the cycles of rebirth. Tina [not her real name], a local artist and Nichiren Buddhist, also compares the concept of enlightenment to breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma. “We can make active decisions to behave in ways that modify or break cycles of trauma,” she says.
The word of truth conveyed
through special books
Jagroop says that the Guru Granth Sahib [the 11th Guru and the only Guru in written form] is the word of God written down. “Whenever I read the scripture or go to the Temple, I feel peaceful, I feel close to God, I feel good,” he says.
The Lotus Sutra is the most influential and venerated of the Mahāyāna Sūtras, which underpin Buddhism. “The Lotus Sutra isn’t a book of rules for how to live your life,” Tina says, “but it guides us on our journey to end our suffering and the suffering of others.”
The word of truth conveyed
through special people
Sikhism is founded on the words and deeds of the 10 Gurus who preached the Sikh messages, prior to these messages being enshrined in written form in the 11th Guru.
Buddha is the central figure of Buddhism. His journey to attain enlightenment is seen as an example for followers.
Praying and meditating are common ways of communing with a higher being and with oneself. Although solitary in nature, meditating or praying with a community of others is seen in all religions, including Sikhism and Buddhism, to help us “get close to God”, even if God is another name for self.
Nicherin Buddhists chant their meditations together. “It’s like hearing a choir sing. It’s uplifting,” Tina says.
Doing good and taking responsibility for self, others, and the earth we live on are concepts that resonate with both Jagroop and Tina.
Jagroop talks about karma. “If we do good now, this will give you back something good in the future. But you can’t do good in the hope of future benefit, because that is just being selfish.”
He talks to his family back in India every day. “My parents did good for us, their sons. And we do good back to them.”
Moral conduct and ending the cycles of suffering and rebirth are intertwined. At the very least, accumulating merit through good deeds can mean you will have a better rebirth. The concept of eternity, then, can be understood as ‘legacy’ rather than ‘infinity’.
“I was first attracted to Christianity as a child, but the behaviour of Christians around me didn’t match the ideals,” Tina says.
“Christians don’t always seem to embrace the concept of self-responsibility. They can start afresh after confessions and absolutions, they can rely on Jesus to rise again and put things right that we’ve damaged, including climate change – none of that resonates with me.
“I believe we need to treat ourselves, others, and our environment with kindness, sincerity, and care. We need to be better and do better.
“I feel like I was always Buddhist and then I discovered Buddhism.”
Whether we are religious or not, or Christian or not, and whether we take a literal or a symbolic approach to a religion, the aim of all intelligent people must be to remedy the suffering of ourselves, others, and the planet, through good deeds and good words.
If we’re not already, maybe we could start now. It’s our legacy.
For an overview of Geering’s views and the heresy trial, read Geering and God: 1965-71 The Heresy Trial that Divided New Zealand.
Angela Yeoman is a features writer for the Times-Age, social researcher, and an author. She has a degree in religious studies. Visit praxeum.org.