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Jul 21, 2012

Religion is a Metaphor

Pensive, by Tim Holmes; digital painting
I recently had a conversation with a wise man who I admire but who I find curious. Like me, he is a compassionate man, concerned for the future, longing for a more healthy and sustainable society. But unlike me he is an agnostic. He sees religion as so much empty superstition and religious people as gulls. But without God what grand vision underlies an agnostic's hopes?

We were talking about the need to leave something behind that would improve the culture. I  found myself wondering how he could be thinking forward thoughts without some 'deity' to provide a larger frame. I feel that the way to make an impact is to reach people's hearts and give them hope for a better world by imagining an unrealized world into reality. For me that world is based on love, the principle that care brings about a better life for all than selfish exploitation. That love must be rooted in some kind of belief in a greater vision than a single life, otherwise any selfless act is a waste of energy. One can believe that nature or the march of evolution provides a great purpose toward which one can orient their life, but that gets very close to a Great Spirit if not God regardless of how anti-theistic one insists one is. The meaning of working for a greater vision is what faith is!

It seems to me that the spiritual dimension of human life is as real an aspect as our bodies, for instance. I find agnostics and atheists to be unaware or discounting of that dimension, and so I wonder how they find substitutes for the great riches I find in my faith. It seems to me that the major mistake they make is the same as that made by shallow Christians: they take it literally. (God will save me, or, atheistically, I must save myself.) For me God– and all religion for that matter– is a metaphor for something that cannot be directly understood. Like love. I love my spouse but I don't begin to understand how that comes about or what it means. All I know is that despite my ignorance our love is real and life without that would be flat and colorless. I feel the same way about life without faith. It doesn't so much matter what my god's name is or what the tradition practices (most other believers are a bunch of doofuses just like me who I should never take very seriously), so much as that I live by principles that honor something eternal (greater than me) and that carries forward (demonstrates real sacrifice for others).

Perhaps religion is nothing but a coded system for ensuring that we as a species learn to care enough for future generations to provide for them. Greed could prove to be the death of our species as some few hoard and destroy all the energy they can with no thought for others (including providing for their own children beyond what amounts to an isolated, protected bank account) essentially bankrupting their progeny. Religion is a metaphor for a selfless life– the desire, values and culture of acting as stewards of the future world.

I think I agree with atheists that we put the wrong name on God, who is nameless. I disagree that 'the one who we are referring to' is not there. Like a fish who doesn't believe in water. Swim on in bliss!


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I'm a sculptor/filmmaker living in Montana, USA. I am using art to move the evolution of humanity forward into an increasingly responsive, inclusive and interactive culture. As globalization flattens peoples into a capitalist monoculture I hope to use my art to celebrate historical cultural differences and imagine how we can co-create a rich future together.

I see myself as an artist/philosopher laboring deep in the mines of joy. I've had a good long career of exhibiting work around the world and working on international outreach projects, most notably being the first American to be invited to present a one-person exhibit in the Hermitage Museum. Recently I have turned my attention from simply making metal sculpture to creating films and workshops for engaging communities directly, tinkering with the very ideas and mechanisms behind cultural transformation. I feel that as we face tragic world crises, if the human species favors our imaginative and creative capacities we can cultivate a rich world to enjoy.

For me the deepest satisfaction in making art comes in engaging people's real life concerns rather than providing simple entertainment or decoration. Areas of conflict or tension are particularly ripe for the kind of transformative power that art uniquely carries. I invite any kind of challenge that serves people on a deep level.