The Big Picture – Finding Spiritual Meaning Beyond Religious Dogma: Part 2

Bright Sky over WaterTo See the Big Picture, Contemplate What You Know   

I believe that what you already know is a perfect resource for seeing the world in a way that has great spiritual meaning. Maybe you realize this and already have a “big picture” of your own. If so, please read on anyway and see for yourself whether my thoughts are helpful.

Didn’t read part one of this article? Here’s the link.Let’s start by looking at some vital things you know—even if you are not a scientist, a historian or a philosopher. (I certainly am none of these.)

You Know a Lot About What Makes People “Different” 

Only two hundred years ago it was believed that people did ”bad” things (for     In trying to keep this discussion short (It didn’t turn out all that short!), I left out some important “spiritual” happenings outside of religion. Maybe you are already involved in one of the these:
    Some Americans practice meditation and think of it as a spiritual practice. Some study and follow Buddhist philosophies as part of a spiritual life view. Even scientist and atheist Sam Harris advocates meditation as a “spiritual” practice. 
    Some scientists are starting to think of a spiritual view based on the whole story of the universe, including evolution of life on earth and the history of  human society. (The book” The Evolutionary Epic” is a great resource.) I have attempted a little of the same approach here. 
    In a similar vein, Michael Dowd has written  about thinking of the universe and its story as God’s truest revelation in his book “Thank God for Evolution.” (Review on this site) 
example: over-drinking, antisocial behavior, child and spouse abuse) simply because they were evil. And it was thought that if they would just make the choice, they could be “good.”

In the present, you and I know enough about psychology to understand that many factors are at work in how humans behave. Factors like how they were raised as children, their genetic make-up, the social environment, and their own conscious choices. Just from reading and from television we know enough about addictions, abuse and mental illness to see that a person can be made “bad” by factors outside their control. Sure, they have choices, but physical and social factors also play a big role.

And most people used to think that homosexual orientation was evil. We know that people are born with such a tendency. It is just nature at work.

In the past most people (white people anyway) thought dark skin color meant people were inferior. You and I know that skin color is determined by a tiny part of our DNA and has nothing to do with intelligence or moral qualities.

In other words, we understand that a lot of our real and apparent differences compared to other people are not by choice or because some of us are inherently evil. They occur as a natural result of physical and social circumstances.

You Also Know a Lot About How We Are All the Same

You and I know that all humans share the same ancestors because we all evolved from a small number of early humans. We are not many races with many different needs. We are one race, all with very similar needs and desires. The story of human evolution teaches us that there is only one family tree for all the people on earth.

We have also learned a lot about others from global communications and travel. Although we may look different, use different languages and live under different political systems, we all want safety for our loved ones, we want health, and we want to understand how to live a good life.

If you step back in your mind and think about what  you know, you will see that you have valuable understanding about what all human beings are. You know how wonderfully intricate and complex each person is. You know that understanding a whole person is important. And you know that we are all connected—we are in this together.

You Know a Lot About Science and the Universe that Fits a “Big Picture”

Veil Nebula, the Universe Is One PlaceThe Veil Nebula Segment 2 Image
from Hubble Telescope

You might be wondering, “What does the Universe have to do with spiritual meaning?” How could galaxies, the big bang, or “outer” space possibly matter. I think—a lot!

We now know that the whole universe is made of the same kind of stuff we see in our solar system and on our earth. Billions of light years in any direction, everything—from subatomic particles to galaxies—is made of the same matter and energy as everything right where we live.

We know that this amazing universe is about 13.8 billion years old and it originated as one tiny speck of space in what is called the “Big Bang.” When astronomers look as far as they can into space, not only are they seeing the universe as it is now, they are seeing it as it was shortly after the “Big Bang,” the creation of the universe.

    Let’s look at the word “holistic,”  which is in the by-line to the title of this web site. I like the word a lot but have not used it in this article.
    Just as “spiritual” has negative implications for some, so does “holistic.” Some people view the word negatively because it connotes ideas about life, in particular about health, that do not have a scientific basis.
   On the other hand, the word wonderfully implies that, whenever we consider one part of reality, we should do our best to understand how it fits the whole picture.
    (I think that as long as health practices are backed up by verifiable results, they are valuable, no matter what word is used to describe them.)
Maybe most interesting of all, as we seek spiritual meaning, we know from recent research that other thinking beings probably exist somewhere among the billions of galaxies.

So here we are with knowledge that would have shocked and baffled earth’s humans just two hundred years ago. Happily, we don’t have to be scientists to have a basic grasp of these amazing ideas. We can easily read of these realities, see images of them, and we can imagine them in our minds.

The insight you and I can take from this knowledge is that EVERYTHING is part of one big picture. The word “universe” comes from two Latin words: “unus,” meaning “one”, and “versus,” meaning “turned into.” Literally, universe means “turned into one.” The universe has always been “one” but only in modern times do we have the privilege of seeing and understanding how true it is. The entire reality we live in, as far back in time as time existed, is ONE BIG PLACE!

When we look at the food on our table or at the most distant galaxy, we know that everything is somehow connected, just as the billions of earth’s people are all connected.

You Know a Lot About Spirituality (whether you use the word or not)

I am sure you would say that love, joy, beauty and compassion are very important to living a good life. You might even think they are more important than physical things like houses, cars, books, and maybe even food.

I think lofty concepts like these deserve a word to hold them, don’t you, a sort of container for ideas that transcend physical description? I think the word “spiritual”  is about right, and that is why I have used “spiritual” a lot in our discussion.

Okay—there are reasons to not like “spiritual,” and there are plenty of words we could use instead: mystical, metaphysical, godly, eternal, holy, sacred and more. But those words all have problems too. So, for me and for this article, “spiritual” is what we are using. To me it feels inclusive of the values that seem beyond the study of science.

Let’s be clear: When I say “spiritual” I am not talking about the supernatural. I am leaving aside the dualistic thinking we mentioned in “Part 1” of this discussion. There may or may not be a supernatural world and supernatural beings. But if you have left traditional religion behind, you may agree with me that it’s more valuable for us to think of this world—which certainly is real, and which we know a lot about; and to think about all the beings in this world, beings we can know.

What Place Could Religion Have in Spirituality?

You     In this web site, I explore how we can see life in ways that inspire and remain realistic. I think a realistic view has to (1) include what we know about science and history; (2) it has to include the amazing human adventure; and (3) it requires imagination.
This piece is one of my articles, which are the longest posts. In them I hope to think out loud with you as we probe some ideas more deeply.
The site also include shorter and–I hope–more creative pieces. In my poems, I try to see life’s glory in short images built with words.
    Life Notes are fairly short pieces for exploring one aspect of life to see if it has special inspiration for us.
    Rod’s Thoughts are just that–a thought I have, one that you might enjoy thinking about too.
likely have learned enough about other religions from reading or from personal experience to know that people of any religion—Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or whatever—can be good people or they can be bad people. In the end, a person’s character and behavior are more important to you than their belief system.

You also probably know that ancient religious books contain some teachings that are clearly immoral—killing off other tribes of people, stoning people for violating religious taboos, even the killing of children, and many more. On the other hand, a common theme in these scriptures is that we must love our fellow humans. The command to love your neighbor as yourself (or some form of it) is found in many “holy” books.

Since each of us is his or her own authority, can’t we honor the teachings that hold positive spiritual values for us, and leave the rest?

That way, person’s “spiritual vision” could include love, joy, beauty and compassion, as well as some values rarely found in the old books: the value of our earth home, it’s non-human creatures, and the earthly future of humanity. As knowledge of the world and of humanity grows, surely we will not be alone in such a vision.

Will You Seize Your Own Inspiring, Imperfect “Big Picture?

You may be thinking, “What now?” or, “How can I  possibly envision all this at once?” (Those are some very “existential “ questions! Maybe you are a philosopher after all!)

Maybe it’s time for you to imagine a “big picture” for yourself. Or if you have already considered your own picture, take time to see it now. You have a mind more useful and imaginative than any computer. You have knowledge and understanding unimaginable a few hundred years ago. And, you have the freedom to see life as you choose.

Of course, no vision of life will automatically ward off pain and failure. Nor will it provide easy answers to the thousands of questions life presents. But it will help us better see how the parts of life fit together—maybe even thrill us in its intricate wholeness.

You don’t need to see or understand all the details of such a big vision. Who could? Just step back in your mind, and let curiosity replace any need for certainty.

  • Can you see all the billions of people through history as one struggling, learning family?
  • Can you see all the parts of life—everything from morning breakfast to automobiles to the Milky Way—fitting into one fourteen billion year story of the universe?
  • Can you envision humanity, the universe and spiritual meaning in one big picture?

I think even a glimmer of such a picture is very exciting. Sure, it will always be imperfect and incomplete—but it will be yours!

I hope that whatever your picture of reality is, it will empower you to connect with the people of the world with more compassion, and that it will fill you with passion for life in this moment and great hope for the future.

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I like to take different approaches to appreciating the wholeness of life:
Three Ideas for Centering Your Life” — video with beautiful pictures, music, and a poem about simple ways to be at life’s center.
Sole Genealogy” — a poem on how  everything fit into life’s complex flow.
Hey, Where Did the Center of the Universe Go?” — In this article I wonder: Since the earth is no longer the center of the cosmos, what is?

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