When looking for examples of the best way to live and move the world forward, is it generally best to look to people above us or below us? Smarter or stupider? Braver or more cowardly? Happier or less happy? More or less content? More virtuous or less so?
Nearly every universally respected person — MLK Jr., Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Solzhenitsyn, Elie Wiesel, Dalai Lama, etc. — ends up not getting more disapproving and militant as they get older, but embracing love and compassion as lenses for living and stances for being better in the world, and helping to inspire, empower, and release others into better lives.
I have always believed it makes sense to look to those who have lived (and died) best to determine the best way to live, and the kind of people and society we want to be.
Religion has the capacity to help us live well. Unfortunately, it more often ushers us deeper into self than up into the heights of selflessness and compassion. Human spirituality begins here. Unlike what I used to believe, a person does not choose between being a better and more compassionate human being on one hand, and being a Christian on the other hand. Christianity is not an alternative spirituality, where a person “accepts Christ” (I don’t like this phrase – Jn. 15:16 — but it’s lingo many people understand) and finds in religion all the excuses they could ever need for living entirely in ego. Unfortunately this is what religion often produces, and was one of the greatest challenges Jesus confronted.
In Christian theology, Jesus is both God and man. We believe the breath of God is already in us. We cannot be good spiritual beings if we are not first of all good human beings. Any religion that does not make one a more loving, compassionate human being is failing in its primary purpose, regardless of what else it may be teaching.
Then, over all of these things, we can bring in our various understandings of God. It is in this light that we can understand the meaning of Christ’s work on the cross, of forgiveness, of Christ’s sufferings. Of course we do not approach these things, teaching-wise, as separate things, and as I have said, they are not separate things. It is not chronological order I am talking about, but priority. Thus every Christian teaching should end not with, “How can this draw us closer to God,” but rather, “How can this draw us closer to others?” It is far too easy to fool ourselves that we are close to God because we know a lot, but it is much harder to fool ourselves that we are becoming closer to others. Our teaching about God, then, is always leading us to be better human beings.
The best thing about this approach, other than making us better human beings, is that it may be the best way to set aside differences over theology. This is so because we will no longer squabble as much about the nuances of beliefs, as the standard increasingly is something much more tangible — love and compassion for others. Surely this is the best way to live.