There was once a time when, in order to find the answer to life, you would have to trek many hundreds of miles and endure terrible trials and hardship, before finding a guru on a remote mountain who might reveal the secret to what it was all really about. These days of course, all you need to do is look it up on the Internet.
Oh, if it were only that straightforward!
If you use a search engine, then once you get past Douglas Adam’s “42” as the ultimate answer to Life, The Universe and Everything, you find that there is a vast array of competing theories, some of which will cost you as little as $29.95 to find enlightenment. The problem is that there is too much information out there; how are we to know what to believe and what to ignore? I just don’t have time to read, digest and debate every crackpot theory of the universe that exists on the web alone.
In a world where our food, entertainment and politics is neatly pre-packaged and handed to us in easily digestible chunks, we want our spirituality presented to us in the same way. But at the same time we have become increasingly media savvy. We know that every time someone tells us something, they have an agenda. Truth is not something that is universal and handed out for free; truth is something relative, contextual and comes with a price tag.
In a previous age the only religion available to most people was the one they were brought up in. If you had a crisis of faith, then either your priest would guide you through it, or you would be burned at the stake as a heretic. Simple days, simple choices. But these days, we now know that there is not just one religion out there, but hundreds, possibly thousands, many of which are telling us that we are doomed to hell if we don’t chose theirs. But then aren’t we sold that idea every time we buy something?
“Buy ours, because if you buy anyone else’s then you can’t be assured of the quality”; or “Buy ours, because if you buy anyone else’s then you will have paid too much for what is essentially the same thing after all”; or “Buy ours, because if you buy anyone else’s then you just won’t look as cool and other people will snigger at you.” In other words, we are constantly being told that if we don’t make the right decision then we will suffer.
Sometimes we get suckered in, but increasingly we get wise to the tricks. We want value for our time and money. We want to know that we haven’t wasted out hard earned dollars on something that is second rate, or won’t live up to its promise, and this is where most religions fall down. What guarantees can they offer me that theirs is the right one? Lets face it, I could waste a vast amount of my time and resources obeying the scriptures and worshipping in what I have been told is the right way, only to discover that it was a complete waste of time; either because it was the wrong religion, or because the whole God and afterlife thing might be nothing but a myth anyway.
After all, many people only go to church as a form of insurance: like when you buy a washing machine, you don’t expect it to break, but then the salesperson fills you with enough doubts so you end up paying the extra for the peace of mind. Likewise most people aren’t really worried about God and the afterlife, but feel that if they go to church when there’s a wedding or funeral, and occasionally pray, then if it turns out that there is a God after all then they should be covered.
But we are consummate consumers and used to looking for a bargain. Why say 6 Hail Mary’s to gain forgiveness from God for a transgression if we can find a competing religion that will allow us to get it for only 5?
Is Sony really better than Goodmans? Will the Goodmans DVD Recorder not do the job just as well as the Sony but for a fraction of the price, or will my quality of life be significantly improved if I go for the better branded product? Is Buddhism likely to advance my soul better than Shinto? Is Catholicism better than Methodist because there are more followers, or is Mormonism better because it’s newer?
Many religions just haven’t understood the sophistication of the modern consumer. If I was to ask an executive at Hewlett Packard how I was to know that their printer was the right one for me, I wouldn’t be very impressed if he was to say, “well you must have faith!” Likewise it would take more than a “because it says so in our corporate manual” to convince me that I should heed the advice of the Haagen-Dazs salesman telling me that Häagen-Dazs is better ice cream than Ben & Jerry's.
But we’re back to the problem of the sheer number of voices competing for our attention. The truth might be out there but how are you ever going to know where it is if everyone tells you that theirs in the right one? How can we find anyone who will help us make sense of it all?
These days, even if we trekked many hundreds of miles and endured terrible trials and hardship, before finding a guru on a remote mountain, would we necessarily believe what he had to say?
But then, the trek to find the guru was never really about finding him. It was never the destination, but the journey that was the all-important part of the quest. It is on the journey that we discover who we are, what we are capable of, and how we can create our own destiny by taking control of our lives.
The answer to life is as individual as the person seeking it.