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We Hold These Truths To Be Self Evident

by Rabbi Rami ShapiroOctober 26, 2019
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<img src="Thomas Jefferson.jpg" alt="Portrait of Thomas Jefferson"/>

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“I am fascinated by religion. I simply don’t like the idea that something is beyond questioning.”

The idea of American democracy, like the ideas of every religion, rest on unquestionable assumptions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….” While I could focus on the word “men” and argue the myopia of our founders, it is the notion something being self-evident that is my concern here.

By invoking the term self-evident, Jefferson made the existence of a Creator and unalienable Rights unassailable. While you are free to argue about the nature of God and the enumeration of those Rights and for whom they are unalienable, the fact that there is a God and God-given Rights is self-evident and hence not open for debate. This is what it means to say something is self-evident: there is no point in investigating the matter further.

Every religion has its self-evident truths: the Jews are God’s Chosen People, Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Muhammad is the final prophet of God, and reality is, as the Buddha taught impermanent and without an essential unchanging nature (anicca and annata) to name just four. By holding their respective truths to be self-evident, religions protect themselves and their truths from outside inquiry. The only examination that is allowed is one that precludes coming to any conclusion other than the self-evident nature of the religion’s truths. This is why rabbis never discover the Hopi rather than the Hebrews to be God’s Chosen People, and why Christian theologians never discover Vishnu as the Second Person or the Holy Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), and why Muslim clerics never realize Baha’u’llah as the latest Prophet of Allah.

By claiming their respective truths to be self-evident, religions place their truths beyond question and relegate them to the realm of belief. With all due respect to The Monkees, I am not a believer. When it comes to matters of religion, I want to investigate for myself what is true. You might think this would lead me to be anti-religion, but that is not the case. I am fascinated by religion. I simply don’t like the idea that something is beyond questioning. (Read “Minimalist Religion, Maximalist Faith.”)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said his religion is kindness. Mine is inquiry. My experience is that open, deep, and honest inquiry into reality takes me beyond the self-evident truths of competing religions and into the Self-evident truths of reality herself. Based on my (albeit limited) contemplative experience I hold these truths to be Self-evident: 1) all life is a manifesting of a single dynamic Aliveness called by many names (Chiut, God, Allah, Y-H-V-H, Mother, Tao, Dharmakaya, Great Spirit, etc.), and 2) awakening to all life as a manifesting of a single Aliveness leads to an ethic of universal justice and compassion or what Torah calls “being a blessing to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

Notice that I speak of these truths as Self-evident not self-evident. What I have in mind is that while self-evident truths are unquestionable assertions made by this or that -ism or ideology, Self-evident truths are the shared realizations of people who have awakened in, with and as Self, the infinite nondual I’ing of all reality. Where self-evident truths often pit “us against them” and lead to war, Self-evident truth sees “all of us together” in a single dynamic unfolding of reality that can only lead to love.

I am as convinced of the Self-evident nature of the truth I experience as any religious believer is in the self-evident truths of her religion. But conviction isn’t the same as truth. Passionate belief in any opinion doesn’t in and of itself make that opinion true. Either it is provable as fact or not. This is why even those things I find Self-evident must be testable. And they are: as the mystics of the world’s religions show us, devoting oneself to deep and prolonged contemplative practice will in time awaken yourself as Self and reveal the Self-evident.

Religions that don’t allow such testing, and believers who fear such inquiry leave me with the sense that they know what they hold to be true is anything but self-evident.

Love Rabbi Rami? Check out “Essential Conversations,” the S&H podcast he hosts.

 

 


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality.

He has this to say about religion: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

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