What is Religion?

Art as Theology: Chapter Seven

      1. Defining Religion
      2. The Other
      3. The Care of Religion
      4. Totemic Religion
      5. Religion is a Verb

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“Religion, properly understood, is a very subversive force." (Stephan L. Carter, 1993, pg. 43)

Defining Religion

Defining religion is problematic because so many things can be called religion or religious. The term ‘religion’ is used in so many ways. John Dewey claimed it is not possible to define religion, (Dewey, 1934. Pages 7-8). The situation is no better for art. Art can refer to anything from grand opera, to erotic photographs to cave scratching. The arts are often referred to as ‘culture’, an equally plastic term. We must attempt to define art and religion side-by-side or we will not see their relationship.

First let us look at the academic view of religion. Feuerbach helped usher in a negative view of religion, voiced by Marx, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” Whatever slim truth that statement might contain, it is wholly inadequate to explain religion. Peter Berger notes, “Modern philosophy and science, in the wake of Feuerbach, are quite correct in seeing religion as a symbolization of the human world. The gods are indeed symbols of human realities. This insight, as important as it is, does not necessarily imply that the gods are nothing but that. Religious experience insists that, over and beyond their capacity to become human symbols, the gods inhabit a reality that is sui generis and that is sovereignly independent of what human beings project into it.” (Berger, 1979. Page 123).

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines religion as “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic”, (Geertz, 1973. Pages 87-125). While Geetrz' definition is clinical and owes an allegiance to Feuerbach, it is a good starting point for understanding the practice of religion.

The vehicle of religion is a cannon of religious memories and stories. The brass rings are the symbols, the flags, crosses or tokens that tie the present to the religion's story. The cannon of story may be myths of totemic animals or the gospel account. The community must sense the importance of the story. The scientific truth of the story is not important. What is important is the truth delivered to the heart and soul of the community. The truths are spiritual. Myths, stories and memories legitimize community values (Fallding, 1974. Pages 53-59).

The great social anthropologist Emile Durkheim saw totemic cultic rituals as the means of attaching the present to the past, (Durkheim, 1961. Page 423). One possible root definition of ‘religion’ (L. religionem) stems from the Latin term for binding (ligio), to bind again or tie back is religio. This is the derivation favored by Augustine. While the vehicles of religion are the sacred stories, sacred things and sacred places, the action is binding. The individual and the community are bound to that which is uniquely meaningful, the sacred. The practitioner is bound by sacred obligations and trusts to the community, their spouse, their ancestors, etc. A compelling (an aura of factuality) world view (general order of existence) is created within the religious community, which creates a spiritual bond, a bond of desire.

“Religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups.” (Durkheim, 1961. Page 22). Harold Fallding, in his book The Sociology of Religion describes the religious community: “What is shared between them is what is deepest for each of them, and they are in fellowship with the divine. The divine communion and the human community coincide and resonate.” (Fallding, 1974. Page 77).

Religion is the underpinning for values, (Fallding, 1974. Page 15), thus fulfilling the second and fifth parts of Geertz's definition, powerful moods and motivations. Religion is a community generated attempt to discover and enforce ‘the right thing’. Notice that none of these definitions are attempting to define the right thing. In essence, each religious community decides its own ‘right thing’. Therefore, ‘true religion’ is not being defined here. the purpose is to discover what a religion is, not to seperate good religion from bad religion.

The symbols, stories, beliefs of a religion stir the community to a persistant attitude which, in the third part of the definition, is used to shape the understanding of the world. The fourth part of Geertz' definition is where he starts to sound like a student of Feuerbach, i.e. the religion “clothes” itself with the “aura” of truth. Most people who call themselves religious, that it, who adher to religion, would say that the artifacts at the center of their belief, be it a sacred tree or the story of Adam and Eve, come out of an encounter with something other-worldly, and therefore difficult to grasp in worldly terms. Therefore the moods formulating conceptions are not myth-making exercises, but attempts to apply the message of the encounter. In other words, it is not smoke and mirrors and it is not opium.

By way of analogy: a man and a woman love each other deeply. To describe that love as a belief that they have talked themselves into, is to so thoroughly de-humanize love and remove all poetry from the soul. Our relationship to the divine requires a poem at the heart of it. It helps us to approach the other.

The “uniquely realistic” description of the mood acheived in the last part of the definition has to do with the fact that in the end the practitioner sees something that those outside of the religion do not. Whether that something is true or not is not the issue. There is no question that any religious truth can be bent or twisted out of its original shape. Obviously, not all religious claims can be true. But at the end of the day, the believing community rests on a sense of a special encounter with the divine.

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“There is included in human nature an ingrained naturalism and materialism of mind which can only admit facts that are actually tangible. Of this sort of mind the entity called ‘science’ is the idol.” (William James. “Is Life Worth Living?”, 1956 (1896). Page 52).

The Other

Communication with the Other is the beginning of the religious experience. Even Marxism, which is anti-religious, has as its core a truth claim which stirs it. In other words, a Marxist does not believe he made up his core belief to suit his tastes, but rather, so he claims, it is true regardless of whether we believe it or not. The ‘truth’ is a reality separate from ‘myself’. It is other than myself. This is the weakness of Geertz' definition. The elements at the root of any religion are not sufficient of themselves, but rest on an interaction with a reality much larger. The symbols, stories, truth claims, or other elements at the center of the religious experience have binding power because the community believes those elements connect the community to something beyond hap-hazard existence.

For this reason, many definitions of religion point to “the divine” or “supernatural”. So the Word English Dictionary defines religion as “belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny.” Most religions have at their center a god, gods, ancestor spirits, or other spirit beings. But to say that religion is sui generis reliant on some entity beyond the physical is to misunderstand what religion is. The energy that inspires the religious quest is a search for more precise knowledge of “‘The Truth’ that is not dependant on man.” (Maslow, 1976. Page 55).

In the quote above, psychologist William James points out that science easily becomes the place where our faith lives. When trust is in the workings of the scientific community, Science becomes the place that we place our hope in. If what I believe is always centered in Science, I will join with other liked-minded believers and scorn those who distrust science. This is the beginning of a faith community. A faith community becomes religious when the core beliefs of the community begin to shape the thinking and the practice of the community, encouraging some behaviors and discouraging others, encouraging some ways of thinking and discouraging others. The object of faith, be it clear cut or vague, is other than ourself.

The reason I chose a mundane example was to expose the mechanism. At any given moment science has dozens if not hundreds of fervent believer communities of one stripe or another, there is no coherence at the center. The true believers are fractured into various camps, often more at odds with each other than with any other belief system. It is not hard to discover a religious zeal at the heart of many a scientific community, but few of us would raise that to the status of religion. Why?

The answer is stability. Science is not really one idea, but many. Orthodoxy tries to maintain itself, but ultimately Newton gives way to Einstein. The application changes as well. The authors of the American Declaration of Independence might not recognize the same “Laws of Nature”, which to them where “self-evident”, in today's America.

Science and philosophy do not answer ultimate questions, as “What is the meaning of life?” This is particularly true of the almost totally pervasive philosophy of my youth, Existentialism. Out of the Nihilism of Nietzsche, and Existentialism stemmed the notion of a philosophy of the Absurd. Paul Goodman's 1962 book, Growing Up Absurd, was a popular book in my college years. What I remember most vividly about Goodman's book is how thoroughly it described my then Godless existence. In the end, it is in the nature of man to quit navel gazing, and quit pushing the mud around, and start listening to the wind. The true absurdity is to not go looking for the rest of the story.

While the absurdist claims that the religious are believing in a fantasy, the religionist looks at the absurd and marvels that they just don't get it. They are like someone who cannot understand Jazz or Classical music or can't tell the difference between a fine wine and cheap wine. While the absurdist says there is no meaning, the religionist finds a wealth of meaning in the place of spiritual relationship with the divine.

Because this takes us out of the safe territory of common reality into a world that the irreligious can't comprehend or enter, it takes us into a mysterious territory, a territory which some navigate better than others, and a territory whose shape and nature are articulated better by some than by others. The aesthetics of the spiritual are described by prophets and guarded by priests. These are the specialists of the religious realm.

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The Care of Religion

Inevitably the beginning of a religious system is with those individuals who have the most vivid relationship with the Other and who can communicate the desires of the Other to the larger community. These are the prophets, or seers, or mystics, or visionaries to name some of the more commonly used terms, but I'll just call them the prophets. The prophet, especially one whose message differs substantially from the commonly accepted beliefs, often has a difficult time convincing others. A prophet's message is not a religion. The prophet's message kindles a religious vision. The vision collects a community. Religion is the culture specific to that vision. That culture is born in the midst of the community, often many years after the prophet is dead and gone.

The community expects to receive a reward for their devotions. Thus an interactive relationship is joined between a religious community and the unseen, at first through the prophet and later through the priests who administer the activities of devotion. The culture (the cult) of the religious community are the activities, symbols and stories which keep the covenant between the community and the Other to which they are devoted. In my own tradition, Bible reading and community worship, as well as prayer (both corporate and personal) are all considered essential to healthy religion. Symbols, most importantly the cross, remind us of the covenant by which we live. it is the culture of my religious vision.

Any student of culture will tell you that culture is more than the clothes you wear or the songs you sing, hence Geertz' definition studiously avoids the artifacts of religion. The less visible but more important part of the culture, the religious vision, are the attitudes, behavioral do's and do not's, the hopes, the unsaid communications, the life goals and the lines that will not be crossed. These are the things which Geertz is after. Keeping this vision alive mobilizes a large cadre of people: prophets, priests, teachers, doctrinal lawyers (theologians), intercessors and any number of others, depending on the size and complexity of the community. The community itself carries the torch or extinguishes it. Those who still see the beauty of the vision are the ones who keep the vision fresh for the larger community, they keep the torch aflame.

So what about the monk sequestered in a desert cave for twenty years? How is this monk a part of the collective reality of the religious community? At first glance that monk seems to have no relation at all to the community. However, the pilgrim or the solitary monk is reinforcing, by the act of extreme devotion, the significance of the religious quest. Devoting themselves, on behalf of the greater religious body, to a seeking out and claiming of the spiritual fountainhead.

If after twenty years, the monk returns: the Christian monk returns to the larger Christian community an enriched Christian who is able to say with certainty, I have seen God and know His thoughts better than I did. The Buddhist monk returns to the larger Buddhist community an enriched Buddhist, able to speak to the certainty of his religious belief. If the monk disappears and never returns, then the twenty years is lost to the community and thus the religion. The monk is spiritual, but nothing pertaining to the religion is transacted, or is it? In the case of the ascetic hermits of the north African and middle eastern deserts during the first several centuries of Christianity, their seclusion became well known and in many cases pilgrims came to them in a steady stream. We also see this in Buddhist, Hindu and other mystical religious practices. Their very presence speaks volumes to the religious community.

The religious community is often injured by those who take the vision off center. In extreme cases, twisting the original vision so far out of its original position as to set itself against its own roots. This might include false prophets and flat out charlatans, but it is more often the zealous believers who fail to grasp the vision, but seize on some digestible portion of the vision, or perhaps simply the cultural trappings of the religion. In particular, violent devotion to the codified culture of a religion can so thoroughly capture a religious body as to poison the entire vision. In my own understanding of religion, a religious body of this sort is no longer in any sort of transaction with a spiritual vision, much less the divine (at least not in any holy sense), it is the simply a cultural shell at odds with the world.

Essentially, religion is about the community in relationship to the Other. If the Other is not involved, it is not religion. If a community of believers is not involved it is not religion. Religion is corporate devotion and not personal. An ascetic who stands aloof, such as the lone and despised prophets of Israel, but is later revered, is often the catalyst for strengthening, transforming or cleansing the religious community, and therefore the religion. In this case, the solitary meditations of the one come to enrich the religious vision of the many. But also notice that, while these meditations may be religious in nature, that is they concern the spiritual quest, they are not religion until they are embraced by a community of believers.

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Totemic Religion

Occasionally it is useful to step away from the complex world of modern religion and to look at religion that is totally alien to us here in the West. Emile Durkheim produced one of the classic studies of early religion The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. In it, Durkheim studies the totemic religions of stone age tribes. Among the Australian Aborigines, he notes, an elaborate ancestry is created, complete with ritual remembrances, mythic ancestry and sacred prohibitions which force the community and especially inter-clan social interactions into specific channels. Rituals attach or bind the person (Durkheim, 1961. Page 423). To view this as magic is to limit the view of primitive religion to a materialistic analysis.

The totem or animal spirit is of deep significance to anyone bound tightly to the natural world as stone age tribes are. Durkheim claims that the totem is the first representation in art (Durkheim, 1961. Page 149). Australian Aborigines trace their ancestry directly to totemic ancestors giving them a familial bond with the natural world.

The name of the clan is a designation of social significance. The clan members are meaningfully tied together for mutual aid and comfort. Clan members are also tied to their spirit or totem relatives. A member of the Wallaby clan is a relative of the wallaby. Totemic clans have fully embraced their world, bringing their animal and plant neighbors into their spiritual life. For those of us who have grown up in a thoroughly civilized world, it is difficult to imagine the sense of kinship that the tribal Aborigine feels towards the natural world in which he or she lives. We venture into the wild taking our civilization with us, not only in our food pack, utensils, books, hiking shoes, etc., but also in our approach to and understanding of the wilderness. As Westerners, we do not know how to beg forgiveness of the plants and flowers, or to fear the earth's anger. Perhaps this is a talent we will be forced to learn. Where the Westerner is independent of the natural surroundings, treating them with paternal deference at best, the Aborigine, through a relationship cultivated from birth, is one spirit with the plants and animals. The thunder speaks to the Aboriginal heart.

This binding action, plays out in a second way. Clans are thrown together in a world of mutual interdependence. By marrying only outside the clan, members are in continuous alliance with other clans. The clan of one's spouse is necessarily different from one's own. Members of separate clans are always living amongst each other. Other prohibitions increase interaction. In some tribes, the harvesting and eating of certain foods require that a prayer or tribute be offered to the leader of that food item's totemic clan, and permission must be asked.

When the natural order is upset, tribal members reach for understanding in the fabric of stories that surround them. The assurance is that balance will be restored. “They make men forget the real world and transport them into another where their imagination is more at ease.” (Durkheim, 1961. Page 424). Reaction to tragedy and hardship is ameliorated. This is the comforting, which the cynics refer to as the opiate of religion.

I am not trying to advocate anything here. The purpose is to point out how religion is at work in the lives of these societies. Far from being an advocate, I believe they are people whose world view has kept them locked in time. Through religious interactions a meaningful and stable location in the universe as well as a remarkably harmonious and stable inter-clan and intra-clan interaction has been established. Each individual is constantly assured of family importance and alliance, both with neighbors and the natural world on which they depend. This is a community of constant nurture. Is it any wonder that tribal villages left alone by the West often seems happier and more peaceful than more Westernized counterparts.

Westernization can traumatize the social fabric, destroying religious self-assurance and presenting a philosophical system devoid of meaningful religious bonds for their community life? So we ask, is it better to leave a tribal society, which is isolated from the rest of the world, in blissful isolation? Do the the religious beliefs that protect their society, keeping in stable several millenia beyond those of the rest of world's population, achieve validity because of their stablility? When the introduction of a larger world causes the belief system to collapse or go into a slow decay, is something important being lost? Or have these societies become rigid and immature by isolation?

These are not irrelevent questions, but rest at the heart of the debate over “indigenous peoples”, the curently favored term for tribal cultures that remain. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People”. The attempt was to give some protection to small societies who are being pushed by encrouching miners, loggers, or settlers. Should they be protected from the thoughts of a wider world?

Let me turn the questions around. Are these not ultimately people we are talking about? If their belief system is the survival mechanism that has allowed them to survive when others perished, but now there are before them many more possibilities, is it right to obscure that truth from them? I am as strongly committed to open dialog as I am opposed to forced conversion.

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Religion is a Verb

To judge the religious life of an aboriginal community by the standards of modern world religions will not yield insight or understanding. Worse, to impose those modern religions without regard to the social, cultural and spiritual fabric of the community is destructive and counterproductive. Let me be clear, by religion, I am referring the cultural shell by which a relationship to the divine is achieved. Religion imposed is a hollow shell held in place by great social, economic or military pressure. I am not referring to allegiance to specific spiritual entities.

The ultimate significance of a religion is not the artifact: the symbols, stories or cultic apparatus. Religion is the creation and maintaining of meaningful existence. When the community and the religious artifact begin to pull apart, the religion becomes an empty shell, a memory of a thriving interaction, but now without life. How many churches or synagogues seem like lifeless shells going through the motions, or trying with desperate foolishness to adapt to contemporary culture?

The popularity of Existential philosophy testifies to our sense of drifting in a culture that has escaped from our control. Our own culture is an anarchy thrust upon us by mass media and the enormous volume of social interactions imposed by contemporary urban life. We seem to be growing up ‘absurd’, i.e., without meaningful attachment to our ancestry, our community or our future.

Those who are angry and disaffected by Western culture are driven to dogmatic religion. Religion which shuts its eyes and proclaims itself against the world. These religious groups are subsects of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Judaism. The original religious body matters less than the current nature and spirit of the religious community. Judeo-Christian teachings and practices over the centuries tend to ameliorate Ultra-Orthodox Jewish or Fundamentalist Christian anger in all but a few areas. Whereas the practice of Jihad seems to be releasing widespread vengefulness within certain portions of the Muslim world, where terrorism, assassination and pogroms are more than tolerated. Anger, stubbornness and unconscionable conduct has seriously disrupted all religious practice in Western society. Fundamentally this is the result of loosing the middle, the connection at the center of the faith, the connection to the Other.

The wide open nature of Western democracy creating large and very porous communities, creates a dilemma for the religious bodies. Without cultural homogeneity, the stories are not all understood the same way and become muddy and confused. Symbols which must compete with pop culture icons and intensive advertising lack luster. Events of the religious community which must compete with work, sports, cultural events or shear exhaustion, may never achieve a spiritual quorum. Widespread education and the rational scientific culture of “yes, but...” make cultural consensus very difficult to achieve. Achieving positive and meaningful spiritual interaction between a faith and the community is difficult but incredibly important if Western culture is to retain a healthy spiritual backbone. The alternative is continued moral anarchy and spiritual disaffection.

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