Two Ways to View Religion

Written By:  Julia Tyack

Religion is used in two different ways or has two different meanings.

The first way is where religion can simply designate worldview, ultimate concern, an awareness of the transcendent, and sometimes it takes in the idea of personal spiritual beliefs.

The second way in which it is used is when it becomes a system that has been creedalized, traditionalized, formalized, organized, legalized and most of all textualized so that it is passed on to people and from generation to generation as a ready-made package called “the faith”.  It is what the Persians called din/den, what the Jews called torah and what Paul calls nomos. It is a regime and a formal discipline.  In the first century, if the system was not recognized by the state or by public institutions, it was called a superstition.

Religion, as ultimate concern, is what drives and informs culture, and that includes politics. Culture is the form of religion, and religion is the meaning-giving substance of culture.  Paul Tillich’s quote from memory;  “In order for good people to do evil, that takes religion” as Stephen Weinberg says.  Thus St. Paul tells what religion does to you, “The evil which I hate that I do.”  Romans 7

Wendell Krossa: Religion has served as a vehicle for varied things- it has been a chief forum for the human impulse for meaning, the desire to explain mystery. While many believe religion is a force for good, equally many do not see the danger always inherent in supreme authorities and centralized power (governing elites, God, ruler, king, judge, and so on). So with government, we are safest when power is dispersed among the people- competing actors, decentralized. New forms of theology cater to this democratic perspective. Forget the big guys at the top (or Big Guy) and focus on the little people as the center of attention.

And religion has always served as a main source of validation for human belief and action. We instinctively seek the highest validation for what we are and do. Anthropologists speak of this need to model our lives and communities after the divine model (parental approval?). Others refer to this as “hiding under the canopy of the sacred”.  These and other functions use religion for good or evil.

Karen Armstrong writes on what is religion. She makes some good points on the Buddha and the pointlessness of metaphysical speculation such as. “Who created the world and how? What does it matter, said the Buddha. Pain, suffering and grief will still exist. Get on with the practice of compassion. This makes well Bob’s point the search for God being history’s greatest wild goose chase.

Yet because of the ‘canopy of the sacred’ (it’s the will of God) billions worship such pathology. And throughout history people have repeatedly projected the worst of their pathologies onto deity till deity has become the receptacle of much of the worst of human metaphysical inventiveness. Think of hell as another such projection (projecting the vilest expression of human vengeance and hatred onto Love).

But this is how again and again the highest of human ideals and values have been corrupted. And entire theologies like Hodge’s are written to try to explain why Ultimate Love must punish imperfection with hell (holiness demands expiation, atonement and on and on).

And it only takes some little aphoristic-like comment to expose these grand distortions that stick around in public consciousness century after century. Do any of you have any more such exposes? There ought to be  some sort of annual prize for these. So maybe like Armstrong’s new compassion movement perhaps we should institute a prize for the cleansing of public consciousness from such distortions and contradictions.

Also, Martin Seligman’s books make this same  point of how belief, negative belief in his argument, shapes behaviour negatively (Learned Optimism, The Optimistic Child).

The story/narrative we carry around in our heads is the one we live by- it gives us our identity as conscious beings, it provides us with goals, motivations, who we are and how we should act, speak, be. And that story is so often a self-made hodge-podge that appears to deny what we claim to believe. Could this be the natural impulse of humans to love, an impulse that often defies the narratives people claim to hold that contain very unloving elements? I remember my own struggle to be human despite holding a belief system that contained so much “very tough love”. I was continually negotiating with, ignoring, downplaying, and eventually disregarding and abandoning unworkable elements, inhumane elements.