It is with no small amount of hubris that I even consider writing about this topic. After all, sages, scholars and saints through the ages have grappled with the issue, as have many armchair theologians, thinkers, seekers and skeptics.
I’ve been thinking a bit more about it lately after listening, recently, to a presentation by a theologian from a well-regarded theology school, and after seeing the dramatic adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, based on the novel by CS Lewis. My writing on this topic is an attempt to clarify my own thoughts on the matter, not to impart scholarly wisdom.
I am currently reading a novel in which the main character, a 40ish, modern English woman, is at odds with her parents who are born-again Christians. She is unwed and pregnant and her parents are appalled that the child will grow up without a father and without God. She herself thinks “I shall tell it God is a made up fairy tale like Snow While, only nastier.” This could be the opinion of many modern skeptics; in the face of more and more recent scientific discoveries, they have turned away from religion and God, feeling that this erstwhile explanation, this fiction is not relevant to them in today’s modern world. Even many ministers, rabbis and priests are skeptical, yet they compassionately serve believers and SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) alike, while they mentally re-assess their own beliefs.
So what purpose does religion serve in this time where more and more people around the globe are living “perfectly good” lives without it? There might be as many answers as there are “church goers.” A statistically valid survey would surely capture a wide range of responses, from “I’m just not sure” to “it’s a good way to meet people.” I myself have landed (much like an alien being at first) in a congregation of liberal thinkers, a great many of whom are non-believers and skeptics. Some call themselves seekers or questioners. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation that presents in this group, where we discuss the works of Richard Dawkins, recent advances in stem cell research and DNA technology, the newly discovered “god particle,” space exploration, super novae, alongside popular fiction, art, travel, drama, photography, social justice issues, politics, Wicca, and the contributions of historians. There is something for anyone who is intellectually curious, or at least more enlightened than a dirt clod. I learn about people like Erwin Chemerinsky, Gustavo Arellano, Dr. Phillip Clayton, Richard Dawkins, Forrest Church, various scholars and writers, current and past. I’m developing an interest in politics, though my perspectives are no doubt totally unique, and I don’t necessarily feel obligated to agree with anyone else. My intellectual landscape has been widened substantially and my brain cells exercised — maybe this will help keep Alzheimer’s at bay. My social life has expanded. And yes, I’ve developed a spirituality that is wholly my own, and still morphing. And yes, it has been worth getting up “early” on Sunday morning to be there by 10:00 a.m.
But my reasons don’t have to match those of other individuals. To my way of thinking, that is what’s nice about “free will” and living in a free country. I’ve grown to see modern religious options as a smorgasbord of choices and interests, a library full of topics, and my choices are multiplied even more by the resources of the internet. I can “taste test” and move on, or veer off on a side road for a few months reading books by a new author, or skim through interesting blog posts I only just stumbled upon.
I see a time coming very soon — if we are not, in fact, already there — when the word “religion” itself will conjure up something very different from the mental and emotional reactions and images it evoked for my generation and those before mine. For me, the word “religion” connotes the following: churches and pews, genuflecting, confessionals, priests, nuns in habits made of heavy black cloth, catechisms, liturgy, rights, saints, relics, the smells of incense, stained glass, Latin, Gregorian chanting, solemnity, harsh punishment and penance for disobedience, contemplation of one’s sins, rosary beads, votive candles, Biblical passages, suffering, fasting, rules, hymns, denial of the worldly things of real life, long sessions of kneeling at mass, sacrifice, Holy Week services, devotion to the Blessed Virgin. And that is only part of it. The emotional piece attached to, and interwoven with, all this is comprised of equal parts suffocation, repression, familiarity, dread, and a feeling there is no escape, that no thought or act on my part could extricate or change my total immersion and captivity and that acceptance is my only viable response. There was very little joy for me associated with religion in my childhood, despite what may have been the intent of my mother and the good nuns.
If my reaction, some 60 years after my introduction to this milieu, is typical — I don’t have any measuring instruments to know for sure — then it is a small wonder that so many of my generation flinch emotionally when the word “God” is uttered or passages from the King James bible are “cited.” Recently some acquaintances asked, “why is it that when the Buddha, or Confucius, or the Quran, or the Talmud, or some pagan text is referenced, no one seems to have a problem with it; yet, when God is mentioned, or Jesus, or a biblical passage is read, everyone is suddenly up in arms.” Well, I have my answer, as I just explained, and I suspect others have some similar repressed memories of an unpleasant sort that are particular to their own experiences. Having come so far, grown so much, found other spiritual options to be pleasant and nurturing, some of us are loathe to go back, even for a nanosecond, to a setting that was so stifling. Isn’t all the “stuff” that I catalogued above an awful lot to heap upon a 5 or 6-year-old? It is one thing to adapt to pieces of it gradually at a later age, and digest it as one goes along, but to assimilate the whole thing at 6 or 7 or 8 and then embrace it as part of your being, like your long hair or innate athletic ability or craving for chocolate? Well, that is certainly another matter. That leads me to conclude that many were damaged by religion, extending beyond the wars and killing and crusades and inquisitions. Is it any wonder that enlightened thinkers in the 21st century seek religious options that support and soothe, exhilarate and heal, leading to growth and wholeness? To be doing its job, that “old time religion” had to inflict pain, or it wasn’t working right. Let’s hope the new religion that many are seeking will be far removed in its ultimate affect.
So, all my editorializing aside, there is yet another reason for seeking religion and it seems to be true for all times, for all members of the human species. Man yearns, perhaps foolishly, to make sense out of chaos – the planets, the cosmos, the galaxies, the oceans, all life (plants, animals and their cellular components). And perhaps when he comes up against the stone cliff of the impossibility of such knowledge, he crafts mythic constructs instead, invents Gods and stories and legends, populates his world with fictions of one sort or another. He changes them a bit from time to time, imbues them with somewhat different characteristics in this culture and that, but they are still mythic constructs, not absolute truths. I didn’t make this up. Just ask Joseph Campbell. He can probably explain it much better — well, he could if he were still alive. Man crafts his inventions in such a way that they almost seem to make sense, they take on a life of their own, others take them and carry them yet a step further with a fervor and enthusiasm never foreseen or imagined, and then it is out of control. It is out of control in a chaotic way that is almost as crazy as the original chaos its inventors tried to quell. How ironic. Supremely ironic if you ask me. But then, sigh, no one is asking me except me.
And maybe that is what it ultimately comes down to. I think in the final analysis, every person, every me and you, and him and her, has to find what works “for me.” Not for a population of 450,000 souls on the other side of the globe, or in another hemisphere, or in a town of 20,000 in Podunk, Iowa. By analogy — we don’t expect every person on the planet to dress alike and wear a similar uniform do we? We don’t except all peoples to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or tofu, or salmon or goat cheese, or drink camel milk, or shop at Trader Joes, do we? If we do, then some of us are quite confused, I might even say mentally disturbed, living a delusion. So why then, must large segments of the population all believe the same about something that is absolutely, totally not knowable with the rational measuring tools and processes of our feeble brains? This seems, to me, like such an utterly sane question, to which we have given incredibly ridiculous responses down through time. So, if I am completely and utterly off track, just shoot me now and you will not have to read any such further drivel ever again from my posts or writings!
This brings me to the next step — if we must each discover answers for one’s individual self, why then would we judge another’s choice, our children’s choices if they are different from our own, our neighbor’s choices, or those of our in-laws. They have their reasons for their choices and we don’t necessarily have to understand them. That would be like saying “I’m sorry, I will have to move to another neighborhood. I simply can’t have my children playing with yours. We’ve always had steak and potatoes three times a week, and pork roast on Sunday. I can’t have my children playing with kids who have steak only on special occasions and mostly eat casseroles and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And we never have Kool Aid. Yet you serve it daily.” We don’t do this, do we?
And to bridge the gap, if such is possible, I think conversation is very valuable in the great mix of things. I find it interesting and helpful to hear how others came to the place they’re at, how and why they think as they do, what books and authors they read in the process. I think that might lead to many more spiritual salads and more diversity and more variety. Look how the lowly salad has grown over fifty years. It used to be lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and some grated carrots. Over time we’ve added mixed field greens, radicchio, spinach, jicama, pepperoncinis, Kalamata olives, black olives, cheeses, sunflower seeds and a whole host of other savory adornments. Not to mention the much wider variety of dressings available now compared to 70 years ago. So, why should we not have the same growth in spirituality and religious choices? My spiritual salad may not look like yours, but who says it has to? I may have added meditation and secular humanism to mine. If it is wholesome, nourishing, pleasing, makes me happy, and if yours works for you, then that’s just great. I won’t judge you if you have added votive candles, yoga and Kahlil Gibran to yours.
So why, exactly, is there still such a big fuss over religion? This may be the most asked questions of the ages, right along with “What’s it all about Alfie?” and “Why is there air?” If you have come up with better answers than mine, please share. I’m all ears.