does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Meaning of Religion

Blogger A Cuban in London recently hosted a discussion about the meaning of religion. I was one of the participants. He posed questions about the nature of religion, its role in modern democracies, and the role religion plays in things like individualism, rampant consumerism and unchallenged materialism. In today’s post, I feature my answer to Cuban’s challenge to define religion. The link to the entire discussion is provided at the end of the post.

Religion is, on a personal level, finite humanity’s endeavor to explain itself vis-à-vis the infinite. On a social level, religion establishes codes of morality and behavior. Culturally, it facilitates expression of cultural norms. Politically, it can serve as a tool for creating and defending the political unit. It is paradoxically both unifying and divisive. In other words, religion is a protean concept.

That is my answer through a cognitive filter. But, if religion appealed only to the mind, it would not have achieved its enduring quality. It would also not explain why, despite significant differences, the overwhelming majority of people associate, formally or loosely, with religion in all its variants.

The opening line of my favorite hymn says, “Oh, Lord, My God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hand hath made.” Am I a churchgoer? No. Do I believe that there is a Creator responsible for bringing our world into existence? Not in the anthropomorphic sense. And yet that hymn moves me every single time I hear it. Is that because it is a relic from my childhood? Perhaps. Or could it be that the hymn appeals to an unknown and unknowable part of me that wants to connect with that dimension of life which, science’s efforts notwithstanding, we fall short of grasping in all its beauty. Of science’s efforts, Max Planck himself said that future progress in understanding liminal conditions “…will never enable us to grasp the real world in its totality any more than human intelligence will ever rise into the sphere of ideal spirit: these will always remain abstractions which by their very definition lie outside actuality.”

Rather than try to understand or judge the human predilection toward embracing religion, I simply accept that it exists. Indeed, I respect that religions seek coherence and order in a world that intrinsically may be incoherent and chaotic. I also embrace religion’s attempt to connect with the numinous, which has little to do with the mind. Of course, my respect and tolerance do not extend to the use of violence and oppression.

I come to this stance having experienced the full spectrum of religious belief. As the daughter of evangelical ministers, I grew up in a theistic environment. I then became an atheist, only to later shift to an embrace of the numinous. In my fiction, I spend a lot of time in churches, with characters who embrace, characters who flee from, but always characters who try to make sense of religion and spirituality in their lives. In this, they reflect my own life's journey. In a larger sense, they may reflect humanity’s journey as well.

The entire discussion can be read here.


Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Great post as always Judith. I found out about Cuban's discussion too pate to offer to participate but I definitely want to head over there to read the whole discussion.

My favourite song (which happens to be a hymn) is Amazing Grace. No matter how many times I hear it (and I play it often) I get tears in my eyes and the goosbumps rise at certain lines. Especialy "I once was blind, but now I see": this is too me the crux of faith (rather than religion) because, whatever name one calls their God, faith in Higher Being is all about seeing without believing. Brr. Gives me the shivers.

Judy (South Africa)

A Cuban In London said...

Many thanks for linking your post to mine and for taking part in the debate. There was a follow-up to that discussion to do with language, but I scrapped it. Sometimes it can get a bit too much. :-)

I chose your longer answer because it gave me a very detailed account of what religion meant/means to you and the ramifications of it. It's not as simple as some people think, especially if you grow up in a religious household. Some of it stays with you. How you use it is, to me, the key in dealing with religion. You have incorporated it in your writing, and I think that's a very healthy and at the same time responsible way of approaching religion.

Many thanks for your post.

Greetings from London.

Dave's Girl said...

"It also includes a series called A Hero's Journey featuring individuals who have shown great courage or who have changed the world significantly...."; For hero's journey and screenwriting, suggest

Judith Mercado said...

Judy: I like Amazing Grace too, not just for the music but also for what it says. In addition to faith, it is a powerful statement about personal redemption.

Cuban: No, there is nothing simple about religion. Indeed, it is those who try to make religion and, for that matter, atheism simple that I have difficulty with.

David: Thank you for stopping by.

Anne R. Allen said...

Very interesting post. And a dangerous subject for a lot of people.

Personally, I think religion is about humans trying to make God in their own image, but spirituality is about humans trying to see God's image in themselves.

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you, Anne. A dangerous subject indeed. I told Cuban that, in taking on this issue, I feared that I was walking into an alligator-infested swamp. I don't know quite why it is that talking about religion has that potential.

A Cuban In London said...

Thanks fo ryou latest comment on my post about the threat libraries are facing in the UK.

I never had local library in Havana when I was growing up. All my reading came from books my parents bought for me or I borrowed from my friends. I hope the British government realises how much libraries mean to people before it's too late.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

My comment on your library post is interesting since for some reason it showed up as your latest post and that's how I came to comment on it. Nonetheless, I am glad I commented and then heard back from you. Libraries are an institution of civilization which I hope will remain in some form or another for all time.