Schleiermacher: “If there is religion at all, it must be social, for that is the nature of human beings. There is also a spiritual nature which we have in common with others of our species, which demands that we express and communicate all that is in us. The more violently we are moved and the more deeply we are impressed, the stronger that social impulse works.”
Contemplating the likely origins of religion helps us appreciate its roots in individual experience rather than in what might be called “orthodox instruction.” For those who believe that religion – their religion, the true religion – was lowered from heaven already fully assembled and given by revelation to a founder, prophet or saint, faith must be taught. You must read your Bible, listen to your teachers, and take in the points of doctrine upon which your salvation depends.
The credibility of this long tradition of orthodox instruction requires that your Bible is inerrant, your teachers enlightened, and those points of doctrine absolutely infallible. If there’s a break anywhere in the chain – maybe scripture is metaphorical or made-up, just one teacher was mistaken or confused, or just one dogma is derived from a mistranslation – then the whole institution loses authority and disintegrates.
To protect itself, institutional religion implants in us a virus of doubt and suspicion against the validity of individual experience. Because you are fallen, ignorant, sinful and depraved, your own perceptions, insights and judgments are corrupt and unreliable. In fact, if you allow their seduction you will be lured away from truth. Don’t think for yourself. Don’t pay attention to your misgivings over how far-fetched, fantastic and irrelevant to daily life the orthodoxy seems. Certainly don’t trust yourself, your human nature, or the greater nature of reality within, beneath, and all around you.
Mystics throughout history and across cultures – and I would also say, the mystic in you – have regarded the orthodox instruction of institutional religion with mild tolerance, outspoken criticism, or active opposition depending on how authoritarian and abusive it can become. They typically won’t spend too much time and energy in the effort, partly because the errors are deep and long-standing, but also because they understand that the entire system of religion is more a human production than a divine revelation.
To say that religion is a human production, however, is not to discredit it, as orthodoxy claims (unless, of course, you’re talking about other religions). The source of religion is in discovery, not revelation. Whereas revelation is something the mythological god did to get the truth to us (from up/over there), discovery is a process whereby the present mystery of reality (the really real) is gradually or suddenly perceived, as our assumptions and expectations are removed.
Questioning our long-standing beliefs, conducting careful experiments, and generally paying closer attention to what’s going on is how discovery unfolds. To the degree that institutional religion discourages or straightaway condemns such practices, it is the enemy of discovery – the enemy of experience.
Out of this age-old process of discovery, individuals just like you have drawn deep insights concerning human nature, the real presence of mystery, and the present mystery of reality. Their first efforts at translating these powerful intuitions into symbols, metaphors, story and song/dance – for the purpose of expressing them and communicating them to others – mark the beginnings of religion.
Symbols don’t capture the mystery, but only provide a way of consciously participating in it. Metaphors aren’t literal descriptions but merely poetic representations of experience. For their part, story (sacred myth) and song/dance (earliest ritual) are the outpouring of spiritual discovery into the social arena of cultural life.
Schleiermacher identified an “impulse” in you that cannot allow these spiritual breakthroughs to be kept to yourself and quietly cultivated in some kind of private religion. Where it begins is undeniably private, by which we mean individual, profound, and deeply internal. But once expressed – and the power, magnitude and anticipated repercussions of spiritual discovery push it irresistibly up and out into your shared life with others – it enters the public sphere.
You talk about yours. I talk about mine. Through dialogue we find connections and resonances in the ways we separately represent our deeper experience. We translate something profound and ineffable into words, art, melody and movement. Inwardly we know that all this expressive meaning is ultimately a futile exercise, however irresistible, of enclosing the formless infinite in our mental boxes. The stories we tell are imaginative portrayals of what cannot be represented. The symbols we elevate for our mutual contemplation are acknowledged as mere allusions to a wordless mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp.
We know this, you and I. But that guy over there – he’s new to the conversation. So we invite him in and show him our work. We tell him our stories and teach him a few steps of the dance.
Where did all this come from? he asks with fascination.
I look over at you, and you wink back at me. From god, we answer in unison.
A long time ago and in a land far away, earlier than our history books can reach and in a place inaccessible to science, the truth was given to our ancestors by supernatural revelation. Since that time, the countless generations of true believers have preserved what you see here, for the sake of your salvation. Have a seat, forget what you think you know, and pay attention to our every word.
Thus was religion born. And then we forgot how it happened …