My last post ended with the suggestion that what we call religion might best be understood as the way we manage the balance of love and power in our lives. The two systems of supremacy and communion which act like great attractors in the patterns of culture throughout history, also pull on our individual lives, causing us to lean more one way than the other in our personal choices and lifestyles.
The question I’m exploring is whether it is legitimate (and useful) to speak of this management of power and love – the particular set of rules, disciplines, methods, and practices we employ to “hold it together” (from the Latin religare) – as our religion. If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then the salient features that get packaged together in our conventional definition of religion – sacred stories, communal rituals, devotional practices, belief in a supreme being, and the hope of an afterlife – end up as secondary to its principal function.
This would help explain not only why religion looks so different from culture to culture (i.e., its features are more locally dependent), but also why all religions can be classified as either oriented on supremacy (the love of power) or communion (the power of love). Even within a single religion (e.g., Christianity), this balance of power and love can shift from one generation to the next, from one community to another, even as the surface features remain ostensibly the same. What we find is a change of focus in the myths, doctrines, liturgy, and morality as one system recedes and the other moves into dominance.
At the heart of religion (as I am redefining it here) is the priority and challenge of trust, which is where power and love are held in balance or fall apart. In a sense, the whole two-system “mega-system” of supremacy and communion comes down to how we manage – cultivate, nourish, repair, and renew – the trust we have in reality, the earth, each other, and ourselves. This is the sacred bond that holds everything together. It will serve us well to appreciate what’s at stake in the management of trust.
As my diagram illustrates, the systems of supremacy and communion interact along two parabolic arcs that converge in “trust” and diverge again into their opposing values. Farthest out from center are the oppositions of virtue/competition and equality/cooperation, which is where the peculiar accent of a religion will be most obvious.
It’s important to remember that virtue is not about “being good” in the moral sense, but refers rather to the unique power (character strength, creative talent, uncommon intelligence) that makes the individual something special. In a supremacy system, priority is given to the discovery and development, typically in competition with others, of what makes us exceptional. On the other side is equality, where exceptions are downplayed in the interest of what makes us similar, of what we have in common. This common ground becomes the basis of cooperation and partnership in a communion system.
We can understand how major ideological differences would be easier to defend and maintain the farther out from center we identify ourselves. In a sense, it’s safer out there: we can stay in our heads and keep our distance from those “glory seekers” or “bleeding hearts” on the other side of the scale. But our religion only works for us at that point where we find ourselves face to face with “the other” – the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy. The question of whom we can trust, whether we can (or should) let down our guard and open ourselves to the other, take a risk and be vulnerable for the sake of a genuinely human-spiritual interaction – that’s where it really matters.
Jesus understood this with laser clarity, it seems to me. What you may believe about God, or whether you even believe in one; whether or not you are a confessing member of a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque; whether you can recite scripture or pray before meals; whether you are preparing your soul for immortal beatitude in the next life or just living from one day to the next – none of this really matters if you close yourself off from others, if you refuse to build trust where it’s missing, or repair trust where it’s damaged or broken.
Ironically (and tragically) much of religion today has become a means of escape, not just from this coil of mortality at the end of life, but from the proving circle of exposure, vulnerability, and risk where so much is at stake. Our churches and denominations are protected memberships where we can sit alongside like-minded believers, feel confirmed in our truth, and carefully plan our engagement with the world outside. But if my theory holds, none of this is religion that matters. True religion – if I can dare use the term – has nothing to do with either monastic escape or strategic outreach to “save” the world.
Lest my readers who are former churchgoers, enlightened nonbelievers, or independent post-theists are thinking that religion can and should be left behind, I’ll remind you of my working definition, which has to do with the way you manage the balance of power and love in your life. How you cultivate trust and negotiate its challenges, how you use your influence to nourish connection, how you fulfill your responsibilities in the covenant of relationship – that is your religion. Leaving the church and giving up on its god doesn’t set you free from religion; it may indeed have been a necessary step in getting you more seriously invested in a religion that matters.