The question is not whether religion will one day be only a memory of our brutal and superstitious past as a species, or else singularly responsible for our future catastrophic self-destruction. A lot of people feel that we would be better off without it. In their perspective religion is unnecessary baggage crowding the mental space we could be using for more relevant and practical concerns. We can’t deal rationally with these things until we abandon superstition, come to our senses, and work together for real solutions.
A returning reader is familiar with my less categorical appraisal of religion. I can be critical of every tradition and denomination with respect to how easily it gets tangled in our neurotic obsessions with glory, guilt, sex, violence and death. But at the same time I am constantly in search of what we might call ‘religion in essence’, as distinct from its countless historical manifestations. From the etymology of the term we can define religion as the system of attitudes, beliefs, values and practices that works to link us back (Latin religare) to reality, resolving the separation inherent to the rise of ego consciousness.
Personal identity is a process of social construction that gradually establishes an executive center in the ego – actually a deputy center, subordinate to the authorities of family and tribe. Ego stands above the body and apart from others, and if development has been particularly difficult or traumatic, it becomes estranged from its own inner life (soul) as well. When this condition of separation is severe enough, a profound insecurity can overtake the personality. The essential function of religion is to provide the means for ego to reconnect with reality – internally with its own grounding mystery, relationally with others, and transcendentally through a meaningful world-picture (or cosmology).
Distinguishing essential religion in this sense from its various manifestations – inspired or deluded, genuine or dysfunctional as the case may be – gives us a useful model for assessing the relative health of our own. Whether or not you believe in god, say your prayers, go to church, or hold out hope of an afterlife, the real litmus test of any religion has to do with how effectively it connects you to the grounding mystery within, to others who share the world with you, and to the universe that surrounds you.
My shorthand for these dimensions and associated practices of life is illustrated to the right. I’ll unpack each term more thoroughly in a bit, but for now I’ll restate my general thesis in the following way.
Religion is the system by which human beings cultivate faith, nurture love, and construct meaning. However you do that, is your religion.
We begin with faith because its presence or absence sets the tone for everything else. From the time we were still in our mother’s womb, our nervous system was picking up clues as to whether reality was provident and supportive, or instead hostile and dangerous. This was long before we had an ego and prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently the deep impression registered in our nervous system was both unconscious and ineffable.
In the context of essential religion, faith has nothing to do with beliefs – orthodox or otherwise. The roots of the word reach far below the articulate mind and its propositional truths, into the matter of trust, surrender, and release. I prefer release because it keeps the dynamics of faith centered internally, where to trust (in) anything we must first let go and open up to what is beyond us.
Its opposite is not heresy or intellectual doubt, but anxiety – more accurately existential anxiety, a profound dis-ease concerning the nature of reality. Our nervous system is gripped with tension, skittish and hyper-reactive, which sets us up for nervous exhaustion. This anxiety is the cause of so much that goes wrong in religion.
Because faith is our trusting release to the grounding mystery of being itself, it’s not something that can be measured or manipulated. It is our spontaneous ability to surrender control, relax into being, and rest in the moment. The good news is that it’s an ability we can develop by intentional practice.
We might expect that a deeply grounded faith will translate in positive ways to our relationships with others, and this is indeed the case. The ego is established in its own separate center, which suggests that reaching out for affection, intimacy, cooperation, and reconciliation is where our religion is really tested – and where many fail. A deficiency in faith (i.e., excessive anxiety) makes us suspicious of others and unable to trust them, so when they let us down as they inevitably must, our core impression of reality is confirmed. Around it goes, in a self-reinforcing loop.
Because ego-formation moves our center of personal identity into its own separate position, the real work of religion lies in caring for others, respecting their interests, understanding their needs, forgiving their faults, and helping them thrive. In short, the real work of religion is about love. We should be able to say with confidence that any religion which fails to cultivate the power of love in human relationships, even more when it arouses and justifies hostility towards others, is neither healthy nor true. This insight is what motivated Siddhartha to eschew metaphysics and Jesus to renounce orthodoxy, revealing the way of liberation as consisting in loving-kindness.
The age of postmodernity coincides with the dawning realization that meaning is not something we find in reality, but construct for ourselves. Words are human creations, and the sentences, stories, and worldviews they make up really are made up. If there’s a crisis of meaning these days, it’s not that life has let us down but that we are doing a bad job making life meaningful.
At the highest level, our religion inspires a view of the full horizon of existence, a unified theory of how the Whole Thing moves as one. In prehistoric and ancient times such theories were dramatic narratives, which we know as myths. As we approach modern times, these stories become more mathematical than narrative in structure, and personal elements are strictly excluded. A downside of this shift from sacred stories to scientific theories is our difficulty in seeing ourselves in the bigger picture. If we reduce mind to brain, brain to body, and body to nothing but dead matter, where is the self? Where is the human spirit? How is it possible to say that we belong to the universe?
One more quick drop down to the level of faith will help us appreciate how the meaning of life is really a creative project of our shared life together, and how the quality of our relationships is directly a function of how deep and strong is our individual faith. Faith, that is to say, encourages love, and love engages us in the collaborative pursuit of meaning.
That’s when you know your religion works.