Thursday, March 23, 2006

what is religion?

The answer I gave to this question—"What is religion?"—in a grad-level Religion 701 class in 2000, was: 

Religion is a human response to ultimate reality. 

The answer was a great disappointment to our teacher, who described it as "cagey." The problem, of course, is that more specific definitions of religion fall prey to exceptions: if you argue that religions are primarily theistic, for example, then you may be unjustifiably excluding nontheistic strains of Buddhism* and other traditions. If you argue that religions all deal with salvation in some form, you may end up excluding "world-maintenance" traditions that have nothing to do with salvation (or other looming existential questions). Etc., etc. 

But even my "cagey" answer has its problems. Consider each element of my definition and ask yourself the following questions: 

1. Is religion an exclusively human phenomenon? If people in a given religious tradition describe a metaphysics wherein all phenomena participate with equal profundity in the eternal mystery—a universe in which all things are necessarily imbued with religious reality—how can one limit "religion" merely to the human sphere? Perhaps my definition is too anthropocentric. 

2. Is religion merely a response? Mircea Eliade would probably argue that it is, and evidence abounds that religious people are convinced they are responding to something. But might we not be excluding those who initiate religious behavior without waiting for the manifestation of some Ultimate? 

3. Speaking of which: might the inclusion of ultimate reality in my definition risk excluding those traditions or thought-systems that proclaim there is nothing ultimate? 

Me, I like my definition. I'm not about to part with it. I'm aware it causes problems, but I tend to think that it causes fewer problems than those long-winded definitions that seek to define a living, moving reality in dead, minutiae-ridden, contractual language. Definitions of core human concepts require a certain semantic plasticity and conceptual openness. 

Then there's Zen Master Shin Go Seong's way of looking at things. "What is religion?" he asked me and a friend of mine when we were at his Zen temple in Germantown, Maryland for the first time. My friend and I mumbled something vaguely academic, to which Master Shin said, "No. Religion is deepest teaching." 

This two-word definition has prompted a lot of thought on my part. Teaching implies that something—we might call it knowledge or insight or something else—is handed down in a chain of giving. Teaching implies interdependence. The term also leaves open the possibility that the teacher might not be human: perhaps a pot, now boiling over thanks to our negligence, can be a teacher. Perhaps birdsong can teach. Or itchy hemorrhoids. Teaching, then, is relational. 

The word deepest—and it's so typically Zen to brook no compromise by merely saying "deep"—means that we go right to the heart of reality. Ultimate reality? Maybe. Yahweh? Krsna? Maybe. Slap a name on it; it won't matter much.** 

Religion: Human response to ultimate reality. 

Religion: Deepest teaching. 

What is religion?


*The flat declaration that "Buddhism is nontheistic" needs to be unpacked to be properly understood. What terms like "theistic" and "nontheistic" might mean in relation to Buddhism is worthy of exploration. 

 **Seung Sahn repeatedly said that, when doing mantra, "Coca Cola, Coca Cola" is a perfectly fine mantra as long as it's chanted mindfully.

UPDATE: Healthy doses of religious wisdom here and here.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. Definitely some food for thought.

That reminds me, though--wasn't there a post on theology in the works? What ever happened to that? I didn't miss it, did I?

Anonymous said...

Given our conversation today, that was a a particularly timely post. I think your definition is likely as good as any. I regret that although I've studied ancient Near Eastern religions and their development, I've never studied in a general, more broadly based religion course. I've got a few basic resources, but have got to learn more.