Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Essence of Religion

I just started listening to a college lecture series on tape, on the philosophy of religion. Like most modern academic philosophy, it is very tight with its definitions and structures, and starts out defining what "philosophy" is and what "religion" is. I fully expect to be bored with these initial lectures -- I figured I knew what philosophy and religion were.

What surprised me was how well the professor distinguished the two ventures, in terms of their focus and scope. Philosophy, he maintained, was inherently detached and somewhat removed from it's area of study, by definition, since it is the study of the mechanism of the ideas at work in any given field.

Religion, in contrast, is essentially defined as the involvement in the essential. Well, actually, the professor said he wouldn't use an essential definition, and instead use a "family resemblence" description of many traits that many religions shared without requiring all of them to be a "religion". But, for my money, one of his descriptors was the essential quality of the religious: religious beliefs are those that have absolute primacy. They are the world-views that are all-inclusive, the directives that are absolute and unavoidable, the judgements that are incontrovertible.

I have always maintained that one of the things that made the SKS (or any other disciplined, open-minded venture into spiritual life) was that it carried the "charge" of the religious, which meant that it would be difficult to ignore the demands it put on you.. To put it another way: I think most people, if offered the chance to speak directly to God and have him tell them what He wanted them to do, would not leap at the opportunity, because they sense, deep down, that He's going to ask them to do things they don't want to do, and they will ignore him at their peril. You know that there are certain limits on the demands that your boss can put on you, or your wife, or even your kids. But God . . . God can ask for whatever He wants. And that makes it very, very scary.

Most folks, when they hear about the absolute demands that religion can make on you, assume that such demands take on the form of orthodoxy. Such religion, they think, is the kind that tells you exactly what to wear, what to eat, who to talk to, where to work. Actually, I think they've got it dead wrong -- the fundamentalist hides in the law, the structure, the orthodoxy, because as demanding as the orthodoxy is, at least it is known. If you go off into the woods and have some gnostic mystical experience, God only knows what God will ask of you. Why risk it?

All real religion, then, comes down to the seriousness with which it is engaged, the recognition of its absolute claim to primacy. It's what Kierkegaard called "earnestness." What is religion? Religion is playing for keeps.


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