05 September 2010

What is religion?

Only time for a very brief note today.  A friend wrote me recently:
I ... wound up thinking religion is a psychological tapestry we use to cover the chinks of unknowable stuff about life and death, and to weave a story of meaning and community. Life is full of mysteries, so there are lots of chinks and lots of religions to cover them.
I wonder if that is true.

Oh, I suppose I know what the friend meant.  He may have meant something like the "God of the Gaps" - the "evolution can't explain the existence of man" sort of argument, so God is brought in as a sort of scientific hypothesis to explain man.  Even, pushing things much farther back, "evolution can indeed explain man by means of physical laws - but where do physical laws come from?"

And, indeed, I think that there are far more than 'chinks' in the range of our knowledge.  None of our knowledge is, after all, ultimate.  Stephen Hawkings has recently published his book "The Grand Design", explaining, in the works of the Wikipedia article, that "...invoking God is not necessary to explain the origins of the universe, and that the Big Bang is a consequence of the laws of physics alone" - but of course this leaves one with the laws of physics themselves to explain - and so on.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't precisely call this sort of thing 'religion.'  I would call it 'philosophy.'  Philosophy is of enormous importance.  One way or other, I suppose, every man has philosophical assumptions; those who think about their own thinking are conscious of them, but most are not.

In terms of philosophy, one may:
  • stop at the laws of physics - the physical universe is ultimate
  • add the laws of ethics - there is good and evil, right and wrong - and we will reap the consequences of our actions (karma, one way or another)
  • add a personal God, Who forgives or punishes
Religion, it seems to me, is not identical with any of these philosophical positions.  As a child, I stood in utter awe at the laws of physics.  I was an amateur astronomer, was later to major in astronomy at University - but I must say that I was drawn much more to the wonder and mystery of the heavens than to any actual practical desire to work out the physics of them (which, no doubt, explains my early failure to succeed in studying astronomy seriously).

But I would call the attitude I had one of religious awe.  I had no conception of God; I worshipped, nonetheless.

Then it must be that a man's religion can only rise as high as the conception of God he worships - and I think that is true.  To worship a God of morality is, it seems to me, higher than to worship a God Who is simply the physical All-That-Is - in the words of a song by the Incredible String Band, "Mother Everything."  To worship a personal God higher yet.  To worship the God as He actually is - as, as I believe, He has revealed Himself in the Scriptures and in the traditions of the Catholic Church, highest of all.

But worship is what religion is about.

Pascal's 'Memorial' says it all - I urge you to read the whole thing that link:
The year of grace 1654,Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.

Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.

From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob,
not of the philosophers and of the learned.


Alice Gershom said...

C.S. Lewis said the real difference is not between those who worship one God and those who worship many, but between those who worship and those who don't. Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote a little classic (highly recommended) called "For the Life of the World" whose thesis was that the essence of secularism is not the denial of God (many secularists believe in God and even go to church regularly) -- but the denial of man as "homo adorans."

John Thayer Jensen said...

Thanks, Alice.

It seems to me the hardest thing for me to deal with in others is not antipathy to God but indifference.