Having taken a brief look at the evolution of religion over the last several weeks, today we will begin a final look at religion by addressing the question, “what is religion”?
The Many Manifestations of Belief
In previous weeks, we have looked at religion from a secular point of view: as simply the ongoing human attempt to make sense of our surroundings and develop strategies to help us cope with it. Both history and even the most casual look at the world today, however, shows these attempts to result in a bewildering array of beliefs, practices and social structures which fall into the general category of ‘religion’.
Ian Barbour proposes a general definition of the term ‘religion’:
“A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
This sort of definition rolls up an understanding of our environment into beliefs about the causes of this environment and the practices to be observed for us to appropriately deal with it.
East vs West
The content, modes and expressions of such beliefs, however, vary significantly among the many manifestations to be found among the many cultures in the world. The differences between East and West beliefs and practices, for example, are significant enough to suggest that conventional definitions of the term ‘religion’ will not stretch sufficiently to encompass them all.
For example, there are significant differences between understandings of the human person and his place in society between the West and East. In the East, ultimate fulfillment of the person consists in ‘dissolution’ into the ‘whole’, while in the West, it consists of articulation of the person in the form of a ‘soul’, which is gathered into the ‘whole’ intact.
Even the basic understanding of time is different between East and West. The Western understanding of time as an ‘arrow’ preceding from a beginning and eventually coming to an end. This is contrary to the Eastern understanding of time as cyclical, with its vision of the unending repetition of birth, death and rebirth on both the personal as well as the cosmic level.
Karen Armstrong comments on such differences:
“The idea of religion as an essentially personal and systematic pursuit was entirely absent from classical Greece, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, China and India. Nor does the Hebrew Bible have any abstract concept of religion; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to express what they meant by ‘faith’ in a single word or even in a formula.”
All expressions of belief, however, having occurred over such a great span of time and including the thoughts of so many thinkers, have accumulated diverse and often bewildering explanations and claims to truth. The evolution of religion as the human attempt to make sense of his surroundings has gone on for such a long time that every possible belief (attempt to make sense) has evolved along with it.
The history of religious thinking, therefore, can certainly be seen as an often clumsy, un-integrated and contradictory attempt to articulate the personal aspect of the forces by which we, and the rest of the universe, have come into existence.
Teilhard noted the need for an understanding of both these forces and the persons which emerge from them:
“To explain the workings of the universe we must understand the forces and process by which it comes to be, and this understanding must include the human person.”
This simply stated approach to such an understanding is also the basis for our approach to God from the perspective of science (“understanding the forces and processes”) and extending this perspective to religion (“including the human person”).
So, In keeping with the insights of Teilhard de Chardin, one way of understanding religion is to place it into the context of human evolution.
The Next Post
Next week we will address the question ‘what is religion’ from this point of view.