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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Religion: Comfort in Certainty or Contentment in Chaos?

Since there haven’t been huge events in the world that have had relevance to present society, I thought it better to consider religion and faith in general for once this week instead of specific incidents that connect to their study.

David Hartman, a well known Orthodox rabbi and philosopher, starts his CNN Belief Blog interview by noting what is probably the first thing most people view religion as; something to comfort them, to make them see the possibility of hope in a world that is intrinsically chaotic, unpredictable and varied in the satisfaction we gain in it. But Hartman cautions against this view, noting that religion shouldn’t be seen as a way to bind oneself to something in order to make the proverbial roller coaster of life seem more bearable. Religion may in some way have this function, as a method of therapy and catharsis, a cleansing of the mind and a reorientation of our perspective. But it shouldn’t be seen as a way to transcend life and go beyond suffering and the reality that we experience every day. Religion is not acquiring ultimate answers to give people, because otherwise, life would be perfect. If we just got a solution to the problem of people suffering loss of friends and family, life wouldn’t be in the state it is, with people in some cases becoming so fixated on the afterlife that they eschew any value to life as we know it. Not everyone is a Gnostic in that radical dualism of the spirit and flesh. But even a belief system where we think we have some ultimate revelation about how the world will end is still going a step beyond what it ought to be. Any religion that steps into the human realm and speaks to them as if they’re some messenger of God with just the right answers has turned its followers, laity and clergy alike, into puppets of self delusion. Hartman brings up the example of kids suffering with cancer. Religion doesn’t solve these problems, science does, over time. Religion heals wounds over time as well, albeit those of a more subtle nature. To Rabbi Hartman, religion is that system which enables us to persevere in the face of absurdity, of the uncertain. I would go a step further and say that this system shouldn’t be called religion, but instead something of a fusion of religion and philosophy. By this, I mean that this system, whatever one might want to call it, should involve both principles of ethics and practice following from them. Paul Kurtz, a philosopher called the “father of secular humanism” coined the term eupraxophy, which describes a system that focuses more on ethical behavior than what he called the “transcendental temptation”; what I understand to be similar to what Rabbi Hartman spoke about. We can’t live life thinking we have all the answers, no matter how much we’ve experienced in our own lives. A child could present more genuine ethics in a funeral situation or any such disaster than someone even my grandparents’ age. In a child innocently understanding that when someone is crying, they are upset, they would also consider it appropriate to console the person in a way that may involve words, but may simply involve a touch of the hand. That kind of comfort is something any person can appreciate, even if they also know that it will pass away. Knowing people will pass away is not cause for holding a belief that eventually people won’t pass away. It seems more prudent to focus on behaving well and cultivating good habits of ethics presently instead of hoping for some future where all our problems have been solved. As Hartman said, “I prefer a religion that gives me the strength to live with the unpredictable world rather than denying it,”

Continuing with the line of thought about the terms we use to describe such a system that appears in varied forms, without or with God. Some call it religion, others a relationship; some prefer to call it philosophy, discovering wisdom and fulfillment in life. There’s also belief system or worldview that express a more comprehensive idea, but are also very extensive and intimidating to people who want a basic way to express what their practice of virtue is. And of course there’s the term eupraxophy which is still very much unknown in common parlance. Even the term faith seems too limited, since not every person focuses on their faith in something in the sense that many have come to use the word. To have faith in something nowadays seems to be persisting in a conviction even when there is evidence or experience to the contrary. People who advocate this kind of faith also don’t seem to want a fellow believer to ever backslide or revert to their old ways, or distance themselves from the beliefs they were raised with. I can’t genuinely seem to name any names, not even a particular cousin who has generally harsh criticism of “liberalism” but is also quite liberal with his advice and doesn’t seem to know when to hold his tongue and listen to someone else talk, like a younger cousin of mine in college, not as concerned in his youth about his salvation so much as his education. The generation gap could be accused as the culprit in this case, but it seems like it may be something more along the lines of differences of personality. There are those that are more prone to being fixated on conservation of the past and future without realizing that in many cases, what is done in the present reflects both one’s past and future; the past in what you have learned and grown through before and the future in what you might do and how you might confront the unknown. And there are those that are potentially too invested in the present to the exclusion of considerations of the past or the future; ignoring past mistakes or not considering the consequences of their actions that will happen. A balance needs to be found or at least some moderation of either side. We admittedly need people that are more motivated by either rational or emotional considerations, and even those that contain aspects of both; like a philosopher of religion, considering religion, a discipline intertwined with people’s hopes and fears, through philosophy, more rigorous and structured, though aligned with religion nonetheless in seeking happiness through reason’s lens. Krista Tippet, host of the radio show now titled On Being reflects something of this sentiment. If we are to make a genuine pursuit of understanding what we have in common, we have to at least loosen our grip on, if not let go as reified ideas, those terms like faith and reason and consider them in a more general context before automatically reducing them to our particular contexts in life. Myself, as a child raised Christian, becoming a teen Deist and then finally concluding after college as more of a Buddhist; I am just one person of many that can be observed and approached in, and approach others with, the spirit of hospitality and tolerance. Not gullibility and naivete, mind you, but a deep trust alongside discretion honed over time and experience. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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