Religionless Religion: Beyond Belief to Understanding

Have you ever wondered why we hear so much talk about religion in America but see so little evidence of compassion and justice in the society we have made? Clyde Brown’s new book, Religionless Religion, finds altruistic values expressed in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other religious traditions of the world and then explores how they came to be obscured in the development of Christianity. By focusing on the heart of those values–a relationship to the Infinite, selflessness, and compassionate treatment of others in society–Brown shows how vital and truly universal they are, yet profoundly absent in American life today. Clyde Brown’s study is thought-provoking, cogently written, and I highly recommend it. 

In his gem of a final chapter, Brown deftly sketches the economic and political devastation wrought by the rise of capitalism unfettered by the restraints of true religious values. Brown shows how universal altruistic values view the unlimited pursuit of self-interest without regard to social justice as dangerous to individual and community alike. How different is the philosophy of Ayn Rand for whom “‘selfishness is a virtue, altruism a vice,’ thus reversing once and for all the traditional Judeo-Christian values.” Among Rand’s devotees was Alan Greenspan, who “as an economist, went on to become the Head of the Federal Reserve and had much influence over our economic policy for many years.” Brown’s modest observation makes it agonizingly clear that those beliefs have enormous consequences, as ordinary citizens and especially the poor, continue to reap the economic devastation that advocates of greed have sown. The universal religious values Brown espouses clearly matter deeply in a healthy society. 

What accounts for Christianity’s distortion of universal religious values? Clyde Brown sees that the earliest Jesus movement expressed them fully, as did related movements in its ancient environment, such as those of Essenes, Gnostics, and Platonists. But as contemporary scholars of early Christian history point out, some traits of the earliest Christian communities eventually became lost. Much early Christian writing was forbidden or destroyed as Christianity grew into an “ism.” 

Like Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, Brown observes archetypal patterns across religious traditions. He looks to Taoist writings, Krishnamurti, and many other observers to describe a universal human condition–the human tendency to become so self-absorbed that we become separated from what is ultimate. Religious traditions of the world also describe deliverance from a divine source–such as the myth of a savior that rescues humanity from evil, which for Brown means particularly the evil of self. When read with a proper understanding of symbolic meaning, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament address the same universal struggle of the spirit, according to Brown. He contends that as Christianity became the religion of an empire, Christian faith had to do more with believing particular statements as literal fact and less with a story that triggers mystical transformation of self and compassionate action, a momentous change indeed. 

Key universal values did not disappear as Christian culture changed–they continued to be admirably expressed in monasticism, which at its best, was “the kind of loving, sharing and simple life that Jesus advocated.” They continue to be found in the work of philosophers as well: Karl Marx’s expressions of social justice for the greater good, for example, can be well understood as secular religion advocating a kind of religious behavior. John Dewey also is shown to advocate what Brown calls “religionless religion,” expressing universal religious values like compassion and justice without the overlay of any specifically religious tradition. 

What I love about Religionless Religion is the author’s passion for dispassionate exploration of difficult questions. Clyde Brown’s approach to religion is properly critical and appreciative. His thoughtful study and wisdom make him a reliable guide as he capably examines his diverse sources: from early Christian authors like Clement of Alexandria to contemporary theologians like John Shelby Spong; from ancient philosophers like Plotinus to Hegel and Feuerbach. Brown pronounces no simple solutions to the human predicament, but in the end his book does take an optimistic turn, as he looks into the future with Teilhard de Chardin toward a breakthrough in human consciousness that will lead humans to finally realize and live the ultimate values of religious faith. 

Jon B. Daniels, M.T.S Harvard Divinity School, Ph.D. Claremont Graduate School

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