Are you religious? Your answer will depend a lot on what your questioner meant by the concept of “religion” and how you view this concept.
Most definitions refer this word back to its Latin background of binding together again, on the assumption that there has been a previous condition of separation and disconnection or non-connectivity. Religion therefore contains hints of a desire for integration, re-connectivity and wholeness.
However, some people now refuse to associate themselves with or to use as a description of themselves, this word “religion”. Why is this so?
Both “religion” and the various organised religions, with their founders, followers and faith-based formulations, have histories going back for thousand of years. These formulations as sacred texts and creeds naturally have as their original contemporary context, the historical period and the intellectual world-view at the time of their founding. For Christianity, its time span is about 2,000 years and its historical context is the first century C.E.
The first century world-view tended to feature a geo-centric or earth-centred model of the universe, with its three tiers of Heaven above, Earth below and between and the Underworld or Hades below both of them. Platonic refinements included the location of the Real or the Absolutes in the heavenly realm, with the entities or “realities” being mere shadows or copies on earth below of the absolute forms above in heaven or in the Great Beyond. Plato included as his absolute values, features including love, beauty and truth. Such a tiered cosmos, with its deified and supernatural beings moving between the supra-terrestrial, heavenly locations, needs to be kept in mind by present-day readers of the Bible, who are sincerely seeking to understand the many biblical doctrines, including creation, redemption, virgin birth, a heavenly, deified and an earthly, humanised God-Man called Yehoshua (Yahweh Saves) or Jesus, nature miracles, the transfiguration or solar epiphany to Peter in Matthew 17, the physical or bodily resurrection of Jesus, the eschatological parousia, the conversion of or solar epiphany to Paul in Acts 22 and many other hotly-debated doctrinal formulations and creeds. Such doctrines have given rise to almost countless hours of subtle theological debate and numbers of confessional and polemical books and pamphlets.
Most readers of the Bible today and 2,000 years after its composition, have kept in mind this historically-specific, first century world-view as they articulate and assess such Christian doctrines listed above. However, the question inevitably arises: How can we understand and interpret these doctrines and their associated stories or narratives in the context of our 21st century and the present-day requirement for soundly-based scientific and semantic analysis, as well as for a spiritually-fulfilling and symbolically-enriching application for our soul-sustenance. Can religion therefore still provide a vehicle for dealing with all of these above issues, doctrines and perspectives?
My answer is “yes”, if the two poles of religion, which are its rigid and remote pole and its relaxed and relevant pole, are both honestly analysed, compared, considered in the form of contrasting mirror-images and then applied to the present day religious or spiritual quest.
Rigid religion can be seen in beliefs and formulations produced in creeds and in the organisation and structure established to practise and promote this religion. This tends to be remote, because its history and its formulations span thousands of years.
Beliefs and doctrines in rigid religion tend to feature supernatural theistic and divinised beings, remote and fabulous cosmic locations and miraculous events. Races and tribes adopt specific names such as Chemosh, Baal, El Shaddai, and Yahweh for such chief deities and these are developed in subsequent refinements through such dogmas as a Trinity of three persons and of one nature. The approach towards the sacred texts tend to be literal and even literalistic, with biblical stories tending to be viewed as biblical history containing mostly biblical facts and historically reliable statements. Such thinking puts the stress on semantics and signs, where each word corresponds to a reality rather than a stress on a symbolical understanding or a figurative representation of the biblical concepts.
Organisational structures within religions naturally include the administarion of affairs and the construction of buildings, offices, places of worship such as churches, synagogues mosques or temples. Such structures can also be ancient or at least very old.
Rigid religion therefore tends to display the following features, which will then be reflected and contrasted in mirror images with relaxed (and relevant) religion.
Rigid religion has tended to be theocratic, male-dominated, hierarchical and is displayed in such leadership levels as a pope, arch-bishops, bishops, priests and the laity or members. Great emphasis is put on authority derived from the adopted Deity and authorisation and succession from and through the twelve apostles. From this flows claims of infallibility in relation to inerrant texts, confessional doctrines like the Assumption of the Virgin (or Mother) Mary and the Pope as the papal leader. This also gives rise to claims of exclusiveness, of uniqueness and of alone having the One Way to Salvation and the One and only Saviour for this Way to Heaven.
Such confessional apologetics tends to give rise to antagonism and polemics against the doubters and the non-believers, who have to face religious intolerance, bigotry, inquisitions, charges of heresy, being burned alive at the stake and many other forms of cruel treatment and punishment for having a mind which contained wrong thoughts.
Relaxed religion on the other hand and as a contrasting mirror image, tries to be relevant and to pursue a Way or Path whose features are polar opposites to those of rigid religion. Its world-view and its humanistic and humanitarian concerns, tend towards the earthly and the terrestrial and its definitions tend to begin with an earthly and cosmic base such as love, cosmic energy, the earth, the sky and the life and light-bestowing astronomical sun. From being grounded on Earth, this outlook then moves to such symbolical expressions for these real entities in such symbolical expressions as God is Love, the Cosmic Prime Mover and Sustainer of the World and the Universe, Mother Earth or Gaia, Father Sky, a Father in Heaven and Helios or Sol Invictus as the sun or solar disk. Inherited and traditional supernatural beings and places tend not to be literalised and theologized but instead are naturalised and secularised, as happened when the Greek Goddess Gaia was secularised as our Earth, which unfortunately, we humans, through our often thoughtless pollution, landscape transformations, quarrying and our detrimental impact on both the weather and the climate, are gradually making un-inhabitable!
Some contrasting organisational opposites in relaxed (and relevant) religion include a more fluid and free-flowing forms of formation and functioning. In place of the role of theocracy, hierarchy, bigotry, exclusivity, intolerance and rigid organisational structures, Relaxed religion presents equality or an egalitarian pattern, a more open and inclusive approach to out-siders, a more tolerant attitude towards followers of other spiritual paths, a suspicion that perhaps spiritual seekers are in quest of the same or similar goals relating to bio-psycho-socio-cosmic Integration and Wholeness, as it relates to our human lives, minds, multi-racial society and our vast cosmos. This goal of Integration is also being seen as the end of the soul or psyche’s spiritual birth and growth from its unconscious wholeness, through its conscious un-wholeness or fallen condition onward to its conscious wholeness.
Are you religious? You can now reply that your answer will depend on whether the questioner has in mind the word “religious” as an expression of “rigid (and remote) religion” or of “relaxed (and relevant) religion”. Hopefully, this latter concept will help to restore the word “religion” as a depiction of humanity’s continuing need for inter-connectedness at the multiple bio-psycho-socio-cosmic levels of our human existence and for ultimate integration and wholeness.
John Noack, June 2012. Email address: <email@example.com>
John Noack has been a Lutheran Clergyman at Rainbow in Victoria, Australia, a Tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne and a Secondary Teacher of History and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew, Victoria. He has conducted archaeological and textual research at the Australian Institute of Archaeology at Bundoora in Melbourne and he is engaged in a quest to resolve the many enigmas in the Gospel according to St Mark.
Some Relevant Literature:
Bauckham, Richard Jesus and the God of Israel: ‘God Crucified’ and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity Paternoster, Milton Keynes UK 2008.
Casey, Maurice Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching London and New York, T&T Clark International, A Continuum Imprint, 2010.
Darlison, Bill The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus, Duckworth Overlook London, 2007.
Fullmer, Paul Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective, T&T Clark, London, 2007.
Leaves, Nigel Religion Under Attack: Getting Theology Right! Polebridge Press, Salem, Oregon, 2011.
Leaves, Nigel The God Problem: Alternatives to Fundamentalism, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, California, 2006.
Taylor, J. Glen Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel JSOT (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament) Press Sheffield 1993.