The Human Role in Religion

The idea that the human relationship to religion is of questioner to provider of answers may ultimately destroy both religion and our humanity.

One of my colleagues recently circulated an exam question from a textbook in world religions. The exam asked “What is the most important question human beings must answer? Choose your question wisely, and then examine how Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.”

This exam assumes that the student can learn something important about religion if he or she first examines the human person as one who asks questions, and then examines religions as providers of answers to those questions. An ancient text, the book of Job, suggests the futility of this approach to either being human or to understanding religion.

Job undergoes a series of terrible misfortunes and trials. He and his friends then turn to their religion to ask, “why?” The result is a series of unsatisfactory answers, rising contentiousness, and a growing hubris on the part of the questioners. Finally Job calls out directly to God with his complaint. And out of a whirlwind, God speaks, saying simply, “Let me question you.”

At this instant the proper relationship between Job and God is established. God asks the questions, Job has to provide the answers. This doesn’t obviate Job’s questions, or suggest that they are insignificant. Rather, it reminds him, and the reader, that the proper relationship of humans to God, to the Transcendent, is to answer the question posed to us by God, not visa versa.

God, Truth, Beauty: we are their servants, not their masters. We come when they call and answer when they ask.

Of course this is exactly the opposite of the dominant Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment culture of the North Atlantic world. In Enlightenment cultures humans are the autonomous subject, and everything else is object to be examined, interrogated, and used. God becomes “the object of worship” to use a common phrase that instantly reduces the letters “God” to the status of idol.

Religion as it has succumbed to and conformed to this cultural moment, may be doomed. It becomes simply one of many means by which humans find answers and solutions to the questions and problems that they pose. Religion, and whatever god it has on offer, becomes a servant to human need. And in this role it is frankly not much use.

Religion’s insights into the nature of observable reality are second rate if not tendentious compared to those of science. Psychology and increasingly neuroscience tell us more about the way we think and feel than religious impositions of guilt and shame. Governments, NGOs, and civil society generally are better providers of human needs and organizers of human action.

As long as religion wishes to be a provider of answers and solutions to human questions and problems it may an unnecessary endeavor.

I believe that this is why, in their own stumbling way, people are turning to spirituality as an alternative to religion. When people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious” it means many things. But at the core I think it expresses their longing to be questioned by the universe rather than to ask the questions. It expresses their longing to return to a more humble relationship to the cosmos, one in which wonder and amazement and silence overwhelm us. To be spiritual is to come at last with Job before the whirlwind and listen to its roar, or with Elijah on the mountaintop to hear a still small yet commanding voice.

This has important implications for both inter-religious dialogue and theological education in a religiously plural context that I’ll sketch out in the blogs that follow this one.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Elinor Predota

    You raise an interesting set of issues here.

    From my personal Pagan perspective, questions and relationship should never go only one way when dealing with non-corporeal beings and the many forms and faces of the Divine. In fact, question and answer is not the fundamental basis for those relationships at all.

    For me, appreciation — including awe and wonder and surrender to mystery — as well as gratitude, hospitality, and friendship are how I relate to the Divine in all its forms (including the human ones).

    Other Pagans, of course, will differ in their perspective and experience.

  • Larry Logan

    When we question God, we receive what we think are answers, i.e., the bible. We put a definition on the indefinable, we we believe we know what the unknowable wants followed by statements of faith, doctrines, and creeds to put God in a box.

    A prayer of petition is a childish prayer. Talking at God and asking for blessings is only the bottom level of prayer. Listening is the next level. The highest level is oneness, being in God as God is in us without thinking, feeling, speaking, hearing, but just being together like a couple that has been together for 40+ years sits together on the porch seemingly doing nothing. They are being together as one.