I’ve had several conversations recently with friends and acquaintances about what religion is, and I’ve read a couple book manuscripts about it.
Those who are pro-religion tend to refer to religion as a root system. It’s like the bulb of a plant, and from that bulb grows our spirituality. Without roots, our faith is unhinged from anything. We become spiritual-but-not-religious, New Age syncretists.
But this isn’t religion. I think, instead, that God is the bulb, the roots. It is from God that our experiences of God grow.
Those who are anti-religion say that religion is an exoskeleton that is meant to protect our experiences of God. But instead it suffocates our spirituality. They say that we should ditch religion, get out from under the exoskeleton, and let our spirituality live.
But this is not religion. Religion can become this, but the proponents of this view tell us that we can have spirituality without religion. That’s naive, because it’s not possible. Modern religious bureaucracy is a suffocating exoskeleton, but that is not religion.
Here’s what religion is: religion is a trellis.
We have experiences of the Divine, and we attempt to communicate our experiences of the Divine to other human beings. We use symbols to do that communication: words, images, bodily postures, etc. This is “culture;” that is, it’s how we cultivate our experiences of the Divine — how we take the messy field of experience and plow it into rows that we can work.
And it turns out that others have done this before us. Many others. They have used words and images and bodily postures to cultivate and organize their experiences of the Divine. And others have seen that and thought, “Hey, my experience of the Divine is like that. Let’s throw in on this together.” And they do. And there you’ve got religion.
Religion is the trellis that our experiences of the Divine climb on. The handholds, if you will, by which we organize our experiences of the numinous.
God is the bulb.
Your experience of the Divine is the vines and fruit.
Religion is the trellis on which those vines and fruit grow, on which they thrive, and on which they reach heights that they could never otherwise reach.