Defining Religion: Or, a Fool’s Errand

Defining Religion: Or, a Fool’s Errand December 3, 2021




We are in a magical and dangerous moment, where uncertainty is in the air. Maybe even end times. And with that, doors are opening. Not least among these are doors opening into deeper understandings of what religion and spirituality might be.

So, a critical question. What is religion? And with that what is spirituality? It turns out these are in fact slippery terms, especially religion. In my view Merriam-Webster is the great American dictionary. It’s worth looking at what it has to say about religion.

Its first definition 1(a) interestingly, describes the state of a person under vows, like a nun. 1(b), probably is what most of us think of as religion, “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” 1(b) is however, divided into its own two parts. That first about the cult of a divinity, while 1(b)(2) describes a “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.” Definition 2 goes “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” I suspect that’s the functional definition for any religious institution.

The magisterial Oxford English Dictionary, pretty much the standard for the English language writ large, as is its wont, meanders through vowed communities and individuals, offers the “Christian church,” and finally, at definition 4 says religion is “A particular system of faith and worship.”

Buried within these definitions is an assumption of an institution. Those today who say they’re spiritual but not religious are mostly pointing to institutions that they are rejecting. And that’s a great deal of what people reject religion in favor of spiritual seem to mean. Spiritual becomes unlinked from the various oppressions and cruelties that religious communities through the course of history are burdened with. A very long list.

In some ways spiritual is a less messy term. Merriam-Webster’s first definition is “of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit. In the online version it hotlines to “Spirit,” which has as a first definition “an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms.” The etymology takes us to breath.

What I would call a primary metaphor, akin to such fundamental human experiences as walking, sleeping, hearing, seeing. Metaphors are a basic way we understand things, where we find or express meaning noting how something is like another thing. Fundamental metaphors may not be archetypes in a Jungian or Platonic sense, having an existence beyond the things in themselves, but they are our most basic points of reference. For us as humans this process has multiple purposes.

One I find terribly important is how metaphors help to liberate us from a bare literalism, opening doors of perception, and paths to some deeper meaning. Here we’re invited into something truly important. Maybe the most important thing in our lives. Here we’re exploring meaning and purpose. Or, at least we find ourselves invited in that direction.

And. It is dangerous to have private definitions for words. Humpty Dumpty tells us how “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean…” To which Alice offers the great rebuke, “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.” When a word gets stretched too far, say how we find the word God sitting in our company, we end up with a conundrum. There are so many meanings to God, by way of dictionaries, by way of history, by way of our own experiences and encounters, that we end up with a hole in the language.

Not a bad thing. When seeking the heart of the mystery that we are, not a bad thing at all. But it makes casual conversations difficult. That said, I think it is possible to compress the common usages for religion, especially in light of our current distinction between religion and spirituality, and come up with a working definition.

As far back as we know with any certainty, religion and spirituality and culture are profoundly entangled. In fact, any attempt at pulling specifically spiritual perspectives out of the cultural matrix seems to date no later than during the European Renaissance. And, the truth be told, with only limited success. There are those who assert the attempt is an exercise in futility. Many languages don’t even have equivalents for the word religion.

And people try. Personally, I’ve found the twentieth century Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian Forrest Church’s observation one of the better definitions. “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and (knowing we will) die.” My own attempt at a definition is that “religions are that part of a culture concerned most with meaning and direction.” Although I think the Buddhist scholar Franz Metcalf offers the best definition, “Religions are the beliefs and practices that structure our cultures and give meaning to our lives and deaths.”

I think these definitions even if slippery, even if provisional are important. But it’s also important to notice how really slippery they are. Sometimes this has to do with reinforcing culture, the nice way of saying crowd control. Other times it has to do with deeper and more personal needs.

The institutions of religion are about many things. But one that is inescapable is that crowd control. Religions define who is in and who is out. For a culture this is important. Who belongs to your family, your tribe, your nation? From just about forever religions told you. Some still do. But, to call it problematic is to gravely understate the matter. In our own time the way religions use archaic purity codes to condemn non-normative sexualities is a powerful example of how easily this can be evil.

At the same time human beings exist only within a cultural context. We might rise out of the narratives of our specific culture, become citizens of the world, but to get there we need formation, and formation always comes within specificities of one sort or another. So, we need culture, but culture is also limiting. The distinction between who we are as individuals and who we are as members of a culture are, well, messy.

And, always, as the spiritual if not religious tell us, there is something within the mess that is extricable.

So, small wonder trying to define religion, which contains our deeper aspirations as well as the responsibility for the cohesion of a culture is so slippery…

A fool’s errand.

And, yet, there is something in that foolishness.

That spiritual thing.

The deep breath. The wind that can carry us somewhere.

An opportunity to be blown off a cliff and into the mystery that the religions so kindly have been keeping for us…

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