Psychologist Gordon Allport argued that there are two types of religious experience—the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Extrinsic religious orientation has little to do with religion and lots to do with social norms, rules, and regulations. Allport said extrinsic orientation functions “to provide security and solace, sociability and distraction, status and self-justification.” This sort of religion is a means to an end. (Sound familiar?)
Intrinsic religious orientation, on the other hand, is the end in itself. For those oriented toward intrinsic religion, their religion becomes their meaning and purpose in life. The means IS the end. The religious commitment shapes the life.
This is as far as Allport took the idea, but Daniel Batson, who holds doctorates in both psychology and theology, posited a third religious orientation, what he called “quest.” Watson says,
An individual who approaches religion in this way recognizes that he or she does not know, and probably never will know, the final truth about such matters. Still the questions are deemed important, and however tentative and subject to changes, answers are sought.
This sounds an awful lot like Unitarian Universalism. Realizing that the answers—all the answers—are time bound; socially bound; class bound; and tentative is a wise way of looking at the old answers to the old problems and the new answers to those old problems. Wisdom.
As I see it, wisdom, when it comes to religious and philosophical questions, is about being two things—humble and realistic. This wisdom centers around an old Daoist and Epicurean and Stoic insight: we must accept the nature of reality itself—and the reality of nature—or we can’t be content and have our eyes open at the same time.
That’s the essence, isn’t it: the goal is to both have our eyes open and to be as content as we can at the same time.
There are ways to be content—even happy—and NOT look at what is real: staying drunk or stoned all the time, for example. Or staying depressed or optimistic all the time. Or retail therapy. All those are lies we tell ourselves.
If the quest is authenticity, life is about both gaining and losing. To pretend that life is not about loss is a fool’s game. Religious maturity is about realism, and realism requires humility in the face of life’s challenges.
Furthermore, as Batson pointed out, it’s about accepting the fact that the search is all we have—that the search itself is the challenge and the answer.
Arriving at “truth” merely means you’ve given up the search. Science is open-ended; philosophy is open-ended; all the fine arts are open-ended—this is what creativity is, when every new thing is new. As in art and science and philosophy, stopping the search in religious thinking means you’ve given up any hope of renewal, or creativity.
Religious thinking—thinking about the ultimate meaning and purpose of human life on this planet—must involve both the chance to continuously evolve with time and must offer some hope for the human condition—our condition—itself.
To have any validity beyond mere fantasy, religious thinking must be oriented toward greater human flourishing—greater flourishing that human beings have yet acheived.
As the Daoists and the Buddhists and the Epicureans and the Stoics and many others all realized, each day is new and different, with new challenges for each of us. What do we need each day? I’d say three things—equanimity, compassion, and wisdom.
Equanimity is about taking what comes and dealing with the challenges. Compassion is about remembering that each person we meet is just like us, with the same capacity for fear, hope, and dreams. Wisdom helps us find equanimity and compassion. Wisdom takes all of our knowledge and experience and boils it down, focuses it so that we can face life with equanimity and compassion.
No, we don’t want our moral aspirations to remain shadowy and vague.
We want our daily practices become more than navel gazing: we want and need our inner work to be preparation for outer action.
Then, we have realized and owned our agency—realized the fact that what we do in the world matters . . . for both good and ill. And we begin to tilt that scale more toward the good than the ill. Then you’re coming from somewhere.