The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

 

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