Monday, January 12, 2009

The Path(s) to God(s)

In my last post, I distinguished (albeit somewhat arbitrarily) between spirituality and religion. The difference, as I set it down, lies in the fact that religion has a constellation of rituals, practices, and images, which spirituality does not have. (To be only slightly more precise, spirituality can have these, but they're not the focus, and they're less insisted upon.) Collectively, I call this constellation the tradition of the religion, and it is this tradition which defines it as a religion.

For instance, Christianity has the Bible as its primary texts, is organized into churches which (usually) meet on Sundays, and something akin to the Nicene Creed is accepted by most. Wicca has as its primary images the God and the Goddess, is organized into covens, and requires the casting of circles, but has no creed or primary texts.

It is through tradition that the moral aspects of religion may find expression. While the presence of the numinous may involve a sense of encountering a morally pure being, or of being purified, or of being exhorted to moral excellence, this is usually (but not always) going to be undirected without tradition. That is not to say that tradition necessarily dictates moral injunctions, but that it provides a structure by which ethics can be related to the numinous.

This is particularly effective, as advocates for the 365-day bible and other daily Scriptural devotions know, when the tradition involves doing something every day. If this is not only possible to do within the tradition, but essential to it--as for Muslims, the daily prayers, and as for many reconstructions, the daily rituals for the ancestors and the gods--then the way it can shape the contours of daily life, and the experience of living in the presence of numinous beings, cannot be overstated.

Every living tradition has something it is like to be involved in it--something that its practitioners might perceive as its "essence." This is not to say that all members of the tradition will agree on what it is, but to say that, for a Christian, being Christian is a certain way of being, and for a Buddhist, being Buddhist is a certain way of being. Tradition is shaped in part by people's shifting experience of what it is like to be part of it.

Traditions can involve doctrines or dogmas. To the extent that these are clearly logically articulable, they are subject to the relevant kinds of analysis; certain empirical claims--for instance, that crystals can help cure cancer, or that a particular holy book relates an accurate history--can be investigated scientifically. Logical contradictions or serious implausibilities can vitiate an entire tradition, if found in essential doctrines.

Tradition allows for the formation of a religious community, though a religious community may not always be necessary for the founding of a tradition.

One of the things which tends to distinguish religious traditions from other kinds of traditions is the explicit or implicit way in which it upholds, supports, and/or exhorts a vision of life. When the tradition is cut off from that life, it loses much of its purpose. Moreover, the vision of life espoused or expounded by a tradition is a means by which it may be critiqued. A vision of life that is unworkable or inauthentic should not be followed.

For instance, one could criticize the pseudo-religious New Age authors for inadequately dealing with human suffering, or for irresponsibly drawing attention away from real problems like sustainability and social justice.

The vision of life--or kinds of visions, at least--underpinning pagan religions tends to involve a life lived in the sense of the immanent divine. The numinous is not simply transcendent or to be found only by looking within, but can be experienced through or as within things external, but intimately to hand, such as rivers, mountains, trees, images of gods (vulgarly called "idols" by Christians), etc. The embodied nature of human life is generally embraced, and ethics is to be seen as the embodied, social behavior it is, directed more by concerns about virtue and living the good life than by commandments absolutely enjoining particular behaviors. In essence, a more authentic embracing of human experience, even in its diversity, is sought.

How one "chooses" or "comes to" or "creates" a tradition requires a post of its own.

To sum up: Religion, as I see it, essentially involves two aspects: experience of the numinous, and the constellation of practices, beliefs, and images that I call tradition. The experience of the numinous provides the impetus, the essential core that gives the religion significance and inspires reflection and meditation. The tradition allows the religion to coalesce as a religion, and take a form more tangible than an amorphous spirituality.

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