Why do we gather in religious community? What is religious community? How do we tie our diverse religious beliefs and yearnings together into one community?
The Rev. James Covington, serving the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Briarton, Croton and Ossining, New York, takes a stab at answering some of these concerns in a sermon delivered last January.
For consideration: What binds you to your religious community? What values do you have in common with those who hold different beliefs than you?
What it Means to Be Religious
by Rev. James Covington
What does it mean to be religious? My, what a question! I wonder what your answer would be. I am certain we would have as many different answers as there are people sitting in front of me. It is a question always on my mind—not urgently so, but at least, somewhere peripheral. It has been on my mind more so recently. I wonder why. Well, we live in a time when the world about us is so rife with political and religious conflict, one cannot help but despair of it all. Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, certainly has been an evocative reading. And as an association, Unitarian Universalists are presently, it seems, attempting to address the question amongst ourselves—if we are a “liberal” religious movement, then what do we mean by that? What do we mean by “religious?”
As I often do, I perused my books of quotes this week on the meaning of religion. I was amazed. There are hundreds of them and they are the best testament to the conflicting points of view humans have about what it means to be religious.
The classic definition of religion is: “a belief in and reverence for a supernatural power accepted as the creator of the universe. “Religious” means: of, relating to, or teaching religion. Or pious; extremely faithful.
But most great thinkers, writers and leaders interestingly define it differently. Listen:
Abraham Lincoln said: When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.
Albert Einstein: What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless I not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.
Enter Forrest Church, a UU minister: Religion is our response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing that we shall die.
Sophia Lyon Fahs, a UU educator: Life becomes religious whenever we make it so: when some new light is seen, when some deeper appreciation is felt, when some larger outlook is gained, when some nobler purpose is formed, when some task is well done.
Susan B. Anthony: I always distrust people who know so much about what God wants them to do to their fellows.
Mark Twain: Man is the religious animal. He is the only religious animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion –- several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.
Paul Tillich: Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.
Emerson: Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.
Freud: Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis.
Thomas Jefferson: I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I am satisfied that yours must be an excellent religion to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged.
William James: Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.
Dalai Lama: This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.
Friedrich Schleirmacher: Religion is a purely human invention, designed to help us become most fully human.
And so there you have them– as vast an array of opinions about religion as you will find about anything. There is no universally agreed upon definition of religion. And did you notice that none of them say anything about God, except for Susan B. Anthony’s cryptic remark? As I studied them I realized that all the above comments describe a way of being in life—a way of being both alone and with one another or as Schleirmacher wrote: a way to be most fully human! So how do we Unitarian Universalists approach the question?
You know, we Unitarian Universalists are fond of saying that here we are all free to choose what to believe. But that is as odd a notion as anything my fundamentalist faith ever asked me to accept. I don’t think any of us is free to believe what we choose to believe. You and I don’t choose what we believe. You and I believe what we are compelled to believe. We believe or do not believe because we are convinced by some combination of personal experience, information and logic.
I do not particularly like believing that the universe is 13.7 billion years old and that my life is an incredibly, mind bogglingly infinitesimal part of a vast and ancient creation. I would much rather be the center of the universe and believe that all history culminated in my birth and that all of this was created just for me. I would like to believe that I can fly like Superman and play golf like Tiger Woods. I would like to believe that I am going to live to be 900 years old. I want to believe that I am going to live again and maybe make fewer mistakes next time. I would like to believe all of these things, but I cannot.
No, my friends, you and I are not free to believe anything we choose. You and I believe what we must. The beauty and genius of a faith like ours is that we are not asked to pretend to believe things we do not believe. You and I are not free to choose what we believe, but we are free to stay with our religious community when we grow and when we change our minds.
I left the church of my youth because I could no longer believe what it demanded that I believe. I came to believe different things. It was a painful separation, for it meant a separation from people I had known for years, people who cared for me and people I deeply cherished.
And although I came to question their beliefs, it was much, much later that I came to question another assumption that pervades our culture. It was years later that I came to question the very notion that religion is about what we believe.
That notion runs so deep in our culture that we rarely think about it. The first question we ask about a religious group is “What do they believe?” We are so used to classifying religious groups by what they believe that we think this is the natural way to classify religions. It is so automatic that many people who ask what Unitarian Universalists believe are puzzled when they hear long, meandering answers about how we believe different things. After all, true religion is about believing what is true, isn’t it?
No. It isn’t.
The whole idea that religion is about believing what is true is a wrongheaded and destructive notion. The whole idea that religion is about what people believe even fails as a way of describing the world’s religions.
What do Buddhists believe? The Buddhist tradition is about practice, about seeking enlightenment. Meditation, which is at the center of Buddhism, is a means of seeking greater awareness and compassion for all living things. The Buddhist tradition also has a rich set of teachings about how to live. But Buddhism has no notion of God or what most westerners would call a theology. Neither is there a sense of God in the Confucian tradition or Taoism. All of these describe a way of being.
In Islam it is said that giving alms is good, but giving anonymously is divine. In the Tao Te Ching it is said that only difficult things are worth pursuing.
Look at the Hebrew scriptures that have so shaped religion in the west. These scriptures are principally the account of a people and their relationship to their god, a relationship of covenant. When we read the accounts of the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets, figures like Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Micah and Ezekiel, we don’t find religious leaders that are concerned with doctrinal correctness or creeds. We find religious leaders who care about what people do. The prophets take the people of Israel to task not for heresies, but for their lack of faithfulness to their covenant. The prophets admonish the Hebrew people for how they treat each other and for straying from the path of righteousness—a way of being.
In the Christian scriptures Jesus shows no interest in doctrinal purity. His is a ministry of compassion and community, not orthodoxy. He was more interested in what people do, how they live with one another and treat one another. Jesus said “Love your enemies…do unto others as you would have them do unto you…Love your neighbor as yourself. ” Christian communities in the first three centuries had a broad spectrum of beliefs about Jesus. Some believed Jesus was God, many did not. Some believed in the literal resurrection, others thought it was symbolic.
It was only when Christianity became the official religion, only when Constantine decided to make Christianity Rome’s official religion three hundred years after Jesus’s life and to impose some uniformity, that adhering to a creed became central. When religion became centered around creeds and linked with politics, changing your mind became an act of insurrection. The next logical step is punishment of heretics. Just look at the awful history of religious murder and coercion in the west.
When we think that religion is about what we believe, we become distracted and misled. When we think of religion as what we believe, we fall into pointless arguments about what is correct and who is right. Such arguments inevitably get heated and split people apart. Just look at the history of Protestantism since the Reformation. It is a history of endless debate and schism as group after group splits over doctrinal differences. The search for religious truth leads to religious fractiousness.
The original meaning of the word religion, from the Greek, meant “that which binds us together” which, to me, implies a way of being together. Yet the search for true religion too often splits us apart. What binds us together, if not belief? Ultimately, when we get to the very core of who we are, what is that glue that holds us, that makes us a people, a faith community, a congregation?
Religion, I submit to you, is about meaning and compassion. What holds us together is what we love and care about so deeply, so tenaciously, so intensely, that it gives life meaning. Religion is about what makes life worth living.
Religion is what we love, what we give our hearts to. Religion is what calls to us from the core of our being. Religion is about what you and I love so much that it commands our allegiance. Our religion is what we love so much that it shapes our lives. Our religion is about what we are willing to dream together and then commit to making a reality.
Do you feel that every life is precious? Do you feel that every person matters and that therefore you and I should be gentle, kind, and compassionate with one another? Do you believe children should be cherished and elders should be honored? If you do, then you and I share the same religion, and it matters little if you call yourself a theist and I call myself an agnostic. Our theological and philosophical opinions are about what we think, but what you and I think is not our religion.
Do you love the beauty of this fragile planet and believe we should be good stewards of it so that our great, great grandchildren can live in a healthy environment and also learn to love the earth’s beauty? We have the same religion.
Do you long for a world where there is peace and justice and compassion? I do, too. You and I have the same religion.
Do you long to rise above the soul-numbing banality of a consumer culture and deepen your life by exploring the spiritual practices and wisdom of the great religious traditions? And do you want real depth and intimacy in relationships with one another, in an enduring community that calls us all to our best selves? Me, too. You and I love the same things. We have the same religion.
Look, no one in here today is fonder of his or her opinions than I am. But if you and I let our opinions, our ideas, drive us apart when we share the same fundamental values, we are fools. In traditional religious language we are guilty of idolatry. If we allow friendships and community to be split by opinions, we are worshipping false gods. Opinions change. The opinions we are adamant about today look quaint and ignorant tomorrow. You and I should hold our opinions lightly and gently, like a fledgling bird we are going to set free. An opinion is a tool that we pick up, use, then put down when its work is done. Opinions do not endure.
Love can endure, if we work at it. What we love most in life, what is most sacred to us, we must hold on to with every ounce of strength we can muster. What we truly love we must grasp like the lifeline it is. When we lose our grip on what we love we fall into an abyss.
Yes, there is such a thing as being truly religious. But it isn’t about knowing the truth or having the truth or believing the truth.
Being religious is about being true. Being religious is not having faith. It is about being faithful. Being religious is not about being right, but about living right.
True religion is ours when we are kind and caring. True religion is ours when we work together for peace and understanding. True religion is ours when we love and support one other, work out our differences and forgive one another when we fail. True religion is ours when we take time, whether in meditation or prayer or walking in the woods, to stay in contact with what really, truly, ultimately matters to us. True religion is ours when we sing and laugh together. True religion is ours when we care for this delicate and beautiful earth we inherited. True religion is ours when we are a village that teaches children to love and respect others.
Yes, we say we seek “the light of truth.” Of course we do! We want to know as much of the Truth as our minds will allow. May the truth be revealed! But alas, we can only see glimpses of truth. Our knowledge will always be incomplete. It is not given to us to know the truth completely.
So the ultimate challenge before us is to love deeply and to let love guide us. In my opinion, that’s what it means to be religious. As Thomas Jefferson put it: It is in our lives, not our words, that our religion will be judged. Religion is a way of being.
If I am right about what it means to be religious, then may we live it today and every day. May we take each other’s hands and live it together.
Source: “What it Means to Be Religious” by Rev. James Covington, serving the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Briarton, Croton and Ossining, New York, delivered January 22, 2006.Tags: belief, James Covington, living faith, meaning, religion, values