Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Theory and Practice of Religion


In his post from April 7th, John Gfoeller said:
Intellection can only take a person so far. Then one must make a choice: to choose a religion –which is a package deal– or not; and then to put that decision into practice. If religion is like a vehicle, then only so much can be learned from studying it. After a certain point, a person should pick a vehicle and make the journey.
John made a similar point in his post from April 12th:
Religion isn’t a set of points of points of propositional logic. Religion is a way of life, a set of beliefs and tools for addressing the ultimate issues of our shared experience of life.
And the issue came up again in his post from April 14th:
Religion is a way of life. It is a set of beliefs, practices, community, and spirituality that expresses and reinforces a shared encounter of life and life’s ultimate issues. It is not mostly about data and thinking. It is about how to live.

It seems that you are analyzing religion solely or mostly in terms of philosophy. I think that approach can only yield partial results because philosophy is only part of religion.

Yet, religion is its own thing. It is not a branch of philslophy (although sometimes it can be philosophy in action or as applied to life). Religion — like art, sport, love, etc. — is its own sui generis phenomenon with its own purpose and process. Philosophy can be part of religion, but that is not necessary for religion to function. Hence, analyzing religion in terms of philosophy alone is like trying analyze art or sport or love in terms of philosophy alone. The result will only be partially accurate.

Consider, for example, that most members of religion (now and in the past) have not known much (or any) of the philosophical side of their religions. Yet, they practiced those religions.
I agree that religion is a way of life and not just a belief system. Since in my previous posts I was focusing on the doctrinal side of Buddhism, it probably seemed that I was reducing the religion to its set of beliefs. But I did not intend to be suggesting that.

While I agree that a religion is more than just a set of beliefs, I do think that beliefs are an essential part of a religion. For example, Christians are supposed to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and I don't think this is an optional or insignificant part of being a Christian, even though it is not the whole shebang. Similarly, Buddhism is in part a set of beliefs about karma, rebirth, and the end of suffering, even though it is also a code of conduct and a way of life.

Because beliefs are part of the essence of religion, it seems irresponsible to adopt a religion if one doesn't share its beliefs, or at least its core beliefs. How one defines the core is a tricky question, but not an impossible one to anwser; a Christian who denied that the genealogies of Jesus given in the Gospels are historically accurate probably still counts as a Christian, but one who denies that Jesus is the Messiah almost certainly does not, for example. Similarly, a person who denies that the Buddha could fly through the air or walk on water (as described in the sutras of the Pali Canon) may still count as a Buddhist, but if he denies that the Buddha was enlightened, then he almost certainly does not.

Having said that, John is right to focus on the practical side of religion, for if doctrines are the bones and sinews of a religion, then practice is its flesh--that from which a person derives spiritual sustenance, if you will. Yet for all that, the flesh and the bones are something of a package deal. And if you can't stomach the bones, then you should stay away from the religion.
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