Being Religious: the Sacred Imagination

The other day a friend pressed me on what ‘being religious’ means for me and why I consider myself a Christian. In those moments of quick response you never get out quite what you want and it inevitably ends up being overly simplistic, so I thought it’d be worth reflecting upon on here. Being religious, for me, means committing to and cultivating:

1.) a poetic sensibility

By poetic sensibility I mean what folks like John Caputo mean by “theopoetics.” More specifically I align with Richard Kearney, whose fourth phenomenological reduction brings us to the “epiphanies of the everyday.” This, in no small way, is a postmodern re-enchantment of the world. However this is postmodern and not premodern in the sense that it isn’t done by investing the world uncritically with divinity (animism or pantheism) but by charging it with mystery, with dynamism, with unpredictability, both because we cannot fully know it in itself (like Kant has argued and neuroscience has shown) and because its very being defies our knowing and horizon of expectation. There is an infinite depth and a transcendent unity to all that is that defies my knowing and intention. Like Gabriel Marcel argued, the world is (full of mystery) to be encountered, not merely a problem to be solved or a specimen to be dissected.

2.) empathy (the root of love)

By empathy I mean the commitment to seeing an other as another self. This sense of empathy promotes seeing the other dialectically as similar-yet-different, protecting her/him from totalization by preserving infinite otherness while simultaneously developing a sense of sameness, sympathy, and mutuality. This serves a larger socio-political function of cultivating a sense of solidarity. It is becoming existentially convinced of deep and abiding solidarity, that the fate of humans and our world are inextricably tied together. Such a perspective develops a sense that the deepest kind of good, the lasting kind of good, is one established in full view of the fact that the well-being of each is bound up in the well-being of all, and the well-being of all is bound up in the well-being of each. There are ethical implications here too, but they aren’t foremost about unconditionally holding to a set of commands.

3.) hope

By hope I mean being oriented to the possibility that things – relationships, conditions, situations – can get better. I’m not speaking metaphysically, because such a perspective (unless the future is closed by fate/God) concludes there must be this possibility. However being hopeful means being oriented toward that possibility of amelioration. That isn’t to say be unrealistic or detached from material conditions – we all operate out of an approach to the future, regardless of how engaged (or not) we are in the present. Being hopeful is being invested in the possibility of a better world (“better” is to be defined in light of previous point).

4.) a community which prioritizes these ideals

This is a basic one, really, but at the heart of what it means for me to be religious.


Because my understanding of the self is existential, I approach the world from the framework of self and otherness. Therefore religion for me can be understood as a set of approaches to the three basic dimensions of otherness: external things, other humans, and temporality.

Any approach to otherness is fundamentally about interpretation, and interpretation is a creative and constructive function of the self. Interpretation, then, is really a result of the imagination. Religion for me is about having a particular interpretive/imaginative approach to the world, to otherness. Meaning by the word sacred a deep respect for and reverence toward, religion is about cultivating a sacred imagination. Religion is about learning to recognize the sacredness of what is, and especially who is.

The notion of God (defined traditionally) is fluid for this approach. While I identify as a theist, it is certainly the case that I’m not one in the strictly classical sense. This approach is at home with apophatic and/or ‘weaker’ (Caputo, Keller, etc.) conceptions of God.

It seems I could find fertile soil for this understanding of religion in any one of several faith traditions, yet I am Christian for four main reasons:

1.) It is the tradition from which this understanding grew. Because of that I resonate deeply with its symbolism and stories and find them meaningful and hospitable.

2.) It is historically meaningful because it is where my family and I grew up and have been rooted most of my (our) life(s).

3.) I am enamored by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Some of his words and actions give me pause, but most of them exemplify my points above (no doubt where I got much of their grounding). It is in this way that I’m interested in talking about the divinity of Jesus. I say this in full recognition that Jesus is in many ways the embodiment of a particular thread of the Jewish tradition, a tradition by which I am also fascinated. The early Christian communities and their writings – especially what amounts to the NT book of James – also intrigue me.

4.) While I don’t necessarily agree with all of its methods or end goal, a good portion of historical Christianity has been interested in the transformation of the world. Part of that has been in and through the presence of the church – it’s social embodiment (although this collective can be at least as destructive as it is beneficial, like any group).

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5 thoughts on “Being Religious: the Sacred Imagination

  1. While I resonate deeply with many of the points you raised above, I am still left with a deep sense that “somethings missing.” Maybe it’s related to the terminology being employed–mainly “religious”–or maybe it is simply an over-developed sense of religion must equal “x.” But, whatever the reason, I fail to see in what you’ve laid out any accounting for the historic understanding of worship within the religious sphere. Given that you’re agnostic when it comes to the being/force/etc that may or may not be “God,” how does what you’ve laid out here simply devolved into a secular humanism where the “other” takes the place of God in terms of worship? While you may not mean such, it is possible to see how such a conclusion could be reached. Now, it’s not that I’m arguing against what you have to say here. Again, I find it quite intriguing and mirroring much of my own thoughts.

    However, in retaining the language of religiosity makes the above concern one worthy of consideration. Basically, this gets at the heart of my challenge to you last week–why stay? You’ve laid out some points below, and while I don’t doubt the sincerity with which you hold them, could it be said that you hold them more out of nostalgia than anything else?

    Finally, the last question I would ask is how the latter half of your post (i.e., #1-4) relate to the opening portion? This is why I think the notion of nostalgia plays a larger part in why you remain than not…but again, I hope you know I’m not saying that in any accusatory fashion. Rather, I really do wonder why folks, such as yourself, feel so connected when it seems what you hold in terms of belief has only a tangential relationship with why you remain within any particular religious community. I think this is the challenge of our generation and is a deeper challenge to the religious communities into which we were born.

  2. A preliminary question I have in light of yours is, are you conflating strong theism with religion? And, secondly, is Christianity necessarily a form of strong theism? Who decides and why? My concern is that you may be allowing evangelical orthodoxy to dictate and flatten the category of Christianity. It seems a much more robust tradition than that – I find heterodox “outliers” all over the past and present. Why ought Christianity not be more malleable than you seem to be allowing? Why flatten its definition? My gut says that strong theism, or at least an identifiable theism, is what you might be “missing” from my description (as that point came up several times in your comment).

    By “accounting for the historic understanding of worship” do you mean relating to, resonating with, or identifying with doctrinally orthodox Christianity on every point? On certain points? I’m wondering if you might be defining Christianity as strong theism with orthodox definitions of the Trinity, (dual nature of) Christ, etc. That’s quite troubling for me, especially considering the changing nature of Christian belief throughout history. Also, to add to my point that you may be allowing a particular sub-sect (evangelical Christianity) to determine the terms, I know many Episcopalians and *liberal* Catholics who don’t participate in worship because of doctrinal reasons, at least not primarily (or even secondarily, actually), but rather because they find meaning and value in the liturgy and the gathering. And they’re not even close to being alone in the history of Christianity. Why is that less religious or not as deserving of that title as evangelical orthodoxy? Who decides?

    If strong theism = religion, many religions (not least Buddhism) would be discounted. If Christianity = strong theism, (the late) Bonhoeffer, for one, wouldn’t qualify.

    The reason I’m not simply a secular humanist, although I embrace “humanist” in some ways, is that secular humanism is a completely immanent worldview. It would dismiss my interest in transcendence as superstition or supernaturalism. Not to mention I recognize transcendence in the world, not just humans.

    Nostalgia is interesting here. Yes, it is true that I find personal historical meaning in these things. But I’m wondering if you’ve left any possibility for someone to remain in their tradition (or nevertheless find it meaningful) without deviating in any way from their original beliefs and practices? Is it the case that remaining in the tradition without remaining completely consistent over time renders one’s reasons purely nostalgic? I’d argue that the insights in my first list are gleaned from my reading of Christianity – so staying with it is a matter of intellectual genealogy and honesty. Which is, for me, what it means to be rooted in a tradition of any sort. In my second list, only #2 is personally historical (in a similar category as nostalgia). #1 is primarily about the roots of the project and resonating practices, #3 is about a particular source (the most traditional!) connection, and #4 is about the legacy of a religious movement in history (not necessarily my own). What constitutes a good enough reason, if not one of these?

    What I find most interesting about your comment is the statement that *what* I hold as beliefs holds only a tangential relationship with *why* I remain with a particular religious community. That statement is confounding to me, truly. I think that the vast majority of the people I attend church with affirm the ultimacy of these four points over nearly every (other) doctrinal point – really! Plus being a part of such a community is actually one of my major points.

    Importantly here, what’s the motivation for walking away from a tradition despite my reasons to “stay”? I’m wondering if you’re implying people like me ought to break from the tradition – for what ends? It seems to me perfectly reasonable as to why I don’t, yet it seems you feel beliefs like these (I’m not taking this personally, don’t worry! I just can’t think of another way to phrase this) aren’t the “right” reasons to stay in/with a community. Or that they’re “different enough” that they merit a break. How do you quantify that “different enough”? What are the “right” reasons? One of the things I’ve grown weary of with our generation is a drive to break away and start something brand new because we don’t identify enough with things as they are. There are SURELY good reasons to do so, but I hesitate when I hear this after having had the experience of doing it for perhaps some of the wrong reasons proved that it can sometimes be an overly hasty response to reasonable frustration.

  3. At the outset of this round of comments from me, I must say that in no way do I want them to be perceived as judgmental. Choosing the word “nostalgia” was not just a poor choice of words, but it could also have been perceived as pejorative. I will address, in greater detail, what I meant by those comments.

    (Now, I will comment in sequential order, as responses to your various comments/questions.)

    While it might be rightly stated that I am equating, in large part, strong theism with Christianity, I don’t think I do so without warrant. In fact, I would say the separation of the two is a modern phenomenon. This doesn’t necessarily make that development bad. As you’ve stated before, Christianity is a religion-in-development–throughout its history, it has been ever-changing. As for the outliers you and I can undoubtedly name, in the course of Christian history, at least when it comes to the identification of Christianity w/ strong theism, they’re outliers for a reason. And even with said outliers, outside the modern (and post-modern) context, I’d say they were less outliers for perceiving God as a weak-force and more for other “heterodox” violations related to other theological issues (and I put heterodox in scare quotes because I am using the designation as used by the ‘strong’ against these outliers, and not implying a value judgment on my part).

    Now, as for the malleability of Christianity, I have no problem with such a development. I just am more convinced it is a more recent development than what your comment seems to make space for.

    As for the notion of religion and strong theism as it relates to “worship,” I’d concede your point…but only to a degree. While I think we ought to define “religion” in broad terms, in order to account for things like Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, I would say that we would then need to have some sort of acknowledgment of subsets within that definition. I do think, for the preponderance of Christian history, some understanding of worship–i.e., that there is an “Other” beyond human beings and that “Other” is transcendent while also being somehow active and working in the world; thus, because of this, it worthy of reverence, awe, etc–has played a major part in both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ strands.

    I get why you’re not a secular humanist; in fact, I’d call you a humanist+ 🙂 The reason I level that challenge is because I see in your view of transcendence such a malleable understanding (and maybe rightly so) that it leaves open room for all sorts of ideas outside the spectre of “mainstream” Christianity that I often wonder why remain inside it–again, this isn’t necessarily a negative thing in my eyes; just a thought.

    While I dealt with the issue of nostalgia at the outset, I will say that what underlies my original comment still remains. I guess what lies at the heart of this conversation and other conversations we’ve had is if there’s ever a point at which such deviations move one so outside the main strand of a movement that a new one emerges. The separation of what would become Christianity from Judaism in the 1st century comes to mind. I won’t deny that what you lay out in the initial portions of your post are rooted in Christianity, but the issue I raised in this paragraph still remains for me.

    I don’t doubt what you state in your second to last paragraph (i.e., what folks in your current religious community affirm). What I do doubt is the ability of such a community, if it remains in the common strand of Christianity, to become the norm…and maybe that doesn’t matter. However, our original conversation was ignited by first asking why you still associate with a Christian religious community, and then wondering out loud if such Christian religious communities might some how become unnecessary if the world were to operate in a different fashion. My contention is that your current religious community is a portent of what could be…it’s just that I don’t believe it’s the norm in the “Church.” I believe it will come about outside the current socio-theological and institutional strand.

    As to the final point, I’m not sure there are every “right” or “wrong” reasons to stay or leave–at least not objectively verifiable. They will always be subjective. Thus, I hope you know I respect your reasons for staying; I’m staying. I’m just deeply concerned that the current situation will not be able to make room for communities like yours, or people like you and me, and that eventually the current milieu will either buckle or give way to something new. I’m not seeking to jettison what is for what can be–though I think, at times, it’s necessary–but rather wondering what could be in light of what is and I’m left with less hope than I would hope for.

  4. No worries – I didn’t take it personally!

    There’s no question that historic Christian thought has been connected to some form of strong theism, although I do see that beginning to change a bit (from open theists to process folks to postmoderns). As those distinctions reveal, they’re surely more recently popular ideas (there have been many, especially mystics, who’ve thought similar things, but as you say they’ve been outliers). I agree completely that the popularity of non-strong theist Christianity is a very recent phenomena.

    In a similar way I completely agree that the majority of historic Christian worship has included a belief in or reference to a Big Other. I never meant to imply otherwise. I never intended to argue that these things weren’t true.

    One thing I remain unsure about is why you wonder why I stay inside the tradition. It seems your argument has been that what I claim to believe is “different enough” from what the historic line has been that I should leave (I know you’re not directing me to, but you wonder why I don’t think the same). That argument isn’t persuasive to me for the reasons I laid out in my first response (chief among them what constitutes “different enough” and why?). Aside from that I provided what seem to me to be adequate reasons as to why I do stay, but it seems those reasons for you don’t mean as much, or have as much weight, as proximity to some sort of standard issue orthodoxy. This may be our fundamental disagreement. Per the Judaism/Christianity analogy, from my reading of history that split happened because it was forced by the Jewish communities, not an asserted schism by the Jesus followers. It seems perfectly reasonable that “new” forms take place when the prior group is unwilling to accommodate views that are determined “too different.” I don’t see a reason, similar to my understanding of the first century Jesus followers, to initiate that.

    Yeah, and I’m not sure about the potential for the community I belong to becoming the “norm” in terms of what Christian communities affirm. I have to say that on one hand I’m not concerned about it at all (I’m not fighting the battle for the survival of the church-at-large-as-its-always-been) and on the other I am of the mind that those less open views will die out for many reasons whereas more open views have a brighter future.

    I do agree that our present conditions affect how the church functions, etc. If the world operated in a different fashion, so would the church – that seems natural to me, as I don’t see the church as a timeless, orthodox-bound stagnant institution. As to whether or not it could become unnecessary is a question I just don’t know the answer to. If you mean the particular Christian religious institution that looks and functions the same way it does now, I could definitely see that ceasing (for many reasons, not least because the conditions of our world change). If you mean belonging to a religious community for the sake of deepening my connection to others and the world (and here there’s room to count God among these things), striving to build a more just world and become a better person in close relationship and proximity to others with the same aim, then no, I’m not sure conditions would change my desire for something like that. In terms of my community being being a portent, that’s too particularly and definitively eschatological for me. Broadly, yes – I hope the wider society could embrace people and be as morally focused as this community. Narrowly, no – I don’t think the details of my particular community (and/or my own faith) should necessarily be universalized in every case. If something somewhere in the middle happens, then it would transform the church I belong to, but as far as I can tell it wouldn’t render it unnecessary (to do so would imply either I would change the reasons why I need/want it or that society at large would very closely resemble it and replace it, which I address in the next paragraph).

    All that to say, I think that churches (and “the church”) need to change. The way we meet, how we gather, what we gather around, etc., needs to change and in many cases die. I have to say, doing so will take some bold leaders willing to step out and make it happen. Nevertheless I’m not convinced that communities built around or at least attuned to my first four points will be rendered needless. Not for me, anyway. This is particularly the case because I think being a part of such communities is meaningful in itself, and because I don’t think such communities are scalable beyond a point if they’re to retain the significance of belonging. I don’t think society at large can fulfill that entirely – it’s too big and hopefully will be too diverse. The only other option would be to become hyper-individualized, which of course I detest.

    The implicit question I’m hearing, perhaps incorrectly, is: if I don’t believe that the church is a particularly significant and unique manifestation of divine will and work in the world then why am I committed to it? If that’s the question then I re-assert my first response and acknowledge that it’s certainly conceivable that the-Christian-church-as-we-conceive-of-it may no longer exist at some point. But I don’t think that will also mean the end of all forms of religious communities.

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