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.
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).