Essays A Working Definition of Religion - And Some Thoughts

Here's what "The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, " has to say [p. 647]:
"Religion - from the Latin 'religare' (‘to bind fast') - typically the term refers to an institution with a recognized body of communicants who gather together regularly for worship, and accept a set of doctrines offering some means of relating the individual to what is taken to be the ultimate nature of reality."

My own working definition: a religion is the organized set of beliefs that encode a person's or group's attitudes toward, and understanding of, the essence or nature of reality.

The importance of this definition for me is that it makes clear the connection between our official religions and what I consider to be our real primary concern. I believe that we all, throughout our lives, are drawn to a search for what I can only call the essence of reality. I think this search is the basis of all our lives, although it is often not explicit or on the surface, and it is frequently not of an obviously religious nature. It is a search that we may be focusing on very closely, or one that we may be avoiding, or are unable to further for any number of reasons. But it is still the basis and definition of our lives, and our progress in this search is the measure of our happiness and contentment.

Finally, this search may or may not be integrated with what we take as our ‘official' religion, for religions are only one among many possible expressions of it. Many of us are members of a particular faith out of habit, or convenience, or by accident of birth, but find our hearts in quite other processes. And it is these other processes that are really important for us, and are the means through which we approach the deep nature of reality.

I would like to touch briefly on how varied these other processes, other modes of search, can be - briefly, because this is not my main topic, but it needs to be mentioned. All the arts are well known as pursuits that take on almost religious overtones for those most devoted to them. And in recent years, many writers and commentators have noted a similar state of absorption that some athletes experience, though only for brief periods of time. The pursuit of knowledge is another process that can lead to glimpses of this deeper aspect of reality - a paradoxical outcome since the scholar seeks to understand and define but can be led, in that quest, to the indefinable; a rather uncomfortable situation for scientists, though other scholars may tolerate it with more composure. These three indicate how wide the range of activities is that can carry this search.

So I can only conclude that in the search for this deep nature, it is the search itself that is primary, and the particular modes of searching, including religions, derive from it. What interests me here is that religions are in a sense, simply a subset of the possible ways to pursue this search. This does not mean - really does not mean - that all religions are the same at their roots; it does not mean that any path will do, or that all paths are identical, or that, at least in a superficial sense, we are all seeking the same thing. In fact, we are all seeking the same deep nature, or essence of reality, but what that is, is so far beyond and more extensive than any concepts we may have of it, that our behavior is far more shaped by the path each of us has chosen, than by the ultimate identity of our final goal.

I know that this appears to contradict the claims that many religions make to being full expressions of the truth about that which is divine. But consider - which of these religions actually assert that their doctrines fully describe divinity, or its proper realm? It is my belief that no formulation of this goal, in terms of divinity, or emptiness, or any other thing, can be considered even adequate, let alone exhaustive. The reason for this is that although it is what I and others refer to as the essence or nature of reality, it is nevertheless also completely other than our common world.

There is a real disjunction between our experiences of these two realms. In many religions, the distinction between the realm of the divine and the world we all live in is spoken of as that between the supernatural and natural worlds. It is acknowledged that the two work according to different rules, but how this is so is not fully worked out, not to my satisfaction, at least. There are a number of other models for this difference, such as phenomenal versus numinous, or vertical (toward the divine) versus horizontal (mundane), or the Buddhist samsara (worldly) versus nirvana (other-worldly). But no matter how it is modeled or described, this difference is critical because it means that there is a gulf of some sort between us and that which we are driven to seek.

What is this gulf or disjunction? And how can it be crossed? This is a primary question - perhaps the primary question - in many religions. Christianity asks this when it considers how and why we are separate from God, and what is needed for us to be reunited with Him. In Buddhism it is phrased in terms of how to free ourselves from this realm of suffering and attain nirvana, or enlightenment. Religion and philosophy are the disciplines that formulate and explicitly consider this question, but it is also present in one guise or another in all the practices that we use as tools of our search.

And for me, however I phrase it, this is the central issue. It seems to me that I can not come to comprehend the essence of reality unless I find some way to be in it. This essence is not to be understood except through full participation, and to do that I need to find the way into it. Everything I write here is really about this one task.
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