“While in college, his Jesuit formation did not stand up to intellectual scrutiny.” So said the introduction to my college’s new president in the Alumni magazine published several decades ago. Intellectual rigor won out over religious expression. Again.
By the time I read about Amherst College’s new president, I was accustomed to the intellectual and journalistic world’s distance from, if not the disdain for, religious practice. And in many ways I both understood and agreed with that perspective. So much of religion – especially the Christian religion (which is what I know best) has been depicted as overly simple and certain, rigid and cruel. Superstitious, and hostile to the secular world. And it was – and still is.
But at the same time I have become upset by an almost categorical rejection of religious faith and life, partly because I think it is unfair, but also because it creates an even wider and deeper chasm between those who adhere to a set of religious beliefs and those who don’t. It becomes a contest: which side wins – intellectual rigor or religious expression? Might there be common ground?
Some religious manifestations may seem primitive. Many are inherently protective. Some are filled with prejudices that date back generations. But the genesis of every religious expression is a desire to find meaning – in life, and in death. The symbols and stories of particular religions, and their practices and regulations, have all been designed to guide people along the pathway of life, and provide help and hope when that path becomes treacherous or is lost. The Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have one God; Hinduism has many gods, and Buddhism professes no God. In each and every case, the framework has a purpose, and projects a hope.
These differences in religious expression can make living together difficult. Especially when an adherent of a religion – or a rejecter of religion, maintain that they own the truth. That their religious connection – or refusal of a connection, becomes so hidebound that another way cannot be honored, much less acknowledged. I am as stunned by the hostility that much of the Christian right has for the secular world as I am of the intellectual disdain that the agnostic/atheist secular world has toward Evangelical Christianity.
All of us – believer and unbeliever, adherent of a faith or a rejecter of a faith, have been formed by religion. To my mind, the human response to every polarizing issue that we are dealing with today – be it guns, abortion, race, climate, poverty – has been framed by some dimension of religion. How to flourish in life, how to make sense of death, how best to live in freedom, how important is it to be in relationship with one’s neighbor (and what, after all, defines a neighbor) – are all religious questions. And we draw on a religious heritage – whether we are conscious of it or not, to respond to those questions.
Religion can be good. Religion can be bad. Religion can be manipulated. But religion is necessary. We would do well to acknowledge our ancient connection to these archetypal religious threads that have had – and continue to have, so much influence in our lives. And honor religion’s purpose – to provide meaning and hope. We don’t have to believe in a particular religion; but we would do well to acknowledge that it is there, and at least honor its intention.