Friday, November 11, 2011

the fundamental question of religious studies

What is religion?

That's the most basic question fueling all inquiry in the field of religious studies. For such a seemingly simple word, definitions of religion are devilishly hard to come by. One of the first grad-school courses I took during my MA program at Catholic University began with this very question. We students were asked to take a few minutes to write down provisional definitions of the term, and then to share them with the class. Some of my classmates came up with very elaborate, often over-precise definitions. My own definition was threadbare:

Human response to ultimate reality.

I didn't want to say that religion involved belief in a higher power or a deity; that would have excluded atheistic and nontheistic Buddhists, and possibly even advaitic Hindus, whose God-language refers to something ineffable. I didn't want to specify whether religious practice was private/individual or public/corporate, since both forms of practice exist. I didn't want to restrict my definition only to those who self-identified as religious: atheists, after all, also have some sort of orientation toward (and opinion about) ultimate reality, whether they define it as synonymous with the physical world or deny that ultimate reality is a reality at all. I didn't want to say whether religions must include ritual; I'd argue that some religious responses have nothing to do with ritual.

The professor smiled a pained smile and called my definition "cagey." She was right: it was. It didn't, and doesn't, seem like much of a definition at all. But most of my classmates' definitions sucked, quite frankly, because they were too provincial, and because it was too easy to think of exceptions. I like to think that the only real challenge you can mount against my definition is that the animal and plant world also participate in ultimate reality, so it's unfair to restrict my definition to human responses. But the charge of anthropocentrism doesn't make me lose any sleep. If it turns out that squirrels and piranha and viruses are recognizably religious, then I'll revise my definition accordingly. No sweat.

A Korean Zen master once told me his own definition of religion-- one that was even simpler than mine:

Religion is deepest teaching.

I've grown to love this definition over time, and I've had years to think about it. I love the definition for what it says as well as for what it doesn't say. The word deepest takes us, in true Zen fashion, right to the heart of the matter. Nothing less than deepest will do! The word teaching implies relationships and interconnection: that Deepest Thing, unnameable but at the core of our being, is passed lovingly from heart to heart.

But what do you think? What, in your view, is religion? Feel free to use the comments section to provide your own answer.


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