Rules for Understanding Religion

Talking about religion is hard, in part because most people are ill-equipped to discuss it with precision and accuracy.  Religion, after all, raises people’s emotional temperature to a point where it is difficult to understand what the real points of conflict or misunderstanding are.

Here are some of my presuppositions when thinking about religion.

1.   Religious traditions have as much diversity within them as they do between them: Quakers and Roman Catholics; fundamentalists and Episcopalians; Sufis and Sunnis; reconstructionists and Hasids; Zen and Vajrayana.
2.   Most religions are not single traditions, but multiple traditions.  For example: works vs. faith by justification; law vs. grace; institutional authority vs personal conscience.
3.   Traditions mingle and change according to context: Buddhapalians, for example; the protestant influence on all religions in the US.  New age thought on Christianity.
4.   Holy texts are unrelated to popular piety: Some Muslims drink; some hindus eat beef; Christians have premarital sex.
5.   Religious conflict is often ossified political conflict.  The conflict in Northern Ireland has much to do with the birth of the English empire; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began as a conflict about land.
6.   Religious practice is more like a language than a moral calculus.
7.   Religions are not the same; nor are they completely different. Traditions include rituals, myth-making, moral teaching, and organizational systems.
8.   Religious traditions steal from one another.
9.   Few people know all the rules.
10. Few follow all the rules.
11.  We misunderstand other people’s traditions.
12.  We often misunderstand our own.
13.   We like the positive parts of our faith traditions.
14.  We ignore the bad parts of our faith traditions.
15.   Hypocrisy is the universal faith tradition.
16.   It’s still about sex, money and death. (Or more poetically, survival in the desert).


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