Religion, faith, and theology

religionThe starting point for clarifications is a general observation about human existence-namely, that to be human at all is both to live by faith and to seek understanding. For our immediate purpose, which is to clarify what is properly meant by “religion,” it is the first part of this observation that is important. The faith to which I refer in observing that each of us lives by faith is our basic confidence or assurance simply as human beings that life is worth living.  To live in any case, even as an animal, is one and the same with accepting one’s life in its larger setting and adjusting oneself to it. This is why George Santayana goes so far as to speak of “animal faith,” meaning thereby the inalienable confidence of all animal life in its environment as generally permissive of its struggle to live and to reproduce its kind. In the case of the human animal, however, vitality is not only expressed in the sphere of mind or consciousness, but is also raised to the still higher level of spirit, of reflective understanding, or self-consciousness. Consequently, human acceptance of life and adjustment to it can no longer be merely instinctive but must be a matter of free and responsible consent. We cannot merely live our life but must, as we say, lead it; and this means that we can live and act, finally, only according to certain principles of truth, beauty, and goodness that we understand to be normative for our existence. Necessarily implied by this understanding is the confidence or assurance that these norms have an unconditional validity and that a life lived in accordance with them is truly worth living. In this sense, our experience of ourselves and our fellow beings in relation to reality as a whole is always essentially an experience grounded in faith. We are selves at all only because of our inalienable trust that our own existence and existence generally are somehow justified and made meaningful by the whole to which we know ourselves to belong.

I do not mean by this that the faith by which we live is necessarily authentic or that the beliefs through which it finds expression can only be true. Such an inference can be made, I think, only because we often fail to make certain necessary distinctions. We assume uncritically that “faith” is to be understood in a wholly positive or eulogistic sense as referring solely to true or authentic faith–rather as we often take “worth” to mean only good, or “value,” exclusively positive value. But this assumption, natural and understandable as it may be, restricts our grasp of all that “faith” means and implies. Even a false or inauthentic faith is not simply the absence of faith but is faith itself in its negative mode-somewhat as evil is the negative mode of worth, or disvalue the negative mode of value. And this, of course, is why an animal lacking in the distinctively human capacity of reflective consciousness not only could not believe in the human way, but could not disbelieve in that way, either. On the other hand, given animals endowed with this capacity, or in other words, given human beings such as ourselves, faith in some mode is not an option but a necessity. We unavoidably live by faith because we exist understandingly or reflectively, because we can exist at all only by somehow consenting to our own existence and to existence as such in confident trust.

religion-3This is not to imply, however, that such trust may be simply taken for granted as in no way problematic. Even though we have no alternative, finally, but to trust somehow that life is worth living-everything we think, say, or do necessarily implying such a trust-how exactly we are to understand our faith is so far from being unproblematic as to be continually called into question. The reason for this, generally speaking, is that our life is perforce lived under conditions that threaten to undermine any naive assurance we may have as to its final worth. There are the inescapable facts that we must suffer and die, that we involve ourselves in guilt, and that all our undertakings are exposed to the workings of chance. Or, again, there is the loneliness that comes over us in even the most intimate of human relationships and, still worse, the gnawing of doubt and the threat of final meaninglessness when we recognize, as we must, that our most basic beliefs are just the ones of whose truth we must be the least certain at the level of explicit belief. To be sure, none of these conditions would pose the kind of problem it does for us but for our prior assurance that it has been given to us to live and that to do so is, after all, worthwhile. This is why the question of faith, to which religious concepts and symbols in one way or another offer an answer, is never the question whether there is a ground of basic confidence in life’s worth-any more than the question answered by a properly scientific assertion is whether there is a world of fact somehow sufficiently ordered that our experiences in the past and present warrant our having certain expectations for the future. Rather, the question of faith is always how the ground of confidence can be so conceived and symbolized that our consent to life can be true and authentic- just as the question of science is always how we are to understand the defacto order that the world necessarily has, so that we can not only survive in it but also prosper. Nevertheless, the negativities of our existence, if we reflect on them, profoundly challenge our basic confidence, driving us beyond any simple understanding of it. In this way, the conditions of life as we unavoidably live it create the profound need for re-assurance, for an understanding of ourselves and the world in relation to reality as a whole that will enable us to make sense of the basic faith we inevitably have.

It is to just this need to make sense somehow of our basic faith in the ultimate worth of life that religion is the response. All the various religions, including “the Christian religion,” are so many attempts under the pressure of this need to solve the problem of understanding our basic faith, given the negativities of our existence. Thus the Christian symbols of resurrection and immortality, for example, evidently function to provide the necessary reassurance as to the ultimate meaning of life, given enough reflection on the boundary situation of death and transience to shatter any naive assurance that life is worth living. How different religions, in particular, provide such reassurance, or with what radicality of insight, is, naturally, historically variable, deperiding on which of the conditions of human existence are taken to focus the problem and on the depth at which those conditions are grappled with and understood. Even so, the end of any religion, properly so-called, is so to conceive and symbolize the great inescapabilities of life as to solve the problem of our existence as such: the problem of having to believe somehow in the ultimate worth of life under conditions that make such a faith seem all but impossible.

religion-2Thus, as I am using the terms, “faith” and “religion” are not simply equivalent. In the relatively strict sense in which I speak of it, religion is not identical with our basic faith in the worth of life but is to be distinguished from it as its primary explicit expression in meaningful symbols-specifically, in beliefs, rites, and forms of social organization that together provide a particular answer to the question of the ultimate meaning of our life, or to what I have otherwise spoken of as the question of faith. Accordingly, on my usage, Paul Tillich’s famous statement that religion is the substance of culture, while culture is the form of religion has to be reformulated so that it is faith which is the substance of culture, while religion is the particular cultural form in which that substance is first of all made explicit.

So understood, religion is one form of culture among others and yet, for all that, unique. Since it is the primary explication of the basic faith implicitly presupposed by all the other cultural forms, it is in its own way basic to the whole of human existence, and hence more than merely coordinate in importance with these other forms. This bears underscoring because one of the illusions fostered by the modern differentiation of culture is that religion is simply one more activity alongside of others, having its own special field and its own peculiar ways of cultivating that field.

This understanding seems to me to have the merit of taking the term “religion” more in the sense in which it is ordinarily understood both by common sense and by the historical, scientific, and philosophical understanding of religion, as over against the use that has become characteristic of apologetic theologians bent on making a case for the Christian or some other religion in a secularized world. At the same time, the clarification I have suggested understands “religion” in a functional sense sufficiently formal to include cultural forms or movements that others, assuming a nonfunctional, or substantive, understanding, would speak of as, at most, “quasi-religions,” or, possibly, “religion surrogates.” Thus Communism, for instance, might be quite properly spoken of as a religion in my sense, provided only that it is taken to be not only a certain understanding of our basic faith but also a whole symbolic structure of beliefs, rites, and social organizations whereby that understanding is expressed and enforced- in short, provided that it is taken to be the primary cultural form through which certain men and women today have come to understand their basic human faith.

There are two further points more or less clearly implied by what has already been said. The first is that religion never exists in general, any more than any other form of culture does, but always only as a religion, which has its origin and principle in some particular occasion of insight, be it “hierophany” or “revelation.” Correlative with this originating occasion of insight, then, is a particular form of faith, or understanding of existence, which in turn provides the foundation for a whole symbolic structure of beliefs, rites, and social organizations. How this structure is elaborated and how differentiated it becomes from the other forms of culture, are, again, open to wide historical variations, as is the extent to which the claims it expresses and implies may eventually be subjected to the higher level of reflection that is properly called “theology” in the generic sense of that word. In any event, the only thing directly accessible to us when we speak of “religion” is some particular religion or religions, some particular way or ways of conceiving and symbolizing ourselves and our world in relation to the mystery encompassing our existence. Consequently, even the true religion, if there be such a thing, could not be identified with religion in general or simply as such. It could only be one particular religion among others, distinguished from all the rest solely by the unique adequacy with which its particular concepts and symbols answered to the need that each religion exists to meet.

The second point is that a particular religion can answer to this need only because or insofar as the determinative use of its concepts and symbols is a broadly cognitive use. Whatever else a religion is or involves, it crucially is or involves conceptualizing and symbolizing a comprehensive understanding of human existence that claims to be true. To be sure, a religion is not the same as a metaphysics that pursues the question of the ultimate whole of reality in itself in abstraction from the question of the meaning of that reality for us. On the contrary, religious concepts and symbols are rightly said to be “existential” precisely because they express claims about the whole of reality only by also opening up our own possibilities of self-understanding in relation to it. Thus such concepts and symbols typically function not only indicatively, to express assertions, but also, expressively, to convey feelings and convictions, and imperatively, to enjoin others to certain beliefs or actions. But as important as it is to recognize their existential function, to ignore that religious concepts and symbols also function metaphysically to assert or imply that certain things are ultimately the case is to make it impossible to explain how they could meet the need they clearly exist to meet.lotus

Source: Theology and Religious Studies: Their Difference and the Difference It Makes, by: Schubert M. Ogden. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLVI/ 1

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