Am I "Religious"?

Jay Michaelson

Being religious, in the sense that I understand the term, is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of love.

For many people, being religious is absolutely about opinions. It means believing in certain ideas (e.g., there is a God) or stories (the Bible is true), and having ideas about one group of people as compared with others. It may mean following rules about how one is to live – according to hadith, or halacha, etc. – and believing those rules to be absolutely true. For some, these principles cannot even be called opinions: they are truths which must be accepted and fulfilled. But they are opinions in the sense of being ideas which are held about the world.

None of this really matters to me. I have more in common with an atheist who dances than with the supposedly pious men who are asleep in their lives. For me, religion is about being in love with the world, rapturously and fully and deliciously sucking the marrow out of life. How that plays out – painting, Walden, Hinduism, halacha – is far less important than that it play out at all. I don’t care about the God you don’t believe in; I care about what makes you inspired. I care that you get inspired. I care that you are so damn alive that you can’t help but sing, or pray, or study, or help. I could care less what you think about when the Torah was written, what happens after we die, or whether you enjoy Miles Davis. I want to know only if there is something sacred for you.

Am I “religious,” then? It depends on whom you ask. I am very religious according to my own definitions, and according to those of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and many mystics, nuns, and poets. Here is Schleiermacher, the consummate German Romantic, writing in 1799:

The universe exists in uninterrupted activity and reveals itself to us every moment. Every form that it brings forth, every being to which it gives a separate existence according to the fullness of life, every occurrence that spills forth from its rich, ever-fruitful womb, is an action of the same upon us. Thus to accept everything individual as part of a whole and everything limited as a representation of infinite, is religion. On Religion: Speeches to its cultured despisers, p.105

For Schleiermacher, religion is about cultivating and expressing our intuition of the infinite. And so, he knew, those “cultured despisers” of churches, hierarchies, and dogmas are often more religious than those who upheld them. They just confuse the essence of religion (being fully alive to this moment and seeing it as part of the One) with the structures that some people have chosen to build around it (such as churches, theologies, and power structures). There can be no authentic system of religion, Schleiermacher wrote, any more than there could be a system of intuition.

I am also religious according to the fascinating, obscure volume by Fredrick J. Streng, Ways of Being Religious, which include “Social and Economic Justice as an Ultimate Concern,” “The New Life Through Technocracy,” and other worldviews of ultimate value which function in religious ways. For each of these ways of being religious, Streng analyzes the problem the system is meant to solve, how it answers that problem, and how it expresses its means to answering it individually and socially. It’s an intriguing work, and properly gives the atheistic social worker, toiling in a soup kitchen, far more religious “credit” (my term, not Streng’s) than a pious, bloviating bigot, such as some of the voices we endured in the recent presidential campaign (and many more who were quietly shoved to the sides).

Whether I, or Schleiermacher, or Streng, is “religious” according to someone with a too-narrow definition of the term ought not to matter. And yet, language is meant to communicate. As Lewis Carroll developed with great humor in Through the Looking Glass, a language in which words mean only what the speakers want them to mean is not really a language. Nor, to use Buddhist terminology, is it particularly skillful to go around using the word ‘religious’ if it means something different from what 90% of religious people think it means. I don’t want to give people the wrong idea, or offend those who are attached to the definition of ‘religious’ that would condemn people I want to include. Finally, going around talking about God to people whose initial associations with that term are dogma, repression, and ignorance – this is not going to draw anyone to open up and inquire. Quite the contrary.

Many contemporary teachers have dropped the word entirely, preferring to call themselves “spiritual.” With different language, they are drawing essentially the same dichotomy Schleiermacher drew. Spirituality is what religion is really about, they say: an encounter with the numinous; moments of real, rich presence. Religion is what happens after that encounter gets translated back into life – particularly, the lives of people unwilling to undertake transformation necessary for deep spirituality. Religion includes dogmas, theologies, rules, myths, fears, and sins. Some of that is connected to Spirit, some of it isn’t. But none of it, for these teachers, is essential. So they leave behind the word ‘religious,’ or set it up as a foil.

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Top image: Lee Prindle, Presque Isle # 19
Lower image: Jay Michaelson

November 2004

This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
James Russell

Am I Religious?
Jay Michaelson

Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Joshua Axelrad

Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Lauren Wilson

Money-Back Guarantee
Samantha Stiers

Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
Nigel Savage

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From previous issues:

Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity
Josh Feigelson

Radical Evil
Michael Shurkin

Knowledge, Community, Irony, and Love
Jay Michaelson