A Lost Word
Length: 1789 words (5.1 double-spaced pages)
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One word in the English language above all others throughout the history has caused more controversy, both in terms of human fatalities and words written about it than religion. Religion has been a subject of major controversy long before there was an English language, long before there was a word for the concept. What follows however, is not a discussion of the controversy, or history for that matter. What follows is a discussion of the word and it’s meaning. “Religion” since it’s first minting has come to be an immensely broad term. So broad in fact that It defies a singular comprehensive definition. The word has come to refer to a loose and chaotically organized system of aspects and ideas, topics of you will. Many philosophers have attempted to define religion but only succeed in identifying a new topic. Overlap is always the case but this continual attempt to define the word has only resulted in the continuation broadening process.
One such philosopher who sought a comprehensive analysis of religion was Karl Marx. Marx explained religion is economic, social and psychological terms. For his purposes Marx succeeded admirably. Marx held that man creates religion for himself and that when he looks into religion he sees his hopes and desires that have realized themselves through fantasy. Key in Marx’s conception is that religion is a construct. Without man there is no religion, that is to say there is nothing behind religion except a reflection of ourselves. The hope that man puts in religion, god, and an afterlife are simple fantasy. This hope is a resignation of the hope that satisfaction can be gained in the immediate world. We believe in a happy afterlife because we have given up hope in this life. The hope is a total illusion. It is the opinion of Karl Marx that due to the nature of religion, specifically its dependence on the fantasized and projected hopes of oppressed people, that when oppression ended, that religion would cease to be a compelling issue to man.
Far from the radical and political atheism of Marx stands Rudolf Otto. Rudolf, rather than examining religion from a secular and economic perspective, Otto focuses on the mystical and personal experience of religion. In fact Otto defines religion as the experience of awe and mystery. Otto describes a feeling of awe in the grasp of what is not so much perceived so much as it is felt.
A consciousness of the holy and the sacred although far from an apprehension or understanding. This ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ was a pre-intellectual consciousness of the great mystery of life. Otto says that these experiences come in many forms ranging from terror to quiet understanding, to ecstatic. All are reactions of the powerful mystery of life. For Otto awe and mystery were the essence of religious feeling. It is clear that this personal experience as religion is not what Marx was talking about. They are talking about two entirely different aspects of the word religion.
Clearly though approaches and perceptions of religion are going to differ among those who believe and those who do not. A secular understanding of religion is going to quite different from someone who is wrapped up in religion. However, not every atheist agrees with Marx’s assessment of religion. For example Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology understands religion quite differently that Marx. While Freud would agree that religion is a projection of mans hopes, Freud has a very different conception of what exactly these hopes are. And in general looks at religion from a very different perspective. Freud saw that religion had three major effects to a psychological need. Firstly it satisfied mans desire for knowledge by telling man where he came from, by offering him a cosmogony. Secondly it gave man consul in times of hardship and a reason to persevere through it. Finally, it offers man moral guidance with what to do in his life. The religion that man has created is in response to his psychological needs. Freud talks about the disillusionment of a child about the strength of his father as he grows with age. Freud states that religion is a transference of all the wonderful things we feel about our father and the protection he provides unto a deity figure. He brings up the many parental and patriarchal aspects of god in religion. Freud feels that science will force religion to take a backseat as it takes over the roles of religion, for example supplying a cosmogony and finding real answers for what man should do with life. Religion is a misguided attempt at controlling the natural world. This position differs from Marx in that Freud abandons all of the political pretext of Marx and examines religion at a more individual level. Also the reliance on science differs from Marx’s approach.
In addition to different secular perspectives, religious perspectives often differ greatly from one another. Such is the case with Karl Barth. While wholly believing in in god and his revelation to man he has a very different perspective that his other theist colleagues. For Barth the bible is the word of god, it is the ultimate truth. Religion is an attempt to dialogue with god. And attempt to apprehend the divine. This goes against the nature of religion. The attempt to understand god shows a lack of faith in his message. Religion is therefore in defiance of the revelation and truth of god. Barth says that religion true religion is like justified sinners. At the surface the two are contradictory but can exist. Religion is an act of sin, but if the revelation is true it is justified in a sense. For this reason Barth sees Christianity as the one true religion, not because it’s not guilty of all the problems with religion but because it carries the one true revelation from god. Christianity remains untrue though because it is guilty of idolatry and self-righteousness. It is both true and untrue. Barth sees religion as a state of mind and a state of non-belief against truth.
Another Christian who happens to have a different understanding of than Barth is Ajith Fernando. Fernando does not vilify religion as Barth does. Also Fernando is more global is his discussion of religions. Barth omitted entirely non-Judeo-Christian faiths. However Fernando does agree that Christianity is the one true religion with the one true revelation. Fernando feels that other religions have noble traditions and practices, but they are still wrong. He sees Christianity apart from other faiths and rejects syncretist notions that all ways and paths are equally valid. Only through faith in Christ that consists of accepting inability to help yourself, and accepting Jesus can you be saved. Christ is the only way to salvation because it is written as so in the bible, which to Fernando is the word of god.
Yet another Christian with a different perspective on the matter is Karl Rahner. Rahner believed strongly in Christianity as the real truth. But was not as stern towards those who did not know Christianity as Fernando or his like. Rahner saw in the bible that god wanted the salvation of everyone. Jesus did not die for one group of people. Jesus dies for all people past and present, regardless of if they knew of him or not. Therefore other religions unexposed to Christ have access to the salvation although it would not be conscious. Rahner sees the grace of god as a universal force not limited to a geographic area or group of people. The grace of god is everywhere and the experience of it is unavoidable. For this reason missionary Christians must understand that many people have a feeling and an understanding of the grace of god without the words and teachings of the church. Rahner acts as a strong contrast to Fernando’s exclusivist views.
Along this line of thinking comes John Hick. Similarly he claims that there is a universal reality experienced by all but unlike Rahner, Hick discards the notion of Christian superiority. He outright rejects the thinking of exclusivists like Fernando by saying that they violate the golden rule. They take a condescending attitude towards other religions but will not accept a similar attitude towards themselves. Hick points out that all religions have a differentiation of reality, as it can be understood and real reality. Whether it is the transcendence of god or the inexpressible nature of the Tao. He sees different religions as different perspectives of what is actually real, different but equally valid. He feels that there is one reality behind all these perspectives, and that is why they are similar. He believes this because all religions claim to be the ultimate while none has more reason. This means that all of them are really getting at aspects of reality, pieces of it.
John Cobb is similar in perspective to Hick, however he does not believe in a central essence of religion. Cobb is a strong protester of the common notion that Christianity has a more enlightened perspective of anything. This protest leads him to deny any common essence to religion. Also from practical religious discussions he realized there could be no agreement over the common essence of religion. So the idea has to be given up. It got in the way of religious discussion that had benefits for everyone involved. Cobb believes that the one norm in all religious discussion is that the real wisdom and conception of reality lies outside of our grasp to perceive. Man has a finite grasp and apprehension of his world. Also Cobb says that even contradictory statements like those of the existence of god can be equally valid. When the Buddhist claims there is no god. They are really saying that god is a concept that keeps you attached to the world. Christians are saying that that there are things worth holding on to. These are contradictory but equally valid truths.
All these men seek to define religion. And all these man do an excellent job explaining what their idea of religion is. But by viewing these works together we see that all these things brought up are valid, but none are the sum of religion. They are aspects of religion, issues in religion. Religion has the facets of a social institution, a personal experience, a psychological phenomenon, an issue of faith. It contains all of these things. The purpose of this writing is to show that religion is not at all a neat word, that it’s meaning is so dilute that it is almost inappropriate to continue it’s use. Perhaps it should be allowed to divide itself into less general and more concrete terms.