To foster religion without history, language and ritual is much the same as planting cut flowers. The immediate beauty, like enthusiasm in religion, is soon lost because the plant lacks roots. We would do well to jump back two centuries to retrieve our religion, but we seem unwilling to do more than lust for the Old Time Religion, by which we mean the American Southern church of the 1950’s. I remember those days, very well, and they were really good old time, unless, of course, you were a person of color, or most women or any poor person. We have to rethink that part of the Good Old Days. To really rethink them, we should at least make a trek back through the Scripture.
Read, for instance, the English translations of the Holy Bible. Read them all; they are a lot alike. In fact, they are so very alike, we should probably wonder why a new one emerges every half dozen years. The best English as a Foreign Language Bible is the King James Version. English is the language of Shakespeare, of course, but just as importantly of the very beautiful King James Version of the Bible. Most of my generation, the ones who bothered to memorize any part of Holy Writ, have it in the middle English of the English Anglicans.
The Anglicans did not get it all right. They had some uninterrogated prejudices and, naturally, interpreted the Bible in light of their language, history and ritual. They abutted the reign of the genius Shakespeare. They were like him, but not, and would have denied their sameness of thought.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, like the language of the King James, differs vastly from the old Greek tragedies. A Greek tragedy is inevitable; once the bones are dotted, the die is cast. Shakespearean tragedies can go this way, or that, based on choice, so the language of that day was fraught with ill-fated willfulness. The English Bible was destined from the start to announce man had to offer up something for his own salvation, as God offered up the Son to open the door. A translation is an interpretation, no matter how close to the latest texts. Western readers agonize over just what to offer God for salvation; their lives, their fortune, their sacred honor.
There must be something to give for our salvation, but what? Indeed, what do you give the God who has everything? Roman Catholics rejected the sola gratia growing out of the sola scriptura. Their achingly beautiful rituals replaced good works outside the nave as the entry to salvation, but not immediately, and not finally.
Protestants and the Free Church were not so fortunate. For us, Religion from the King James forward demanded the seeker surrender self for salvation, as though that were possible. We despised ritual and so damned our own history, with the attendant result that our people, lacking anything visible in worship, looked to human leaders and aped their bad temper.
No? Then explain European monarchists and American slavery. The divine right of the powerful required a long series of Civil Wars, Revolutions and millions of deaths for their purging. Humans fought to offer God something better than the world they found at birth, meaning we were working hard to be saved from the very presence of someone else’s sin. Our history flowers with the imagination of persons able to conceive of a heaven-shaped republic within a godly framework where inequality of any kind was abhorred.
Religion, based in history, founded in language, bejeweled with ritual, asks of us (and answers for us) the question skeptics ask in every generation; can such a thing be real? Can a heavenly social order imposed on wretched humanity, so conceived and so dedicated, finally, fully overcome?
We would need a real religion. Some One would have to grip history, hold it tight and bend it to fit the divine will. This could not happen from a cloud. Whoever brought this religion would have to enter history, so history must always matter. This human had to use language, with the soul of a poet, so his teachings could best be described as verse. He would have a concept of imagery (ritual) so powerful other men would remember how He served bread. He would have to come in the middle of time, so that all that happened before Him looked forward to Him and all that happened after Him looked back at Him. He would have to offer Himself, flesh and blood, to a homeless life, to a pitiless death.
In Galilee, history says, there was such a One.