…to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction and to forget them not and to keep oneself unstained by the world…(James 1:27, RDRCV). This is not unusual among the religionists who claim the Judeo-Christian heritage (though many claim there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian heritage).
I will argue on another day that all our Christian belief in righteous acts (Tzedaqah) emanates from the Second Temple period of Jewish lore. Then the Temple leaders and their synagogue counterparts changed the meaning of Righteous Acts to Alms-giving, which is the righteous standard Jesus accepted, when He sat at the place where was the receipt of custom and honored the widow who offered up her last insignificant mites, Luke 21:1-4. The widow James mentions in his epistle as worthy of visitation is the rough equivalent of the faithful woman in the Temple with Jesus. Widows and orphans and beggars matter mightily in the ministry of Jesus and His church. The existence of persons not included in the social safety net flavored all the actions of our Lord’s ministry.
But that is another matter for another day. It is enough to say, just now, that Jesus apparently wants the reach of social wealth to extend to the fringes of the social order, to each person willing to participate in the system, ala the widow in the Temple. Jesus offers love to the captive, while He lives and after He dies and always in His coming again.
This is not the matter for the day, though not many may get past it. If social justice and its attendant matters speak to your heart in the preceding paragraphs, it is because widespread care will never quite stop being the compelling order of the day for religious people. We literally cannot stop thinking about the needs of the disadvantaged in our global culture. We cannot make all people alike but we are commanded by our Lord to recognize those who are not like us, Luke 16:19-31. We risk descent into the place of agony if we ignore the “others.” In fact, the myth-stories (meta-narrative) Jesus tells do not show a person in torment because he does not believe this or that religious factoid. The soul in torment is there because he does not recognize the poor under in circumstances, as with Dives and Lazarus. Many who are sent away are amazed to find God is not in their debt, cf. Matthew 7:21-23.
So, if this is not the topic of discussion for today, then what is the topic? It is religion as essay, by which I mean, we will explore the meaning of religion in essay form, which includes objective information (information gleaned from evidential data) and subjective application. Before I begin the essay I remind us that all the information I use is anecdotal because all evidence, particularly of the “scientific” kind is anecdotal. Scientists, philosophers, even (gasp) preachers are fawns to the historian. The historian looks at events in incident, links them to similar (and dissimilar) events in human record and shows how humankind corrects itself, usually to the Left, toward generosity, kindness and compassion, unless interrupted by a particularly nasty fascist type, of the Right or the Left.
So, what is religion, then?
Religion In Essay
Mutato nomine et de te fabula narratur
(Change only the name and the story is yours)
Religion is the superimposition of the divine ego over the human ego. The religious expositor errs in degree when he or she offers value as more than an interval step toward faith. Faith it is that causes grace to atomize in reality, for which it (faith) must have a host, on which the ego of the divine can superimpose itself for a saving purpose, Phil. 2:5.
Think of it as the difference between a remedy offered in “pill” or “protein” form. Pharmaceutical companies now vie to see which can produce proteins with the most complex chemical structures, remedies that do not mask pain or merely treat symptoms (think of pills) but, instead, combines with the host human physiology to remake part or all of the system. Thus, the pharmaceutical chemist effects actual healing by overwhelming interaction with the host body.
The ancient folk saw this superimposition as a city, coming down from the heavenlies, fully fitted, literally, to bring Heaven to earth, replete with plentiful water, food, paved streets and serene gardens. The work of God (or, in other ancient faiths, the gods) would superimpose over the lesser (but impressive) efforts of humankind in city building. Christians accepted this design in their apocalyptic final book, The Revelation of St. John, the Divine, when that worthy described his vision of the heavenly worship of God and the sacrifice of the saints, as preparatory to Christ’s return amid the descent of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, cf. Revelation 21.
The ancients we most closely follow (and we follow them very closely, until Hume and later Kant come along, as religion lay dying by its own hand and give it that final nudge) are from the Axial age, to which I give the widest imaginary dating, 800 BC to 100 AD, because I want it to include Jesus and the primitive church. During this period, religion moves from the all gods of mystery to monotheism, faith in the one God, which history seems to favor. Later wags will say monotheism went in the right no direction but did not get rid of enough gods, leaving room for the one, after all. During the Axial Age, the greater transition might have been in humankind, rather than in its desiccation of the god-beings.
Indeed, humans began to demand a religion of serenity begotten by a god of kindness. Religion wanted what history often presented, a correction toward a religion of grace, not barbarity. Call it what you will, the commands attributed to God in portions of the Old Testament amount to genocide. There is more evidence in Scripture for the sake of slavery and misogyny than for liberation. Still, while religious figures lesser than Jesus argued for the status quo, the greater leader(s) insisted on change. Historically, you can determine the greatness of the religious leader in equivalent value to the way he suffered at the hands of those who had to have what had lately been.
Jesus, whose religion I accept, went through a period in His brief ministry during which the powerful sought to offer Him their license. When Jesus rejected their license, He considered Himself marked for death at the hands of men He considered “evil,” though they were considered the acceptable, common religious leaders of their day. And from His time to our own, the frustrating “thing” about religion and its practitioners is how mightily religious folk work to hold on to their place, as though they have had no real change, as if the ego of the divine has not remade them body/mind/soul, cf. Romans 12:1-7.
If essay insists on some application (and I think it does) then we have certainly arrived at that point just in terms of sheer volumes of words. I cannot imagine many are still reading but maybe you will come back sometime. At any rate, as a self-defined public intellectual, I am obligated to point us somewhere rather than just decry where we currently seem to be.
So, I argue we ought to go out to the edge with Jesus and minister from that edge. If you are too close to the cozy middle you probably spend your time making people happy where they are instead of moving them on to where God can use them. Jesus was invited to Jerusalem but spent a good part of His time in Samaria and the Galilee. He ministered from the edge as a common critic of the contemporary system. He did not let that criticism jade Him. In fact, He showed how the fatuous system of men pushed Him to the Father, cf. John 14:1-11.
Jesus talked of God as though He (Jesus) was an insider but He never seemed to hold His knowledge captive. Life teaches us that people who try to speak as though they alone have a private knowledge of vital importance held only in themselves only puff up their own ego, rather than showing the change in them from the divine information they have received. Jesus is different from all that, trying to make His knowledge available to keen listeners and perpetually available to all who learn from the Spirit, again and again, cf. John 14:1f.
People with the divine ego superimposed over their own do not necessarily lose their own ego’s strength, size or shape. His ego, after all, is easy and light, bringing serenity and rest to all who accept Him, Matthew 11:30). This is the superiority of the Christian faith (or one of them), that, when we look upward and cry for God, there is a God there to answer. Our co-religionists of the Axial Age are working hard to do away with God. The Eastern faiths redefine themselves, accurately, I think, as an ethical system of inner turning. Our faith counterparts the Judaists, complain they are not of the covenant and their system need not have a place for heaven or angels, scripture or god. Alone, Christianity insists on God, a real God, heaving love and breathing fire. Alone, Christians insist on a God available to all: men and women, all beings great and small. Christians subject themselves to God, who rules the Heavens and Earth. When we look up and cry out to God, there is God to hear.
Let us admit we constantly seek verifiability, while God, who shows Godself to us continually, denies us the kind of experiential proofs that would naturally seem to assuage our doubts. We ought to recognize, then, that our religious failures, or even our human failure to accept religions as more than a moral or ethical life system, are material. I intend to get to the material arguments soon, but not here. Here it fits my essay to offer the religious argument against materialism as a system of thought, belief or doubt. Prevenient grace is the element that makes the unbeliever sense the vulnerability of his fellows and offer helps. You and I do not just something good in us that somehow makes us able to believe in good and offer helps. The tip of the Divine Shadow beats on us, the Invisible Wings of Protection hover us, protecting us from doom but also transforming us to creatures of goodness even prior to our profession of faith and acceptance of God’s divine descent on us.
The divine descent over us explains (if it does not prove) why and how we should seek after God instead of proofs about God. Material arguments matter (pun intended) but cannot satisfy and only explain how we are not looking for God. This is not hard. God, the One we are to seek, seeks us with such evident intent we cannot almost not help blundering into God at many points in our existence. It is what we do at the “accidental encounter” that matters, in this life and in it sequel.
When we accept religion as the superimposition of God’s divine ego over our own, we admit a certain variable nature in reality, rather than simple material verifiability. This is randomness, or something very much like it, wherein we accept a universe alive in and of itself, a right accorded to it by its Creator, who happens to be our Creator as well. While we cannot determine all this cosmos will do, or even find most of it, we can find out place in it. When God overwhelms us and we find our place in space and time, or even start to look for it, we discover this religious truth; that the purposefulness of redeemed humanity is greater in providence than all the randomness of the material universe.
And, then, we become part of the story, a central character, if never the lead. Moses, Noah, Paul, you me; the names change but the story of God continues.