RELIGION: THE HUMAN DILEMMA
(NOTE: The following blog continues the series begun in October 2012, on the topic of "Suffering and the Questions of God at Life's Extremities," to be completed in late 2013.)
To catch us up to date in this widely-spaced series of reflections, I will begin by reaching back into my prelude (See October 2012). A very basic question, I suggested, revolves around the meaning of a parent's statement when she rushes into the nursery late at night to comfort her distressed child with the consoling words, "It's alright." What does that imply? What is IT? And to pursue that question, I have begun to reflect on some matters both psychological and religious. At least, I am framing my personal thoughts on the matter by holding in creative tension perspectives gained from both depth psychology and broad religious studies.
Toward that end, last month I re-told the old archetypal story of suffering set forth in the Hebrew Bible's account of Job and his perplexing experience of suffering at the hands of his deity as well as his would-be friends. The text of Job raises numerous points of interest for persons attempting to understand its possible meaning and significance for us today. Among them are the complicated process by which the text was compiled, arranged and transmitted; possible parallels in other literary sources from the ancient Near East; the difficulties of language challenging translators; the different names of the deity; the rooting of the language and concepts within a tribal and patriarchal world-view.
But, still, for my purpose this story serves to spark the imagination and to draw us into the soul's deepest questions of existence and suffering: aging, disease, death, and meaninglessness. They are all in the text, and they culminate in Job's plaintive cry, "Oh that I had someone to hear me ... ." (31:35) I take that as the lingering appeal from Job to each of us: to make sense of what seems to be meaningless suffering and cruel, arbitrary injustice. However, from my reading of the story, Job's experience of his suffering cannot be understood apart from his religion; nor can our experience of suffering.
The reason I make this claim is because our psyches demonstrate regularly and historically an innate tendency to organize experiences into narrative patterns, stories that orient us, give meaning to our existence, and bring dignity to living. This tendency has been called the psyche's mythopoeic function. It communicates through symbols and myths, not as half-truths or quaint superstitions but as images that inform us about the deepest layers of human existence arising to satisfy us with some sense of a purposive unfolding in our individual lives as well as throughout the universe.
It should not surprise us, then, that when certain iconic figures arise at key moments in time, those mythopoeic narratives incorporate legend, biography, history, and myth in such a way as to give birth to religion. From this perspective, religion may be defined as "... a set of symbolic thought forms and acts that relate human beings to the ultimate conditions of existence perceived as the Holy." (W.G.Dever, quoted by Keal and Uehlinger, p. 7)
Holy means "regarded with deep veneration," which suggests that it is not just traditional religions that lay claim to the holy. This veneration for things associated with the "ultimate conditions of existence" will be observed among atheists as well as theists. Consider, for example, the fervor of individuals and groups who are seized with devotion to economic philosophies, political ideologies, cultural icons such as media and sports personalities, pseudo-scientific propaganda, and anti-religion crusaders. All of these are "religious" in the way I am defining religion. Each of them contains a core narrative with symbolic images that strongly influence beliefs, feelings, values, and actions.
How fascinating it is that those secular religious fixations have arisen simultaneously with the extremist elements of evangelical fundamentalism in the world's traditional religions. We go back again to reread verse one of William Butler Yeats' often-quoted poem -- now given even more pertinence -- "The Second Coming," in order to grasp the fragmenting power of our age's religious cacophony:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Perhaps Yeats had in mind the Russian revolution of 1917, and the later emergence of Nazi Fascism when he wrote this poem in 1920. But it serves to remind me that this phenomenon of secular and non-secular religious passions battling each other and themselves is not just a recent occurrence. It has always been so apparently. But what is different now is the thought that religions would be extinguished by the critical tools of empirical, rational thought as the human race has become more informed by scientific methods and discoveries. Not so -- at least not yet. We are threatened, the planet itself is threatened, by the "religious" wars that confine people within their myopic dogmatic certainties and extremist self-serving actions.
Our suffering at the hands of religious motivations are immense, it is true. But our confounding predicament is that this is not all that can be said for religion. As I suggested earlier, there is a noble, humanizing, civilizing, saving process which we may experience and which may be called religious. To return again to my basic premise, the psyche's innate tendency is to organize experiences into narrative patterns that help us understand our world, even our own destructiveness, in order to guide us toward a meaningful, fulfilling life. More and more it seems, we human beings grasp the reality of our interconnectedness with life on all levels in this Unus Mundos, one world. This is a particularly mythopoeic view by which symbols are transformed in the re-working of old myths in order to carry us toward a new, distant shore of renewed consciousness. Let me illustrate what I mean by looking at the various functions of the religion.
These functions are more clearly differentiated within the world's major religions, and I will list them as follows:
- a cosmogony or explanation for the origin of the universe, usually in some creation narrative.
- a sacred text. This text consists of varying elements of history, legend, poetry, and a narrative of what may be called a salvation history. These texts may be studied with modern historical-critical methodologies, or they may be assumed to be literally true and not subject to scientific investigation, that is, in that instance they would be seen as having their own authority that could not be challenged.
- a moral code. This prescribes a system of conduct expected for all adherents of the religion. It generally takes precedence over any civil authority by local governing officials. The moral code is often absolutized and made the highest defining and most-often stressed element of the religion.
- rituals for communal and personal life. This may include everything from personal devotions, as well as large gatherings on special, holy occasions or on-going days of worship. It also includes rites of initiation through which one becomes a member of that religion, e.g., baptism.
- devotion to a God-image, iconic figure or philosophical principle. These images reside within the psyches of the followers as objective realities usually projected externally as metaphysical beings who are considered to be unique in their religious significance.
- care for suffering. The priests, ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams, chaplains, and counselors of the organized religion most often have some clearly expected role to provide what has been known as cura animarum, or the care of souls. This ministry of care provides support for persons, families, and groups during the many stages of life: birth, weddings, funerals, and other celebrations. The care of souls also provides for a holy presence during experiences of suffering that range from physical, emotional, and mental disease to natural catastrophes. This ministry of caring has prompted the development of hospitals, medical resources, educational institutions and compassionate efforts for social justice and well-being of all people.
It is this last function of religion that most often touches the lives of persons, even non-adherents or on-lookers who would consider themselves to be atheists. However, the care for suffering may be neglected or even lost under the fanaticism of ideological beliefs that replace the humane care for others, substituting instead a moralistic defense of the religion's diverted agenda to expand its own coffers and protect its selfish interests at the expense of the world's needy.
Which brings me back to Job's suffering, the text in which that archetypal story is embedded, the role of the God-image(s) in that story, and the impact of all the proceeding upon us today. I will go next to consider the text of Job and the complications it presents in our attempts to understand the story.
Keel, O. and Uehlinger, C. (1998). Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (T.H.Trapp, Trans.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.