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May 2, 2010: “Religion Is What WE Make It-So Let’s Be Careful! Or: Comparative Religion 101”

Writer Lincoln Steffans tells the fable of a man who climbed to the top of a mountain and, standing on tiptoe, seized hold of the Truth. Satan, suspecting mischief from this upstart, had directed one of his underlings to tail him; but when the demon reported with alarm the man’s success ‘ that he had seized hold of the Truth ‘ Satan was unperturbed. ‘Don’t worry,’ he yawned. ‘I’ll tempt him to institutionalize it.’

A Pacific Island chief was being bullied by a missionary about his beliefs.
‘Have you, my dear sir, no conception of deity”
The chief replied, ‘We know that at nighttime someone goes by amongst
the trees, but we never speak of it.’

From the book, Children’s Letters to God:
It ‘s ok that you made different religions but don’t you get them
mixed up sometimes’

It is not that all religions are the same, especially when you give them all a thousand years or so to ripen and fall away from the original vine. And it is certainly not that we believe in the same God, but I think that all religions are trying for the same goals, that all religions try to help us find a meaning and purpose, not just in life, but in OUR life, and all religions seem to try to connect us all together with the divine or the enlightened whether that be within us, among us or above us.

It’s also not so much that we must study every religion known to humanity, though I think we should all know about the major religions. Many people do not want an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual experience, answers to some of those more difficult questions, comfort when we are afraid, and a kind of Santa Claus reward when we’re good. It has been said, ‘Pray as if everything depended upon God, but work as if everything depended upon you.’

The great Sufi mystic poet Rumi writes

There are all these religions,
So everyone can sing along.
And all these people singing,
Together make just one song-

I’m leading a course called Comparative Religions. and the first thing we must do is to try to define the nebulous term, religion. We all think we know what it means; it’s a common word, after all, but when we come right down to it, it’s not so easy to define if we are to be universal about it. That is, if we are to define it in such a way that it encompasses all the world’s religions.

The old traditional way was to define religion as your religion as in the 18th century quote from a ‘Mr. Thwackum (1749)- ‘When I mention Religion, I mean the Christian Religion; and not only the Christian Religion, but the Protestant Religion; and not only the Protestant Religion, but the Church of England.’-

As our world shrinks it is imperative that we begin to understand and respect the world’s religions. Indeed, I think that a course on World religions should be a required course in high school or at least college! Yet, the difficulty of teaching any religion objectively seems almost impossible these days when one would think we would have come to a point of tolerance enough to at least try to understand how the rest of the world thinks and/or believes.

In the 19th century a few enlightened scholars began to study religions of the world in a way that respected their differences, though often still ranked them bu advanced and primitive society or race. Unitarian minister and professor, James Freeman Clarke, did this in his book, Ten Great religions, Part II: A Comparison of All Religions 1883: Part I was published in 1871, and in the second volume he expands the religions he covers to include the religions of ‘the primitive or childlike races.’ He calls those ‘Tribal,’ because they don’t have the ‘characters of ethnic or National religions or Catholic or Universal. As yet human nature is in it cradle, and the cry of the infant is the same all over the world. All this indicates that the law applies to religion which we find elsewhere, and that here, too the progress of the race will be from monotony, through variety, to an ultimate harmony.

The present volume contains, as far as I know, the first attempt to trace these doctrines through all the principal religions of mankind.’

The German scholar Max Mueller was well known for translating from Sanskrit into German then English as he came To Cambridge to teach. the many works of Indian scripture, making them available for the first time. He was part of the Romantic period which the Unitarian Transcendentalists were involved in and probably Emerson was reading his translations!

In 1841, philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to state the  anthropologic principle that every religion is created by the human  community that worships it.

Most of us are familiar with Karl Marx’s definition: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opiate of the people.”

In the late 19th and early part of the 20th century Freud thought religion was an illusion and a childish neurosis and we’d all be better off without it and indeed, we need to recover from it! “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”

“Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.” ‘
Mark Twain

“Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.”
‘Napoleon Bonaparte

Emile Durkheim-, the great Sociologist said, ‘A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say. things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.’

“Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.
Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; Unbelief, in denying them.”
‘Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Religion is all bunk.” ‘ Thomas Edison

“Religion itself is nothing else but Love to God and Man. He that lives in Love lives in God, says the Beloved Disciple: And to be sure a Man can live nowhere better.”
‘William Penn

“Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”
‘William James author Varieties of Religious Experience

Contemporary religious Historian, Clifford Geertz Religion is ‘1 a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in people (men) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

A character on the defunct TV-show Ed, called ‘Reverend Ike’ said, ‘Religion is like a big flashlight. You shine it around you to help you illuminate your life, and find what it is you’re missing.’

“Now it is quite clear that different religious traditions, ‘ writes The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism and now best-selling author , ‘ — in spite of having different philosophies and viewpoints — all have a spiritual potential to help humanity by promoting human happiness and satisfaction. As a matter of fact, given the vast array of humanity — of so many different kinds of people, of so many peopled with suffering mental dispositions– we need a vast array of religious traditions so it is far better to have this variety…. from this experience it becomes clear that for certain people a Christian method is much more effective than others. Muslims find their own approach to better suit their lives. So we cannot say this religion is good that religion is not good. That we cannot say. On an individual basis however we can say that a particular religion is best for us.” – From’ Spiritual Advice for Buddhists and Christians,’ Continuum: New York 1998

Father of 20th century Protestant Theology Paul Tillich:’ Behind this system, as has been implied, are two concepts of religion. And this fact is so fundamental that, although we shall need to discuss it more fully, an over-all comment should be made here: If religion is defined as a state of “being grasped by an ultimate concern” ‘ which is also my definition of faith ‘ then we must distinguish this as a universal or large concept from our usual smaller concept of religion which supposes an organized group with its clergy, scriptures, and dogma, by which a set of symbols for the ultimate concern is accepted and cultivated in life and thought. This is religion in the narrower sense of the word, while religion defined as “ultimate concern” is religion in the larger sense of the word.’

“Religion is the human attitude towards a sacred order that includes within it all being’human or otherwise’i.e., belief in a cosmos, the meaning of which both includes and transcends man.”
‘Peter Berger

“Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.”
‘A.N.. Whitehead

“Religion is the daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”
‘Ambrose Bierce

We can see how there are many ways to view definitions of religion. It is relationship, of course, which I’ve often said, but it also depends on us and our culture and our individual experiences.

Mircea Eliade The great Romanian Historian of religion who eventually became a UU, and taught at U of Chicago, wrote in The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion:

‘The history of religions reaches down and makes contact with that which is essentially human: the relation of man to the sacred. The history of religions can play an extremely important role in the crisis we are living through. The crises of modern man are to a large extent religious ones, insofar as they are an awakening of his awareness to an absence of meaning…

 The History of Religions is destined to play an important role  in contemporary cultural life. This is not only because an  understanding of exotic and archaic religions will significantly  assist in a cultural dialogue with the representatives of such  religions. It is more especially because ... the history of religions  will inevitably attain to a deeper knowledge of man. It is on the  basis of such knowledge that a new humanism, on a worldwide scale,  could develop.'

Rabbi Harold Kushner, famous for his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, among other books, when asked how can we know about God , said that what is important is not whether or not God exists but ‘what kind of people we become when we attach ourselves to God.’

Historian Karen Armstrong says something similar:’The experience of an indefinable transcendence holiness and sacredness has been a fact of human life… I don’t think it matters what you believe in- and most of the great sages of religion would agree with me. If conventional belief makes you compassionate, kind, and respectful of the sacred rights of others, this is good religion. If your beliefs make you intolerant, unkind, and belligerent, this is bad religion, no matter how unorthodox it is.’

In 1579 Francis David, leader of the Transylvanian Unitarians, was condemned as a heretic. David had convinced King John Sigismund of the soundness of both Unitarianism and religious toleration at the Diet of Torda. Indeed it was the first edict of toleration in Elopes history! When his adversary Miletus threatened David, ‘If I win this debate, you will be executed,’ David is said to have responded, ‘And if I win this debate, you and everyone else in this land will be given complete religious freedom and tolerance due to every child of man.’ David won the debate, but lost his life in prison.

I have used a lot of definitions from a wide variety of learned sources, but what is YOUR definition of religion, your sense of the sacred, the holy’ What is your ultimate concern’ Let’s take that one step further and ask what is our sense of the sacred, the holy, our ultimate concern’ What is religion for us’ Why do we come to church’

Religion is what we make it and more. Today, in this country, we are free to take it or leave it, to believe it or not and to say so publicly. We are free to attend church or not. What a great freedom that is and how fortunate we are! As we know there are parts of the world where religion seems like more of a great evil than good, certainly an oxymoron!

In the name of religion, the greatest evil has been perpetuated on the world, but remember that also in the name of religion the greatest compassion has also been spread upon the world. Remember that it is not religion’s fault when someone perverts it! Yet how often we see that seem to happen!

In many cultures there is not a separate word or religion, because all they do is their religion; indeed in early religious studies in the 19th century some so called primitive societies were thought not to have any religion because of that! Eventually, it was discovered that sometimes their whole lives were so spiritual and religious that they were never seen separating them into sacred and profane or secular, it was all sacred time! Everything was sacred! But because they did not have a so called Father God whom they worshipped, they were assumed to have no religion at all.

And if religion is what we make it, how religious are we making our lives’ Notice I’m not asking what we believe, because I believe that it is more about what kind of people we become when we are religious rather that what we say we believe, as Rabbi Kushner and Karen Armstrong and others, like Emerson said.

The great hope in this, my friends, is that we can respect every one’s religion as we learn how to love them, because at the heart of all religion is a sense of the sacred oneness of which we are all a part which some call God and I call universal Love, among other things. We realizing our oneness will want to work for environmental and economic justice, for peace, for helping one another through sickness and loneliness and grief, through reaching out to find a way to make the world, and our community a better place to live. Religion has always been a cultural, ethnic, way of interconnecting people into a wider community, but always struggled with a need for prophetic struggle with resistance to reaching out and instead becoming inner focused and chauvinistic and fundamentalist. It is not that all religions are alike, but that all humanity is connected , and has been separated; it is time to come together and be one world. May we be part of the connection.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios, ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’

Peace,Love, Shalom,Salaam, Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios