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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

How to do religion

5/3/2016 9:49 AM

Standard survey question: “What is your religion: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, other, or none?” People who give the last answer are called “nones.” About a fourth of the U.S. population now falls into that category.

Here is why there are so many “nones.” People don’t know how to do religion.

To do religion, you have to do three things:

          1. You have to move your body. You can’t just think religion, or just feel it. You have to do something that involves physical movement. The reason for this is that, if you want to relate yourself to God, you have to do that with all parts of your being, not just your mind or feelings.

          2. You have to do religion in relationship with other human beings. The reason for this is that God is a community of persons, and God has created us to do things in relationship with others.

          This is the most serious obstacle to religion in western societies. We have become so individualized that we tend to approach everything as though we do not need anyone else for anything. Above all, we think that we do not need anybody else when we deal with God.

          3. What you do has to lead to an increase of beauty in the world. This is the ethical dimension of religion.

I am reading a book on the Franciscan approach to ethics. The author argues that Franciscan tradition sees beauty as the foundation of ethical behavior. Beauty is expressed most powerfully in the way we relate to each other as human beings. A human person fully alive is beautiful. What we do must lead toward making humans, including ourselves, more fully alive. What does not do this is “sinful” or evil.

Our capitalist cultures do not value beauty, except for those with resources. We do not care if what we do destroys beauty, as long as it increases profit. So we go though the world, leaving behind ugliness and decay. Last Sunday I took a walk along the Mississippi riverfront here in Quincy. I passed several properties overrun with weeds, featuring the remnants of concrete foundations and abandoned stair steps. In poorer neighborhoods in our beautiful city, houses features blue tarps on the roof (covering shingles blown off by last summer’s windstorm), weeds and trees sprouting up in the midst of what used to be sidewalks, houses whose paint peeled off years ago, and windows covered with plastic or even boarded up. Only the well-to-do (including me) can afford beauty.

Bottom line: if you think that you can be religious just by thinking about God, and perhaps having nice feelings, but never using your body; if you think you can be religious all by yourself; if you think you can be religious just by trusting in the maximizing of profit, you are not likely to be religious at all.

In earlier ages, followers of Jesus Christ were focused on baptizing people as a way of “saving” them. Baptism was a physical act, and it had to be done in relationship to others. If it led to an imitation of Jesus’ approach to the world, beauty followed. We have gotten away from that kind of baptizing, probably because we have downplayed the importance of the physical, of relationships with others, and of beauty.

You may notice that nothing I have said requires that you be Christian. The majority of people in the world are not Christian. But if they use their bodies in worship, relate to others in their worship, and work to create beauty, they are on the road to God. As a Christian, I happen to believe that Jesus Christ has showed us the best way to approach God, but I don’t believe that non-Christians are hopelessly out of touch with God. I believe that God loves each of them, and takes care of them in ways that I do not know.