Posted by: dacalu | 16 March 2011

What is Religion?

What is religion?

It’s a fairly difficult question and one that comes up often in classes I teach on religion and science.  I’ve never found a definition that I really like, though two have stood out for me historically.  William James describes religion as the “belief in an unseen order and the desire to conform ourselves harmoniously thereto.”  Phyllis Tickle (drawing on John Polkinghorne) describes religion as having three components – belonging, believing, and behaving.  While these both present wonderful insights for the academic, I have found neither to be useful for the evangelist.  They don’t convince people  to say, “this is something I want.”  Nor do they convict people to say, “this is something I have, but have not reflected on.  So, I would like to try out a new definition of religion.  See what you think.

Religion is a value system – a way of judging what’s important in the world – that comes with a story.  Each of us comes with a set of priorities in our heads that stretches from “avoid bananas, seek apples” to “avoid blood, seek shelter” to “avoid war, seek justice.”  These are all preferences and values, the script that allows us to make choices on a daily basis and for a lifetime.  They define us, whether we are conscious of them or not.  From my perspective, the Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) emphasis on idols has very little to do with spirits and statures and everything to do with valuing the wrong things.

Each religion posits a thing or a set of things that have primary value, those things to be sought above all else, and for which all else could be sacrificed.  Idolatry for that religion occurs when a person puts something else in the place of the primary thing (or things).

So what is my value system?  Well, it’s pretty complicated, but it has at its core some very simple propositions common, I hope, to all Christians.


People are the most important things and God is the most important person.

The good of people is to be valued above all else, with right (loving) relationship between people being the best good.


No doubt the devil is in the details.  How we love can be a very difficult question.  Still.  I think that this is fundamentally different from other religions.

I would, perhaps naively, characterize Islam as valuing God’s will above all things, with the good of people being defined by obedience to God.

Likewise, I think Buddhism rates the end of sentient suffering above all things, with the good of people coming from situations that alleviate attachment and suffering.

I find both to have some very noble characteristics, but they are not the same as Christianity.  And the differences can be important.

When I turned to Rabbinic Judaism, I found that the value system was quite similar.  The right relationship might be less often connected to the word “love,” but it seems quite well connected in practice.  This led me to think that the story was also important.  We share our values most often by placing characters, both real in fictional, in context.  There is a story in Christianity that God’s Son became human.  This emphasizes the personhood of God.  The flavor of that story affects the flavor of love.  Some Christians make it a story of judgment – thus righteousness is about justice.  Others make it a story about compassion – thus righteousness is about caring.  The words may stay the same, but the valence is different, because we experience our behavior in context.

The story tells us how we ought to act, by modeling right action.  If Christianity and Judaism have the same value system, they have very different stories.  In Judaism it is a story of God as a lover, chasing Israel and forming a bond and covenant.  There are similar strands in Christianity, but far more often we find an image of supreme lawgiver and judge, who pardons the condemned, or as beloved, to whom all things are naturally drawn.  (Mind you, I’m not fully happy with those two models, I just see them as very popular in Christianity in the last millennium).  We place ourselves in these stories to give ourselves identity and purpose.

One of the immense values to be found in older and more populous religions is that they will often provide a multitude of stories.  There is usually a central story, but often will hundreds of little stories that help draw people in.  Christianity has the Bible, but also the lives of the saints.  They take a central theme, a central value system, and demonstrate how it may be applied.

This Lent, I’ll be looking more closely at my professed value system (people, relationships) and see whether it matches up with my actions.  I’ll be thinking about what stories I use to orient my life.

I hope you will do the same.



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