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Arnold Berleant, Religion without Theology

Castine Unitarian Church
23 June 2002


I. A religious odyssey

I should like to begin with a brief account of my religious odyssey.  This is intended, not as a bit of self-indulgence, but for two quite different reasons.  One is the belief that other people, perhaps some here, have gone through a similar sequence.  The second reason is to provide a kind of prelude to the subject of my talk later.

Over the course of nearly seventy years my thinking on religion has gone through several stages.  It began with accepting in childhood the beliefs and institutions of my family and its social group.  The literal account of purported history in the Bible gradually led to growing uneasiness and persistent doubts.  These were not dispelled by the expedient that was recommended to me of adopting a metaphorical interpretation of such things as the account of creation and the ages of the early patriarchs.  At the same time, ritual, which once attracted me by its ceremony and the appeal of social cohesion – many individuals and families joining together in common worship – began to founder on the reefs of the insincerity and hypocrisy I saw around me, combined with blind belief and mechanical prayer.   Most telling of all was my sense of the irrationality of religious beliefs, a recognition that gradually became undeniable.  I could not mouth prayers and doctrines that I could not truly believe.  This led first to scepticism, then to agnosticism, and finally to indifferentism.  Was there anything left?

God, prayer, doctrines, sacred texts – these are some of the many things we associate with religion.  I am not interested here in psychological reasons for religious belief.  For many people it does offer comfort and hope.  But for me personally, I require reasons for hope and take comfort only in what I can truly believe.   Moreover, I deplore the conflict and persecution to which claims to exclusive religious truths often lead.   To my mind such claims of truth and exclusivity were questionable and could not be maintained with any degree of self-honesty.  All these led to a feeling of anti-scepticism and anti-clericalism.  Was there anything left?

At the same time I found that I had to respect the good works done by people in the religious community, from moral stands on social and political issues to the many forms of social activism and assistance they undertake.  But these did not require religion and could be done by people as both as individuals and as participants in social and political groups.  Was there any other way than through accepting religious doctrine of achieving the beauty conveyed through ritual, the inner peace brought by belief, or the sense of community offered through acceptance by other like-minded people?  This is the question I want to pursue here.


II. Introduction

A preoccupation for over half a century with philosophical concerns has resulted in a deeper and broader understanding of many matters that have concerned me deeply.  This has been a continuing process and a gratifying one, not always by providing clear and firm answers to the questions that troubled me but by enabling me to understand the issues far better and to recognize directions in which to search and provisional conclusions on which to proceed.

This morning I should like to share with you my enlarged understanding of some religious questions.  This is one man’s odyssey and I offer it, not as a packaged doctrine, but as a way of thinking that might be interesting for you to hear about and possibly helpful for you to consider in your own religious understanding.  Let me group my comments around three basic themes:  religion, faith, and spirituality.

III.  Religion

What comes to many people’s minds when they think of religion are the great religious traditions of the world:  the Moslem, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Taoist, Confucian, and Zoroastrian religions, to mention the best known.  Associated with these institutions, however, for people with a moral sensibility, are the wars, pogroms, and massacres, and the many less overtly violent forms of persecution pursued in the name of the one true religion

An intimate part of these religious institutions is the doctrines each espouses – systems of belief that claim certain truths about the world and that impose codes of conduct on people.  In an attempt to construct bridges across doctrinal boundaries, efforts have been made to seek basic religious beliefs that have universal acceptance, such as the belief in a god or a moral code.  Unfortunately, it has been difficult to maintain the universality of such doctrines, since not all religions appeal to a supreme, transcendent being and a great many religiously-based moral codes are not concerned with human well-being.  What, then, is left?

It may be helpful to view religion more broadly than institutions and doctrines and to distinguish between religion in these senses and the distinctive and valuable experiences we associate with a religious outlook:  religious experience.  There is a difference between religion as an institution, with its related doctrines, and religious experience.  To my mind, such experience is the central force and the constructive and uplifting contribution religion has to offer.  This is not a new idea. Exactly one hundred years ago, William James made a case for this in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience, to which I commend you.  But a century later, more and different things may be said in a larger and far different world.

To speak of religious experience is important but, unless we are more specific, this may not get us very far.  It may include all sorts of things, from revelation and miracles to speaking in tongues and states of ecstatic transport.  While these certainly occur in some religious contexts, they do not take place in many, and they are certainly not what I want to commend as the heart of non-doctrinal religion.  What other kinds of experiences, then, are significantly religious?

In his widely-known book, The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto centered his discussion around the awe-inspiring element of religious experience, which he called the “numinous.”  Like the beauty of music, this experience, he held, is non-rational.  It cannot be formulated in words but discussed only in symbolic terms.  The numinous, he held, conveys feelings of majesty and awe, yet at the same time the total acceptance of grace and divine love.  It possesses both mystery and fascination.

From this I should like to extract several things that seem to me to hold true of religious experience freed from the trappings of any institutional doctrine or religious belief.  What remains, I think, is the sense we have of humility in relation to the universe and a concomitant respect for its greatness.  At the same time, there is an acceptance of the way of the universe, like the Chinese Taoist idea of tzu-jan (naturalness), or as it is often described, living in harmony with nature.  Here we can find the peace, the inner tranquility we so often associate with the religious life as one of its greatest benefits.

Feelings of awe, of humility, and of tranquility are conveyed in a number of different ways besides religious observances.  One of these comes in the encounter with nature we my have in gardens, parks, the countryside, or wilderness.  I believe that one of the most powerful attractions and rewards such forms of nature offers can be thought of, at its core, as religious.  Such feelings are, at the same, time deeply positive and, we may also say, profoundly beautiful.

This leads to another set of occasions for experiences we may call religious, those occasions when we engage with the arts in a fashion that allows us to become vulnerable to their self-transcending and expansive force.  Whether our encounter with the arts be through reading or writing poetry, painting or musing thoughtfully over paintings, being deeply moved by music or any of the other arts, our total engagement with art characteristically evokes a similar awareness of humility and awe, joined with a feeling that we are surpassing the boundaries of a separate self.

Moreover, we do not need to engage with nature or art to achieve this religious-like experience nor need it assume great and powerful proportions.  It can infuse our ordinary dealings with things and people, something like the saintliness we admire for its own sake irrespective of religion.  Something of the Zen approach to ordinary things, seeing and respecting their intrinsic beauty, infuses daily life with religious experience.  Indeed, recognizing in your bones the intrinsic qualities and value of something — anything  — being “so moved that you want to cry for the beauty of it,” as a friend of mine once put it — is truly and deeply religious.

Another idea, more general and less doctrinal than the holy, is the notion of the sacred.  Apart from its specifically religious meaning, the sacred has a broader scope that extends to embrace experiences of preciousness, of great intrinsic value.  The Scottish philosopher Ronald Hepburn has explored its various uses.  He includes as its religious uses “the realizing and celebrating of highest values – notably consciousness, personhood, beauty in nature, life-enhancing and energy-releasing power – all in contexts that keenly activate our normally dormant sense of wonder and mystery in the awareness of those values and their bearers.”  And he finds that the sacred leads to humility, awe, wonder, and reverence toward something that has intrinsic value.

Less ecclesiastical than reverence toward the sacred, respect conveys a more generalized sense of the intrinsic worthiness of something.  Respect can be accorded objects as well as people.  I remember well the gentleness with which I once observed a green grocer, with his thick hands of hard labor, handle peaches that could easily be bruised.  We respect work that results from the intense labor of others – a garden, a quilt, a poem — quite apart from their artistic success.  We respect works of art for their aesthetic value as well as their craftsmanship.  And we may respect natural objects of great beauty, striking design, or intricacy, such as a seashell or a spider web.  Such respect comes close to reverence and verges on the religious.

There is much in this account of religious experience, in fact, that resembles our experience of the arts.  In fact, “a parallel has sometimes been drawn between aesthetic and religious experience.  Both are intensely absorbing, personal, and immediate.  Both extend their directness and intimacy to bring one into a region of being that far exceeds the private region attributed to subjectivity.”   Like religious experience, the aesthetic appreciation of art or nature can also be characterized by wonder, awe, a sense of humility and an attitude of reverence in the presence of something that surpasses understanding.

IV. Faith

Let me speak more briefly now about two other dimensions of religion, faith and spirituality, and see how they may be reinterpreted in the light of religious experience.  Faith, like religious thought, runs the full gamut, from blind acceptance of a sacred text or the pronouncements of a sage or leader, to the will to believe (to cite James once more) in the absence of reason.  All have their appeal, to be sure, and this rests on the security and confidence faith gives to religious beliefs.  But what meaning can faith have when we speak of religion apart from belief?  Does it retain any significance at all?

I think that it does.  There is meaning to a faith that supports a willingness to act in ways that contribute to the betterment of people, individual people in specific situations, from refugees fleeing bloody conflict in Chechnya or the Sudan, to actions at home that help our community or assist a sick friend.  Faith here means moral commitment:  It is the resolve to try to do some good where we can without expecting personal benefit.  It is acting on one’s principles of what is right and for the larger good of society irrespective of consequences.  It is the bravery of a whistle blower like Coleen Rowley, the FBI field agent in Minneapolis who faced down the bureaucracy by writing an open letter to the Director detailing the many self-protective practices that greatly impede the bureau’s effectiveness.  You can surely think of countless other examples of actions performed to do some good somewhere, not the blind enforcement of a rule because it is a rule, but acting to help people and improve conditions wherever we find ourselves.  This is the beneficent force of humane moral values pursued for their own sake.   Such faith is the farthest thing from blind, dogmatic belief.  It is acting out a commitment to promote truth, maintain one’s honesty, and preserve self-respect.  There are people willing to suffer and die with such faith.

V. Spirituality

What, finally, in a non-doctrinal sense, is spirituality?   Originally, spirituality meant being possessed by a spirit. Although few in the Western world are likely to retain this meaning, it persists in the belief that spirit is some thing, an evanescent, immaterial entity or part of us.  Like religion and faith, spirituality takes many forms, from traditional ones such as those I’ve just mentioned, to more poetic or metaphorical ones.

However, the notion of spirituality can be understood in ways that owe nothing to supernaturalism or mysticism.   It means not being obsessed or even greatly concerned with material possessions.  This implies being free from the power of material desires that are so easily excited and manipulated, and governed instead by values that one has deliberately chosen.  It does not mean indifference to physical needs or the demands of the body.  In fact, there is no opposition here of spirit and body.  Physical fulfillment can itself be spiritual.

Spirituality may be viewed as respect for humans, for those distinctively human qualities of awareness, sensitivity, and subtle understanding that we cherish.  In this sense spirituality leads to recognizing the essential worth of humans and is thus an intimate part of humanism.  But spirituality may be extended to encompass all living things, including a respect for natural processes.  It is in this sense of spirituality that we can speak of living and acting “in accord with nature.”  Recognizing the sacredness of the world thus becomes spiritual.

This, then, is a spirituality that is not bound up with theological doctrines of a fine, immaterial substance that is independent of the body.   It joins with faith in the nobler acts of generosity or sacrifice.  It may be associated, too, with the sense of oneness that binds us to others in community and ultimately to the universe in full and willing acceptance.  Here spirituality is allied with music and the other arts in transcending the institutions and customs that divide people from one another.  This is true reverence for the human spirit.

VI. Religion without theology

It occurred to me, when I had settled on a title for this talk and began to write it, that religion without theology is largely what Unitarian Universalism is about.  Some of us may have certain religious convictions, others may eschew any such beliefs altogether.  But religion without theology is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, where dogma has no place.  Here we find faith without questionable hopes, spirituality without false fears, humility without self-abasement.  We are left with truth in reason, goodness in integrity and service, and beauty in life, nature and art.  We have religion without theology.

Religion without theology recognizes at its heart religious experience that honors wonder and awe in the face of the immensity of the universe, the finiteness of human life, and the unspeakable beauty of nature and art.  It finds spirituality in being liberated from an unquenchable thirst for possessions and incessant stimulation, in maintaining one’s integrity under pressures to acquiesce in deceitful practices, and in working where one can do some small good.  And it pursues all this with the faith that integrity and doing good are their own reward.  Here, then, is no theology but here is religion.

This is true religion, not the only true religion, certainly, but religion true and complete and self-sufficient nonetheless.  It is religion without doctrine, religion that is capable of providing the gifts of beauty, tranquility, and community that are the goals to which all religion aspires.  And it may be the only common ground on which religions that practice tolerance and accept human well being can agree.  In any case, it is sufficient in itself and, for some of us, quite enough.