What religion can mean….

Philip Goldberg, an author, counselor and interfaith minister, suggests that when we talk about religion, the conversation and debate often misses some of the most important roles that religion has historically fulfilled.  Religion, he argues, has five functions:

1. Transmission: to impart to each generation a sense of identity through shared customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity.

2. Translation: to help individuals interpret life events, acquire a sense of meaning and purpose, and understand their relationship to a larger whole (in both the social and cosmic senses).

3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships.

4. Transformation: to foster maturation and ongoing growth, helping people to become more fulfilled and more complete.

5. Transcendence: to satisfy the longing to expand the perceived boundaries of the self, become more aware of the sacred aspect of life, and experience union with the ultimate ground of Being.

Goldberg argues that most people (and many religious institutions), particularly in the West, tend to focus on the first three of these functions.  If that is true, it is perhaps not surprising that much of our religious conversation revolves around shifting cultural norms, what constitutes acceptable or sanctioned personal moral conduct and issues of doctrine and belief.    Goldberg believes that this helps explain why so many Westerners have turned to “Eastern” religions, because increasingly, he argues, people are looking for traditions that are more experience-oriented than belief-oriented.  In other words, their focus is more on the second two functions – transformation and transcendence – than on the first three functions, which have tended to be the focus of Western Christianity.

It seems to me that the future of the Christian movement lies very much with how successful we are at understanding this shift in the religious landscape from a belief-centered spirituality to an experience-centered spirituality.  I know that many Christian leaders would find this to be a kind of slippery slope, for it would seem to suggest that beliefs somehow don’t matter.  I think that beliefs indeed do matter, for ultimately we will act in the world on the basis of what we believe.  The question, I guess, is this:  what comes first?  Beliefs, which give rise to experiences that can lead to transformation and transcendence, or experiences of transformation and transcendence that then inform the formation of beliefs?

I suppose this is a sort of chicken and egg kind of question.  As I think about it, however, I tend to think that human nature gives priority to experience, and that the Christian tradition in its early history did, as well.  After all, the Christian faith itself was born out of the experience of the first followers of Jesus:  the experience of Jesus’ teaching and ministry and the experience of Christ as risen.  The early Christians worshiped long before they started writing theological papers and tomes, and while worship is always theological, it is primarily experiential.  The word “orthodox”, which we have come to define in terms of believing the right things, etymologically actually means something different.  It is made up of the Greek words “ortho” and “doxa”.  “Ortho” does indeed mean right or correct.  But “doxa” does not mean belief.  It means glorification or worship.  So, going back to the word’s Greek roots, we find that it has more to do with glorifying God in the right way (in other words, the experience of worship).  And over time, the church developed rather rich and elaborate worship experiences which were primarily in the service of fulfilling the last two of Goldberg’s scheme of functions (transformation and transcendence).

Back when I was a student of Russian language and culture, I first encountered the wonderful story about how it was that the Russians came to embrace the Eastern Orthodox version of Christianity.  It may well be an apocryphal story, but even so, it says something important.  The story says that the Prince of Kiev in the 10th century was trying to decide which religion he and his subjects should embrace, and so he sent emissaries to different parts of the world to explore various religious traditions.  Each time the emissaries came back, they were less than enthusiastic.  Until they visited Constantinople, the ancient center of Greek Christianity.  They returned from Constantinople to describe to their Prince in glowing detail the amazing liturgy (religious service) they had experienced there.  They summed it all up by saying, “We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven.”  It sounds to me that the worship those emissaries experienced did the job:  they walked away from it transformed, and certainly feeling that they had had a transcendent experience.  The Prince of Kiev embraced Eastern Orthodox Christianity without inquiring into what they actually believed.  The effect of the worship service on his representatives was all he needed to know.

I think a lot of people are looking for the 21st century version of this ancient Russian story.  People want to experience the sacred, they want to touch the transcendent, and they want to be opened to the possibility of transformation in their own lives and in the life of the world.  They are more interested in religious experience than they are in religious data.    And when so many Christians have become so accustomed to the idea that salvation involves a correct set of beliefs, that may be a difficult shift to get our heads around.  But it might be helpful for us to remember that Jesus was really all about relationships, and the heart of those relationships – the energy that is supposed to animate them and hold them together – is love.  We can describe love, we can believe in love, we can come up with all kinds of theories about love.  But most people want first and foremost to experience love.  After they experience love, they’ll be happy to talk about it endlessly.

The same is true of God, and Christ, and religion.

One thought on “What religion can mean….

  1. An excellent article, Fr. Matthew! While I- among many others, I’m sure- struggle with the boundaries and validity of some of my own beliefs, I have always found the liturgy of the Anglican church, in its respectful and solemn beauty, to foster a renewed closeness to God, and a renewed openness to others. I suppose that is part of the “experience” that you and author Goldberg referred to.

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