While the origin of the English word “religion” is somewhat in dispute, one possibility traces the word through a Latin root which means “to connect”. It is the derivation favored by Richard Rohr in his recently published book, Falling Upward, and it speaks powerfully to me about the way I experience religion in my own life. Most essentially, my religion connects me in ways that provide meaning and create the possibility of transformation.
These connections include a connection to my true self. As that connection is strengthened, I am able to live more authentically. These connections include a connection to God, to other people, to creation. But these are not just any kind of connections: they are connections that are rooted in Christ, and it is the life and teaching of Christ which conditions all of these connections and makes them avenues of grace and possible transformation. The more these connections — these relationships with self, others and world — are shaped into the image of Christ, the less they serve my own ego and the more they serve God. That shape of Christ is the shape of compassion, justice, liberation, joy and love. To put it another way, religion as I experience it seeks to transform my dysfunctional connections (what might be called “dys-connections”) into authentic, life-giving and God-serving connections.
Sadly, it seems obvious that many forms of religion serve not to repair dys-connections but to magnify, reinforce and enhance them. When religion is used to strengthen one’s ego, that is a dys-connection that empowers the false self rather than disempowering it in favor of the true self. When religion is used to condemn other people for who they are (be that gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor, male or female), that is a dys-connection — the creation of a distorted relationship with others. When religion is used to jettison the findings of science in favor of a doctrinal position, that is evidence of a dys-connection between religion and the world as it is found to be.
It seems to me that the dominant forms of religion in American life today are full of dys-connections. Rather than connecting people to a deeper wisdom that enables them to live in the world more skillfully, rather than making people more spacious in heart and soul so that they may embrace themselves, others and the world with greater compassion, these forms of religion seem to lead people in quite the opposite direction: a shallow wisdom that, in the end, is no wisdom at all and a narrowing of heart and soul that seeks only to prop up increasingly self-righteous egos while devaluing and dehumanizing anyone who is a threat to those egos.
The deep wisdom of all the world’s great religious tradition make clear that when we are overcoming dys-connections and making sacred connections, there is one very reliable sign of that process: we see the differences between ourselves and others less and less. And that means, of course, that we see the one-ness of humanity, dwelling in the unified field of the sacred, more and more. When we see religious people who are speaking and acting in ways that seek to divide humanity and make the distinctions between us more sharp, you can be sure that you are seeing people who do not practice their religion skillfully, and are caught in a web of dys-connections. Our response should not be to meet their dysfunction with more dysfunction. Rather, our response should be one of deep compassion, as we seek to become participants in their healing. Sometimes, we will be able to contribute to their healing by becoming closer to them. At other times, closeness may not be possible. In those instances, we can at least not make things worse and at best we can pray for their healing. This is exactly what Jesus taught, when he taught us to pray and do good for our enemies.
The deep truth behind this teaching is, I think, Jesus’ understanding that such people are deeply dys-connected from authentic humanity rooted in God. He wanted his followers to become God’s instruments in healing those dys-connections so that they might discover the salvation that comes from a genuine sacred connection to reality.