Are You Religious? Are You Practicing?

I think so.

This question “are you religious?” came up during one of my therapy sessions last week. And the similar question (not directed toward me this time) “are you practicing?” came up during a conversation of scholars at a hotel rooftop bar in Bangkok a few hours ago (directed towards someone else, discussing Hinduism and religion). It’s always these basic and big questions that are sometimes the most interesting to try and answer…

I really didn’t know what to say when my therapist asked it (even as a generic intake one)—and even as a person who has 3 degrees in the field and taught it as a college professor. Actually, it may be this history and these experiences that have made it so difficult for me to answer. Yes it probably is: what is not religious? That’s what makes the question about being “religious” difficult to answer, along with other considerations, such as what qualifies and how, and when. And most importantly, I have to think about what the word means to other people; my answer depends on what the other person thinks about the symbol “religious.”

But I think I’ve arrived at an answer after reading Eliade’s famous 1950s work The Sacred and Profane, which I’m ashamed to have read so late in life. It examines “the religious person,” and this one quote in particular sort of frames it in a way that I have always fit within:

“the existence of the world itself ‘means’ something,’ ‘wants to say’ something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. For religious [persons] the cosmos ‘lives’ and ‘speaks’…”

So I guess I’m a religious person then, because I definitely believe that. Just like a symphony can communicate all kinds of things without using words, so the universe/creation is a series of performances, and the theologian, shaman, priest, witch, etc. are those trying to “listen” and interpret what the music means and is saying.

I wonder, also, how it relates to this similarly remarkable quote by Owen Barfield:

“I have reached the conclusion that the natural world can only be understood in depth as a series of images symbolizing concepts.” (Rediscovery of Meaning, 20)

I’m not going to elaborate on how this is related to the above quote, but I think it is related, especially when one considers how all of our concepts and linguistic constructions are grounded in, well, the ground: embodied experience in “nature,” etc.

As far as “practicing,” I had this interaction with a prof on Twitter/X (billionaire rocket manboy’s failed investment, whatever), David Congdon. I asked him what it meant to be a “post-Christian Protestant” and he said “I’m intellectually/theologically Protestant, but I no longer belong to a church or practice Christianity” (July 2, 2023). This baffled me since Protestant is a subset of Christian by definition; it would be like saying “I’m a post-professor adjunct” or “Shosta, my dog, is a post-canine retriever,” or “check out my post-rifle AK-47.” And I still don’t understand how one can isolate one’s worldview from behavior and embodied ethics—and I think for anyone who tries to take their beliefs seriously, they try to embody them. What else are beliefs for? Entertainment? Boredom? A job at a seminary? I guess. In fact that does describe much of theology once I think about it…but it certainly doesn’t have to, and if it’s all just theory without any embodiment and ethical import, then it’s  arbitrary and meaningless (I demonstrate this in a forthcoming article for a volume by Brill on religion and meaning); I mean it is actually meaningless. David then said “practice not even a single teaching of Jesus?” really comes off as a silly gotcha. That’s just not what anyone means by “practicing Christianity.”” Well, it does for me and millions of others outside academia and outside the church. If Christian theology is our own construction, it can be made and remade how people want it to be. And if people want Christianity to be a religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus (as opposed to the historic practices and ideas of churches), then they can do that, and perhaps that might even be a good thing. This seems to be happening at the moment, and I don’t see the point in trying to argue that it’s futile or useless or non-existent.

So I think I am also a practicing religious person. I try to embody and live the Golden Rule, Fruits of the Spirit, and Greatest Commandment. And I’m captured by the parables of Jesus and what they might be trying to say about the nature of our world, universe, and “God” (if that symbol can be legitimately used).