In this video, as a pretty skeptical dude studying Zen, I try to talk about ‘religion’, what it is and what it means. Transcript Below! Enjoy!
What is religion? Why do religions exist? What characteristically typifies religion? Every analytical study or examination of religion begins with such questions. Yet, in many ways, such questions implicitly, always-already, contain the answer within them. Perhaps, one could say that the question is, itself, the answer, or that the answer is, itself, the question. That sounded kinda deep and cryptic didn’t it? Pretty Zen right? Just me…Anyway, lets talk about it right now, come one let’s go!
As I’ve mentioned in a few of my other videos, even though I’m a Zen student, and even though I have Bachelors in religion, I still have a fairly tenuous relationship with religion, and even the word ‘religion’ still makes me a little uncomfortable. Jacques Derrida once said “I rightly pass for an atheist”. I love that quote because I think it describes me pretty well.
This isn’t my way of launching into the “I’m spiritual, not religious'” cliche, to be honest I think I’m probably even more uncomfortable with the word ‘spirituality’.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with that “spiritual, not religious” stance. If that’s you, if that works for you – awesome – own it. I’m just saying its not me.
Regardless, the brute facticity of the matter is that Zen and Buddhism are considered religions, and meditation is considered a spiritual practice. I’m involved in all three and if you are too, well we’re going to have to deal with ‘religion’, we need to look at and talk about honestly, and, maybe even find a way to get comfortable with it.
I’m in the process of finishing my Master’s degree, and I just started a new class this semester on the History of Religion. Any good study of Religion, before it can get its hands dirty in the detailed particularities of each specific religion, has to begin with the type of questions raised in the intro of this video – ‘what religion is’? “what are its characteristics?’ etc. In other words, the study of religion begins with questions…
The study of religion begins with questions because religion and the religious life begins with questions, because to be human is to be full of questions. This is why most of my videos begin with a question, not because I have the answer, or because I’ve found the answer but, because I have questions, and usually in the process of researching and examining a question what I actually find are more questions.
In his book What is Zen? Norman Fischer explains that “Religion engages the large questions: Who are we? Why are we born? Why do we die? What is death? What is the good life?” (59). According to Fischer religion is the emergent result of existential questioning. As such, Fischer goes on to say that “Religion provides practices…that help us cement our hearts to such questions, giving our lives a sense of ultimate grounding” (59). Religion is what William James calls humanity’s “total reaction” to life’s big questions (James, 35). In other words, religion is the name given to the set of varying strategies systematically utilized in humanity’s phenomenological absorption with the large questions of existence.
Yet, Fischer makes another pivotal point to consider, he says that “Religion cannot actually give us answers to such questions; rather, it gives us ways to grapple with them together, in communities that include not only living friends, but practitioners from the past, whose words and deeds still inspire us” (59). Said another way, religion’s modus operandi is in providing one with techniques for living in engagement with the questions, strategies and practices for mindfully sitting with these questions. Here, the emphasis seems to be placed on the ‘question’ rather than on the ‘answer’, or, more specifically, the process of actively wrestling with the questions is of greater import than the answers.
I believe deliverance begins with questions. It begins with people who love questions, people who live with questions and by questions, people who feel a deep joy when good questions are asked…When we’re exposed to the liveliness of holding everything up to the light of good questions…we discover that redemption is creeping into the way we think, believe, and see the world…a redemption that perhaps begins with the insertion of a question mark beside whatever feels final and absolute and beyond questioning, gives our souls a bit of elbow room, a space in which to breathe again, as if for the first time (14).
What does it mean to study religion? What is it that one studies when one studies religion? In many ways, it seems that the study of religion is the anthropological and sociological study of the specific ways in which various cultures at various points in history have grappled with the big questions. And what does it mean to be religious? Maybe part of what it means to be religious is being devoted to the practice of mindfully asking and grappling with ever bigger questions…