January 16, 2009

What is Religion?

Comments on religion by nonbelievers often make it sound like a collection of customs and attitudes. That’s no more true of religion than auto mechanics. Each exists for the sake of something outside itself, so customs and attitudes are secondary.

The approach is natural for someone who doesn’t believe in God, but it leads to interpretations that are not enlightening. Confucius, who emphasized independent judgment, personal humility, and high culture, becomes a leader of folk religiosity. Christ, who came eating and drinking, changed water to wine, and defeated death to redeem the world and the flesh, becomes a world-rejecter.

Saint Francis married Lady Poverty. He also preached to the birds and wrote poems about the sun and moon. Does that make him an affirmer or a rejecter? There’s something wrong with the categories.

If categories don’t work, we should go to the basics. At bottom, we’re all religious. We all have a view of what we are and what we should do, we believe our view is right, and we have a overall understanding of the world that tells us it’s right. Those are unavoidable features of actual human experience. We couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without them.

“Religious” also has a more particular sense. In that sense a religious man is one who takes that situation to heart, who is very much aware that what he is and should do depends on the overall scheme of things.

The key to religion is therefore ontology: what is the overall scheme of things? It’s not Christmas trees or world-denial. It’s an understanding of the world as a whole, which includes world-denial as well as Christmas trees, that lets us understand what’s good and bad in them and what to do about it. It’s an appeal to a point of view outside the world that puts all things into perspective.

To speak of God, the most real being, is to demonstrate that religion is ontology. That’s why the big disputes of the early Church had to do with the nature of God, and with the relation between the divinity and humanity of Christ. Whether the Swedes burned Yule logs was irrelevant. Let them do it if it makes them happy, so long as they do it in honor of Christ instead of Thor.

So what does all this have to do with Christianity and the West?

Basically, it tells us that the civilization of the West has been a result of the Christian understanding of reality. That understanding explains how man and the world—human reason and human action?can truly matter even though they are obviously limited and flawed.

Paganism ended up with a much more pessimistic view of things.

The decline of that civilization has resulted from abandonment of that understanding. Liberal Christianity is Christianity without God. It has the same relationship to Christianity that a make-believe garage in a world without automobiles would have to the real thing. Guys could still hang around and play with tools and make guy jokes, but somehow it wouldn’t be the same.

The point: quoting Nietzsche and saying we’ve got to affirm life and get in touch with our inner Viking is OK. You’ve got to start somewhere, and it’s hard to avoid starting off on the level of current discussions. It doesn’t get to the basic point though. The Left could appropriate Nietzsche because they agree that everything’s a matter of Will and Power. In the absence of objective goods though the will to power becomes hard to distinguish from the principle of maximum preference satisfaction. If that’s so, what happens to heroism?

It’s not a self-sustaining ideal.

To defeat the Left we need to go beyond Jenseits von Gut und Boese. We need real goods, and that means we need a world order in which real goods have a place. We can’t create one for ourselves.

That means we have to accept an understanding of things that tells us one already exists. In our position there’s no avoiding taking religious questions seriously on their own terms.

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