Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Belief Systems and Religion

In his recent UU World reflection entitled Holding the Center, Doug Muder teases out James P. Carse's distinction between tidy belief-packages and provocatively ambiguous religiosity: "In a nutshell, belief systems provide the comfort of clear answers; religions provide a sense of wonder in the contemplation of mystery." He goes on to explain: "Where belief systems rest on “the authority of power,” religions rely on “the authority of poetry.”"

In many ways, this dichotomy between the calcified and the cabalistic - between the certain and the curious - reinvests 'the act of doing religion' with an element of surprise. It speaks to the eternal incompletion of the finite human experience. It addresses the nature of the divine as that which "invades any mind or heart open to it, luring it on to richer or more relevant achievement - a self-surpassing reality" (James Luther Adams). And yet, I suspect that after we wallow in the profundity of the question for a while, life will call us back with the simple demand: now act. It is at that moment that those silly belief systems come into play, grounding our behavior, guiding our imagination and saturating our discourse. As the great 20th century theologian so disturbingly admits, "there is no such thing as poetry without poems, art without paintings, architecture without buildings, and there is no such thing as an enduring faith without beliefs" (JLA: "A Faith for the Free").

At stake here, I would argue, is not the deceiving totalism of colonizing belief-sets or arresting beauty of religious wonder. Rather, it is a recognition that the two must live side-by-side. Unfortunately, the polarization of the contemporary religio-political landscape has divorced the two spiritual expressions in extremis, leaving the form empty and the transformative shapeless. What is needed, then, is a re-opening of conversation and reciprocity between the ways of the spirit (religion) and its concrete manifestation in human understanding (belief systems). The two must engage in a mutually inflecting dance, redefining and re-enchanting one another with the onslaught of the novel.

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