the Nature of religion

“The world is a vampire…” The words of the Smashing Pumpkins flowed through the airwaves of 1995 with a shocking conviction matched by the disturbingly forceful tenor of lead singer and writer Billy Corgan. This seminal grunge song, an anthem for a growing anti-God nihilism rang out with such bravado that it has been named repeatedly as one of the top 100 rock songs of our generation. Within the track is a solemn exploration of the relationship between man and God. Corgan bridges the chorus and verse with an almost juvenile scream for attention with the demand, “…Tell me I’m the only one. Tell me there’s no other one. Jesus was the only son for you!” and he ends the lyric with the profound conclusion that, “I still believe that I cannot be saved!”  These three statements in the face of Christianity could be written off as the nature of the rock movement, a beast which stands proudly in the face of God waving the sign of the devil to the beat. However, within the poetry of the Pumpkins and their distorted melody is the foundation for more than just an angsty and thoughtless rant. Instead, Corgan, with many others makes an argument for the irrelevance of religion and raises a fist before a listening world to follow his philosophical rant.

 For a church in the early 2000’s, media such as this is prevalent. Not only does it exist as an increasingly common idea, but its saturation as an idea is only heightened by the digital age and its immediate distribution. While a musician may push their ideas to the masses near instantaneously, he is only one of countless other artists of all forms of media in rapid succession creating a rhythmic mass ideal that forms in real time. Art has always informed the masses and been a step ahead of philosophy presenting itself in the common man, but never has there been a time where the rapid succession of ideas was so quick to overlap its predecessor that the weave of presentation was seemingly sentient. Artists used to have time to digest the philosophy of the day and regurgitate it to the masses. But the speed with which ideas can be transmitted has called for the artist to assume the role of muse as well as artist. They have essentially become a product of themselves. This is a far cry from the typical flow of art which used to be informed by philosophy and then slowly permeate through visuals all the way to music.The gaps between philosophy, art and culture have been closed and the definition of life by artist’s and their appeal to everything from politics to fashion not only informs but now forms the personal lives of the majority of planet earth. And the once relevant means of careful study and consideration of ancient wisdom passed down through long and painstakingly protected analog transcription and transmission is a thing of the past. Humanity’s builds itself religiously around its own ability to be omnipresent and omniscient in the moment through their own tools of artistry, and any person who can communicate an idea beyond the limits of location through a cell phone can now sear that idea into the minds of the masses with that same device. We have traded high art for instant access and low standards and packaged it with the vehicle of necessary communication. Tweets, wiki’s and rss feeds fuel our understanding of the world around us and God and his revelation exist as an antiquated standard for a time that didn’t have the infrastructure necessary to make man live to his godlike potential.

The Purpose of Religion

Religion has therefore become largely irrelevant in a world where mankind is seemingly capable of a sort of “practical godhood.” This is not to say that religion in its most inclusive form is dead. Some religions have done well in the atomistic reductionism of today’s day. The ones and zeros of our base binary language translate well beyond code to philosophy and religion. The decidedly western breaking down of all things to their smallest part, has thrived amongst the Darwinian inverted neo-polytheism of the day. After all, if time plus chance is the beginning of all things, than all things are essentially the same. Polytheistic religions that have always gained relevancy from their own infatuations with distributing one dimensional distinctions as something to be worshipped or idealized have fit snuggly into a growing culture that believes that “I am he as you are he, as you are me,and we are all together… coo coo ca choo.” These religions abilities to be syncretic in nature have left them altered but not broken. Whether it is the BBC’s Doctor Who or James Cameron’s Avatar, religion is certainly not dead, though it may have taken a different form. They have hidden the tenants of their belief systems within clever catchphrases and post modern allegories. However, if one looks just past the surface, the characteristics of religion are still present and anything but silent, though they seem to lack an essential quality of religion, and that is the root belief of truth as an essential and sovereign quality of experience. Without an absolute truth as a hurdle to overcome, it is easy to assimilate new and interesting ideas while at the same time placing a gathering of individuals with similar ideas under the moniker of a religion. The ease at which syncretic and reductionist beliefs have assimilated new ideas and applications is not surprising. This cannot be said for those beliefs which at their core hold an unadulterated stance on truth. In this world, those religions become increasingly pedantic, dated and irrelevant to the everyday lives of people.

This makes having a religion a moot point for this generation, as religion seems to have a singular goal in mind that is no longer an issue. This goal is respectively a sort of ritual cleansing. The idea at play being that the longer mankind stays within the path of a religion, he will become more like God or at least a god. He will become transcendent, all knowing and all powerful. Each religion spins this differently, but even Christianity with its doctrine of Apotheosis and Sanctification can be crudely simplified to such a pursuit. Religion is this pursuit, at its least humble, to God-likeness and at its most meek is a pursuit of Godliness. And to understand religion for this generation, we must understand that dependant on your understanding of who God is within the framework of reductionism or polytheism, becoming transcendent is achievable through merely technological means. As stated earlier, one need only to turn on their smart phone, tablet or PC to streamline the process of being omniscient.

This divide between religion, fueled by philosophical artists and the practical application of a technological and instantaneous pseudo-spiritual religious pursuit of life, liberty and happiness has driven many to question the validity of religion altogether. Why follow a religion when in this day and age, knowledge is easily attained, inexhaustible in its scope and instantaneous in its relevance to real space and time? This is of course in difference to classic religion which focuses on a narrow, long and difficult path of enlightenment at a high cost of personal freedom. With two drastically different paths to attaining enlightenment, it is no wonder that most would rather be spiritual than religious. We have been primed to love philosophy but hate its application.

Religion or Philosophy

To divide religion and philosophy has become a common tactic for those seeking a quick truth. But the seminal connection between the two is hardly separable. Though Billy Corgan’s lyrics struggle to be free from the conclusion of recognizing a God who has standards, they still recognize that “despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.” Trapped in the maze of a mad scientist, or held in the arms of a loving creator, one’s philosophy does not preclude that the glass half empty or half full is still half a glass of something. This generation seems to look increasingly at the glass half empty, placing God as the mad scientist. It is in this context that we must begin to look at religion. The complexities of the machine of religion are rarely seen as miraculous and endearing but instead as the maze that has captured the human race, and God watches us, but barely with benevolent intentions. To define that maze or those arms, we must first recognize our subservience to them. We must first acknowledge the necessity of religion before we can discuss it. And this acknowledgement is less of the intention of the observer of that religion, or in the Judeo Christian case, God, but instead of those who run the race. For better or for worse, our religion is less a choice but instead a fact of life. We cannot escape religion. It simply is, and we would be wise to simply accept this.

That said, we can still ask the question of why we have religion in the first place. What prompted man or God to lock humanity behind a philosophical cage that spans time and culture, race and country?

The origin of Religion

Did religion start with man, or was it given to man as a machine to help us understand something deeper of ourselves? Modern Christianity would have you believe that the answer to this question doesn’t matter. We’ve been duped into believing that the origin of something has no bearing on its purpose in life. We’ve come to believe that the specifics of this world are not as important as the generalities of our reality. If we believe in love than that is more important than who we love. If we believe in fellowship, then that is more important than who we fellowship with. In this day and age quality is not defined by the things that make it standout but instead is given value on its ability to appeal to the masses. In point of fact, quantification of the substance of something is considered too small. It’s considered relegation of an object’s potential. We would rather leave a story open to interpretation so that the facts can be absorbed into the greater consciousness on any level of entrance then leave a single person out of the mix. This of course relegates almost everything to a form of storytelling rather than teaching. There is of course a place for this. This postmodern inclusiveness works very well at the modern box office with stories that American audiences gobble up with great glee as they watch the next dumbed down Spielberg movie. We are constantly served sequel after sequel of watered-down, non-relevant to real space and real-time stories that are all primed with universal themes rather than specific details. The reason why this works is because it addresses everyone’s situation. Unfortunately it addresses everyone’s situation so generally that no one person is moved on a particular level and characters are dry and one dimensional. Events are predictable and monotonous. A romantic comedy always ends with the couple together. A horror movie always ends with everyone dying. Life of course is much more unpredictable. And for religion to be something of value to a real audience, with real people, it has to be big enough. What do I mean by big enough? What I mean is something that is larger than its audience. This is of course a difficult task for something that is just the mere tool of its own creator. If mankind was responsible for creating the tool of religion, a means by which he can tell his stories, relate to his fellow man and pass down his legacy, then this would be an impossible task. The markings of such religions are always found in their ability to surpass their audience. And much like storytelling, we can see the hand of its creator in the elements that play out on the page, or on the screen, or around the campfire. Something of ourselves is always in every story that we tell. It goes against human nature to proffer something that is at the core counterintuitive to who we are. This basic psychological principle, that we produce what’s in our hearts, is something inescapable. And the limits of our heart, the urges, the desires, hopes, fears, and the joys are what define a human religion. This is not to say that this is a bad thing, a hammer with no handle made for the hands of its user is worthless. That said, by looking at that hammer, you are able to glean specific truths about its user and the intent for the existence of the tool. Whenever you find a religion with a particularly human element, specifically an over emphasis on self-preservation, you have to question that religion’s ability to speak to something large enough to have created humanity.

Did man create the machine, or did God create the machine of religion? If man created a hammer for him to build a house, and we call that house a church, and we call that hammer religion, than what we know is that the house will not be big enough for man. We know that at some point mankind’s needs, urges and desires will out mode both the hammer and the house. On the other hand if a divine hammer was sent down to mankind to use to build this house, then we know that that hammer must be up to the task of building a house that has divine qualities. So as we look at the question of the origin of religion, and as we began to study religion as an application or tool by which man can build that house we have to wrestle with the fact that if that divine hammer is not divine than that house will crumble. We also have to be courageous enough to admit that the houses which we had built that seemingly spoke to the human condition but crumbles when measured against the weight of it, was not at all built with the divine hammer. What is the weight of the human condition? The weight of the human condition is summed up in a simple question that all humans mature to the point of asking. “What is the value of a life that ends?” Every religion tries to answer this one simple question. Each system seeks to shed light on some system of measurement to the value of a human life when weighed up against the confines of our carnal, meager existence. At its heart, all religions seek to answer this question. The weight of the question demands an audience with every human heart. The quality of the myriad of answers provides every heart with a choice to either acceptance or denial. The pledge of a heart to an answer is faith. The implications of that answer in people’s lives is a religion. At its most seminal form, religion is not a set of rules, but a commitment to an answer, its implications and its consequences. At the end of the day, people follow what feels right in the moment. And though the moment for some is, like all things, subject to one’s own perception of space and time, religion is commitment to what feels right upon the heart.

Religion as a tool

Finding a belief that truthfully addresses the moments of an individual in a relevant way may lead some to the conclusion that all religions are correct as they each speak truthfully to the heart of an individual. This, however, could be likened to placing an infinite value on a hammer in building a house. The reality is that though a hammer might be a useful tool in the building of houses, it is not the only tool nor is it an irreplaceable tool. A rock may serve the same purpose in dire situations. Finding a particular religion to be akin to truth should have much more than sentimentality, usefulness or brand popularity attached to it. Unfortunately, these things tend to be the first stops along the way to pledging one’s life to a tool that answers the question which weighs on the hearts of men. 

Necessity is the mother of innovation. Religion is a tool men use to digest an answer which is so large that it cannot be truthfully digested in the lifespan of a single human being let alone that of the entire human race. All tools are born out of this need to break the answer to a problem down into manageable portions. And in this vain, religion in its most general sense is truly useful. It is in this vain that syncretism in religions makes sense. The mixing and matching of tools to complete the task of understanding the human condition becomes a sensible thing to do. It is also in this vain that relying on brand recognition and human experience with its sentimental attachment to these tools gives mankind the opportunity to excel. However, with the acknowledgement that there is a place for what each religion brings to the table, we must also remember that what religions bring to the table are tools, not truths. A rock may not work as well as a hammer but it uses the same rules of physics to complete the same task. Does this mean that a hammer and a rock have an equal value in the greater scheme of accomplishing a task? No, a hammer is better than a rock for nails because it was designed with that task in mind. Does this mean that all hammer’s are the same regardless of brand, cost and minor design differences? No, certain hammer’s will have better aerodynamics, better ability to utilize force, speed and the ergonomics of the workman. This is the case with religion. Some religions are better suited to certain metaphysical and esoteric tasks than others and in so much as a hammer is a hammer regardless of where you buy it from, there will be crossover in religions that meets a justifiable need of humanity with little distinction from its counterparts in other beliefs. If we cannot admit that Buddha’s Eight Fold Path has value for making human beings closer to God, than we are blind or liars. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water in our tenacity for truth. All religions from the veneration of saints to the worship of Satan have become viable to humanity because in some way they meet a need that is universal. But remember that this does not make all religions equal, nor useful. The usefulness of a hammer is based on its ability to navigate the laws of physics in a given task to the benefit of its user. And a rock may be used to drive a nail into the board, but in doing so, fingers may be crushed badly. As the builder with a plethora of tools at hand, we would be remiss to not discriminate for each task. And in our discrimination we would be equally remiss to not firstly take into account three things that remain regardless of our choice of tool. Firstly, the individual using the hammer, secondly the laws of physics and lastly the need for the hammer.

A useful tool

Religion is only useful when it addresses those three predicates. When a religion fails to address these three universal truths, it becomes a crude force which does more damage than good. This is true regardless of its cost, sentimental value or brand recognition. For the job of answering universal existential questions, one must use a tool which is acutely attuned to the task.

Therefore not all religions are the same, but all religions are able to serve the same purpose. For those who choose to inform their worldview with the tenants of a religion, this is the first cause of their choice. Post Apostolic Christianity has tended to purport and operate on the first premise that the reason one should devote themselves to a religion is that religions truth. They assume that the definition of truth is largely pre-hegelian and propositional, but this is not so. In a world where standards are subjective at best, the only first cause for devotion must be practical application. What is practical? As discussed earlier, religion is no longer necessary for the process of having a Huxlian first level experience which puts humanity in touch with a sense of omnipotence and omniscience. This is easily attained with a smartphone and facebook. Religion is a less than practical tool in this pursuit. 

Tools that love

In the past, cultures have come to the conclusion that religion was impractical as a tool. Usually, with the consent of the church, this has led to a degradation of sorts in the infrastructure of faith and its family members: religion, truth and philosophy. This slow burn from light to dark begins firstly with the idea that religion is an outworking of the heart. This doesn’t necessarily seem damaging until you realize that the heart is less of a noun and more of an adjective in this line of thought. It has become a descriptor in that it can be used to qualify an idea, but even the term, “the heart,” is misleading in that it refers more to an idea than a thing that can be defined. The heart is something which is painted as beyond rationality. In this line of thought, the heart is a mystical force which exudes religious words such as faithful or sacred, but lacks religion itself as defined by a set of propositional statements of fact. The heart to the masses is not only untameable, but in point of fact is never tamed. To tame the heart is to remove from it its potential and capacity for deeper things. There are two truths which present humans with a difficulty here. The first is that if religion is an outworking of the heart, than the machine isn’t large enough because the human heart is a facet of the machine of life. If a human heart created religion then how can a religion hold a doctrine of creation whereby a god created things? Every machine such as religion must have something beyond its own defining walls giving it shape. Every machine has a creator. It would appear that a case is cut and dry that the heart is not big enough to have created the machine which it was spawned in.

But what if your view of things in the machine was less of an objective view and more of a philosophical view, lacking a definable set of qualities or values?  In this case, the heart, in the philosophical, is a perfect candidate to give credit to in the creation of such a useful tool as religion. It provides every impasse necessary to take credit for such a feat. It produces passion, and love and holds within it the ideals of hope and salvation. In this, the heart finds a reasonable claim to the idea that religion should have come forth from its philosophical womb.

Part of the difficulty here lies within the english language. Within English, the heart can have multiple meanings which encompass both the philosophical heart and the physical heart. But in both classical senses of the term, we can see that there is a specific quantifiable rationale to both a physical heart and the philosophical heart which links them to specific attributes of human nature. Love as relational and self sacrificing is in a real sense a classic truth. The confusion comes when philosophy as a discipline of definitions for non tangible realities becomes synonymous with non objective ideologies. When we speak of Love or the heart in the modern era, we are speaking of these things in the latter sense of philosophy. 

This leads to a second difficult truth, which is of course that the heart as a philosophical ideal is accepted, expected and glorified as a less than rational truth. Without rationale, tools become things rather than advocates for a deeper passion. It is logical to say that the heart painted a picture, but it is not logical to say that the heart did so with attention to such detail as is befitting a painter. In the cliche that the “heart wants what it wants,” we find that the heart is not a skilled artist. A skilled artist paints an articulate picture of his mind. He does this with tools that are more than blunt instruments of passion but instead require years of training to master. Looking at the drama and tragedy that spawns from the concept of the heart and its trappings in all of its desires, it becomes increasingly difficult to attribute such a disciplined thing as religion to it. 

That is of course unless you remove the premise that religion is rational and therefore not a tool, or you attribute to the heart a level of rationale which it is incapable of meeting up to. In either case you are forced to make an irrational leap of faith towards a heart which is either passionless or pointless but in all cases a religion which is impotent. In the past, religion has been attributed to the heart as if it was capable of attaining such a development and when it proved itself incapable, rather than looking elsewhere for the origin of the skill set of answering existential questions, they created paradoxes to justify the existence of the tools they had been using. Many people in religions have compounded the issue by building maladjusted residuals and completely avoiding the error of thought by a ritualistic dissociation. They look the other way in doctrine in order to stay connected to the tool that builds the house of God. Others become maladaptive in their attempt to process the errors and join in the inversion of proper interpretations creating dogmas. In both cases, each reaction serves to weaken the tool at hand. Religion was not meant to rust from a lack of use, nor was it meant to be deteriorated through misappropriate uses of force and folly. Those who understand the ugliness of the situation are left with little choice but to abandon religion altogether, effectively simplifying their lives by removing the hypocrisy of following a religion they refuse to know anything about or follow. Those who can’t stop there, turn around and attack the very idea of religion itself.

The most fragile tool

Surprisingly, these two ways of coping with a misunderstanding of religion and epistemology become completely reasonable on the classical philosophical level. Jesus himself stated his understanding of the need to be correct and direct with how we play out our belief in him through love. This love is both quantifiable in its production of good works as well as qualifiable in the message of the gospel it leaves with those who come in contact with it.

Washington indie band, Death Cab For Cutie, gives an interesting voice to the dilemma faced by misuse of Love in their song, “I will follow you into the dark.” The lead singer in soft tones lends a condemning stone to the Roman Catholic faith and presumably all religion when he points out his experience,

“In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule, I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black and I held my tongue as she told me, ‘Son, fear is the heart of love.’

So I never went back.”

The verse is sandwiched in between a chorus that presents the modern perspective on love that people are forced to reconcile. 

“If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied, illuminate the “No”‘s on their vacancy signs. If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks,

Then I’ll follow you into the dark.”

Religion is not merely a tool. Religion is a tool which has an incredible amount of potential to be productive but more often than not destructive. To mold religion into a tool that is productive, whole religions have turned into sex-starved nuns with phalic devices slapping the knuckles of children. The tool may be useful for a time, in a way, but when measured against time and space and the capacity of the human spirit, it is useless and overtime becomes a negative. Ultimately without a religion that is bigger than man’s ability to not only love himself but hate himself, men simply follow each other into the dark and learn to call this hopelessness love.

More than love

We know that religion is a tool. We know that religion is a tool of value in that it solves problems that every human being needs to solve. We know that religion is not expressly effective as a tool simply because it bears the marks of passion. We know that religion when treated as a tool of passion but without articulation brings mankind to decide the value of that tool. We know that if religion as a tool survives this process it becomes a self destroying system that turns on itself, destroying its own toolset from within through decay or dent while at the same time ejecting those from itself who would return to destroy it from the outside of its golden perimeters. To put it bluntly, religion in this context has a negative impact as a tool. For those seeking to better themselves and others, it is better to eradicate or disassociate from it.

There is no escaping this conclusion within a system that believes that religion is a tool, a system created by men, or given to men by contact with a universe that is essentially themselves and what they make of it or themselves and the sum of their parts. This is not to say that it is an ill-effective tool for certain things, truths or occasions, but rather that religion in this context is an obscure tool. It is meant to be kept in the garage. It is not something so intransitory and indistinguishable from its user as a body to a soul. Some religions are approaching iterations of themselves which create this fractured worldview; religion is merely the hobby of the mind or body. Christianity of course makes a much different claim. In Christ, religion is not a tool. It is the tool. It is the body to the soul.

Religion was not created by love but rather love is created through proper religion. Religion does not sustain the physical but rather the spiritual. To call someone a Christian is to immediately put them in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. This man from Nazareth taught an inverted apologetics to the status quo which associated thought and practice rather than separating them. To claim a religion based on his life and teachings does not allow room for one but not the other. A proper exegesis of Jesus demands credibility through sacrifice. It proves credibility through stringency to the measure of the law even unto death. Christianity is a fragile tool in that it cannot be separated from its parts. To place it in the garage with the other tools is to destroy its very usability. Yet, Christianity has proven itself to be a very powerful tool despite its total dependence and fragility, all this despite efforts to minimize its true nature. This book is about the true nature of Christianity. And it comes at a time when humanity on a universal level through the advancement of technology and the subsequent advancements of all other fields of discipline increasingly force religions to either religate themselves to the toolshed or fade into obscurity. To truly address the truths presented found within it, the nature of the universal accuser must be noted, taken seriously and despite these things be found worthy. It cannot simply be taken foregranted that it IS truth.To take Christianity as more than a tool but rather as the tool requires that certain propositional statements must be made. The answers which Christianity proffers when measured against these standards is largely different from other tools of religion, but the questions and dilemmas faced by modern man demand accountability to their standards if they are to be viewed as anything but negative in man’s tool belt. These questions should be asked regardless of what religion is being looked at. We can think of them as philosophical constants in man’s relationship to religion(s). First, we have addressed that men build religion innately. Second, he does this for the sake of productivity in addressing his philosophical mortality. Tertiarily, we have noticed that mankind can do this in multiple ways as he attempts to be spiritually solvent. Fourthly, we have also made it clear that this propensity toward syncretism in his own building blocks can easily be attributed to passion and heart rather than creative design. Fifthly, we have touched on the idea that Christianity in particular has lost the battle in how it actively frames religion as the tool for mankind as it tends to promote a fractured worldview rather than give up territory philosophically on the basis of fact rather than fiction. This of course leads to escalation of both the conservatives and liberals in Christianity as well as all other religions and ultimately a fractured impotent view of religion itself wherein it becomes a relegated relic of the philosophical dark ages rather than the tool it once touted itself to be. Lastly, we pushed forth the idea that by the nature of the Character of the biblical Jesus, Christians must have a deeper solution to the losing battle of spiritual mortality or risk alienating and maligning both the uninitiated as the followers.

Published by Josh McGary

MY NAME IS JOSH MCGARY. First, I am a Pastor of a small church in Portland, Oregon named Aletheia Bible Fellowship. We call it ABF. I have been a pastor there for the better part of 20 years. I am very eclectic. What I love, I love loudly and immersively. I have notable collections of toys, funko pops, and vinyl. I also infamously love pop culture, comic books, technology, the arts, psychology and philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: