Imagining order: religion

In this series of posts about how we imagine and how we order when we respond to pain, suffering, and illness, the first post presented imagining compassion through the Mahayana bodhisattva Guanyin. I was going to post next about how we imagine suffering of the innocent in the Theravada story of Patachara, but the Guanyin post raised questions about religious devotion that I want to address first.

A number of times in this blog I have alluded to Laura’s not believing in any religion.  She was raised as an atheist.  I was raised as a devote Roman Catholic, who spent two years in the seminary and then lost his faith while working in the missions in Africa.  This blog’s mentions of the Bible, Catholic liturgy, and Aquinas certainly evidence the continuing influence of my Roman Catholic youth.

On the Welcome page to this blog I quote from one of the oldest Buddhist texts, the Udana, to introduce two of the major themes of this blog: open-close-open and do by not-doing.  Many years passed between the Trinity and the Triple-Gem* of Buddhism.  This post does not concern that journey.  Rather I want to talk about how religion is used as a way to respond to pain, illness, and suffering. Right away I need to emphasize that this view does not dismiss religion as nothing but an opiate to dull pain. Rather, we approach religion in the context of pain, suffering, and illness more abstractly as a way to imagine order. (*Explained below.)

In the post about the “three kiss-offs” as Laura’s way of imagining and ordering (protesting, countering) her experience with cancer, I emphasized that we are talking about activities, about the verbs “to imagine” and “to order,” or the gerunds “imagining” and “ordering.”  When it comes to religion, however, I propose that “order” is primarily a noun, something given.  The activity is imagining.

As with pain, imagining religion does not mean that religion is “imaginary,” unreal, just made up.  Elaine Scarry divides imagining into “making up” and “making real.”  (p. 21)  I am still working on my analysis of Scarry to complete the series on the aphasia of pain.  Here I just want to note her use of the word “making” and to question whether the activity of imagining only makes, as opposed to does.  Even Piaget in explaining his distinction between figurative and operative activities uses imagining to illustrate the figurative activity of imitating.  But imagining can also be understood as at least including the operative activity of presenting, of appearing (as a transitive verb).  More on that later when we discuss Scarry.

In the Guanyin post I mentioned contemporary Buddhists who think of themselves as practicing a scientifically-based mindfulness.  Part of my agenda in that post was to push back at this type of thinking and to emphasize that Buddhism is a religion, not applied science.  As a religion, Buddhism includes beliefs and practices that can make mindful secularists uncomfortable.  I have heard mindfulness advocates of the Vipassana meditation school argue that their roots trace back to the simpler Theravada branch of Buddhism, which they say does not have the pantheon of Buddhas and bodhisattvas populating Mahayana beliefs.  They obviously have not actually talked with some of the monks I know who tell me about devas (divine beings), “hungry ghosts,” and eight year old arahants who have achieved nibbana.  I do not share their beliefs, but I feel more comfortable with them than with those whose religion of science impels them to sneer at such statements as superstitions.

Perhaps the people most guilty (?!) of using science as a religion are the current bunch of sceptics like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens who rant and rave against the evils brought on humanity by religion.  They are using science as a religion because they are using “science” as a given order that they worship (i.e., imagine or present as holy, scared, all-powerful, and THE TRUTH).

To worship is not the only way in which a religion imagines its order.  In Christian terms one can think of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  As Aquinas points out, these virtues are called “theological” because they are all about our relations with God (i.e., the hypostatized Order—my words).  In Buddhist terms we do, take refuge in an order, the Triple Gem: the Buddha, his teaching (dhamma), and his community (sangha). There are many ways of imagining order in addition to just making sense of life: to wonder, affirm, love, console, find beauty.

If Mahayana compassion, Theravada lovingkindness, and Christian charity represent the best religious impulses, and I could go on naming similar virtues at the heart of every other organized religion, we don’t have to look far for examples of some of the worst sentiments and behavior that organized religion brings out in people.  In my last post about Guanyin, I mentioned the Lotus Sutra and its section on Avalokiteśvara  (Reeves 371-379).  As a meditation or prayer, this section provides inspiration and comfort to many who are in pain or sick.  However, before arriving at this section in the Lotus Sutra one has to plow through 100+ pages of sectarian diatribe against Theravada Buddhists.  Additionally, according to the Lotus Sutra itself, I am damned to hell for that last sentence that hints at criticism of the sutra.  (Reeves 132)  Yet, the Lotus Sutra is considered such a world classic of religion that Henry Thoreau translated parts of it in the 19th Century when Buddhism was hardly known in America.

When imagining order becomes organized religion, I say let it go.  When order goes from given to fixed and closed, when imagining closes off “them” from “us,” then religion becomes a source of pain and suffering, an illness instead of a comfort.  Even within the community of adherents, the order can be elevated over the community.  One incident along my way out of the Catholic Church illustrates this tendency in organized religion.

One of the six commandments of the Church of my youth was that one had to attend Mass on Sunday.  Not to do so constituted a mortal sin for which you could go to hell.  The rules were very precise as to what part of the Mass you had to arrive before and what part of the Mass you could not leave before in order for you to have met this obligation.  When I was in the mission in Kenya, we lived in the middle of a very rural, farming area.  The roads were not paved.  Electricity and running water were luxuries available on a limited basis in the mission compound and the nearby market center.  In order to make it to Mass on time on Sunday, people had to walk for miles on dirt paths and unpaved roads, which were not lighted.  In the rainy season they were walking in mud through heavy downpours.  Nevertheless, in the little church where I went, when the part of the Mass came that was the cutoff for fulfilling one’s obligation to attend Mass, the parish priest would lock the door.  Many Sundays I would hear people standing in the rain knocking to get in.  One Sunday, I forget why, I was standing in the back of the church near the door.  Probably all the pews were full.  As usual, the pastor locked the door when the priest celebrating the Mass started the Offertory.  It was the rainy season, and it was raining hard outside.  When someone knocked, without thinking I just turned around and opened the door so they could get out of the rain.  The pastor came flying back and slammed the door shut, locking it again.  After Mass the pastor stopped us all from leaving and launched into a tirade against opening the door once he had locked it.  After fuming about it, I went to the rectory that evening to confront the pastor about what happened.  His response was that he didn’t have to answer for anything that he did in “his” church.  Q.E.D.

By the time of the incident in Kenya, I had serious doubts about the God of my youth.   I was actually hanging on to my religion by the thread of the community it offered.  Once that was gone, there wasn’t much to keep me in the church.

Decades later when I met Laura, we were both atheists and shared many of the same values, even though we had reached this point by very different paths.  Laura had another way to imagine order—art—music, literature, painting, sculpture.  We will talk more about art when we discuss imagining Tosca in the face of pain, suffering, and illness.  For the moment I will just note that with art the order is not given; both the imagining and the ordering make more than they do.

One thing that I learned from living with Laura is that the order imagined does not have to be transcendent, other worldly.   The Dalai Lama explained this distinction in a “Quote of the Week” I received the morning after Laura died.

I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality.

Religion I take to be concerned with belief in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another–an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or philosophical reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or hell. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayers and so on.

Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit–such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, which bring happiness to both self and others.   …  There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system.

This is why I sometimes say religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.

–from The Pocket Dalai Lama by the Dalai Lama, compiled and edited by Mary Craig

The fact of the matter is that Laura was more of a sceptic about any given order than I was.  She was more like the French writer Jean Amèry, a secularist, non-believer who went through Auschwitz, and puzzled why the Marxists he was with seemed to handle their situation better.  He concluded that

…in the broadest sense, a believing person, whether his belief be metaphysical or bound to concrete reality, transcends himself.  He is not the captive of his individuality; rather he is part of a spiritual continuity that is interrupted nowhere, not even in Auschwitz.  He is both more estranged from reality and closer to it than his nonbelieving comrade.  Further from reality because in his Finalistic attitude he ignores the given contents of material phenomena and fixes his sight on a nearer or more distant future; but he is also closer to reality because for just this reason he does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the conditions around him and thus he can strongly influence them.

That last sentence gets at what I was trying to say when I said that at times imagining does more than it makes, operates on reality more than it figures images.  Amèry expands this point:

For the unbelieving person reality, under adverse circumstances, is a force to which he submits; under favorable ones it is material for analysis.  For the believer reality is clay that he molds, a problem that he solves.”  Amèry 14

One Comment

  1. Is Religion = to faith? Or does humanity and its fanatics bring a cancer that serves to destroy core values in any organization — churches (religions) and governments are examples.
    Why do we allow abuse of power of these fanatics to destroy core values and our communities?

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