We have been exploring the possible connotations of the term “belief” from the perspective of various readers of this blog. The exploration was sparked by Katie Kent’s comment that, for her, being a Quaker is “a spiritual discipline and practice, rather than a set of beliefs.”
The various responses to What is ‘belief’? and More on ‘belief’ suggest that the commenters use the term “belief” to refer to a changing and growing inward certainty, rather than to a “set of beliefs”—what I have called a “normative set of doctrinal statements.”
The commenters’ usages seems in keeping with the thread of faith and practice which originated in pre-19th century, pre-evangelical Quakerism. That thread understands certainty of belief as an evolving experience, given to us incrementally by the Inward Light, rather than through the authority of Scripture or of outward doctrines.
If “belief” is an evolving inward knowledge rather than a set of doctrinal statements, then what is “religion”?
Many of us modern Friends came to Quakerism as refugees from “religion.” In fact, many modern folk of all sorts are so wary of or even hostile towards the historical authoritarianism and violence of what gets called “religion” that we shy away from the word itself.
If an essential dimension of our experience is our deep interaction with Mystery, we tend to call this dimension “spirituality” rather than “religion.” We don’t want to be misperceived as subscribing to the institutional religions which, over the millennia, have acquired the bad name of being tools of power, used for the abuse of humankind and of all other life.
Yet there are good reasons for reclaiming the term “religion” and giving it a powerfully positive connotation.
Donald K. Swearer introduces us to a valuable different perspective in his 2011 Harvard Divinity Bulletin article about Wilfred Cantwell Smith [see Note], a renowned and controversial American historian of religion.
As a critic, Smith attacked contemporary philosophical discussions of religious language for failing to reckon with its religious and historical quality within a comparative context, for failing to treat religious statements as essentially human and personal, and for a lack of sensitivity to the profound, elusive, and complex quality of human life….
[He] thought that many professionals in the field treated religion as a system, an “ism,” a simplistic and sterile, overly conceptualized, static entity which had little to do with the personal and historical reality that we label “religion.” (22)
Perhaps this is the same error which we Friends want to avoid, without recognizing it, when we avoid the word “religion.” We are aware of the “essentially human and personal,… profound, elusive, and complex quality” of our own wrestlings with Mystery. We are also aware of the often inexpressible experience of sharing these wrestlings and this Mystery with our fellows in meeting for worship.
Yet we stumble over calling these experiences “religion.” We stumble over terms such as “belief” and “faith,” because we do not trust the religious language which has been wielded for ages as a weapon against those submit to the Inward Light rather than to outward authority.
Here is how Swearer describes Smith’s understanding of “religious truth”:
Religious truth, truth in the most profound sense, truth that emerges from those intersecting moments of our mundanity and transmundanity, cannot be so quantified. Truth in this sense is fundamentally personal. It involves a knower—not simply the human context in which a person knows and an object is known. Knowing the truth, then, is not a question of subjective versus objective, internal states of mind versus external objects, but an organically whole “act of truth…”
Knowing the truth in this sense is an art requiring a series of human qualities, including “faith….” (25)
Perhaps a genuine religion is an undefinable community of people who recognize each other through their shared approaches to seeking the Truth. If, as Smith says, Truth involves a knower, then a religion involves the gathering of knowers. Knowers who, to borrow Katie Kent’s terms, share a discipline and practice of waiting for knowledge.
Consider these queries:
What are the ways in which you usually use and understand the term “religion”? What positive and/or negative connotations do you associate with the term?
If you are comfortable with calling yourself “religious,” what does that mean to you? What does it mean to you if you are uncomfortable with that term?
What are the ways in which you could imagine reclaiming the term “religion,” in order to use it as a positive term for what Wilfred Cantwell Smith calls an essentially human and personal experience?
Note: See also Toward a World Theology: Wilfred Cantwell Smith and the Center for the Study of World Religions, April 16, 2010, a lecture by Donald K. Swearer, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies, Harvard Divinity School, and director of the CSWR, was part of the CSWR 50th Anniversary Symposium.