When you know something, it is always difficult to remember when you did not know anything. Now that I have a Ph.D. in religion, it likely is impossible to remember accurately those Indiana farm days when I did not know beans about religion. But let me guess nevertheless!
I suspect that most Christians, at least, would define religion along the lines of doctrine. For example, I would assume if you ask the person on the street to define religion, he or she would begin by saying something about believing in God. Doctrine has to do with believing. If one is a Christian, it is likely that Jesus enters the picture in some form. It would probably lead to statements about Jesus as redeemer or savior or some such doctrinal version. Of course, this is not wrong. But I wonder if it is adequate?
By adequate I mean I wonder if anyone can live daily by doctrine. I do claim to be a Christian. But when I bounce out of bed in the mornings, I am not immediately thinking in doctrine terms. In fact, I can go all day long without the slightest reference to doctrine. But if asked, I probably would claim to be religious or spiritual in some sense. So I am suggesting that religion is prior to or deeper than doctrine.
Doctrine is fine. I like it. I studied it. Sometimes I even try to teach it. But religion does not equal doctrine for me. In fact, I would say doctrine is a reflection upon whatever I claim to be religious. Again, let me explain.
Doctrinally, I might say I believe in God (and I do). That’s nice. But it tells you virtually nothing about me, about my life, etc. On the other hand, let’s start with experience. If I tell you this morning when I bounced out of bed, I had the most profound experience of God’s presence. I have told you something very specific and significant about me. In a way I am telling you I know God---or at least, met my God. Of course, you don’t know very much about the God I met/know. But it is a more powerful statement than the doctrinal statement that I believe in God. Knowing takes me further than simply believing.
If I know my God---at least in this minimal way of experience---I can hope for more. If I met God, then I can hope that I can meet God again. And maybe I can begin to linger with this God. It might become a daily presence---or at least, a coming and going presence.
That presence of God might become more. More what? I don’t even know how to answer this question. God can become more than I can even imagine. That is the function of hope. Hope is grounded in the more…the more of whatever the future might bring. Doctrines do not deliver futures. Experiences deliver in the present and present a future.
Experiencing God is a gift and a promise. I recall the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech poet and politician, when he talks about being an optimist because of his experience of God. Havel said, “I am not an optimist, because I am not sure everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly. I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world around you. Life without hope is an empty, boring, and useless life. I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me. I am thankful to God for this gift. It is as big a gift as life itself.”
These words are important to me. I like how Havel connects life and work and meaning. And I am truly appreciative how Havel connects it all to God. I agree when he says hope is as big a gift as life! That is a mighty big statement.
I want to carry hope in my heart. Hope grounds me today and promises tomorrow. That is exactly how I perceive God at work. When I experience God, I am grounded in today and I sense the promise of tomorrow. Maybe hope is one way we carry this presence of God in an ongoing way. Surely, I don’t experience God in every waking moment. But I do have hope every moment---or can have it.