The Work of Religion
As a graduate of a couple schools, I get my share of alumni magazines. Additionally, I get the magazines from some of my two girls’ various universities. Rather than toss these, I am actually intrigued by what the different universities are offering for my reading. Clearly in the case of my two girls, I was not the intended audience. But I am interested in what some of the nation’s best schools want their alums to read.
In my own case I clearly am the targeted audience. Certainly the Divinity School I attended is assuming people like me are reading this material. I am old enough now and far enough away from the intellectual epicenters, I am not on the cutting edge of religious scholarship. I am ok with that. I appreciate scholarship, but also find times when the scholarship is too far out there---too arcane---for the kind of ministry I am doing. I also am reminded I always felt called to be involved in ministry broadly defined. My joy is to serve.
But I am still intellectually intrigued by a wide-range of thought. So when a magazine comes, I quickly thumb through the whole issue. I guess I am either bored or curious! Then over the next few days, I will begin to read the various articles. I do not read in order to take an examination and prove how smart I am. Fortunately, those days are long past! I read out of an inherent interest in learning something---learning how to think differently or more deeply.
Such was my perspective when I saw the title of an article: “The Work of Art and the Art of Life.” The author was Michael Jackson, a name I did not recognize. That’s ok with me; I do not need to know the author for him or her to be valuable to me. I know I have been valuable to some people and they did not know my name! So I plunged into the article.
The article really was about art, but it also had a sub-theme that recognized what can be said about art can also be claimed, for the most part, about religion. Let me quote one sentence, for example, and make you aware of what the author, Jackson, says in effect, “The same can be said about religion.”
Jackson confesses that he is “focusing not on art as an expression of individual genius or an as aesthetic, but on the work of art, where ‘work’ is to be read as a verb rather than a noun and understood as a technê for making life more meaningful, enjoyable, and manageable…Crucial to this point of view is the pragmatist assumption that art (ars) and technê are intimately linked, and that the work of art is a matter of making, acting, and doing before it is a form of knowledge, an object of contemplation, or a thing of beauty.” I was captivated by these two sentences and want to unpack them and think about them more fully.
The first thing that caught my attention was the focus on the “work of art.” If the same thing can be said, then we appropriately can talk about the “work of religion.” I find this idea appealing. I do think religion is often and regularly a work—it takes effort and discipline. That makes sense to me.
I also like the focus on the word, “work,” as a verb rather than a noun. The verb is the action-word. Verbs are creative, dynamic and energetic. Nouns are states of being. If we apply this to religion, then religion is creative, dynamic and energetic. Religion does have beliefs, doctrines and rituals. But these are more like nouns. They exist and we simply link to them. But the life of faith is more verb-like: it takes work---today and again tomorrow.
Although some folks might not like to think about religion as a technê---a technique---I find that appealing. The technique is our way of making religion---the making, acting and doing that Jackson mentions. These are active verbs---religion is the result of active work---of work as an activity. This makes perfect sense to me, especially if we see religion as an active way of living. If we simply see religion as accepting a few doctrines, then it makes less sense.
Finally, I liked what Jackson said about art and about which we can also say about religion. He talks about art and religion as a technique---as a means---of making life more meaningful, enjoyable and manageable. These sound like good things for me! I want a more meaningful life. I would love to enjoy life as much as possible. And who does not want a life that is manageable? I concur that religion helps me on all three counts.
I do feel life is meaningful, enjoyable and manageable. It is why I am a person of faith---why being spiritual is more like a verb than a noun. It is something I do…today and again tomorrow.