Defining Religion

Often I am the one pushing students to define things.  Defining something is necessary to learn and understand it.  When I think about how I expanded my vocabulary through high school and college, as well as through graduate studies, it mostly was learning how to define words.  Regardless of which major folks choose to do in college, typically there is a specific vocabulary that goes with it.  In physics and religion and all the other majors, you have to learn certain basic words.  In my case it was even helpful to learn Greek and Latin because they helped me sharpen my vocabulary.
   
I realized how important this was as I moved from the church context to the university context.  As I grew up in the church, hearing religious words was normal.  However, seldom did anyone asked me to define something.  My learning was quite passive.  Of course, I usually had some kind of vague notion of what a word or concept meant, but if you had asked me to define it, nothing clear would have come out of my mouth.
   
As I moved through school, I knew I had a curiosity to learn words and ideas.  It was not always easy.  I remember my early college days when it seemed like I was looking up every third word in the dictionary because I could not understand what I was learning if I did not know the meaning of the words.  Slowly it was if my reservoir of known words became bigger and deeper.  I began to realize I had learned so much, I was not always looking up new words.  Of course, the process never is finished, but I do have a pretty significant reservoir to feed my understanding of new things I read.
   
I also find I enjoy reading something that challenges my normal way of understanding.  I may already feel like I can define something clearly and, yet, I read something that offers a different way of looking at that same thing.  If I stay open, I can learn.  This happened to be recently when I was working my way through Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  This is a marvelous book full of things I already knew and with challenges to my ignorance.
   
In her chapter on “Faith,” Tippett talks with Pico Iyer about spirituality and religion.  The question usually raised about these two things is whether they are the same?  Iyer says they are not the same.  Since we don’t have space to work with both of them, I will choose the definition Iyer offers for religion.  He says, “And religion is the community, the framework, the tradition, all the other people into which we bring what we find in solitude.”  I like this because it is short, incisive and offers me a little different way to understand religion.  And it seems to me, this definition can even offer an intriguing way to understand religion when they otherwise are dismissive of religion---often preferring to say “I am spiritual, but not religious.”
   
Iyer defines religion with four aspects.  The first aspect is community.  That is very interesting, because many people begin defining religion by doctrine---how to believe in God, Jesus Christ, etc.  Instead, Iyer begins with the folks who have a particular faith and strive to live together in community.  It would take a book to detail what community means.  Suffice it here to say community is different than a group or a bunch of people who might go to the same church.  True community provides folks with a sense of belonging.
   
The second aspect of religion is the framework.  I cannot be sure I know what Iyer means by this, but I can guess.  The framework is the structure of the faith.  It may have to do with what some people dismiss as “the institutional structure,” which they do not find attractive.  I prefer to think about the framework as the rituals and routines that define the community.  The framework is the culture of the community.  If you were part of a Roman Catholic community, the framework is different than the Quaker community in which I grew up. 
   
The third aspect of religion is the tradition.  Again, we could write a book about this aspect.  But tradition simply is how the community has lived out its faith over time.  It can include doctrine, but it is more.  Think more about the stories of the people of faith that are told over time---sometimes generations and even centuries.  When I think about the Catholic Church, I do think about doctrine---like the Trinity.  But I also think about Mother (Saint) Teresa, St. Francis, Dorothy Day and all the rest.  Tradition is a very broad umbrella under which we find wide diversity.
   
The final aspect of religion is a very broad one---namely, people.  But Iyer talks about a specific kind of people.  I might talk about this people as our crucibles or, perhaps, our dialogue partners.  It is with these special people we abide in order to share what we are thinking and feeling in our solitude.  They are the special ones who help us sort out what is happening to us.  They put us on our path to God and to purpose.  Or they may put us back on our path when we have lost our way or, simply, become too tired to walk on with our faith journey.
   
When I think about religion this way, I am tempted to modify my own definition.  I really like how Iyer has defined it.  It makes sense to me and helps me to make sense of my own religious journey.  I have been helped by reading, thinking and deepening my understanding.

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