NOVEMBER 23, 2015
It was one year ago that I graduated from University of Toronto’s Regis College with a doctorate in practical theology (D.Min.). Finally at the end of years of study (including thesis writing), I was left feeling stunned, worn out. Questions from almost everyone I ran into began with, “What are you going to do now?” Problem was – I had not really thought beyond the process itself. I mean, I did have a vision going in, but I felt as though it was pounded out of me during the process. I felt lost. But…
On the other hand, I also learned lots of interesting stuff and it would be sad if I did not find a way to share it. That’s one reason for this blog.
I chose blogging as an alternative to traditional academic options (writing a book, journal articles, teaching, etc.) because here I can discuss the issues that matter most to me without someone looking over my shoulder to make sure I don’t stray from the norms of traditional academic and religious institutions. (How naïve to think creativity would be welcomed with open arms by either institution!) I shall try to be positive in this endeavor, but ask forgiveness ahead of time for if when I revert to a somewhat jaded perspective. My overall goal here is to help, not to complain…
Also, because of the self-restricted brevity of these blog postings (to prevent the reader from getting bored, and me from having to writes scores of words to qualify every little detail…), I will try to hit general points and themes that might stimulate or provoke further investigation, depending on your perspective. I will also try to offer resources from time to time. One more caveat: My primary emphasis here will be on Western religious traditions because that is what I have spent my life studying. This is not to dismiss Eastern religions (which, actually, I have sometimes found more personally satisfying), but to offer insights and perspectives on Western religious thought that I think have been neglected or overlooked.
Oh, and one last thing. It is not my intension (EVER) to proselytize; the goal of understanding the power and weaknesses of religion has, for me, been a life-long quest.
01. Does Religion Matter?
For those involved in a religious tradition, the question of whether religion matters may seem like a no-brainer. But for the growing number of those who have extricated themselves from religion, or who have observed only as outsiders, it may be helpful to look at the role it has played in the evolution of human civilization.
Our story – as a human family – goes back much further than the few thousand years of recorded history on which we usually focus. In fact, viewed from a much distanced perspective, we may note that the branch of the evolutionary tree of life to which we are attached is quite recent in the overall scheme of things – hundreds of thousands of years compared to the earth’s billions. Even so, it seems we often fail to take account the possibility that we have at least as much time ahead of us as behind.
Think, for example, of the many changes in the relatively short span of our recorded history. Or how much our use of technology has changed in even the past few hundred years! Against this backdrop, we may see our wars against each other as the mere temper tantrums of juvenile siblings. That human beings as they now exist present the flowering blossom at the end of our evolutionary branch is unlikely. Surely our best ideas are not behind us. (On the broader evolutionary points I’ve been influenced by the work of my husband, the philosopher J. L. Schellenberg. For more on his ideas, see Evolutionary Religion (Oxford, 2013.)
Leaving aside arguments of whether humans will destroy the environment we need for survival or blow each other up with nuclear or other doomsday weapons – or whether an asteroid or some other natural disaster will do us in like the dinosaurs, it’s important to consider what it means to think of the present chapter of our existence as nearer the beginning of our overall story than the end.
So what has this to do with religion?
While our physical bodies have evolved little in recent millennia, cultural evolution has progressed in leaps and bounds – flying off in myriad directions. Very early on, the development of religion helped to create bonds between people in small groups. Working together for a common good (like food, shelter, and protection), individual communities developed religions that helped to strengthen community ties. As civilizations grew, religious practice marked distinctions between groups while fostering a shared identity. Conflict among early bands of humans vying for limited resources required team work and religion played an important role in creating loyalty among members.
Because survival was the preeminent goal in ancient times, attention was not given to the far away future (not hundreds of years, let alone thousands of years). Even structures like the pyramids served immediate concerns - like honoring and housing the dead. That they remain and function primarily as tourist attractions in the 21st century would probably have made some pharaohs turn over in their comfortable graves!
So, as we can see, religion played an essential role in our human evolution. Perhaps such strong ties could have developed through other means (and maybe they sometimes did), but as far as we know today, it was religion that provided the strong bonds of belonging needed for these early bands to survive. Religion mattered very much – then. But what happened?