When I used to teach Intro to Religion, and even when I taught Intro to Bible, one of the exercises I would give my students on the first day was to ask them to define religion in a sentence or two. Invariably, the overwhelming majority would include “belief” in their definition. I would then give them a collection of definitions from scholars over the last century and a half, showing the wide range of thinking about the nature of religion, including many that made no reference to belief or faith.
I bring this up because the British philosopher John Gray has reviewed Alain de Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Gray capsulates de Botton’s argument in this way:
Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which
very often coexists with faith.
But in the course of his essay, Gray points out that most of the world’s religions have had at their core the practice of a way of life, rather than assent to a sent of doctrinal beliefs, and that there are strands within Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Christianity, “that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all.”
Gary Gutting attempts to offer a philosophical challenge to Gray’s argument about religion. But his argument is dependent upon a slightly different definition than Gray’s. Gutting begins with a different starting point, not a definition that attempts to encompass a wide variety of religions, but a narrower one that focuses on salvation. He cites Islam and “mainline” Christianity as prime examples.
Then he tests Gray’s argument with the problem of evil. The only plausible answer for a theist is that God is beyond our capacity to understand; but if that’s the case, we can’t be certain that God will act to save us:
Once we appeal to the gap between our limited knowledge and God’s omniscience, we cannot move from what we think God will do to what he will in fact do.
I was reminded of this debate thanks to something a lunch companion said this week. We were talking about the Book of Common Prayer’s power to shape us as Christians, as its language and liturgy becomes ours over time, and comes to shape our experience and understanding of God.
We are approaching Holy Week when we will enter into the drama of the last days of Jesus’ life, participating as individuals and as communities in those ritual re-enactments. We enter into the stories, become the stories. We participate as well as observe. For many of us, the drama of Holy Week, experienced over a period of years or decades, have shaped us in ways we can’t even articulate.
Am I able to articulate a theologically-sound doctrine of the atonement? Hardly. Do I experience the saving love of Jesus’ death on the cross? Of course! And never more powerfully than while participating in the liturgy of Good Friday.