Saturday, July 16, 2011

Relegare or Religare?

In religious acculturation the most important element is barely touched upon—so that we don’t even recognize the very experience of it when it arises spontaneously. We don’t in any way link it to religion. I find it interesting that the etymology for religion Cicero once offered is right on target—at least for me. He thought the word derived from “again” and “reading”—relegare. When we expand the concept to include pondering on things, as in reflecting upon, we are very close to the idea of contemplation—thus to “reflecting on the higher or the elevated.” Others have preferred deriving the word from religare, meaning to fasten or to bind fast, thus pointing to a bond between the human and divine. But the sense of that word (binding) also holds the notion of an obligation, an obligation laid on us. And, indeed, my own religious acculturation had plenty of that. It was commandment-based. Do this; do not do that. And there are consequences. Thus religion came in the form of behavioral dicta—not at all dissimilar to “Look before you cross the street—or you might be run over,” the main difference being that the “run over” portion of the teaching was projected in time to a vague and misty sort of place. We were even taught to pray under the rubric of obligation—never ever under the rubric of nutrition. Yet prayer is the closest we get to contemplation in these contexts—and the genuine religious life is actually centered on it.

We were children, of course. The acculturation was more social than religious. Religious acculturation ought to be life-long, and should have institutional support to channel the wisdom in more or less formal ways, but this isn’t in the cards. Usually after 10, maximally after 18 years of age, religious education altogether ceases. Not surprisingly the vast majority is far more ignorant of religion than, say, of high school science. Now, to be sure, coming from a family where Montessori education is highly regarded—and entirely ignored by the world—my view of the rest of education, never mind religious, is equally unprintable. Therefore the religious life, when it is actually practiced, especially by a few members of the laity, is the world’s most hidden activity of all.

At least in West—saying which I engage in one of those ploys you’ll find in Games People Play. (To take the air out of some windbag mouthing generalities, wait until he finishes and then say, “Yes, but not in the East.”) Some religious traditions—I’m thinking of Buddhism—place detachment and inward-directed contemplation much more prominently than the avoidance of sin, obedience to doctrine, and ritual practices—or the euphoric acceptance of Christ preferably in a crowd with lots of people shouting hallelujahs. Perhaps in those Eastern reaches more of the acculturation sticks and lasts beyond childhood.

What comes first? Inner awakening—which is fed (literally, actually, tangibly) by contemplative activities—or behavioral conformity? The first is first, I think. If it is not awakened and active in the person, morality of behavior, even after it has become a habit, is much too easily eroded by unhappy circumstances. Inner awakening is like a spring. Once it flows, it is avidly watched—and when the turmoil of life starts to clog up its channel, the motivation to clean it out and help it flow again arises right out of the pain of life.

Concerning nutrition and prayer in the Christian tradition, I suggest this earlier short post.

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