What is this thing I call the religious instinct? I think it’s more than having recourse when we want something we don’t have or not have what we do have, more than the urge to worship something more powerful or nobler than we are, more than the need to participate in rituals that allow escape from the incessant demands of our daily life, more even than having a label to complete a sense of who we are. It’s these things and more.
I was practicing Buddhism when I became eligible for naturalization. Before I could be sworn in as an American I had to promise I could take on the responsibilities of citizenship. Would I fight for my new country? Only religious belief pulled greater weight than political demands. Was Buddhism a religion when it did not require belief in God?
In an interview with Terry Gross aired March 31, 2010, Jewish writer Judith Shulevitz told how she was drawn to keeping the Sabbath again. She grew up a nonreligious American with a knee-jerk reaction to any curtailment of freedom, this rare, wonderful gift we have in America. But something was missing. Her days blended together in sameness. “And the thing that was most the same was the endless striving to get somewhere in life,” she told Gross. “Something very deep and very important was missing.” What was Shulevitz missing?
There are eminent, brilliant theologians teaching at our seminaries and universities, preachers who bully or inspire in our churches, temples or mosques and there’s the little, old woman who daily walks to her village church to light a candle in front of the faded statue of the Virgin Mary. She kneels in the corner where no one notices her and after a few minutes gets up and walks back the way she came. She has done this for fifty years. The little walk is as much a part of her life as waking in the morning or putting food in her mouth.
A crucial scripture in classic Hinduism is the Bhagavad-gita, The Song of Lord Krishna, imbedded in the massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Here the avatar of Vishnu, one of the sacred Hindu trinity of gods, teaches the Indian prince, Arjuna, about man and his relationship with other men and with God. The Gita is one of the most succinct descriptions of the varieties of human religious impulses I have ever encountered. Some people express religiosity through devotion, some through acts of kindness and generosity, and some through attempts to know God.
Shulevitz’s interview with Terry turned up a phrase that somehow softens the imperious questioning in my own mind about religion. If one were to search through and study centuries of Talmudic writings on the Sabbath, all the restrictions on what one shouldn’t do on the Sabbath, Shulevitz explained, came down to one basic idea. One day a week let the world be as it is; stop exerting mastery over the world.
Maybe religion is the antidote to everything else we are taught we should do as conventional beings. We exert effort, express ourselves, make money, raise a family, contribute to society, earn fame and a good name, make our parents and our children proud of us, and, at the end, die a good, happy death. After all the doing, we might find there is a limit to it. We still don’t know how to be.