New Internationalist

The Deeper Journey

Issue 155

new internationalist
issue 155 | January 1986

RELIGION[image, unknown] The roots of belief
[image, unknown]

The deeper journey
Every culture in history has had its religion, from local
tribal gods to complex systems of belief like the Tao.
But why do people need religion? And where does faith
come from? Michael Hare Duke offers an explanation.

THE world's news media provide a daily diet of varied stories to satisfy our appetites. Each event, whether a murder, an election or the falling dollar, is like a bead tossed at random onto a pile. There is no attempt to connect them up, to thread them onto a string of meaning. But if the stories engage us at all, we want to know more. And the questions we ask lead back into the past.

If we go far enough asking 'How' and 'Why' we end up in the sphere of religion. 'Why do people behave the way they do?' 'Is it worthwhile struggling to help others?' 'Is history going anywhere?' 'Why has this happened to me?' These are all religious questions.

Some people seek answers to find a framework for ordinary living. It could be the day's news which sets them searching. For others it's a personal experience of loss or anxiety that is the driving force. Faced with a child's serious illness, parents will suddenly ask questions that have never troubled them before. They may cope with their personal tragedy through a faith which is big enough to interpret sickness and untimely death. On the other hand they may find nothing but an abyss of meaninglessness and then struggle to rebuild their lives around that perception. There is no way of proving which picture is true: both are 'faith positions'.

The same kind of questions arise when we become aware of current threats to human survival. Is it possible that history might come to an end because of nuclear war, or through human damage to the earth's life-support system? Does that mean history is the product of random chance? Or does some kind of purpose lie behind it? And if there is a purpose, can it be thwarted (by, for instance, our choosing to blow up the world)?

As people begin to probe the depths of meaning religion acts as a kind of magnet on the soul. Whether you call it a story or a framework, people need something that helps them fit into a wider context than their own lives. So in every culture in history a form of religion has emerged alongside other developments in art or government.

The sustaining religious stories that different peoples believe tend to shift and adapt to historical change. For example, the national identity of the Jews and the laws which expressed it were embodied in the account of the Covenant made between them and their god in the desert. Sustained by this belief, they were confident that he would protect them against their enemies.

But when Jerusalem was sacked in 587 BC, their temple destroyed and the people exiled to Babylon, the original story was no longer sufficient. They had to think again. The response was voiced by one poet who wrote a new song of creation in which he pictured the whole world, the Jews and their enemies, all created by one god and therefore together being part of his purpose. This poem eventually found its place as the opening chapter of the Bible. Instinctively, through disaster, the Jews had been led back to an ultimate story which could help them cope with whatever happened.

In a similar way, the tribal religions of Africa have stories which provide a framework for life experiences like drought and famine or disease amongst the cattle. As the people became aware of a wider world than their tribal territory, their framework of belief had to expand as well.

For other people, faith is not an intellectual exercise and has no interpretive stories. They are content to accept without question a belief system which others have handed down. In this case faith is something you are born with - a kind of shared community identity. For instance, the British working-class culture at one time was supported by a philosophy summed up in such phrases as 'You must always be loyal to your mates or 'You've got to help one another out'. These sayings could be traced back to deeper roots in folk memory or explicit belief but nobody bothered. In themselves they were sufficient to give a badge of belonging which helped people know where they were.

For those who believe, however, religion is more than a mere story holding us together. It relates to a truth which not only sustains us in times of questioning, but forms our attitudes and directs our action.

The word 'religion' is drawn from the Latin and has something to do with 'binding together'. There are three aspects of this. First of all, faith helps each of us cope with ourselves. Many people find it difficult to accept the whole of their personality - there is a shadow side which each individual tries to split off and deny. Through ritual cleansing, through an understanding of forgiveness, religion makes it possible to live at ease with oneself.

Second, religion is about human belonging. Sometimes for a tribe, group or nation it provides a sense of belonging necessary when the wider world is felt to be a threat.

And third, at a universal level, religion offers us an image of humanity as one family and by the process of reconciliation seeks to bring us all into one. A religion which takes creation seriously is also about the human race taking its place within the total system of the universe. The more we realise the intricacy of the universe, the wider our vision is expanded by science, the deeper are our questions about the part that human beings play in all this.

In such a context the 20th century Christian, for example, believes God created the world and continues to be involved in its life in order to take forward his purpose to its completion. We expect to discover the same truths that are told in the Gospel reflected in different modes, in the discoveries of science. In order to do this, however, there has to be an openness of mind which looks for reinterpretations and makes connections.

Believers in other faiths can make similar claims for the transforming power of their creed, as it relates everyday experience to a transcendent truth about God's activity and purpose.

It must, however, be acknowledged that every religion should carry a 'governmental health warning'. Instead of giving individuals or societies the courage to grasp new possibilities of letting go outmoded security, the name of God has been invoked on occasions against new thinking or social change. Religion has become a refuge for the frightened. Since frightened people also become vicious, repressive regimes and intellectual persecution have been justified as being faithful to the tradition. The danger comes when fidelity to a living god is equated with obedience to a fixed system of belief or morality.

Human history is a process of growth. Almost every religion in one way or another includes in its story the dream of the journey. Where this is denied, there are danger signals that what was meant to be liberating is becoming an imprisonment and that human anxiety is hijacking the one resource which makes fresh movement and discovery possible.

Michael Hare Duke is the Anglican Bishop of St Andrews in Scotland.

Of God and potatoes
Curt Cadorette explains why Peru's Aymara
Indians may be better theologians than Aquinas.

Most of the small towns in the Peruvian 'altiplano' (highlands) seem so utterly quiet and uncomplicated that you almost think they've been abandoned. A few Aymara people sit around the plaza and talk while sleepy, skinny dogs lie in the sun soaking up its gift of warmth. The obvious conclusion is that not too much is going on.

Yet this idyllic picture of tranquillity is a bit simplistic. In the surrounding fields 'campesinos' (peasants) have been working on their potatoes since the first light of dawn. Aymara children have been up and toiling with their parents in the fields, and even the smallest have been herding their family's few sheep and llamas. Everyone is involved in the daily challenge to survive in this harsh, cold part of the world which gives its blessing grudgingly.

The town plaza may seem quiet and complacent but daily existence is a demanding task which required planning and thought. Feeding a family on two acres of rocky soil five miles above sea level requires a great deal of ability and even greater tenacity.

The Aymara have their own specialized knowledge based on millennia of experience. They know when to plant and harvest. They can look at approaching clouds and tell whether to expect wind, rain or hail. They know too that farming and herding require unified effort.

Over the centuries, the campesinos of the altiplano have been made to think of themselves as cogs in a machine. The landowners who take most of the crop for themselves have said for endless years that campesinos are lazy and immoral people.

But lazy and immoral people don't have the wisdom or energy to work all day in a field as a family. The majority of these highland peasants are Christian people with a deep reverence for life and the very earth they stand on. They keep themselves alive and together because of the values they share and the labour they do in common.

In fact, to the Aymara, the greatest vice is laziness - unwillingness to participate in the daily challenges of life and survival. There's a common-sense morality among these campesinos which says that the man, woman or child who doesn't contribute is doing something very harmful to the rest. Idle hands mean empty stomachs.

The Aymara do not separate religion and life. Field and mountain are sacred places. Planting and harvesting are sacred events. Family and friends are divine gifts.

Perhaps the Aymara don't know it but they're very capable theologians. They may never have heard of Thomas Aquinas or Hans Kung but they have their own very workable theology. They have a set of concrete values and goals that have to be reached. Every time they plough a field or shepherd their llamas they are quietly affirming their values and accomplishing the goals necessary for their lives. We may not think of that as theology but in many ways it really is. When your work maintains the unity between religion and life and you do what's necessary to express that unity, you're acting theologically.

Too often we regard theologians as heady people in classrooms who think about abstractions. Theologians are supposed to be removed from daily life - a cut above the ordinary woman or man faced with the problems of raising a family, be it in a Chucuito, Peru, or Boston, Massachusetts.

Yet even the theologians who sit in classrooms know deep down that the place where theology makes the greatest sense and accomplishes the most is in a field or factory. Where you do theology is much more important than where you just think about it. That's why the Aymara are grassroots theologians without ever having studied a word of Aquinas.

Sometimes we wonder just how religion can help people. But what difference does it make if a campesino believes or not? We look for complex, abstract answers when all we need do is look at an Aymara's calloused, mud-caked feet.

Father Curt Cadorette has worked in Peru since 1974.
This article permitted with permission from Maryknoll magazine.


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