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The Nature of Religion

Posted on: March 10, 2019

Category: Theology

The Nature of Religion

Quest Thoughts: The Nature of Religion

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is often considered the modern founder of sociology because of his contributions to the analysis of society and the evolution of social structures. He was also one of the first, it is pointed out, to use statistics. His thoughts about religion remain interesting and cause one to think.

Durkheim claimed, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, that religion has two originating sources, which combine together and exist simultaneously. The first source for religion is nature, and the second is energy (spirit). He called the first naturism. He meant that primal human beings held nature with awe and regarded its features as gods. Lightening, rain, storms, sun, moon, caves, mountains and many other natural features were either the expressions of a god's power or abodes where gods lived. Meanwhile, Durkheim called the energy element animism. Here he meant that the second source of religion is the power that animates life. So, different animals could express divine power, and sickness and health could be the consequence of gods or demons acting upon us (for or against us).

These two ways of thinking about the origin of religion make some sense. The oldest of conversations among human beings is a conversation about the weather. And the thing we say all the time to each other is how are you? In these two daily conversation rituals lie the vague memories of the gods of nature and the gods of energy.

Durkheim left one source of religion out, which might be the most significant to religion today. That is the identity question. Religions and gods are also about identity. The god of Abraham, in the Bible, is the god associated with the Abraham tribe. The god (El) is an identity marker for the members of the tribe. There are many other examples of identity gods in the Bible, and, of course, many ancient cities and nations had their identity gods and goddesses: Athena, for example, the goddess of Athens.

When we think of Christianity and its origins in the earliest Jesus movements, it is interesting to note that most of the sayings and parables associated with Jesus are identity sayings. The topics are a lost coin, a day in the life of a Samaritan, a runaway kid, an awkward sower, and so on. There are a few sayings about nature and about demons, but most sayings involve everyday life. Similarly, prophetic books often hold identity sayings. Jeremiah the prophet claimed that "David shall never lack a person to sit on the throne of the House of Israel" (33:19). The House of David is intimately tied to the identity of the nation. The prophet Hosea speaks of God as the husband of Israel, invoking again the identity Israel has through God as a partner and the responsibilities of faithfulness the nation is to hold. These ways of using identity also mark the origins of religion.

You might wonder what my point is? Here is the point: Durkheim missed the important role identity plays in religion. And one important thing about identity in religion is the insistence that our identities are too small. Isaiah claimed that Israel's true role is not really just to be Jacob (not just to be us in the midst of them) but to be a "light unto the nations" (49:6). The spirit of this saying appears several times in the Jesus tradition. The Samaritan story challenges us to break from the egotistical way we can hold identity and to be big enough to see the righteousness of our enemy. There is the saying about carrying no money, no backpack, and wearing no shoes. The follower of this ethic, who thus has nothing, has to trust the stranger. It's a lesson about trust that requires overcoming our protective sense of ego. The book of Ruth is a protest story against the policies of Ezra. In Ezra, Judean men are to "put away" their non-Judean wives, but the book of Ruth shows that Ezra's identity politics is wrong. King David's great grandmother was not a Judean. If not for the stranger there would be no Israel.

Religion can work to cultivate egoism and to teach strict forms of identity: how someone or some group or some way of being is better than another. But the other side of the coin that is often missed is how religion can shatter identity: indicating that overcoming ego and not falling into an ego trap is, in fact, the act of faith. Whatever identity each of us holds is perfectly fine, and there is no threat involved because the point is to overcome the limits of our identities and celebrate our collective humanity.

©By David Galston

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