What is religion?

By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. Author of The Big Questions: God

One day, a philosopher was asked to define religion. His answer needed to be definitive, precise – the kind of formula that would satisfy lawyers, or the atheists of his day who sought a clear target at which to aim their critique.

The philosopher was a wise soul and so immediately begged for some time. That period elapsed, and he appeared again. But he didn’t have an answer. Instead, he asked for more time. That period passed too, and he asked for more. And then more. And more.

The people became irritated, annoyed. “If you can’t find an answer,” they muttered impatiently, “then why keep on asking?” “But don’t you see?” he replied, and wandered off alone.

This parable, or one a bit like it, is told by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It’s one way of saying that doubt is at the heart of the phenomenon we call religion, not certainty.

That is reflected in the New Testament, because if you look, it turns out that the Bible has remarkably little to say about the supposed horrors of doubt, at least doubt in the sense meant mostly today, as in “I doubt x is true”.

Instead, the Greek words typically translated as doubt mean “being of two minds” or “disputing so as to cause division.” This makes a huge difference to the way the texts are read, I suspect.

For example, when in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus talks about moving mountains if you do “not doubt in your heart”, it is tempting to read it today as a kind of magic trick – as if it’s saying believe God exists, or that Jesus is God, and the earth will move for you, supernaturally. But the text really means you can achieve extraordinary things if you truly set your heart to it.

Or take James, the letter with one of the most sustained riffs apparently against doubt, part of which reads “you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea.” That sounds today like being able to assert every sub-clause of the creed with full confidence, no questions. Except again it is really a comment on trusting in God and sticking to your guns, keeping faith with your deep commitments.

The broad point seems to be that the New Testament’s reflections on religion see it as a way of life, not a set of truth statements. And holding to a way of life will inevitably involve doubts, uncertainties, unknowing – actually, needs to, in a sense. Think of what it’s like to love someone or to write a book or to devote your life to the study of the dark matter that fills the universe. Doubts may be an everyday occurrence, and the capacity to live with feeling unsure, crucial to success: personal growth, creativity, discovery depend upon it.

Faith too, then, is close to doubt because you keep faith, no less. It is not about confidently asserting metaphysical propositions but rather developing the capacity to trust yourself, others, God.

To put it another way, the religious way of life is about stepping into life, not stepping back from it, as if you might gain a “view from nowhere”, a definitive, precise answer. Doubt, not knowing and uncertainty are not a kind of failure, as much of the debate about religion these days implies. Rather, it is part and parcel to choosing life in all its fullness and becoming wise.

Martin Luther is one figure not generally known for his doubts. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” he reportedly declared. And yet, he knew this too: “Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to knowledge-with-doubt is no knowledge at all.”



Filed under Guest Blogger, Mark Vernon

2 responses to “What is religion?

  1. Tafacory

    Beautifully written.

  2. mrerrare

    I like this. I’m a big Kierkegaard guy, but I read him different than most. I’m also a big sola gratia sola fide guy who believes faith is a gift to be constantly received. How volition plays into the reception of faith baffles me, but what I hear you saying is that faith is not the dogmatic assertion of propsitional certitudes. If I’m hearing you right (and I’m way sleepy)……. If faith is a gift and even the will is activited by the granting of faith itself, this is radical. It seems to me that part of the freedom in Christ we have is the freedom to doubt..to not know..to wrestle with things. So often doctrinal certitude seems like an ideological form of works-righteousnesss to me. To be justified freely, and then have a lifetime of walking with Christ asking lots of questions (and doubting along the way) sounds right. That makes sense to me, and it is a very liberating notion. I may not be hearing you right, and I may be projecting something into what you written so well….but that being said, I’m really glad I took the time to read your post. I was edified. Thanks for your input. Grace and Peace be with you. Nick, If I’m not hearing you right, let me know. It’s been a long night of writing and I’m fading quickly:) I’m also spelling lots of things wrong and landing lots of typos, so I’ll quit:) Take care…..:)

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