Friday, December 14, 2012

My Religious Philosophy - Part Two: “Religion”

Rabbi Sonsino
The universe works in wondrous ways. However, this recognition does not eliminate the problems we face in our daily life, either because of the limitations of our  bodies, the unfairness we encounter in our dealings with others, or even when we fight natural disasters not of our own making. We are devastated when tragedies mar our existence. Most of us can understand and accept that people will eventually pass away, but we find it very difficult to deal with the death of loved ones, either at the hands of others or because of natural calamities. We do not live in a perfect world, and certainly do not know all the intricacies of the universe.  Life is mysterious, and, at times, even unpredictable, requiring a wholesome perspective. For many, religion does that.

But what does the word “religion” mean? Some people derive it from the Latin “relegare” meaning to re-examine carefully, and others from “religare” meaning to connect (with God). Even though the second one is the most popular understanding of the word today, it is still vague. What does it mean to connect with God? What does God mean? Hebrew does not have a proper word for “religion.” In medieval times, we find dat, which can mean law, custom or faith. In modern Hebrew a dati is a religiously observant person.

Of the various definitions of religion, I believe, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) has provided the broadest one. He argued that religion gives the individual a “frame of orientation” as well as “an object of devotion.” Each of us has a “frame of orientation” through which we view the world, and “an object of devotion” to which we pledge ultimate loyalty. The question is how to identify these “frames” and “objects?”

Maimonides (d. 1204) defined religion as “to (intellectually) know God.” For Mordecai Kaplan (1991-1983), “the essence of every religion is the human quest for salvation (i.e.., self-realization).” In Abraham J. Heschel’s (1907-1972) view, “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” Roland Gittelsohn (1910-1995) proposed one in line with his religious naturalism: “the study of the mutual spiritual relations between human organisms and their total cosmic environment.” I prefer the one advanced by Alvin Reines (1926-2004): “Religion is the human person’s response to the conflict of finitude,” namely, how do we deal with the realization that we are all limited and are destined to die one day?  In this sense, I consider everyone religious because we all have the same concerns and expectations. Whether we are Jewish, Christian, Muslim (or other), how we personally respond to our existential questions becomes our religion.

My Concept of God
In my book, The Many Faces of God, I have summarized my view on God in these words:
“Like others, I, too, went from stage to stage in my theological development. I consider myself more of a researcher and teacher rather than a systematic theologian. I like to look for legitimate options, and make them available to my students and readers as viable and authentic responses to matters of life and death. As an individual I, too, had to struggle with questions of existence, and looked for explanations that made sense to me. I gave up my childhood notion of classical theism, because my logical mind and inquisitive nature would not yield the conclusions I was asked to accept. I find mysticism appealing but not totally compatible with my rationalistic tendencies. I am not satisfied with the claim of the religious humanists that God, as the highest images of ourselves is capable of answering our queries. Also, I cannot conceive of a theology that looks at the universe from the divine perspective. I believe theology starts with our own questions, and ends with our tentative answers.

I am more attracted to the views of the religious naturalists who maintain that there is an energy that sustains the universe. Based on observation and analysis, I see a certain order in the world around us, and conclude, much like some of the medieval thinkers and even a few early rabbis, that this order implies an ordering mind, or in my case, an ordering power and energy that stands for God. The laws of nature, I argue, are simply a manifestation of this universal energy that makes possible for me to exist. And for this, I am very appreciative, and express my thanks to God through prayers of gratitude and works of loving-kindness that benefit my family and community. I affirm the freedom of the human will, and can live with the realization that I don’t have all the answers for the tension that exists between the realities of good and evil, because I do not know all the inner workings of the universe. In the spirit of Spinoza, I say that if we knew how the world operates, we could predict our next move. But alas, this is not within our ability. So, we live in an imperfect world and with limited abilities to understand the mysteries around us, while desperately looking for meaning and purpose in our daily struggles” (pp.250-1).

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