In 2003, in response to a request for some theology professors to describe their spiritual journeys, I concluded with this paragraph:
Rereading those words after more than a decade, I realize that I have not gotten much past where I was then. Having been forced to retire from full-time teaching in 2003, my life has been filled with mundane matters such as making money to pay the bills. And when I did have time for scholarly matters, I devoted it to writing about other things and not about my inner life.
Two developments had the greatest impact on forcing me out of the religious world in which I was raised. The first was encountering other religions through reading about them to teach courses on world religions and to write about religious ritual from a broad faith perspective. More experientially, through interfaith dialogue, I found myself listening to people whose religious beliefs gave their lives direction and purpose even though those beliefs sometimes differed widely.
Since the Enlightenment, religion has been increasingly denigrated, reaching in our own day to the condemnation of fundamentalisms, be they Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist. From an anthropological perspective, however, religion has played and continues to play a crucial role in sustaining human life. In pre-literate cultures, myth and ritual are an information storage and retrieval system that enable ideas and mores to be passed from one generation to the next.
We all live in worlds of meanings that are stored in tales whose importance is unquestioned. Ancient tales told people who they were, where they came from, and where they were going. Their truth was not in the pictures of places and people described, but in the lives that were lived in accordance with those stories. Likewise, rituals preserved and passed on what was needed to know about tool making, about hunting and cooking animals, about eating and using plants, about the building of dwellings and about the navigation of watercraft.
For thousands of years, myth and ritual connected humans with what was sacred to their self-awareness and to their survival, and in that sense early myth and ritual were the first form of religion on this planet. The word “religion” comes from Latin words meaning to reconnect, and in its earliest form religion reconnected adults to what made them human, and it connected children with the way of life and practical knowledge they would need in order to survive, live well, and pass crucial information on to the next generation.
The fact that there were hundreds if not thousands of human bands on the planet, each with their own myths and rituals, and each with their own religion in that sense, is immaterial. What counted in terms of survival was how their religion functioned as a mechanism for governing social interaction, for the obtaining of food, and for dealing with the elements. Social groups whose myths and rituals helped them to survive prospered and spread; groups with inadequate myths and rituals died, and their religions died with them.
In the history of religion and culture, the invention of farming led to the development of technologies that became gradually detached from their religious matrix, and in that sense, they became secular. Living in settled communities made geography more familiar and less needful of tales to remember locations and their peculiarities. Likewise the tasks of farming and tool-making became more familiar through repetition and less surrounded with a sacred aura. What was once very mysterious became less mysterious, and so the world of the profane grew in human culture while the world of the sacred retreated to areas that were still mysterious such as birth, death and social interactions. Thus all ancient religions such as those in the Fertile Crescent, and all of the so-called great religions that have survived to this day, include rules of social interaction or religious mores that are buttressed by stories that are mythic in their origin and function.
Until recently, many people believed that their religion was true and that all others were false. There are people today who still believe this, although the ecumenical movement among Christians has softened this attitude among many. Likewise, people in pluralistic societies are inclined to live and let live, allowing people to believe what they want as long as they behave ethically and civilly. And people who are fully secularized give no credence at all to religious beliefs, even though they sometimes have idiosyncratic beliefs of their own associated with spirituality, meditation, or personal superstitions.
For adults who take a religious tradition seriously, however, the truth of their lives is found in how they behave, not in what they think. The stories and images that formed their values have done their job, for by now their values have become habits. What is real is how they behave, regardless of what they think they are doing. Likewise the religious rituals in which they participate reinforce the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. If they stopped going to church or synagogue or mosque, they would probably keep living the way they do, for they have found the truth of what their religion taught them in the living of it.
This is not to say that all religions are equally good, for clearly fanatics are to be found among the followers of all the world’s religions. They would kill non-believers if they got the chance—and sometimes they do get the chance. But their demonic actions only serve to reinforce the thesis that the function of religious beliefs is to shape behavior and not to provide a picture of ultimate reality. For whether they are life-giving or life-destroying, ways of life can be shaped by any number of different and contradictory myths, all of which lead to similar results.
I for one am glad to have been raised in a Christian tradition, and indeed one of rather strict and traditional Catholicism. I am also glad that, when I reached adulthood, the Catholic Church was becoming a less rigid institution, and that I was able to explore and come to appreciate the spiritual and intellectual richness of its two thousand year history. Through what I learned in that matrix, I have come to believe that the way I live approximates the lifestyle revealed by Jesus of Nazareth and preserved in what has been written about him, however imperfectly and however mythically. In that sense, I can say that Jesus was and remains my savior and lord, for he rescued me from many pitfalls and he continues to command my loyalty and obedience. I know that what he preached is true, not because he said it, but because I have found its truth in the living of it.
Joseph Martos, TheSacraments@Gmail.com