ISSUES OF FAITH: The primary purpose of religion

Religion comes on the scene to bring the part back into a proper relationship with the larger whole.

THE PRIMARY PURPOSE of religion can be expressed as connecting — actually, reconnecting — the part to the whole.

Here’s how this works:

Through the evolutionary development of the human brain, in particular the neocortex, we humans have become self-conscious.

A part of us, as it were, has split off from nature so that our species has the capacity to stand apart from the larger life that birthed us and to which we belong.

Paradoxically, we are that part of nature that stands apart from nature.

We stand apart from that of which we are a part in puzzlement and praise, judgment and awe, anxiety and gratitude.

Mythologically, this relation between the part and the whole is marvelously expressed in that ancient story of the two trees in the paradisal Garden of Eden from the book of Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures.

In that primal story, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whose fruit we apprehensively picked, represents the separation of the part from the whole and the splitting of the whole into pairs of opposites — good and evil, holy and profane, yes and no.

That separation, as the story relates, also involves the experience of guilt and shame, the human urge for self-justification and, of course, the awareness of death.

And because this story speaks of our loss of animal innocence and original unity, it has been called “The Fall.”

However, since the story is about the awakening to greater awareness and differentiation, it has also been called “The Fall Upward.”

But wait, there’s a second tree in that archetypal tale, namely, the Tree of Eternal Life.

This second tree represents the possibility of restored wholeness, but now it’s not innocent wholeness; it’s conscious wholeness.

And here is where the primary purpose of religion comes in:

Religion comes on the scene to bring the part back into a proper relationship with the larger whole — to address how the part is in the whole and how the whole is in the part.

And delightfully, this primary purpose of religion is found in the word “religion” itself.

And here’s how this goes:

Our English word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religio.”

And within both these words is the little root word “lig,” meaning “to tie,” “to bind” or “to link,” as in the English word “ligament” — the tough fibers that bind bone to bone.

Then you add the prefix “re” so that you get “relig,” meaning “to retie,” “to rebind,” “to reconnect,” “to re-link.”

And so religion and the religious impulse, expressed in its 10,000 varieties, has to do with reconnecting, retying, rebinding, rejoining.

It has to do with bringing together again what has become separated, reconnecting with the original unity we had before we acquired the ability to question and before we knew about the split between life and death and good and evil.

In the end, the purpose of religion is both simple and complex.

It’s simple in that we simply want to experience — or re-experience — the unity of Being to which we belong.

And it’s complex in that we cannot escape our human destiny of always standing apart from that of which we are a part.

This, then, is the great endeavor in religion: to experience full unity in the midst of duality; to both be in unity and to know we are in unity.

Here’s a concluding poem — appropriate for this season as our summer winds down and the leaves begin to turn — that speaks of a reconnection with the whole of things. It’s titled “This Only,” written by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Robert Hass.

A valley and above it forests in autumn colors.

A voyager arrives, a map leads him there.

Or perhaps memory. Once long ago in the sun,

When snow first fell, riding this way

He felt joy, strong, without reason,

Joy of the eyes. Everything was the rhythm

Of shifting trees, of a bird in flight,

Of a train on the viaduct, a feast in motion.

He returns years later, has no demands.

He wants only one, most precious thing:

To see, purely and simply, without name,

Without expectations, fears, or hopes,

At the edge where there is no I or not-I.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by four religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected].

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