Monday, December 6, 2010

An Affirmation of Religion

It is always disheartening to hear news about the parish scandals and empty cathedrals, the growing impotence of the Church and the decline of religion as a whole. On a personal note, I was quite disturbed when I realized how most of the people I've met here in Shanghai, in this microcosm of the world, do not believe in any religion anymore. Experiencing more of the world has only two possible effects on faith: one, because one has seen and read so much, one realizes that religion is a puny, archaic prison holding one back from a freer pursuit of learning and fulfillment; two, seeing more makes one in awe of the world which in turn translates to an awe of the divine

As for me, I hold the latter position. I am of the opinion that the world is too beautiful and mysterious to not have any sort of higher power behind and within it. This greater power emerges in the world that is greater than the sum of its parts, in the unifying synergy flowing through all things living and non-living, earthly and celestial. This perspective owes little credit to myself though. Catholicism chose me first. I was born and raised in one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in the world. I went through seventeen years of Catholic education, go to mass, and celebrate Christian holidays. Surrounded by all this, I almost have a social obligation to believe. Yet I have a choice, so why do I choose to believe in this flawed two thousand year old framework amidst all the advances in philosophy and science ever since?

It may be true that religion is mostly a social construct. Recent research even suggested that there is a god gene implanted in every human being, granting us the biological propensity to seek for divine meaning. The earliest cave paintings to the development of mythology and monotheism all underscore the huge role religion has played in human society. Through these, we come to realize that the concept of God is not fixed. It differs across culture and evolves with history. It moves in accordance to human failure and folly.

People add and subtract to religion; they come up with their own views of what God should be for them. The Bible was not some divine text that fell from heaven, it was written by people for people. In the Old Testament resided the vengeful yet protective God that echoed the sentiments of the plagued Israelites at the time. In the New Testament there emerged the merciful, accepting God which reflected the ideals of the outcasts who wrote it. What about the time before the Bible and monotheism, does it mean that their pagan gods were necessarily false? I think not. Those gods were real to them, it was how they perceived the divine, and it gave them meaning. In my opinion, no religion is better or worse than the other; the Buddhist, Christians, and Muslims of the world are merely wearing differently colored shades all looking at the same truth.

It may also be true that some aspects of religion have been overridden by the logical consistency of science, that the study of electricity has replaced Zeus and his thunderbolt, that the Big Bang has outmoded the creation stories, and evolution has overthrown the story of the Garden of Eden. All these though do not make religion any less true. Many believe that as science continues to progress, religion will be made obsolete. But I think that's because they confuse science and religion as belonging to one sphere of reality. In this age where everything runs on logic, it is easy to demand for scientific proofs of a deity's existence. But religion does not run on cold logic alone, it beats to another tune, the tune of faith. The point of departure is completely different, but religion and science are essentially two sides of the same fundamental truth.

Even just moving within the logical realm though, it is impossible for a rational individual not to believe in some sort of a source, a primary cause, a first mover. In viewing this mysterious source, one needs to hold on to a framework. One can label it as the hands of randomness, an omnipresent living field, even a playful puppet master; or one can see it as a higher power - a God. I choose to believe in the Christian perspective of this God as Love, with the laws of the universe and all of creation stemming forth from this love. For me, it's just so much more meaningful than viewing the Source as impersonal randomness. Overbearing traditions and the institutional conflicts of the Church aside, I still feel the underlying message of love that this religion brings, I still appreciate the shimmering meaning it imbues to all reality, that's why I believe in it.

More than being about love, religion itself is also a lot like love: the freedom to choose is there, but once you have chosen, you have to stand by it through thick and thin. It can be rewarding with all its practical purposes - instilling order, fostering a sense of community and solidarity, bestowing meaning, promoting values and virtues. Religion, like love, can also be impractical and senseless but still real. When a person slaps you, will you turn the other cheek? Will you really give up your hard-earned material possessions to the poor? Sticking to seemingly pointless traditions and teachings can be part of the deal. Religion is not simply a world view, but a lifestyle requiring action and commitment. Religion, like love, is a tough choice, but it can be the most rewarding choice of all.

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