The Functionality of Religion

I have come to believe that how one’s beliefs function practically in day to day experience is more important than the beliefs themselves. In other words, right belief takes a back seat to believing in the right way.

I’ve come to believe this over the course of 4 years of Bible college as well as many years of personal reflection and study, not to mention a lifetime of personal experience. I would almost describe my coming to this particular belief as a “conversion”–it has radically changed the way I interact with others, especially those who are different than me. I have “converted” from a way of looking at the world that says there is one right/correct/orthodox belief that all must conform to lest they inherit eternal punishment. I now believe that there are many correct ways of conceiving ultimate reality.

I would stop short of identifying as a full blown relativist, however. I still believe that some beliefs are better than others. Not all worldviews are created equal.

My criterion for deciding whether or not a particular worldview is good is how well the belief under consideration yields compassion in the believer.

I’ve begun to ask myself: “Do my beliefs about God limit my ability to accept people who are different than me or am I more prone to accept the other because of my faith?”

Additionally, I believe that true compassion reaches out to even the non-human. Thus, I ask myself: “Do my religious beliefs help me to become a better steward of the earth or am I pushed towards selfish consumption of the earth’s resources?”

In short, the goal of religion, in my opinion, is to help one become a better global citizen. I reject religion that has another world as its focus. It seems to me that other-worldly and escapist religion leads to apathy and passive inactivity when it comes to working for justice in the here and now. Religion ought to be about making this world, the world where we live and move and have our being, a better place.

Because I believe that religion must be functional if it is to be accepted, I no longer believe that everyone must become a Christian. If the dominant worldview in one’s context is a particular stream of Buddhism and that particular stream of Buddhism contains the resources necessary to live a compassionate life, then I see my job as a global citizen to be encouraging that person to live life well as a compassionate Buddhist. The Christian and the Buddhist can work together to create a better, more compassionate global community as they are both challenged and creatively transformed by one another.

Thus, I believe that conversion is necessary not at the level of religion but rather at the level of the functionality of one’s religion/beliefs about ultimate reality. In other words, I’m less concerned about making you a Christian than I am with convincing you that living a life of compassion is the best possible way to live.

All this to say, I still self-identify as a Christian and my reasons for doing so most definitely need fleshing out. That will have to wait until another time.

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16 responses to “The Functionality of Religion

  1. All I can think to say is that this sounds dangerous. What happened to Jesus being the way the truth and the life? What happened to the great commission? Preaching the truth of the gospel IS supposed to be, as Christians, our primary goal. This is not to say that we should reject as humans people who adhere to a different faith system. I think it makes perfect sense to respect anyone who is being a good citizen of the Earth. I also believe that simply being a good person, which is essentially what you are saying here, is SO not even close to good enough in God’s eyes. When it comes down to it, truth is not relative. There is only one reality, which is the one God created. There are certainly different perspectives on this reality, but to say that truth is relative is certainly a dangerous thing, my friend. It sounds a lot like being lukewarm, to me.

    • Krissi, there’s quite a bit here that I feel the need to respond to. Each of the following paragraphs is a response to a part of your comment.

      You’ve used the word “dangerous” a few times to describe what I propose here. Such language seems to be motivated by fear more than anything else and to be honest I think fear of particular ideas is a poor reason not to entertain them. We ought not be afraid of new perspectives.

      In terms of the John 14:6 passage: there aren’t many passages in Scripture that are ripped from their context more than this one. It seems that many Christians make this verse into an answer to a question that simply isn’t in the text. The question that Jesus is asked prior to his uttering these words is not: “What about people of other faith traditions or people who don’t believe in you or people who have never heard about you?” Moreover, it seems odd to me that this verse is usually quoted in order to prove the exclusivity of Christ. Is that not ironic considering Jesus has spent his entire ministry demonstrating that fact that he represents a God of radical inclusivity? These are just a few problems I have with the way you’ve used this verse. I’ll probably end up writing an entire blog about John 14:6 soon so please stay tuned.

      In terms of the great commission: I have by no means nullified Christ’s commandment to make disciples. I merely broadened my understanding of what a disciple of Christ actually is. I still think mission is important.

      Also, I think I would disagree when you say that preaching the gospel is our primary goal as Christians. It seems to me that our primary goal ought to be working towards shalom. This includes preaching the gospel, however I think there’s much more than just that involved.

      “being a good person…is SO not even close to good enough in God’s eyes” : I’m not sure that I agree with you especially if what you’re proposing is that, on top of being a good person, God requires us to mentally ascend to a number of culturally conditioned doctrines. Does “accepting Jesus into your heart” magically make all of our good works count in the grand scheme of things? I’ve given up trying to defend such a notion.

      Finally, I attempted to distance myself from full-blown relativism in my post. If you’ll notice I’ve said that I do not think all worldviews are created equal. I suppose what I’m saying is that instead of there being one right way of believing and a number of wrong ways, I would say that there are a lot of right ways and a lot of wrong ways. This is not a robust relativism.

  2. Garret, I’m proud of your bold statement in what you believe even if it deviates form the norm. In fact, I’m enthralled that we have such and intelligent and compassionate critical thinker among our midst. I’m also glad that you acknowledge the world of wrestling ahead. Fleshing out my Christianity and my belief system has lead me on an incredible journey and I feel as though I’ve discovered so much more about myself and the world that I share with others. Keep us updated on your journey brother! I look forward to hearing about what you learn.

  3. I agree with you, for the most part… It is simply my personal belief that following the path of Christ is the most compassionate life one can live. Every other faith I have found focuses on the self – either destroying the evil of the self, or glorifying the good of the self. The path of Christ is the only one that I have found which puts the Other as the focus of the faith.

    Like you, I believe in a compassionate God, one who cares, and one who would not send anyone to Hell due to the bad luck of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I also believe in a stubborn human race that will do anything and everything they can to deify themselves and demonize the other. Christ is the best answer that I have found to this habit of humanity.

  4. As I read this post I had the image of two old friends sharing a drink, discussing life as they have experienced it. This is an honest post, thank you for sharing it. Many people, from various faith journeys, have thoughts and questions so deviated from their traditions they do not verbalize them for fear of rejection and judgment. In a way, this discussion is your religious “coming out”. Congratulations. Many people do not have your courage or strength to express their beliefs in such an articulate, non-threatening and honest way.

  5. I am really, glad you posted this. I want to thank you for being so honest. I really want to affirm that. But I totally don’t agree with you. No I should re state. There are some aspects I think you’re extremely insightful and others it makes me think to myself, ” What would ever make a person feel like that’s not as important. Maybe a less than stellar upbringing or experience with people that focused on conversation and life after death.

    I think I’d like to respond by saying The reason WHY is just as important as the action. I think in any other area of life like governments giving to the poor just to look goof or being nice someone for the purposes of getting something out of them.
    When it comes to Compassion and Religion I think the same reasoning applies. Most Religions focus on Loving others. and I would say that you can find seeds of wisdom in most of them.

    But Not all religions are created equal or with the same purpose. Christians and Buddist do have things in common but their goals are different. Their reasons WHY will utimately dictate why, how far, and what else they will do when they are compassionate.

    Take for Example Mormons in Salt Lake. It’s a very practical faith. In fact when there is fire on the city – Mormon chuches are there sometimes before the fire fighters helping those who just lost thier homes. So it’s a very compassionate group – but at the same time they practice Polygamy with minors – well at least the ones in BC do. Do you turn a blind to justice for those girls in the name of practically and compassion in other areas?

    Or take an ancient religion – like the god called Molech. In that relgion you gave your first born child to the flame. But if they faught for women’s rights, helped the poor showed Justice – would tell hold this?

    Not all religions have the same goals in mind.

    • stiryouth,

      Since you’ve commented in three segments I will respond in the same way.

      First: I want to acknowledge that fact that the various religions do indeed have different aims in mind when it comes to matters of salvation or even the the goal of human history. I am definitely NOT attempting to say that all the religions are different ways of saying the same thing. I love the diversity of the world religions and by no means want to try to explain away the differences that exist among them. That being said, I believe that compassion is a broad virtue that, in one way or another, finds its way into the various religions. If the religions can agree that compassion for the other is good then I believe that that is a good first step to take as we all move forward with trying to create a better global community. As I said in the post, what “a better global community” looks like will vary but that need not keep us from working together towards peace and justice for all.

      Second: I don’t believe we should ever turn a blind eye to injustice in any area. I never said that various worldviews need to be accepted or rejected wholesale. Where there is justice it is to be affirmed and where there is injustice it is to be combated. All worldviews, including the Christian ones, are in need of critique at one level or another.

  6. I think I can understand your adversion to faiths that focus on conversion and afterlife. To that I would guess that you’re a person that’s never seen someone die right in front of you Or youre too young in life to think about death. I want to share with you something. I’m 27 years old. I had a really good friend that within year got Cancer and died. He didn’t make it to his 27th birthday This is what he wrote on his Facebook wall:
    ‘s amazing what a weight three little words can have. It’s like, “I love you”, or “You are fired”. For me, the reality didn’t sink in until I had the nerve to actually say it out loud. But now that it’s real, it changes everything.
    Like I said, I believe that all of you who have been praying for me and sticking alongside me have the right to know the details, so here they are. I have a melanoma in my lung the size of a golf ball. It doesn’t hinder my breathing too much, but i can’t run or climb stairs without getting short of breath. I also feel some pain and discomfort every so often. The scarier thing is that the melanoma has spread to my brain. I have two very small lumps in my brain that are the cause of greater concern.
    As many of you know, I was supposed to go into surgery to have the lump in my lung removed. Since the discovery that the cancer has spread, they have decided that the surgery is not the best option, so I will not be going under the knife, at least for the time being. Instead, I will be starting chemotherapy this week. They will focus the radiation treatment on my brain and chest, in the hopes of fighting the melanomas located there. Now, when I said I would give you the details, I guess I meant all the details, even the uglier ones. And here they are, as they were given to me. Statistically, for people who’ve developed several melanomas in the brain, 50% of them survive six months. 10% survive three years. That being said, the oncologist told me that in his personal opinion, he expected me to do much better, considering my youth and physical state. Still, we met with several oncologists, and generally, they made it very clear that this isn’t the type of cancer you should expect to walk away from. In the meantime, I am at risk of several things. I could possibly lose control of my right arm (since the melanoma is on the left side of my brain). I risk suffering from short-term memory loss, and I also am at risk of having unprompted seizures. Those are the possibilities I should be prepared for.
    I won’t try to describe to you what goes through a person’s mind when they are given news like this, because I can’t. You can’t adequately describe it with words typed on a page. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally- there are a lot of ways in which I am dealing with this right now. This is all i can say at this point, and I hope it makes sense: My entire life has been one big adventure. Never once have I felt I was destined for mediocrity in any way. I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again- for better or worse, there has never been a dull moment in my life. I’ve had more adventure and excitement in the last seven years than many people have had in their whole lives. And I am eternally grateful for all that. And what’s more, I have been blessed by meeting and making friends with some of the best people this world has to offer. I have done God’s work in almost every corner of the world, and seen Him use me in astounding ways that I could never have even predicted. In short, I have lived life to the fullest, at least according to my definition of living life. That is NOT to say I’m going to roll over and take this lying down. I intend to fight this with every ounce of who I am. There are still many people who need ministering to, still great friends and loved ones to be made, and still a few corners of the world I have not seen with my own eyes or tread with my own feet. There is so much more I could accomplish for God’s glory. But I need to make it clear that I don’t think God owes me anything. Everything I have and have done has been because of His grace alone. I am far from deserving of the life and rich blessings He has given me. When He decides my work on Earth is done, then that’s that. I’m not gonna argue. Done deal.

  7. I hopIe you understand it was this mans focus on conversion on the afterlife that made him travel the world to help the poor. It was his focus on the afterlife that stopped him from becoming bitter and it was the focus of the afterlife that gave him a sense of peace in the final months of his life. He did the things he did BECAUSE he believed there was a better world beyond this one. and you want to downplay the very thing that made this guy so awesome?

    I really think you need to re think the importance of the conversion and the afterlife. Its very practical you just haven’t been in a situation that you’re in need of that. The problem with being compassionate without conversion to faith or an afterlife. is you have no answer for those who die injustly and with no act of compassion shown to them. Let’s be honest there are people that oppress who will get away with it and die living a good life because they made other suffer. How do you answer them? How do you tell the girl that dies from being raped in a brothel that there is justice for her? What if you can’t rescue her in time. How do you answer the child that DOES die because he didn’t get clean drinking water for him? Where is the justice for that mother? These are questions that go beyond our control. I’m not saying we shouldn’t show compassion but we still have to answer what happens to the people who we can’t help in time? Where is that sense of Justice? If you just say relgions role is show compassion to the fellow man – you’ve only pushed because the questions and the suffering one other step – you still have to look those people w ho we couldn’t help in time and answer thier loved one – where is the justice?

    • Although your friend’s post is endearing, I’m failing to see how it relates to anything I proposed in my post. I’m not against believing in an afterlife as long as such a belief does not keep us from working towards justice in this life. It seems to me that the way the afterlife is viewed by many Christians serves only to pacify them into waiting for death. I think that reassuring someone who is the victim of injustice with the promise of a blissful afterlife is awful if that promise yields a passive waiting for death in the mean time. Historically speaking, white slave owners actually used the idea of a blissful afterlife to convince their slaves that their services would be rewarded after death. The afterlife was used to perpetuate the status quo. This is the view that makes me want to scream. If belief in an afterlife yields a drive for justice in the present, as it seems to have done for your friend, then I say amen to that.

      • So why would you suggest pragmatism is more important than conversion or after life? What I trying to get across with my friend’s story is the reason WHY is more important than what the compassion it either does or does not evoke A person can do all the right things for the wrong reasons. I What I “hear” you say it doesn’t matter why you show compassion to your fellow man – as long as it motivates to show compassion. But that’s a view that can destroy people’s lives. It’s a very “ends justifies the means” kind of outlook on Religion. Let me be clear so you don’t misunderstand.
        1) The best ideal would be like be the right and healthiest religious motivations that would in turn lead to compassion
        But I would rather have a person do nothing than to show an act of compassion for the wrong motivation. and that is why I think its more important to pick the right relgion and THEN show compassion – than to accept anyone who wants to help.
        Perhaps an example from my own religion would make you feel less offended
        1) There was once a very popular movement within Christianity called the health and wealth movement – the idea was the more you gave to the needy, the poor and to the church the wealthier who would become .
        So thousands of people gave to the church to the poor to the needy thinking they would get more money. Imagine how bitter they became when the recession hit. So even though the act of giving was very noble the reason why (encouraged by religion) was not and made be very bitter and now less likely to show compassion.

        This is just a small example. You can’t think Aristotle only. Spirituality and the real world intertwine. and I feel you’re approach sacfrices one for the other.
        I think things like the after life and who what God you believe will answer the injustices we can’t fix. If you say Religion’s top goal is compassion and thus questions about the afterlife you are creating systems injustice. No – I think a religious conversion is more important than the functionality it evokes.

  8. Pingback: A Few Reasons Why I’m (Still) A Christian | garret menges blog

  9. I do want to clarify that I don’t think that would stop me from working with someone from a different religion to show compassion. But to me just stopping at compassion and not answering the conversion or afterlife questions are like giving someone Tylenol for cancer. It may help them in this life but not the next. and thats a view thats shared among Christians Muslims and Jews.

  10. @stiryouth,

    I would agree with you that motivation is absolutely important. For this reason I wouldn’t identify as a strict pragmatist. When I say that one of the primary functions of religion should be to evoke compassion in the adherent I suppose I’m envisaging a holistic spirituality that has in mind the health of the believer as well as the other.

    Where I disagree with you is on your conception of conversion. I don’t think a healthy motivation to reach out and help other people can be found in only one religious tradition. I am more prone to think that this can be found in all of the world’s major religious traditions. Thus, I argue that conversion isn’t a matter of choosing one religion over another but rather a decision about your mode of being in the world. Conversion is about moving from selfishness to other-centeredness. Do I choose to live in a way that is loving towards others? Do I choose to live with the future generation in mind? And am I attempting to do so out of a place of genuine compassion and not self-advancement? These are the types of questions that I have in mind.

    In terms of the afterlife: I suppose I have a more nuanced and complex view of the afterlife than what you are proposing. I just don’t believe we need to mentally ascend to a set of doctrines or pass God’s knowledge test in order to get into what Christians call heaven (which is really poor language altogether but that’s a conversation for another time). I don’t think Jesus believed that either. To put it differently, I don’t think making it into a blissful afterlife is a matter of choosing the right religion. If that’s what you believe about the afterlife then we have to agree to disagree.

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