Hi all,NOTE: This was written for pink_trike in response to his questions in 'Buddhism and Religion'. I have been composing this reply in the past two days, during timeouts from work and what not. It is quite long, but may be of interest to some. I have posted it here as it is relevant to the present discussion. So FWIW:
How familiar are you with the history and origin of the idea of religion (the concept, not the phenomenon)?
I have a general understanding of various sociological approaches to religion (e.g. Durkheim, Luckmann, Berger), and I just happened to be reading about them in recent days. But I think you are trying to probe beyond these sociological explanations.
For the past year or so, I've been reflecting on the notion of religion. I am very interested in the views of John D. Caputo, who writes from a continental philosophical perspective. His ideas about religion have been influenced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose work has been compared with various strands of Buddhist thought, although mostly Mahayana. I can't say I have a strong understanding of Caputo (much less Derrida whose writing is quite painful to read!), but I do feel drawn to his ideas. So you will have to excuse me here as I parrot Caputo--partly because of my very rudimentary grasp of his ideas, and partly because he expresses himself so eloquently that his words should stand on their own.
On this point, to those who are reading this, it should be noted that Caputo is a philosopher with a particular 'literary' bent, so he is writing very figuratively, metaphorically, and allusively. This of course doesn't make his words less 'true' or 'effective' than others. It just means that his writing requires that we be reflexively aware of the reading/interpretation process, that we let thought listen to itself think
. Anyway, I highly recommend the book if you are interested, Pink. It's a short book and I think you will like some of his ideas, especially what he says about 'non-knowing'
Broadly speaking, in his book On Religion
he attempts to articulate this idea of 'religion without religion
'. He talks about the experience of the 'impossible'
which frames all experience, that which is framed by the 'absolute future'. Unlike the 'relative future' of retirement plans, life insurance policies, our children's education, etc, the 'absolute future' is unforeseeable--it is that which will take us by surprise, that 'which will come like a thief in the night' [he is writing from a Christian perspective and is alluding to I Thessalonian 5:2 here].
As I see it, this notion of the experiencing the impossible, of opening ourselves to the absolute future, corresponds with the Buddhist understanding of impermanence--which on a general level refers to the process of change that we can discern in a conventional sense (i.e. ageing, the changing of the seasons, etc); but on a more profound level it refers to the impossibility of fully
anticipating (and thus containing) change, for impermanence means that there is always a horizon of uncertainty
, of the unexpected
, of the 'impossible'. Yet, this horizon of the impossible
(that is, of change) is what makes our path or any endeavour possible
So, Caputo sees the 'impossible' as a defining religious category:
[If] the impossible is the condition of any real experience, of experience itself, and if the impossible is a defining religious category, then it follows that experience itself, all experience, has a religious character, whether or not you march yourself off to church on Sunday morning now that your mother is no longer here to get you out of bed. That religious edge to experience, that notion of life at the limit of the possible, on the verge of the impossible, constitutes a religious structure, the religious side of every one of us, with or without bishops or rabbis or mullahs. This is what I mean by "religion without religion" (p. 11).
He further adds that the experience of the impossible requires a kind of 'non-knowing':
This non-knowing is not a simple garden-variety ignorance but more like what the mystics called docta ignorantia, a learned or wise ignorance, that knows that we do not know and knows that this non-knowing is the inescapable horizon in which we must act, with all due decisiveness, with all the urgency that life demands. For life does not take a break, it does not let up its demands on us for a hour or two while we all break for lunch and a bit of a nap. We are required to act, but our decisions are covered by a thin film, a quiet an uneasy sense, of unknowing (p. 19).
As I understand Caputo (which is only very superficially), he wants to rethink 'religion' in a radical way. You might ask here, 'Well ok, I can see what he is suggesting with the idea of the impossible, but why does it have to be of a religious character?' I have two replies to this:
1.) In writing the above, I am working with the premise that the category of religion cannot be excluded or cut off. This is not to say that it cannot be interrogated and transformed, but merely that it would be self-defeating to think that religion can be 'excommunicated', as it were. Pardon me if I'm being vague here, for I am still trying to come to terms with this. But to give a somewhat crude analogy, it is like how we do not cut off the 'self' even as we work to relinquish the self--a self without a Self.
2.) I think it is important to keep the category of 'religion' for two reasons:
a.) To mount a tactical challenge against entrenched religiosity. To use religion against itself in order to unsettle the grips of those who, as Caputo puts it, 'devote an ungodly amount of time to bring order to their ranks, silencing the voice of dissenters and excluding--"excommunicating"--those who beg to differ from their communities and institutions, doing battle with those of different confessions and in general trying to make people who do not agree with them look bad' (p.32).
b.) To engage in ethical reflection on our position on truth and knowledge. For the majority of the people of the world, religion remains an important sphere of life and until the recent triumph of scientific reason did not see it as something to be separated from how the world works.The most vocal critics of religion today are speaking from a position of privilege. It is all too easy to denounce the irrationality and lunacy of religion from the position of the secular West, for which the split between religion and science and the resulting benefits of secularism was a fairly recent phenomenon--and arguably at the expense of the other parts of the world. Reason, however indispensable it is, has been used as a front for various imperialising activities, activities which have often been rationalised as 'progress'. I am not suggest that we abandon Reason or science or anything like that. But given the truth of samsara, given that life is framed within a horizon of uncertainty, there ought to be greater modesty about what Reason can achieve.
As Caputo writes, 'religion does not have a corner on the market of pretending to Know The Secret. I would recommend the same modesty to scientists and philosophers, who should likewise resist adopting apocalyptic and capitalizing attitudes toward Physics or Metaphysics, lest these two otherwise modest and respectable enterprises, together or separately, succumb to the illusion that it is they who have seized the soft underbelly of Nature, or Being, or Reality, that they, if I may say so, have their finger on Being's button' (p. 23).
And this is more or less what I have to say about this impossible thing that is religion, for now anyway, until something unexpected comes along.