religion

I understand religion to be the whole of reality. Through our actions, including the action of knowing, we continually participate in making religion as religion continually bears, gives birth to, and holds us. Religion is the inherent and differentiated continually coming into being anew, yet always including all that has been, plural unity of reality as knowing and reality as known. Religion is both universal and happens only in ever-changing particular and contingent events. Religion is reality as love, the continual co-creative intercourse of knowing and known, self and other and all in the present moment.

This understanding of religion both relates to and is different from the dominant understandings, in the West, since the Enlightenment, of “religion” as: (1) belief in God or gods; (2) other peoples’ “primitive,” “irrational,” “limited,” or “wrong” beliefs, superstitions, and assumptions about reality; and (3) a body of behaviors, practices, ideas, beliefs, symbols, images, rituals, dramas, feelings, and institutions that both reflect and construct a fundamental order of reality and our place in this order.

A number of students of religion, for example, Talal Asad and Karen Armstrong, observe that, in the grip of these dominant understandings of “religion,” Westerners tend to perform hegemonic discourses in which speakers explicitly or implicitly claim privileged access to universal truth over against others who presumably lack such access. Passionate advocates of the first and second dominant understandings of “religion” perform the endless, fruitless, and sometimes violently destructive mimetic rivalries between sectarian “religious” believers and sectarian secularists that characterize most discussions of “religion” outside of the academic field of religious studies. Performing the third dominant understanding, scholars of religion tend to assert, as a grounding “scientific” principle, the opposition between themselves as the agents of scholarship, who seek “objective” and universal truths about religion, and their objects of study, “religious” practitioners who believe in and act on the basis of “subjective” or “socially constructed,”and, therefore, contingent, “religious” apprehensions.

Sectarian secularists frequently assume that what some call “the scientific study of religion” supports their judgment of “religion” as irrationality; and, often, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, they were correct. But, in the last half of the twentieth century, some researchers realized that the understandings of “religion” that had emerged out of a century of study of “world religions” encompassed not just these explicitly identified “religions,” but also “secular” social movements, institutions and ideologies, including nationalism, communism, liberalism, modernism, atheism, secularism itself, and science. Religious scholars used the tools and theories of “religious studies” to examine these newly identified “religious” objects, finding in them what sectarian secularists called “religious irrationality.”

Many scholars of religion have resisted perhaps the most unsettling implication of this turning of their research methods and understandings of religion back on secular, scientific, and academic ideologies, practices, and institutions. The notion, institutionalized as a foundational principle of religious studies, of there being a clear boundary between the disinterested researcher and the interested practitioner of religion is untenable.

Most contemporary academic understandings of religion include, as observable “religious” phenomena, the not empirically provable or falsifiable assumptions about the nature of reality that the participants in a particular community, society, or institution implicitly enact or explicitly articulate. A number of philosophers and historians of science have observed that science rests upon the not empirically provable or falsifiable, the therefore “religious,” assumption that reality has a knowable order.

Most scientists, including most “scientific” students of religion, enact, in their scientific practices and articulations, the additional not empirically provable or falsifiable, the therefore “religious,” assumption that this order exists as an object independent of those who know it. A “religious” analysis of this second assumption reveals it to be a contemporary manifestation of the ontological dualism that has dominated Western thought since Plato. Some contemporary scientists observe that a number of scientific findings, while they do not and cannot disprove this assumption, are difficult to explain using it. For instance, how does one understand, using this dualistic assumption, the finding of quantum physicists that the act of observing a quantum phenomenon physically affects that phenomenon, so that what one observes necessarily includes the ongoing effects if one’s observation? Or the increasing evidence that any particular “subjective” phenomenon, such as a thought, feeling, or perception, is also an observable “objective” phenomenon that is physically shaped by and physically shapes other “objective” phenomena?

Some contemporary scientists have, given these findings, explicitly or implicitly abandoned explicit and implicit dualism for other equally unprovable, and unfalsifiable sets of assumptions about the nature of reality. Some, for instance, including myself, have turned to the Buddhist conception of reality as codependent origination, in which all beings, including scientists, continually co-create, including through acts of knowing, each other and the whole of reality. This “religious” assumption erases the boundary between the scientist and the practitioner of religion—to know religion is to participate in creating it.

The untenability of the categorical separation of the scientific observer of “religion” from what they observe and a lifetime spent in the “scientific” study of and “nonscientific” participation in “religion” led me to the understanding of “religion” as “the whole of reality.”

This understanding of religion has three other sources. First, my personal history. During my first fourteen years, I moved, with my father, a diplomat, and my mother, every two or three years back and forth from our “stateside” home outside of Washington, D.C., to, first, Bangkok, then Karachi, then Colombo, and then New Delhi. I experienced each of these homes as a different whole with a particular, but continually shifting, mix of qualities that both surrounded and filled me. As a young teenager in New Delhi, I realized that what people called “religious” rituals and events most clearly manifested these particular and all pervasive senses of reality.

In college, primarily in courses in “religious studies,” I found ways to study these different whole realities that fascinated me. I began graduate school intending to become a clinical psychologist, but found I could not resist the pull of what I came to realize I loved, what I and other researchers called “religion”; and I ended up pursuing and completing a Ph.D. in Religion and Psychological Studies. Since then, I have written a number of published articles in religious studies.

Throughout my adult life, I have also participated in religion. From the time I was a teenager until my early fifties, I was an active participant and leader in Christian communities—churches, communities of poor and homeless people affiliated with churches that I participated in forming, a Quaker meeting, as an ordained minister and professor in a theological seminary, and as an author of numerous articles and a book in practical theology. Also, from my last year in college to the present, I have engaged in, and, for the last two decades, been a teacher of, a form of meditation shaped primarily by the Theravada Buddhist satipatthana-vipasana and the Zen Buddhist traditions, but also by Christian, Quaker, Sufi, and, through Martin Buber, Jewish contemplative traditions.

Until a decade and a half ago, when I wrote, spoke, and taught as a scientist of religion or as a practical theologian, I carefully sought to maintain the division between “religion” as an object of study and the “religion” in which I participated, but I repeatedly found it impossible to do so, for the reasons discussed above. For me, from the age of eleven to the present, “religion” connoted the particular and fascinating wholeness of reality (that included me) in this moment in this place in this social, cultural, historical, and natural context.

Second, in my studies of and participation in religion, I repeatedly encountered articulations and performances of senses of what I am calling “religion” as “the whole of reality.” In Christian contemplative traditions and in the parables of Jesus, I encountered articulations and performances of reality as love. In Buddhist thought and traditions of meditation, I encountered articulations and performances of reality as codependent origination or what I call co-creativity. In some feminist and other religious traditions, I encountered articulations and performances of reality as the Mother Who continually bears, gives birth to, and holds all beings. And in Martin Buber’s writings, I encountered articulations and performances of reality as a whole as coming into being in meetings between I and Thou.

Third, the proximate source of my formulation of my understanding of religion is Martin Buber’s definition of it as “the whole existence of man.” Buber also writes, “religion is a reality, rather the reality, namely the whole existence of the real man in the real world of God, an existence that unites all that is partial” (1967 742). After reading these words, I almost immediately misremembered them as “religion is the whole of reality.” This mistake grows out of the insight that the “of man” in the first definition and the “of the real man in the real world of God” in the second are redundant. Reality or “existence” as a “whole” necessarily is the reality a particular person meets, knows, and participates in in this moment. We can conceive of a reality that exists apart from such a meeting—the reality of the knower, the reality of the activity of knowing, or the reality of what is known—but each of these “realities” is an abstraction of something that only actually and concretely exists as a part of a whole meeting in which a knowing person knows what is known. I think Buber leaves off “the real world of God” in the shorter definition because, for him, to meet reality as a whole is to meet God; reality is, for him, inconceivable apart from God; God is Reality as “the eternal Thou” Who meets and holds us in each moment. “Religion,” in my and Buber’s understanding, designates the wholeness of reality known, and participated in, in co-creative meetings.

roy herndon smith