Churches, especially the fundamentalist and evangelical ones, are agitating for their physical reopening for services during the COVID-19 pandemic. A few have opened in defiance of state-mandated lockdown orders, with some of their members already suffering the consequences.
I believe this precipitous reopening results from their clergy and congregations having an inadequate understanding of religion. They identify religion with churches and church attendance. This is religiosity, not genuine religion.
But what is “religion”? It is notoriously difficult to define; any definition is typically either too narrow or too broad. The American philosopher and psychologist, William James, took a stab at a definition in his classic study of religion, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” He admitted that his definition was only a provisional one to get his discussion started, but I think it is as good as any.
James defines “religion” as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Admittedly it is broad, but it does capture the essentials of the world’s major religions. The key words here are “individual,” “solitude,” and “divine.” Let me comment on each of them.
James correctly identifies religion as an affair of the solitary individual. This is the genius of Protestantism. It is epitomized in art in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s, “The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion.” In his picture, Cranach captures the moment when the centurion looks up at the crucified Christ and declares, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Significantly, the centurion on horseback is alone when he makes his confession of faith. There is none other than this solitary individual communing with God. This picture by Cranach, who befriended and followed Luther, is emblematic of the spirit of the Reformation.
It bears remembering that the world’s great religions, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam were founded by individuals, viz., Abraham, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed, respectively, and are but the lengthened shadows of these religious geniuses. Significantly, the patriarchs and prophets of Judeo-Christianity were inspired while sojourning in the pathless solitude of wilderness.
Thus, Moses encountered God in a burning bush while herding sheep alone in the wild. Elijah heard the still small voice atop Mt. Horeb. Jesus was tempted by Satan during his sojourn in the wilderness of 40 days and 40 nights, thereafter, commencing his public ministry.
And then there were the medieval anchorites, religious hermits, isolated within their cells. That solitude makes for spiritual replenishment was well-understood by Emerson and Thoreau, both its creatures and advocates. Thoreau secluded himself in a hut on Walden Pond. And according to Emerson, “we require such a solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the street and in palaces.”
As for the divine, James conceived of it broadly as whatever is “most primal and enveloping and deeply true, and that might be the universe or God; in brief, “Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”
Interestingly, like James, Emerson had a similarly broad conception of religion. For him, “Religion or worship is the attitude of those who see that against all appearances the nature of things works for truth and right forever.”
Now, of course, religion takes a communal as well as an individual form. But the communal is neither the essence of nor an adequate substitute for authentic religion, located in the heart of the individual, but only its complement. The practice of religion involves much more than church attendance or the performance of rites, ceremonies, and rituals. The conduit to God is prayer, whether public or private.
Indeed, communal worship in church is simply the amplification of the individual’s prayer. Curiously, I do not recall the Gospels reporting Jesus praying in the temple, though he must have done so. Matthew reports that he prayed at Gethsemane to petition God to spare him death on the cross, but he did so privately after instructing his disciples to remain behind while he went off to pray.
Religion, of course, necessarily takes a communal as well as an individual form, but as its complement, not substitute.
My message to those urging the precipitate reopening of their churches for public worship is that they can still be religious, in James’ and Emerson’s profounder sense, by their sequestering at home or, better still, by betaking themselves to the woods where, Emerson promises, “we return to reason and faith.”
Moreover, as he again advises, they should be incessant in prayer which Emerson understood as “the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.”
This constitutes genuine religion in contrast to its counterfeits.
Richard A. S. Hall is a professor of philosophy at Fayetteville State University.