Whose religion?

2014-06-05 00:00

“WHENCE do we come? What are we? Where are we going?” Questions posed by the artist Paul Gauguin in his painting of a group of somewhat mysterious figures done during his stay on the South Pacific island of Tahiti; questions of ultimate significance asked by people down through the ages, attempting to find meaning in the face of the indefinable mystery of life.

To be human is to be aware of the fact that we are subject to chance in an infinite universe, where we will live, suffer and eventually die. So, “Who am I?” and “What does it all mean?” are the fundamental questions of existence tackled in a variety of ways by numerous religious systems over the centuries of human history.

The study of religion addresses the meaning of life itself: what is the truth, and how is it to be known? This raises the question of which religions are true; how their claims might be verifiable; is religion a response to a transcendent reality, which is experienced as holy, or is it a human invention; is there one true faith by which all others can be judged as inadequate or false?

Fairly recently, the academic study of religion has been guided by what has become known as the Phenomenological perspective, adopting a method that attempts accurately to describe and analyse religious experience in as empathetic a manner as possible. This means refraining from making judgments as to the value or truth of belief systems, while attempting to understand a believer’s faith from the inside — to see and experience the world from another’s viewpoint, however different that might be from one’s own. To attempt to walk a mile in another person’s footsteps.

This open approach humbly acknowledges that truth is far more immense than any one mind can grasp, so that this boundlessness cannot be confined to one religious tradition, but that each religion has glimpses of truth and something of value to offer. As Swami Vivekanada said: “I accept all of the religions of the past and I worship God with every one of them. Can God’s book be finished? Must it not be a continuing revelation?”

Also the words of Ramakrishna: “Many are the names of God and infinite the forms through which he may be approached.”

A general distinction can be made between the insider’s response to their religious tradition, and that of the sympathetic student of religion: the former’s being to find personal enlightenment and transformation, and the latter’s to access and convey unbiased information.

In this more academic approach, the observer tries to understand, appreciate and respect the beliefs, rituals, stories, symbols, and communal practices of religious traditions without passing judgment on them — and, often in doing so, gaining unexpected and precious insights into the ineffable meaning of human existence.

This is a far more modest and authentic attitude than that adopted by the likes of Robert de Neef, who claims to be privy to the entirety of who and what God is, and his truth, and he, as the self-appointed interpreter and prophet of this authoritarian supreme being, is one of the chosen few who can speak on his behalf, denouncing all alternative views as indisputably false (The Witness, June 3).

To set up his own version of Christianity and his exclusive interpretation of its scriptures as the only acceptable rendering of the faith is dangerous and arrogant hubris, possibly delusional. He has every right to his views, but to attempt, continually and repetitively, to force them on others is disrespectful, and tedious.

In order to create a more tolerant and peaceful world, we have to learn to respect the views of others, unless they are clearly dangerously threatening to the physical and mental health of others and the wellbeing of this planet.

As Bill Clinton recently pointed out, all the political hotspots in the world today are dominated by religious conflict and violence. Surely, to allow the vast, exhilarating array of humankind their chosen interpretation of the meaning of existence, and to grant them the freedom to practice their beliefs in peace and dignity is a far, far better way to respect and honour their right to their place on this mysterious, exquisite Earth.

• Alleyn Diesel has a PhD in religious studies, which she taught at UKZN

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