Quo Vadis?
Class Introduction

Many of you are familiar with Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, for many people one of their favorite poems.  It describes an experience most of us have at one time or another as we look back at the choices we have made in our lives.  A single choice—and our lives and the lives of many people around us are entirely different, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. 

There are choices we know right away are going to be major: who we marry, what college we attend, what career path we’ll follow.  It’s foolish to make choices like this without a lot of thought—and we know it.  But when it comes to one particularly big choice (or, rather, set of choices), many people don’t think as much or as clearly as they should: the choices we make both as individuals and as a society in the religious arena.

In general, the American educational system doesn’t help.  There’s less and less place in our schools for the discussion of religion or philosophy--a serious defect.  Few subjects are more important in helping our understanding of history, of contemporary events, and of life in general, and we end up missing important parts of what Robert Maynard Hutchins called “The Great Conversation.”

The Great Conversation

What is this Great Conversation?  Here's Hutchins' description:

The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.

Especially important, Hutchins idea that nothing is to remain undiscussed, no proposition is to be left unexamined.  What we are going to do in this class is talk about a part of the Great Conversation, that has (in recent times) been undiscussed and unexamined, that has been way too much neglected: the role of religion in human life.  And this is a problem way more serious than it might seem at first.

We live in an age of confusion: unclear what direction we should take with economic issues, social issues, political issues—or perhaps way too sure we should take a course that may very well lead to disaster.  “Sometimes I think the whole world has gone crazy,” says one recent Aberdeen American News columnist: and, to a certain extent it has—and we’ve gone crazy particularly when it comes to religious issues. 

What we are going to do in this class is work together to see if we can be a little less crazy, a little more clear-headed in the way we think about religion and its role in society.  We’ll be taking a road less traveled by, exploring the most important World religious traditions, and discussing issues that, far too often, are shoved into the background.  We'll be reading selections from some of the most important works ever written, and you'll have the chance to share your ideas on these works both in class and on this blog.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and, if we’re going to end up in the right place, an important question.

Quo Vadis?

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that he was headed to a place they could not follow—at least, not yet. A puzzled Simon Peter asked where Jesus was going (in Latin translation, Quo vadis?).  It’s a good question to ask at the beginning of every course—and especially this one.  Where are you going?  And why?  Quo vadis? I suspect that every one of you has a slightly different reason for taking this course.  I suspect also that what you are going to end up getting out of this course is not quite what you expect--though I hope you find it perhaps somewhat better than you expect as well.

In the beginning….sort of

So where do we start? Well, let’s start at the very beginning--a very good place to start—and with a basic question: what is a religion?  It’s a word we’re have to going to be careful with or we’ll end up on confused.  Note that people mean different things by religion, and the definition quite often makes a difference.  One of the things that puzzled me when I moved from California is the way South Dakotans talk about the different religions they have here.  Different religions?  In South Dakota?  Well, yes.  Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Mennonites: all different religions by South Dakota reckoning.  In California, we would have called these divisions “denominations,” all parts of the same religion. 

So what difference does it make?  Well, consider the non-establishment clause in the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  If one thinks of religion in the South Dakota sense, that means simply no one denomination becomes the official religion. Supporting Christianity in general is not a single “religion,” but a set of religions. For Californians, Christianity in general is a religion—and they think the establishment clause applies to anything that would give Christianity in general a preference over Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or anything else.   Obviously, a big difference!

And, apart from denominationalism, one often here’s the idea that Christianity is not a religion.  Well is it or not?  Further, one often sees non-theistic systems like Marxism described as religions.  Are they? Are they not?  Well, that all depends on what the meaning of “is” is.  Well, no.  It does depend on what one means by religion.

An additional problem is that many, many people will switch their definitions in accord with what’s convenient at the moment.  A bit of consistency will help a lot.

So—some questions at the outset: What is a religion?  Where do religions come from in the first place?  Why do most people follow one religious tradition or another?  What do they get out of religion? 

For none of these questions is it easy to give one standard, unquestioned answer.  But we’d be on the right track to say that religion begins with the first attempts of human beings to understand the world around them and their place in it.

What motivates human beings?  According to Freud, we have within us three different motivating forces, the Id, the Ego and the Super-Ego.  Abraham Maslow says human behavior is driven by a hierarchy of needs.  The utilitarian philosophers argued that we are seeking a way to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Nietzsche argued that the “superman” would focus on what he called the “will to power,” the desire to dominate and control other human beings.

There is, of course, value to all these ways of understanding human behavior.  But in understanding the development of the first human civilizations, one might use a model suggesting a synthesis of these ideas viewing human beings as motivated by 1) a will to comfort 2) a will to power 3) a will to community 4) a will to order and 5) a will to truth.

Religio and the birth of civilization

Now of course these things are inter-related.  Gaining power or being part of a community obviously can contribute to a more comfortable life.  And the “will to truth” likewise helps a lot.  Here’s a plant.  Is it good food?  Is it deadly poison?  Knowing the truth makes a great deal of difference!  Knowing the truth about the length of the year, for instance, is an extraordinarily useful truth for an agriculturally based society.  And increasing one’s power likewise can contribute greatly to one’s ability to procure comforts or (perhaps) to one’s ability to order a society and provide community.

But sometimes these fundamental drives end up at odds with one another.  Living in a community makes it necessary for us to control some of our desires, as Freud notes in “Civilization and its Discontents.”  But, ultimately, societies tend to find a working balance, a way of life that works well, even if not perfectly. It finds what the Romans called religio--an established set of beliefs, practices, and customs--ways of relating to others and to the world.  Note that what have here is almost synonymous with culture and, in the earliest civilizations, that’s pretty much the case.

Consider, for instance, the Sumerians and the peoples of Mesopotamia in general.  Religion dominated every aspect of life.

It provided an explanation of the world and man’s place in it.  Consider the creation story. [An, Ki, Enlil—man created from the dust of the ground].  Each Sumerian city-state was regarded as the possession of one God or another, and your work was all done for your god or goddess.  In the center of the town: the Ziggurat, a constant reminder of your god or goddess.  Whether at work or play, religion dominated.  Mesopotamia priests developed the first written script (cuneiform) using it for business and agricultural records.  It was theses priests and scribes who transmitted, medical knowledge, explored questions of practical mathematics and (in general) were champions of an ordered, rational way of life: a religio.

The idea of “choosing” a religion would have been completely foreign in any of these early societies. To be outside the religion was to be outside of society itself—an initiation into the society came from observing its religious practices.  Notice how in the Epic of Gilamesh the “wild man” (Enkidu) is induced to give up his wild ways and join civilization through the enticement of a temple prostitute.

But, though rigid in one sense, these early religions were remarkably tolerant in others.  There were no fixed dogmas or creeds, and one could emphasize whatever aspects of the religion one liked—though, one supposes, allegiance to the particular deity of one’s own city was especially important.  And later, as the city-states were consolidated into empires, worship of the chief deity of the dominant ethnic group was mandatory.  Note how, as the Babylonians take over, the worship of Marduk begins to take precedence—with a new creation story to explain why.

It’s important to understand that the ancient polytheistic religions of the ancient world did exactly what people want religions to do: they worked.  They provided social cohesion, political organization, a sense that one understood the world, and sense that one knew exactly one’s place in it.  And making this kind of religion work especially well, the people Polybius describes as the most religious of all peoples, the Romans.

Roman religion

Roman “religio” was like the religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia—only more so.  They had religious ceremonies for every occasion—and they were convinced that they had their relationship with the gods exactly right.  They worked to maintain the pax deorum, a kind of treaty with the gods. Roman historians and poets constantly pointed to Roman religion as one of the reasons for Roman success, and it certainly was.

Religion provided the Romans with a link to the past. It was part of the “mores Maiorum,” the ways of the ancestors.”  “Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion, give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me,” says one gospel song.  Well, for the Romans, their ancestral tradition was more than good enough.

Religion went a long way toward helping Rome assimilate conquered peoples.  Their faith was eclectic and syncretistic, emphasizing similarities rather than differences and allowing adherents to pick and choose from a great variety of traditions.  The Romans worshipped Jupiter, Juno, and Mars.  When they encountered people who didn’t worship those gods, they didn’t emphasize the differences.  Instead, they just argued that these peoples worshipped the same gods, but called them by different names.  The Greek Zeus?  That’s our Jupiter.  The Greek Hera?  That’s our Juno.  The Greek Ares?  That’s our Mars.

Rome had a remarkable ability to absorb new religious impulses and add them to the mix.  There was something for just about every taste within the Roman tradition. 

A good example: Roman attitudes toward sex. Temple prostitution was accepted within the tradition. On the other hand, suppose you are totally turned off by sex.  Well, you can join the cult of Attis and Cybele where men go through a ceremony in which they are castrated, giving up sex altogether. Whatever you are looking for, you could find within the Roman tradition.

Roman religion worked hand in glove with the political system. Men like Julius Caesar gained prominence and popularity in part through their service as aediles (religious officials) or, in Caesar’s case, as Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the Roman religion.  When Augustus became emperor, religion provide even more useful.  Developing the idea of a divine emperor was a key factor in justifying the move away from the Republic.

And Roman religion was fun. One out of every three days on the Roman calendar was a religious celebration of one sort or another.  And there were all sorts of incentives to participate.  At a pagan sacrifice, the wealthier members of society would provide a sacrificial animal.  But the meat from that animal might be shared among all those attending the sacrifice. A free steak dinner!  Who wants to turn that down?

Athens and Jerusalem

But as Rome swallowed up the other peoples of the Mediterranean trying to absorb and assimilate them, they (inadvertently) swallowed up some ideas that proved indigestible—the ideas of the Greek philosophers and the ideas of the Hebrew prophets.

The rise of Greek philosophy

As Greece revived after its dark ages, the Greeks established colonies throughout the Mediterranean, and (particularly) on the west coast of present-day Turkey, a region we call Ionia.  Ionia was a splendid area for trade, but living in the multi-cultural environment of Asia Minor made it difficult to preserve Greek religio intact. The fundamental mythology, the stories the Greeks told about their gods and goddesses, stories in some ways fundamental to Greek life were considerably more difficult to believe as the Greek encountered people who had never heard of Zeus.

To a certain extent, the Greeks were able to preserve their ideas by a kind of syncretism, assuming that the people they encountered really did worship the same gods they did: they just called them by different names.  But for those with a strong will to truth, the conflicting stories (and, really, conflicting ideas on religio) made it impossible to accept so facile an explanation.  This led to the rise of an attempt to reexamine traditional beliefs and to the rise of philosophy.

Major divisions of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, ethics

So what exactly is philosophy?  The word itself comes from Greek words for love and wisdom, and, in general, philosophy is the love of wisdom.  But the Greeks themselves divided philosophy into three major areas of concern: ontology, epistemology, and ethics, and, for us too, these are useful divisions.

"Ontology" comes from the Greek word "ontos," being.  Questions about what is and how what is came into existence in the first place are ontological questions.  The physical sciences in particular are all investigations into ontology and ontological questions, but ontology deals with questions also in the realm of metaphysics, questions that move beyond just the physical world.

"Epistemology" deals with the nature of knowledge.  How can we know for certain the things we claim to know?  How do we go about acquiring knowledge/certainty?  All academic disciplines rest on an epistemology particular to that discipline.  The various scientific methods, the historical method, the methods of the social scientists, etc. all are based on an epistemology appropriate to that particular field.

Abraham and the Hebrews

Even before the rise of the philosophers, there was another major potential challenge to religio in the eastern Mediterranean, a challenge arising among the people we call (in their successive stages of development) the Hebrews, Ancient Israel, and the Jews.

Around 1900 BC, a man named Abram had a series of religious experiences that, for him, meant a dramatic change in religio: the abandonment of his traditional gods for the worship of one god only, the abandoning of his prior home, and even abandoning of his old identity.  He was now Abraham, the “father of many,” and, according to the Bible, a man whose descendants would change the religio of the whole world: in thy seed shall all nations be blessed.

Moses and the prophets

The stories of Abraham and his descendants include a series of what are called theophanies, appearances of God. Each of the theophanies involves a change in religio, a change in one’s way of life, one’s relationship with others, and in one’s personal identity. And every one of them is uncomfortable: Woe unto me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I have seen the living God.

The most dramatic and transforming of the theophanies are those associated with Moses.  In the most significant of these appearances, Moses is hidden in a cleft of rock as God’s glory passes by.  What he sees is “The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.”

Now in this story there are all sorts of challenges to all of the most common forms of religio here, and especially to the form dominant in Moses’ native Egypt. The story of the exodus in particular shows a sharp challenge to the “ruler as god” type of system that was at the heart of Egyptian political, economic, social and cultural life.  And the idea that there is only one true God leads naturally to another consequence.  Historians point to ancient Israel as the source of, not just monotheism, but ethical monotheism: a divinely ordained standard of human behavior the trumps human ideas of how we should live.

This, of course, points to a new religio, vastly different from anything followed elsewhere--and, as the Bible makes clear, a very difficult religio to follow consistently, a religio constantly drifting from its original principles and needing the restorative voice of the prophets—or, perhaps, divine judgments—to get back on track. 

And there is something easy to miss here.  Hebrew religion can, if necessary, be independent of a specific social and political system, and, like philosophy, it is a religio that has a natural tendency to question the political and social status quo.

Now what is going to happen is that, inevitably, these two products of the will to truth, Greek philosophy and the Hebrew prophetic tradition meet. The result of that meeting?  The destruction of Roman religio and of all similar schemes and the emergence of a new kind of religio—faiths that are not entirely identical with a particular social and political system and may in fact compete with the political powers for the hearts, minds, and allegiance of individuals.

And this, to a certain extent is what the “world” religions are: faith traditions that transcend the immediate political context and that compete with the political powers (and with each other) for the hearts, minds, and ultimate allegiance of men and women.

Quo vadis?  Well, we’re after a road map—looking, of course, at well-travelled roads—but perhaps the most important routes one might consider both as individuals and as a society.