Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Practical religion

People use the word "zen" a lot, usually to refer to someone being zoned out or disconnected from reality. The popular idea about zen or meditation is that it makes you passive or remote. My experience after a dozen years sitting and following my breath a little each day is that I feel more active and more connected to day-to-day life--not less. -Algernon D'Ammassa

I saw this quote recently, and it got me to thinking about an important religious issue. It's not really an issue just for Zen Buddhism or Christianity, but an issue for all religions, maybe even atheism as well. The issue is, whatever sort of spiritual/moral belief system you live under, can you say honestly that it's serving a purpose here on earth?

I remember in college taking a philosophy class on eastern religions & philosophies. At the beginning of the class, both the instructor and the textbook emphasized that eastern religions were unlike the western ones in that there was always an aspect of them that implied practical application to make life better in some way. The unsaid implication? That in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, religion is something you do one day a week and then go back to business the rest of the week as though you were no different from an atheist. In fact, you're probably worse than an atheist, because at least the atheist isn't a hypocrite for living out their beliefs at selective times.

It's that secondary implication of hypocrisy that makes me question the premise, though. If there is a chance for hypocrisy in merely living a plain day-to-day life (which seems to be widely accepted by many theists and atheists alike) then that means that those who live that way are living their religion wrong. Therefore, there is a way to live it right.

It's often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi as saying, "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." In the Epistle of James (v. 2:18), the early church leader says, "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." A true Christian faith should show results in a life well-lived, and I suspect it should be the same for any faith.

And what is a life well-lived? Is it just a faith that serves itself? As the quote above seems to imply, even Zen, with its reputation for turning inward and shutting out the distractions of the world is a practice that in the end should make you more connected with the world. Christianity and so many other religions have a disappointingly spotty history of so-called believers that felt the best way to live out their faith was to coerce others by force to adhere to it. Why? So those people can in turn force others? Shouldn't there be an end goal in mind? Sure, Christianity is supposed to bring salvation, but do people really think a forced confession of faith is genuinely going to bring about a changed heart?

The short of it is, while there are those who believe that being a Christian (or other religious person) is a waste of time, I truly believe that is only the case if that person's religion is empty or misled. Christians of true faith will be found working incessantly to make the world a better place for the glory of God. Would that we all were doing the same.

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