In 1799 the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher published a ground-breaking work, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. In these speeches, Schleiermacher contested the arrogance of those philosophers of the Enlightenment who dismissed “religion” as either an irrational superstition or a purely subjective event in the private realm of the personal.
In 1799 the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher published a ground-breaking work, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. In these speeches, Schleiermacher contested the arrogance of those philosophers of the Enlightenment who dismissed “religion” as either an irrational superstition or a purely subjective event in the private realm of the personal.Schleiermacher challenged these “enlightened” thinkers to investigate and understand religion as they would any other phenomenon of human experience and thereby open up religion and religious experience to public discourse.
In constructing his argument for the public character of religion, Schleiermacher made a fruitful connection between religion and art: the Enlightenment argument for the banishment of religion also requires the banishment of art from public investigation and discourse. De gustibus non est disputandum ( on matters of taste there is no basis for dispute ).
But, as Schleiermacher understood, if we cannot construct meaningful ways to interpret religious experience and expressions, and if we cannot construct meaningful ways to interpret artistic experiences and expressions, then it is hard to imagine how we can speak meaningfully of values or moral codes or moral experiences—a conclusion that, sadly, some thinkers in our post-modern world have already made.
Let us look, therefore, at religion as Schleiermacher suggests, as a primal way of engaging the “miracle” of our existence—as is art.
We know the artist through her work. We examine the painting, the cathedral, the sculpture, the poem, the play, the dance. Through this public study and conversation, we come to know something about the vision and aesthetics of the artist and indeed something about the artist herself and the “value” of the art works she makes. In like manner, we can and should examine the works of the religious person and of any given religious tradition. “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:16.
For Schleiermacher, dogmas, doctrines, gods, saints, moral codes, rituals are products of religious experience codified into religious traditions. The study of these artifacts of religious experience can provide us with public criteria for interpreting the meaning of the religion in question.
Schleiermacher was at pains to show that we can study religion, that religion has a place in the academy and in the public civil arena. I want to advance Schleiermacher’s agenda: I want us to evaluate and judge religions.
There is a story in Buddhist scriptures that is constructed to show the human condition and the response of authentic religion to this condition. A man is wounded by an arrow. The wound is serious, probably fatal. A physician comes to the aid of the wounded man. But, before he is willing to be treated by the healer, the wounded man insists that he know whether the physician is a Jain or a Hindu, a Brahmin or an outcaste. This same story can be told with the physician demanding to know whether the wounded man is a Jain or a Hindu, a Brahmin or an outcaste.
In good Buddhist fashion, allow me to twist this story around again and look at it from the point of view of God: God refuses to hear the cry for help from a person because he is a Shia or a Sunni or a Jew or a Christian or a Yazidi or an atheist or Black or white or homosexual or … .
All patently absurd responses to the human condition. Yet, we allow religions and religious leaders to impose such absurdities upon us.
True religion treats the person whose suffering is most urgently in need of attention. True religion does not ask after gender, sexual orientations, castes, class, wealth, political affiliations, or any other marker of human identity.
The Buddhist test for the authenticity of a religion has a parallel development in Western thinking in the thought of William James. In his Varieties of Religious Experience ( 1901/02 ), he suggests that we employ a “pragmatic test of the truth” of a religious experience. Simply put: if the person preaches love but everywhere sows hate, if the person preaches that life is sacred but everywhere injures and kills, then that person is a hypocrite.
The Didache, a late-first-century Christian text, suggested some criteria for distinguishing a false prophet from a true prophet. The false prophet asks for money, lords it over others, does not work for his daily bread, and stays too long in your home—starting to stink after three days like fish going sour.
It’s time for us to develop our own pragmatic tests to judge and to protect the true value of religion in our civilization.
WCTimes : 01 April 2015
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.