Commentary upon the Summary of Faith and Practice, part two.
Text: wishing to practise a religious life
The wish to practice a religious life is the foundation of meaning and happiness. Nowadays, many people have no idea about living a religious life and view religion with suspicion. This is basically because religious institutions have, in many cases, been corrupted and this has got religion a bad name. A further cause has been the fact that throughout history there has been an on-going tension between secular and religious power and in modern times the secular state has very much come out on top, so that religion has become a personal matter, often seen as something of an eccentricity. Secular administration is good and necessary, but it can never yield the kind of ultimate satisfaction that the heart longs for. In the modern world, a religious life is certainly the kind of eccentricty that we should adopt.
In parallel with the decline of the religious sense, there has been a general increase in narcissism, with its accompanying discontent, and, most importantly, in anomie. For the narcissist nothing is ever quite good enough and whatever satisfactions there might be pale very quickly. Anomie is the sense that nothing means anything, that there is no fundamental reason to bother about anything. Anomie can easily lead to a broad degeneration in morale. In order to prevent anomie leading to chaos, governments now have to keep the population happy in a secular way by holding up for our imitation a life of self-indulgence and distraction, delivered by big business corporations. All this is, however, circular. More distractions make life even more meaningless and more meaninglessness calls for more distraction.
Religion cuts through this futility. By a religious life, one means a life directed toward ultimate purpose. Even if one only has a hazy notion of what the ultimate purpose of life is, the sheer fact of trying to turn toward it, even into a thick “cloud of unknowing”, can have a radical effect upon the tenor of one’s existence. Often enough, a religious life is substantially a search: a serious attempt to penetrate the mystery of ultimacy. In fact, a first and vitally important step can be the act of admitting to oneself and huge extent of one's ignorance. Strangely, it is by admitting that we are hopeless cases that new possibilities open up.
The Teleological Eye
In this search, however, we are not completely at a loss. We have some strong intuitions. We realise that what we are looking for has some close connection with beauty, truth and unconditional love. Simply knowing that what we are talking about is an End rather than a means tells us a lot. We could say that a religious life is one lived teleologically: it has in view ultimate ends. We cannot define ultimate beauty, ultimate truth or ultimate love, because ‘define’ means delimit and the ultimate does not have limits. Nonetheless, we can let the intuition of it into our lives and letting it in turns everything upside down.
The Big Picture
All of this naturally means taking a much longer and larger perspective. The self-indulgent approach looks for gain or profit immediately, or in the very near future. The religious person looks for a benefit that exists ultimately. This means that such a person will not “sell their soul” for a short term benefit. They live their life according to what they understand to be of ultimate value. I say, “what they understand to be” because we are in a process of discovery. Our understanding is continually being extended by experience and later may be better than it was in the past.
Faith & Experience
The truly religious person is not the one who clings to an unchangeable dogma, but rather the one who is willing to really experiment with his or her life in such a way that faith evolves on the basis of what is found out through the test of putting life on the line. Faith and experience feed each other. According as we put something to the test, so we come to have more or less faith in it, but we only take on such tests because of the faith that we have in the first place. The truly religious person is, therefore, always finding out more about what is true and beautiful, about love and what lies beyond conditions.
The Buddhist term nirvana refers to what is beyond conditions. In ordinary life we are surrounded by conditions, depend upon conditions and do what we do conditionally. This is inevitable. However, while we are inevitably living in the conditional world, it is possible to have a vision that goes beyond it and to make that the anchorage point of our life. A person who has such a sense of the beyond and takes that as the centre of gravity of their life is a religious person. Such people may have different terminologies, different ways of conceptualising what they are doing, different theories or philosophies, but they have something fundamental in common, and such people, if they are true to the ultimate vision rather than to the words and concepts that it is wrapped up in, can never be fundamentally at odds. Nirvana is, therefore, also peace in this world.