We often forget that “God” and “religion” are not the same thing.
I was reminded of the need to make that distinction after reading George Yancy’s provocative piece in the New York Times earlier this week entitled “Is Your God Dead?” In it, he argues that our descriptions of God have stifled our ability to truly see people in pain and in need. As he asks,
Have you buried God in the majestic, ornamental tombs of your churches, synagogues and mosques? Perhaps prosperity theology, boisterous, formalistic and mechanical prayer rituals, and skillful oratory have hastened the need for a eulogy.
Perhaps by remaining in your “holy” places, you have sacrificed looking in the face of your neighbor on the street. You know the one: the one who smells “bad” because she hasn’t bathed in days; the one who carries her home on her body; the one who begs. Surely you’ve seen that “unholy” face. I’ve seen you suddenly look away, making sure not to make eye contact with the “unclean.” Perhaps you’re preoccupied with texting, consumed by a work or family matter. Then again, perhaps it’s prayer time and you need to face east, or perhaps you’re too focused on holy communion as you make your way to church. Your refusal to stop, to linger, to look into her eyes, has already done its damage. Your body has already left a mark in its absence, in its fleeing the scene.
My challenge with the title of his article, though, is that he conflates “God” and “religion.” They are clearly connected — at its core, religion is our attempt to understand God, to experience the Divine, to act in God’s ways, and to feel God’s presence.
But those things are not God. They are our imperfect human attempts to reach God. Religion is a human endeavor. And so different religions will have different ways to reach those goals.
In many ways, religion is like language. First, depending on where you live, different people speak different languages. Urdu is different from Japanese which is different from French, and each language has its own structure, its own community and its own history. Second, no one speaks “language” — they speak English or Hindi or Portuguese, and then use that specific language to share their ideas. Finally, language itself isn’t the goal; rather, the purpose of language is to communicate.
Similarly, different religions have their own systems, rituals and communities. Just like no one speaks “language,” no one is “religious” — they are Christian or Jewish or agnostic. Finally, the goal of religion isn’t “to be religious.” It’s to use religion to better ourselves, our society and our world.
And that’s where I agree with the crux of his article. It’s not that “God is dead” or that we need to “bury” God. Instead, we need to “resurrect” (if you’ll let this rabbi use that word!) what religion can be. As Yancy notes, “I am pretty sure that no contemporary Christians have seen God, no contemporary religious Jews have seen Yahweh and no contemporary Muslims have seen Allah — certainly not face to face.” We need to make sure we are using religion as the tool it can be.
After all, since religion is a human endeavor, we have the power to change what it does. While it can certainly lead to narcissism, strife and isolationism, we have the power to ensure that it can emphasize love and companionship. Just take a look at the recent “Make Friends” video featuring Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Ayatollah Sayyid Fadhel Al-Milani. Religion can give us a voice for justice, a place for community, and a source of meaning.
Because when religion is at its best, through our human actions, it can bring a little more of God into this world.