“Religion” (an essay by Roger W. Smith)

 

 

‘Religion’

 

 

A full downloadable Word document is above.

 

 

 

Who cares what I think about the topic of religion, one might ask.

It has probably — I would say, certainly — been written and declaimed about far more than any other conceivable topic over the ages, far surpassing topics such as politics.

By the greatest writers the world has ever seen.

But I was thinking about religion the other day because of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. It made me think also of similar conversations I’ve had in the past.

My friend is a professional with an advanced degree. He works in one of the so called helping professions.

He is, as a result of professional training and experience and also by virtue of his nature, a thoughtful, insightful, and caring individual.

I had never had occasion to discuss religion with him before and had no knowledge or idea of what his religion was, other than suspecting that he was probably Christian. In the course of our conversation, I learned that he is Episcopalian.

I was raised as a Congregationalist and later became a Unitarian. (More about this below.)

My friend, while a church member, has a lot of reservations about Christian doctrine and about organized religion. We agreed to disagree.

To summarize, imperfectly, the points my friend made (I don’t have him with me to verify the accuracy of my summary):

— Many Christian beliefs, such as those derived from Bible stories, are patently “false,” meaning that to many an educated person in the modern world, they seem ludicrous. That would apply, for example, to a belief in the immaculate conception or that Jesus was resurrected, as well as Jesus’s miracles.

— Not only is much of religious belief based on fiction, but the historical veracity of much of what, say, is presented in narrative accounts in the Gospels cannot be verified. For example, there is very scant historical evidence for Jesus’s life and ministry. What we have been told may well have been invented and then propagated as revealed truth.

— Organized religion has done and does more harm than good. It has led to barbarity and intolerance. And, to modern day abuses. Conservative religion has become allied with right wing political factions in a way that is an anathema to liberals and progressives.

 

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May I be permitted a word or two about my own religious upbringing as it pertained to our discussion?

I was raised as a Congregationalist. They are “middle of the road,” I would say, on the Protestant spectrum, with the Episcopalians being more conservative, the Baptists much further to the right, and the Unitarians way to the left.

I am extremely grateful that my parents didn’t neglect my religious upbringing. From it, I got a good grounding in moral values. To give an example, I learned the importance of compassion and charity.

I developed — my parents had more to do with it than the church, but church teaching was also important — a moral sense and a CONSCIENCE.

I absorbed the basic tenets of Christian doctrine, observed the religious holidays. My family was more important than the church with respect to the latter, but church services and observances of Christmas and Easter seemed sacred and wonderful, as well as inspiring awe and reverence, a sense that they were very special as well as joyous times. (So did some religious and holiday music that I was exposed to at the time, such as hymns and Christmas carols.)

In Sunday school, which my parents saw to it that I attend without fail, I got an excellent grounding in the Bible. I know my Gospels — by no means as well as a TV or radio evangelist does — but I know the stories and sayings, when the angel of the Lord brought tidings of joy to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock; when Jesus spent forty days in the desert, was tempted by the devil, and told him, “Get thee hence, Satan”; when Jesus cast out the swine from the insane man and how they perished in the sea; the miracle of the loaves and fishes; or what Jesus said, like “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”

Many modern day kids raised in “enlightened,” “progressive” households” don’t have the faintest knowledge of any of this. (A shame, I would say a disgrace.)

To learn these words and to read about the miracles when one is growing up are invaluable. They become part of you — your inner self — something you don’t question and which it seems as if you’ve always known. The words and the edifying stories are with you at trying times.

Growing up I also became well acquainted with Catholicism. The majority of my friends, in my early years, were Catholic. We argued about religion all the time. I thought they were narrow minded, borderline ignorant, incapable of thinking for themselves, too credulous, and so on – these youthful opinions were, needless, to say, prejudiced, often unfair and unfounded, on my part. But I grew over the years to appreciate and greatly admire the Catholic church. (See more below.)

 

 

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To return to my friend’s criticisms for a minute.

He spoke appreciatively of religiously inspired music; he is obviously not a know-nothing disbeliever/religious antagonist. But, basically, he thinks that Christian doctrine was and is founded on absurdities that are impossible of belief by an educated, rational person. And that, by subscribing to and perpetuating absurdities, organized religions are actually doing harm by cheapening and obfuscating civic discourse. (My friend did not actually say this. I am extrapolating from what he said and seemed to be implying.)

My take on this and my current beliefs are as follows.

I became a Unitarian when I was a preadolescent. I do not currently belong to a church. When asked, I respond that I do not belong to a church.

I am not what, in the common understanding of the term, what would be called a “believer.”

But I realize that I am fundamentally a Christian. What do I base this upon? My upbringing. My basic outlook on life. My core beliefs. My basic makeup and “spiritual genealogy,” so to speak.

I admire (which is an understatement) and completely respect religious people, from Saint Augustine to Albert Schweitzer, from Saint Francis to Dorothy Day, from Meister Eckhart to George Fox, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Pope Francis.

I admire Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, who was recently installed as the archbishop of Newark, NJ.

I respect clergymen, priests, and nuns for their seriousness of purpose and devotion to their calling.

 

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The way in which religion affects me most profoundly is through art, in the broad sense of the word.

I defy anyone to listen to the masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert; to Monteverdi’s “Magnificat”; to Vivaldi’s “Gloria” or “Stabat Mater” or Antonín Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater”; to an oratorio such as the Saint Matthew Passion or Berlioz’s l’enfance du Christ; or to two modern compositions, Alan Hovhaness’s “Ave Maria” and Vladimír Godár’s “Regina Coeli,” and remain unmoved.

Try listening to a hymn such as “Fairest Lord Jesus” — with its beauty, clarity, strength, and simple piety — and remaining unmoved.

Or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” with its ringing, joyous affirmation of Christian belief.

I know the Latin mass by heart. When words such as Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorifcamus te … Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; dona nobis pacem … Crucifìxus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato; passus et sepultus est, et resurrexit tertia die … Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini are sung, I am profoundly stirred. At such a moment, I feel the “truth” of Biblical events. I don’t go into a religious frenzy or temporarily lose my mind, but I do at such moments experience religion at a gut level, viscerally. I am not looking askance and thinking to myself. “This is, at bottom, silly; it can’t really be believed.” On the contrary, through the medium of sublime art, I have become a believer — for the moment, at least — insofar as it’s possible (for myself, that is).

I also experienced this when I saw Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). The film is so powerful and convincing, the Gospel stories become so credible, that one is totally engrossed and in the moment; one suspends disbelief.

 

 

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A penultimate thought or two. I don’t want to leave the impression that my respect and admiration for religion are solely the impressions of an aesthete. That’s a big part of it, but there’s more, I realize.

It seems to me that religion is a core part of what it is to be human, though many of my friends and relatives would probably dismiss this as representing a sort of atavism. It must feed basic human needs. The need for belief in something beyond mundane existence, as we observe it. But, I don’t think this is just a matter of “emotional neediness” by weak minded people who need a crutch. Sort of the way Noam Chomsky has shown that there is a universal grammar that is innate to the human brain, I think something similar can be said about religion as it transcends all types of cultural and social boundaries and affects all of us.

I think that religion is important because it humbles us. We need to believe and to be able to conceive of something greater than our puny selves, something that inspires awe and reverence. Perhaps that’s enough to say. I am not a preacher and don’t want to be seen as coming across as one. But, I do think that religions play an important psychological function, or more broadly, an edifying one, when we attempt to conceive of the glory of God and His creation.

A lot of my contemporaries seem to think that they are self sufficient in their ability to reason and thereby to deduce their own truths (the absolute rightness of which they are convinced of) and that they don’t need a “crutch.” I find them smug. They would say they need no god or gods. They are too proud, in my opinion, too sure of themselves. They would do well to read what the great religious thinkers have to say.

 

 

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A relative of mine recently posted a comment on this blog. It had to do with a post of mine, not about religion, in which post I wrote that people should be more “Christian” when it comes to judgment and forgiveness.

“I am inclined to side with the [sentencing] judge,” my relative wrote. “This is an example, among many others, of why I am essentially non-religious. I consider established religion to be one of the most divisive, most antagonistic influences in human affairs and history.”

My relative’s view seems to be shared by many. It is hard to argue with him in view of contemporary church scandals and abuses; ones from historical periods not that remote; and examples from history such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.

But I still respect religion, without reservation. I try to follow the essential precepts and teachings of Christianity, although I do not belong any longer to a church or subscribe to a particular faith.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     January 2017

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I picked out a piece of sacred music more or less at random from the Agnus Dei (lamb of God) section of Haydn’s Nelson Mass: qui tollis peccata mundi (You who take away the sins of the world). There are, of course, many other splendid examples.

Listen to it. Can one deny the intense spirituality? This from a master of classical form.

 

 

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Pasolini’s “Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo” (The Gospel According to Matthew) is viewable on YouTube at

 

 

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Note: I have posted some splendid sacred music on this blog. (It is downloadable.)  Also, sacred music which I have noted above but have not posted here is available on You Tube.

Posted here:

 

Vivaldi, “Gloria”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/11/26/antonio-vivaldi-gloria/

 

Haydn, “Mass in Time of War”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/21/haydn-mass-in-time-of-war/

 

Haydn, “Schöpfungsmesse” (Creation Mass)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/21/haydn-schopfungsmesse-creation-mass/

 

Haydn, “Theresienmesse”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/02/03/haydn-theresienmesse-mass-in-b-flat-major/

 

Mozart, Mass in F minor, K. 192; Dixit and Magnificat, K. 193

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/21/mozart-mass-in-f-minor-k-192-dixit-and-magnificat-k-193/

 

Beethoven, Mass in C major, opus 86

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/22/beethoven-mass-in-c-major-opus-86/

 

Schubert, mass no. 6 in E flat

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/21/schubert-mass-no-6-in-e-flat/

 

Berlioz, “l’Enfance du Christ”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/24/berlioz-lenfance-du-christ/

 

 

A couple of sections from Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” of 1610:

 

The final chorus from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion

 

“Fairest Lord Jesus”

 

“Fairest Lord Jesus” is also on YouTube at

https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafeetypo&p=farest+lord+jesus#id=4&vid=ab4a7acb98161b09cf449d3d9c96b950&action=click

(rendered with sensitivity by a children’s choir)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW5bkIUQqZc

(beautiful piano version)

 

 

Available on YouTube:

 

Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater,” performed by the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Christopher Hogwood, with countertenor James Bowman

 

 

Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater,” performed by the Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, directed by Wolfgang Sawallisch

 

 

Vladimír Godár’s “Regina Coeli”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mo2mDa6wU2s

 

 

Alan Hovhaness’s “Ave Maria”


Charles Ives, ‘in the Mornin’ (Give Me Jesus)”

 

 

 

Gillian Welch’s simple, intensely spiritual song “By the Mark” is at

 

 

 

 

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See also: additional religious music which has posted by me on this site at

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/01/22/more-religious-music/

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts a websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin.
This entry was posted in my favorite music, personal views of Roger W. Smith, religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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