Where Religion Begins
If I were asked today why I am religious, I would have to begin somewhere, and I would begin where religion begins. Religion begins (and ends) with love. By love I mean the unconditional, total, and passionate commitment and gift of self to another. All the world’s religions amount to nothing worthwhile if they do not bring love to life, if they do not give it breath, blood, and animation.
Religion must begin with love, but what of God? Does not religion entail an alleged response to a God who reveals? Do not the religions of the world each claim to have a special insight into the divine or at least some sense of the sacred? I’m going to say, yes, religion does these things, more or less, but when I look to where religion begins I do not find God as defined in any comprehensive religious creed. Instead, I find love. Self-giving. Commitment. Passion, by which I also mean suffering. And in these and through these I see a path, a way, a transcendence.
Now, I’m told that God is love, which suggests that love is also God, so in this sense religion does begin with God. John Caputo makes this point very well in his little book On Religion. Religion begins with a “God” that one does, that one becomes, and it is directed toward another’s good, which is another name for God. To be religious is to walk a path (in darkness), to travel on a journey, to be a pilgrim on the way to who knows where. And here I find another name for God: the way.
When I begin to speak of God, I begin by speaking of love, of the good, and of the way. When I begin to speak of these things, I cannot say very much about them, for they are as elusive, mysterious, and ineffable as anything. Any religion worth confessing gives incarnational meaning to these words. All the rituals, liturgies, prayers, sacraments, sacrifices, myths and teachings of religion should begin with this purpose and serve it to the end.
Religions obviously fail to do this. I fail to do this. I’m not very good at religion, precisely because I’m not very good at love. And yet in choosing to love, even with my flawed and broken will, I hear a call, a call to love with all my being, passionately and unconditionally, a call to make life meaningful by my actions of love. I cannot explain this call. I cannot say for certain where it comes from or that it is what I hope it is. Nevertheless, I believe that I hear this call when I transcend myself by loving another. This is my faith, and it’s why I’m religious.