Claire Creffield, an atheist who finds that, sometimes, “invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives,” asks whether a religious person could ever conceive of religion as a “non-creedal” way of “being in uncertainty” instead of as a provider of truth. Could religion evolve from being centered on a set of shared beliefs to being a unique aid to philosophical reflection?
My inclination is to answer in the negative, at least in the context of the Western religions with which I’m familiar. Religion cannot be a way of being without some defined sense of what it means for it to be. Even after Creffield’s imagined metamorphosis, you would still have rules of interpretation plus acceptable and unacceptable interpretations guiding religious discourse and practice. Look at the world of literature, to which Creffield wonders if this new religion would be comparable: it’s not governed by doctrine or creeds, per se, but the field of legitimate interpretation has its limits, even for works as complex as Hamlet or Moby-Dick. Try arguing that the young Danish prince was really on a satanic quest to find and slay the White Whale. See how far that gets you.
Religious myth, however, has historically functioned differently than literature. As Karen Armstrong notes, religious myth was essentially a plan of action: “it could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the ‘truth’ of the myth a reality in your own life.” Myth called for ritual and communal purpose. While its truth may not have been that of rational thought–logos–it nonetheless was a truth that gave meaning to the human condition in all its strangeness, mystery, tragedy, and absurdity.
Separating “truth” from religion, then, makes religion into something otherwise than it is. You can step away from literalism without passing beyond the boundaries of the religious, but you cannot detach religion from its mythos, which provides a kind of truth.
Being in uncertainty, though–now there’s a plan of action religion can adopt. Too much of religion suffers from charlatans selling certain answers to the sort of questions that ought to elicit awful wonder and humble silence. These self-appointed prophets make a fine living dispensing sure guidance on self-aggrandizement, what specific behaviors God wills for you, whom you should hate and hope goes to hell, and how you should distrust science and other secular pursuits–while having complete, unquestioning trust in them. These poor souls lack faith because faith begins with the first step onto uncertain terrain, into dense fog that clouds the senses, and in a direction one can at best hope is the right way. Religious faith is belief in things unseen.
Faith ultimately serves the logic of love, and the path of love is anything but certain. Death always threatens to take our loves from us and make our love seemingly foolish and self-defeating. Religion that enables believers to incarnate their faith, hope, and love–in ritual, myth, and community–in and for a
being who is infinite, ineffable, and wholly other, calls for the endless affirmation of uncertainty. The more certain the religion, the less faith inspires it, the less hope nourishes it, the less love directs it.