I was brought up in a Christian church. My family attended church each Sunday and often, the Wednesday fellowship dinners. I played on the church basketball team and went to church camp in the summer.
Around age 11 or 12 my interest in religion intensified. I began to engage with classic theological questions. For example: How anyone could deny the existence of God? As I explored that question I came upon another one: How could anyone be sure of God’s existence?
This led me to read widely in theology and world religions, everything from C. S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters) and our Minister Granville Walker’s The Greatest of These to Walter Kaufmann (The Faith of a Heretic). I soon encountered Bertrand Russell, including his autobiography and his popular writings, such as Wisdom of the West and Why I Am Not a Christian.
One book I read surveyed the major arguments for God’s existence. I was a believer from the start. But as I began to think about the questions and the varieties of religious experience in the world, my doubts began to grow. With a couple of friends I began to visit every type of religious service I could find. The deeper I immersed myself, the more I began to question.
But I never fully abandoned religion. Like Walter Kaufmann, I might agree that comparative religion should be the one required college course, because it would lead students to think about the most important questions in life and how different cultures have answered them.
The time I’ve spent in Turkey, Nepal, SE Asia, and other places with a variety of religions has increased my interest in religion while at the same time magnifying my doubt about there being any one true religion for me.
In recent years, I’ve continued this exploration. Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, was a fascinating book, as were Wilfred C. Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
I found Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle to be a pleasure in multiple ways–true-life adventure, comparative linguistics, religion and culture, family values, ethnocentrism. It’s aa account of a missionary in the Amazon, who ends up being converted.
A good companion book is Elizabeth Elliott’s My Savage Kinsman. Also about a missionary in the Amazon. She sticks with her faith, but comes to a realistic view of what missionaries actually accomplish.
The Religious Case Against Belief by James Carse makes a lot of sense. He argues that we commonly think of a religion as a set of beliefs, or even, a belief system. But specific tenets and stories of religions are often false, or at best, unsubstantiated. Reducing the religion to the kinds of knowledge that be encoded in a book does it a disservice.
Instead, religion ought to be conceived as what we do when we don’t have a belief or an answer. When I look at the stars at night (in one of those all too rare dark sky preserves) and ask Who am I? there is no fixed or certain belief to provide an answer.
In Uncountable: A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, David Nirenberg and Ricardo Nirenberg make a similar argument about numbers. Counting appears to answer the most important questions, but like formal religion, it ultimately comes up short. False certainty ultimately compromises our sense of humanity.
Francois Juillien’s The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China tries to explain a single Chinese character (in Pinyin, shi) in 300+ pages., in the end basically concluding that someone raised in the West can never quite get it. He says that in the West there is a “monopolizing tension” between “the despair of nothingness” and “the fervor of discovery.”
In contrast, the bipolarity of the Chinese system produces centrality and equilibrium, which gives rise to serenity…. Between joy and fear, there is no need to invent salvation. It is enough to go along with change, change that is also forever regulation, change it helps to create harmony.
Perspectives such as that me me realize there is always more to learn.