Slippery as soap or free as a bird?

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." James 1.27


If you were to define religion, where would you begin? Academics tie themselves up in all kinds of knots! Probably because there are as many answers as there are expressions of religion around the world. I find myself drawn towards German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher's, insistence on the transcendence and depth of religion; that it has to do with that which is above or beyond - or, indeed, infinitesimal and within. Another influential voice is that of the 20th century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, who stresses the importance of revelation: religion is the result of God's own self revelation.


Many of us would want to add something about communal rituals and universal ethics. Isn't it interesting, then, that the one explicit definition of religion in the Bible addresses none of these highfalutin ideals but a very down-to-earth injunction to be kind to those who are vulnerable and to be circumspect in our conduct?


These extremes and surprises alert us to the complexity and versatility of "religion", as a label covering such a broad range of activities, ideas and experiences. It might be worth pondering whether it offers us a boundary within which to coral all these apparently disparate elements, or whether its very vagueness is like a springboard from which we can launch ourselves into a journey of discovery about those deep and transcendent things Schleiermacher wants us to notice, not forgetting the earthy details the apostle James was concerned about and, all the while, heeding Barth's insight that this is not of our own making, it is from God.


Enjoy the ride!

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