What question does religion answer?

A few years ago now, how quickly time passes, in order to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister I had to meet with the Minister Fellowship Committee (MFC).  This committee is charged with making sure that all ministers in fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association have met a set of criteria and standards to be a minister.  There were a variety of questions asked.  One question that I was asked was the following:  “What is the Meaning of Life for the Jew?”  I did not answer the question well. 

I have pondered this question alot since then.  The question is based on a presumption that religions answer the question, “What is the meaning of Life?”   It is a false presumption because that is not the question that religions answer.  Religions answer the question, “What is my relationship with the other?”   The other being everything from this other person sitting before me to the world around me to the concept of god.  But the question, “what is the meaning of life?” is not the question being answered by religion. 

The word religion comes from the Latin religare meaning to bind fast or to bond between.  It is a relationship that is established when one practices a certain religion.  And it is a bond that is tied fast between the person and the practice (read also God) they are upholding. 

Judaism answers the question by stating that my relationship with the other is covenantal.  Abraham established a covenant with God.  It was a promise that if his people did certain things then God would ensure that his people would continue to prosper.   The society that was developed by Abraham and his descendents is based on this covenantal relationship.  The story of the Hebrew scriptures is the story of this covenantal relationship. 

Christianity, Orthodox Christianity specifically, answers the question by stating that my relationship with the other is inherently broken.  The religion then seeks to develop ways to fix that brokenness.   The story of the New Testament, especially those books written by Paul of Tarsus,  is how a relationship with Jesus fixes that brokenness.

Universalist Christianity states my relationship with the other is separation.  It then seeks to develop ways to bring about reconciliation.  It could be argued that within the story of the gospels is found the story of reconciliation of humanity with God.

Buddhism states my relationship with the other is illusion.  It then seeks to develop ways that will bring about enlightenment, the ability to see clearly.  The story of the Buddha tells his journey towards this enlightment. 

Islam states my relationship with the Other is ultimately submission.  It then seeks to develop ways in order to be in submission with the Other (specifically Allah). 

Now through following these various ways of relating to the Other, one may discover that their life has meaning.  But this is meaning that is added to their life as a result of being in relationship with the other.  Religions can help add meaning to ones life by giving it a shape or a touchstone from which one can center their life around. 

Unitarian Universalism answers the question of what is my relationship with the other by also answering that it is covenantal.   It is a covenant that is renegotiated with every relationship I enter.   Sometimes the covenant is negotiated consciously, sometimes not.  The values that Unitarian Universalists promote do keep me grounded as I seek to live them in my daily life.  And in my seeking to live my covenant, I find that my life is filled with meaning and purpose at least from my perspective of looking out at the world and how I relate to it.  Blessings,

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Published in: on October 28, 2008 at 8:29 am  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. Hi Fred,

    I know its hard to summarize a religion in a line or two. But I think you confused Buddhism with Hinduism.

    As I understand Buddhism our relationships are not illusions, rather our sense of a permanent and abiding self is the illusion.

    Being contingent isn’t a dream, it just means we’re all verbs rather than nouns…

    I always love yr reflections,

    James

  2. …just a quick note to thank you for introducing me to new areas of thought. I look forward to snooping around your site. (Gotta love the Internet for serving up these ‘introductions’.)

    Even though I’ve interviewed hundreds of folks for their ‘meaning of life’ answers, I still very much enjoy being exposed to new perspectives.

    Thanks much!

    take care,
    Louise Lewis, author
    No Experts Needed: The Meaning of Life According to YOU!

    FREE gift e-book at: http://www.noexpertsneeded.com

    (No strings/spam attached to offer, really! Simply my way of giving back…)


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