What is the place of the religious in the world?
As worldly and apparently materialistic as society has become, we cannot deny that recently there has been a strong turn towards the religious, towards mysticism and the esoteric. It seems that excessive rationalization and the functioning of our complex societies is becoming tiresome. The return to the religious just shows that the human being seeks something greater. There is an invisible side to the visible that we would like to uncover. Perhaps therein lies a secret meaning that fulfills our tireless search for something that we cannot identify. In that non-confessional horizon perhaps it makes sense to talk of the religious or the spiritual. It has endured all forms of attack but managed to survive. The early moderns saw it as something pre-modern, a fantastic knowledge that had to give way to positive and critical knowledge (Auguste Comte). Then it was read as a disease: an opiate, alienation and false consciousness for the one who has not yet found himself, or if he did find himself, has gotten lost again (Karl Marx). Afterwards, it was interpreted as an illusion of the neurotic mind that seeks to pacify the desire for protection and to make bearable our contradictory world (Sigmund Freud). Later on, it was interpreted as a reality that, due to the process of rationalization and the disenchantment of the world, tends to disappear (Max Weber). Finally, some had it as something meaningless, since it can neither be proven nor disprove, (Karl Popper and Rudolf Carnap).
I believe the great mistake of these diverse interpretations lies in the fact that the religious has been assigned an incorrect location: within reason. The reasons for this begin with reason. Reason itself is not a fact of reason. It is an unknown. The Upanishad already prayed wisely: «that for which all thought thinks, cannot be thought». Perhaps the cradle of the religious lies in this «not thought», that is, in those matters exorcised by modern rationality: fantasy, the imaginary, that background of desire from which arise all the dreams and the utopias that populate our minds, fill our hearts with enthusiasm, and light the fuse of the great transformations of history. Its place is in what philosopher Ernst Bloch called, the hope principle.
It is characteristic of these matters –of the utopic, of fantasy and the imaginary– not to be satisfied with concrete, rational data. More accurately, they dispute this data, because they suspect that data are always facts; the data and the facts as well are not all that is real. The real is even greater. To the real also belongs the potential, what is not yet, but could be. Because of that, utopia does not contradict reality; it reveals the potential and ideal dimension of that reality. As the wise Emile Durkheim said at the conclusion of his famous book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: «the ideal society is not outside of the real society; it is part of it». And he ended: «only the human being has the faculty of conceiving the ideal and of adding it to the real». I would say, of detecting it within the real, ensuring that this real within which is the ideal, is always greater than the data we have at hand.
It is within this experience of the potential, of the utopic, that the religious arises. This is why Rubem Alves, who has best studied in Brazil “the enigma of religion” (the title of his book), would say: «The intention of religion is not to explain the world. Religion is born precisely from the protest against this world that can be described and explained by science. Scientific description, by rigorously maintaining itself within the limits of the given reality, consecrates the established order of things. Religion, by contrast, is the voice of a conscience that finds no rest in the world as it is, and seeks to transcend it».
For this reason, the religious is the oldest and most systematic organization of the utopic dimension, which is inherent to the human being. As Bloch put it well: «where there is religion, there is hope» that not all is lost. This hope is love for that which still is not, “the conviction of realities that are not seen,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews, (11,1), says, but that are the fundation of what is hoped for.
It was the philosopher and mathematician Ludwig Wittgenstein who saw with lucidity this singular characteristic of the religious, and said: in the human being does not only exist the rational and scientific attitude that always questions how things are and seeks an answer for everything. There also exists the capacity to be entranced: «to be entranced cannot be expressed by a question; because of that, neither does an answer exist». The mystical exists: «the mystical does not reside in how the world is, but in the fact that it exists». The limitation of reason and of the scientific spirit lie in the fact that there is nothing about which they must remain silent.
The religious and mystical always end up in noble silence, because in no dictionary is there a word that can define it.
Up to now we have spoken of the religious in its good, sane nature. But it can become sick, and then is born the disease of fundamentalism, dogmatism and the exclusivity of truth. As any disease references health, the religious must be analyzed starting from its healthy state, and not from its disease. Consequently the healthy religious makes us more sensible and human. Its healthy return is urgent now, because it helps us love the invisible and to make real that which still is not, but can be.
Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro, firstname.lastname@example.org,
done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.