There is a troubling tendency in our public discourse to reduce religion to race or ethnicity (the complex case of Judaism aside). On this view, religion is a more or less superficial feature of one’s identity—something akin to skin color or any other historical “accident.” Just as it would be absurd to criticize someone for their skin color or where and when they were born, so would it be absurd to criticize someone’s religion. So the thinking goes.
There are numerous factors in the West that work to relegate religion to the realm of the non-rational and unimportant. For example, many people are captive to the idea that there is necessarily a war between religion and science. And religion does not play a prominent role in our shared public culture. Insofar as we expect the most important things to be discussed in the public square—to wit, popular entertainment, the news media, and national political discourse—we are liable to conclude that religious doctrines are not an important topic of discussion.
But religion cannot be reduced to the non-rational level. To explain why a self-possessed adult is a Christian, it may be necessary to refer to his family and their cultural provenance, but the more pertinent part of the explanation concerns his beliefs and choices (to say nothing of God’s grace). And beliefs and choices are very important, because they, much more than things like ethnicity, make us who we are. This is part of the rationale for Jesus’s jarring statement that he has come to divide families (Lk 12:51-53). If someone chooses to follow Jesus, he may have to disagree with members of his family (and of his society).
A number of the major religions in the world claim to be revealed by God. To claim that a doctrine is divinely revealed is to claim that it has an intellectual content that cannot be reduced to human invention. A sign of the intellectual character of religious doctrine is that it can be true or false. Logically speaking, the statement “Jesus of Nazareth is divine” is either true or false. The statement cannot coexist with its contrary, “Jesus of Nazareth is not divine.” Logically speaking, one or the other must be false. There is no possible world in which Jesus is both divine and not divine.
The intellectual character of a “revealed religion” gives it a stability that can transcend ethnic differences, even the uniqueness of individual adherents. The goal of such a religion is to bring its members into conformity with its doctrine—not the other way around. If it is truly a revelation about the highest things, it has a right to demand the strictest allegiance.
All the more necessary, then, to realize that “revealed religions” present themselves as intellectual content—enlightenment from above, not an excrescence from biological and environmental factors. If we act as if religion is reducible to something like ethnicity, or as if doctrine has no claim on its adherents, we fail to appreciate the importance of religion.
Image: Talking Truth
Br. Alan Piper, OP, was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and is the oldest of four children. He earned a BA in philosophy and theology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and a PhL from the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. Before entering the order in 2011, he taught at Holy Family Academy in Manchester, New Hampshire. On DominicanFriars.org