Monday, November 25, 2013

What Makes Faith Legitimate?

One of my favorite courses in my undergraduate career (or ever, frankly) was Sociology of Religion, taught by a professor at the Jesuit school of theology at the Graduate Theological Union, which had partnerships with UC Berkeley. The first lecture was a discussion emphasizing the challenges of creating a universally-applicable definition of religion. (As I'm writing this, I realize it was one of the most memorable lectures I've had.) Suffice it to say, the definition is challenging. The 1972 definition by anthropologist Clifford Geertz we learned is dense, but remarkable. And I still use it to this day (I cited it in my dissertation and will be using it in an introduction to spirituality and mental health treatment cultural competency training I'm developing).

What I appreciate about the definition is it is functional, rather than focusing on specific elements of belief. Too often, people get caught up in these concrete elements (i.e. Is there God? Is there a congregation? Are there rituals? Is there Scripture?). And then this emphasis leads to dismissal of beliefs as legitimate religion, essentially invalidating the individuals' experiences of meaning-making.

Whether or not we agree with a set of beliefs doesn't give us the right to dismiss those beliefs as not a real religion or faith, in my opinion. In many ways, that is what some people are arguing from the tradition of Jediism. Yes, as in Jedi. As in Star Wars Jedi. I read a fascinating, pretty objective, descriptive article exploring the Church of the Jedi. And frankly, I believe it meets all the criteria of a bona fide religion from a sociological perspective.

Just because we agree or disagree with a belief system doesn't mean that followers of a perspective don't have the right to do so and be considered a religion. There's plenty of religions that people consider completely absurd while also not questioning whether those set of beliefs would qualify for the label of religion. Frankly, one of the best ways to help a religion grow is by persecuting and discriminating against its followers. Look at some of the biggest growth time for Christianity, for instance. So by removing rights from a group, we may ironically be giving them more moral support.

In reading the article, it also made me realize as Christians, we need to be humble about our origins, especially as others see us. One line that really struck me was, "So it's based on a movie. Christianity is based on a book." While most Christians would argue the Bible is more than a book, many hard core Wars fans consider the series more than a movie. And frankly, the parallels are striking.

Unsurprisingly, it comes down to faith. Faith that there is meaning and Truth in our system of beliefs. And experiences that make it all "seem uniquely realistic." That's why I'm a Christian and don't follow another faith. But I can't necessarily prove it beyond someone else's shadow of a doubt either. And that's okay.

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