Doug Phillips on the “Yin and Yang” of Marriage

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By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

I was reading “The Big Box Series” over at Scarlet Letters, a blog exploring the Christian homeschooling subculture, the Christian patriarchy movement, and women’s and gender issues within Christianity. I came across a post featuring one of Doug Phillips’s lectures, entitled “How to Evaluate a Suitor,” on marriage and being “unequally yoked.” Scarlet Letters makes interesting connections between Phillips, Rushdoony, and implicit racism; the post is worth a look. But what I was most intrigued by — since my M.A. focused on Eastern philosophy and religion — was his truncated and highly inaccurate understanding of Eastern philosophies and religions. Take a look:

There is no relationship in the entire earth in which agreement is more necessary than marriage. It is the most heightened level of agreement that is necessary in marriage, because two people become one. It’s the only relationship that we have in which two become one, physically and spiritually you become one. And so if one is at complete differences with the other, you’ve got a formula for disaster. That’s the Buddhist philosophy of yin and yang. Good and evil coexisting together, both in a constant state of war to create a one. That’s Buddhism, that’s Daoism, that Confucianism. It’s not Christianity. We don’t believe in yin and yang. We believe the two should be one, they need to be in agreement.

I mean, my main reaction is just: LOL.

My more detailed reaction would be:

1) “Good and evil coexisting together in a constant state of war to create one” is not the Buddhist philosophy of yin and yang.

2) “Good and evil coexisting together in a constant state of war” is more of a Hindu concept, which for some reason didn’t even make it onto Phillips’s list of religions.

3) Relating “good and evil” to yin and yang is a American/Westernized thing; it’s not a faithful interpretation of yin and yang in their cultural and historical contexts.

4) Buddhism is not the same as Daoism.

5) Daoism is not the same as Confucianism.

6) Confucianism is not the same as Buddhism.

7) When “yin and yang” is properly understood, Christianity actually does express similar sentiments.

I will not bore my readers with a detailed explanation of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. But I would like to at least explain “yin” and “yang” briefly, because — hey, I rarely have the opportunity to apply my M.A. directly in my work with HA. I might as well take advantage of this rare opportunity.

So here we go:

Both yin and yang are traditional Chinese characters. Here’s yin: 陰. Here’s yang: 陽. If you notice, on the lefthand side of each character is the same “mini-character”: 阝. 阝signifies a mound or hill.  When combined with 侌, which signifies “cloudy,” you get what we think of as “yin,” which signifies the cloudy or shadowy side of a hill. On the other hand, when 阝is combined with 昜 (which signifies “bright”), you get “yang,” which signifies the sunny or bright side of a hill. Thinking of a hill is probably the easiest Intro to Yin and Yang I could give you: it’s the same hill, but it has two sides: a cloudy side and a sunny side. The sides aren’t “in a constant state of war”; rather, they’re two sides of the same coin and — despite unique characteristics and personalities — work together in harmony.

Which, if you think about it, is an interesting metaphor for marriage.

I am absolutely fascinated by the foundational Daoist text, the Dao De Jing. So here’s the main passage (Chapter 42) in that text that discusses the traditional Daoist understanding of yin and yang:

Tao gave birth to the One; the One gave birth successively to two things, three things, up to ten thousand. These ten thousand creatures cannot turn their backs to the shade [yin] without having the sun [yang] on their bellies, and it is on this blending of the breaths that their harmony depends.

To be orphaned, needy, ill-provided is what men most hate; yet princes and dukes style themselves so.

Truly, “things are often increased by seeking to diminish them and diminished by seeking to increase them.” The maxims that others use in their teaching I too will use in mine.

Show me a man of violence that came to a good end, and I will take him for my teacher.

Most every chapter in the Dao De Jing begins with some universal principle and then applies it to how a ruler ought to govern. In my opinion, the Dao De Jing is primarily a political treatise about the nature and application of power; it’s not a religious statement. To put it in “Christianese” terminology, it’s about “living in the tension.” In this case, it’s political tension: a wise ruler knowns how to non-violently embrace and marshal opposing political elements to his own advantage. (Which, again, is an interesting metaphor for marriage, albeit Machiavellian.)

But that’s just Daoism — and that’s just one interpretation of one Daoist text written by one Daoist. How Daoism (as well as Buddhism and Confucianism) thinks about and applies the idea of yin and yang is as diverse as how American Christians think about and apply the idea that humans are made in God’s image. It’s completely sloppy (and unfair) to just group all those religions and their denominations together and make sweeping generalizations. For example, some American Christians think the “humans in God’s image” concept necessitates we accept and love LGBT* individuals; other American Christians think the same concept justifies bigotry and discrimination. If American Christians wouldn’t like being made into unfair caricatures, they ought not make unfair caricatures of other religions and people groups.

Making unfair caricatures of other religions and people groups is a serious problem in the Christian homeschooling subculture and American Evangelicalism in general. (It’s also a problem that plagues other cultures. No uniqueness here.) I have talked about this previously in my “How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions” series. When I realized that curriculums and ideas created and advocated by everyone from David Noebel to Ken Ham to Worldview Weekend to James Dobson was passing on nothing but soundbites and straw men of other people’s beliefs, I felt upset. And confused. If homeschool leaders actually want to raise up a generation that is taken seriously in the public square, they owe that generation the truth. They owe it an accurate and generous understanding of opposing viewpoints: whether those viewpoints be Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, or even atheist.

When homeschool leaders (or former ones like Doug Phillips), throw everything from Buddhism to Confucianism to Daoism into one box and cannot even understand a basic concept like yin and yang, how is that any different from Richard Dawkins throwing those same religions — but also Christianity — into the same box and declaring, “A plague on all your houses”? Remember Jesus’s Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”

Which, incidentally, Confucius said 500 years prior: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions: Part Three, I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on August 1, 2013.

 < Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life

*****

“If you were to say to the grown-ups: ‘I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,’ they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them, ‘I saw a house that cost $20,000.’ Then they would exclaim, ‘Oh, what a pretty house that is!’”

~Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince

*****

Part Three: I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder

The message I received growing up, from homeschool curriculums to highschool worldview camps, was a message about a dichotomy:

Everything is either for us or against us, us versus them, heaven or hell, Biblical Worldview™ or Bust.

Summit Ministries, for example, reduced every belief system in the world to only three — Secular Humanism, Transcendentalism, and Theism. And if you weren’t a member of that third category (and not just a member of the category, but also the sub-sub-sub-category of Biblical Worldview Theism), you were dangerous. You were to be kept at an arm’s distance, and it would be more than an arm’s distance, except that — if you were too far away, we couldn’t evangelize to you.

But as I left my youthful suburb behind, I realized life is far more complicated. The American Christian worldview was trying so hard to make everything neatly packaged, with a pretty bow on top, so that we wouldn’t “lose the faith” in college — that it forgot to take other people seriously. Looking back at Summit’s lesson plans, I cannot help but employ facepalm after facepalm. Reading quotations from Chuck Colson’s How Now Shall We Live?, which I remember made the rounds in my homeschooling community in highschool, I cannot help but cringe at its abundant use of straw men.

I wish I wasn’t raised to fear other ideas. 

I wish I wasn’t raised to fit people neatly into summer camp categories.

Most of all, I wish I didn’t have to fight so hard to free myself from the Biblical Worldview™ or Bust mentality. Because it took a whole lot of energy to extricate myself from that.

Once I broke free, once I began to see that what I was taught as “Christianity” wasn’t some pure set of doctrines but rather a particular moment-in-time’s interpretation of doctrines — and also a whole lot more — I began to see other religions differently, too. I began to see that they had a lot to offer me. Buddhism wasn’t just a line in a binder that gets stamped either “True” or “False.” Neither was Daoism or Hinduism or any other -ism. They were complicated movements full of people and history and ideas and passions, fueled by heartache and hope and joy and terror.

They were made of humans. They were just like me. They were asking the exact same questions I was, and for the exact same reasons. They breathed, they felt, they lived, they loved, they hated — everything that made them relatable and understandable and beautiful and tragic was everything that was conveniently omitted from my education.

I was taught to refute. I was not taught to relate.

I was taught to analyze. I was not taught to love.

I was taught to argue. I was not taught to appreciate.

As I learned to approach life with humility and openness, I began to see the complexity. I began to see what other religions had to offer. I learned so many important life lessons from this process — I learned from Buddhism, for example, how to ground my mind when my depression got overwhelming. I learned from Daoism how censorship, control, and domination are not the only forms of influence and leadership.

I learned that there are so many beautiful and good things in other religions that have nothing to do with the Biblical Worldview™. 

I can freely admit that beauty and that goodness without fear. Because I came to realize that religion is more than a set of propositions that are true or false.

It is a force that underlies and propels human thinking and interaction. At the same time it is also the final touch to that thinking and interaction, an acrylic fixative for the oil painting of human ingenuity. Human beings have a desire to make sense of their world, to find a meaning in that sense, and to be inspired by the meaning they find.

In this sense, therefore, religion is both true and false, Christian and pagan, personal and social, relative and universal, oppressive and liberating. It can be each and every one because religion is not one particular entity. It is an edifice of both the idiosyncratic and the profound. As propositional truth about the universe’s origin, it can be true or false; as revealing the delicacy of human nature, it can be beautiful or ugly; as a particular society’s intense struggle to understand itself and its universe, it can either be faithful to that struggle or unfaithful; as encompassing disciplines such as meditation or yoga, it can either be healing or aggravating; and so forth. In short, it is so much more than what the evangelical culture believes.

One cannot divide religion into the simple categories of “right” and “wrong” based on whether it affirms the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

Even if one does affirm Jesus as such, one cannot say this is the essence of religion.

To see religion from a broader perspective doesn’t need to threaten anyone. For example, Christianity’s understanding of the universe can easily be understood as underlying this analysis. According to the Book of Genesis, the God of Israel created humanity in His image. He created humanity with the tools of reason, a blistering curiosity, and the insatiable need to put together the puzzle pieces of the world into a coherent picture that makes sense of this world. No matter what religion one adheres to, therefore, since one is still human in the sense of being made in God’s image, one will experience this insatiable need for a coherent portrait of reality.

Religion as such is the product of this need. The various religions are the attempts of human cultures throughout the history of the world to create a coherent picture of reality.

Even the contemporary American interpretation of Christianity is not a flawless deduction from the Old and New Testaments but rather one more human attempt at coherence.

To some people, of course, this necessitates a cynicism or pessimism regarding religion. (To the contemporary American Christian, it just implies heresy.) If religion is interpretation, how can anyone claim to have the right interpretation? While an important question, this inquiry all too often implies that interpretation as a process lacks any sort of inherent value. I simply disagree.

Maybe I read too many children’s books, but I am a big fan of process. I am forever unfolding, learning new things each day.

I will hold onto my wonder until the day I die.

Even if the process becomes tedious, it bears many gifts. It bears treasures unto the painter, the musician, the lover, and the logician. While religions have no doubt caused catastrophic pain and suffering (and I don’t mean to diminish this fact, but my personal struggle is appreciating other religions, not hating them; I was raised to hate most of them), religions are also the artifacts of cultures worthy to be preserved in the grandest of museums—remnants of the human struggle to understand an alienating and a chaotic world; the courageous refusals to cave into meaningless; the unparalleled artistry and creativity employed to justify such refusals.

Consider the poetic fury of the Rg Veda, or the kaleidoscopic narrative of theMahabharata, an epic unparalleled in mass and muse by the greatest of Greek and Roman artists. (Really, just read the Mahabharata, period. It makes the Iliad look like a Young Adult novel.) Plumb the depths of Dante’s Inferno. Bask in the apocalypse of St. John in his Book of Revelations. Know the deeply felt vibration of the mystical Om, or the karmapa chenno of the Diamond Way. Hear the austere men of faith solemnly chat their divine liturgies, especially the “One Hundred and Second Psalm” by the Russian Patriarchate Choir; adore the children who delight in their Sunday School rhymes.

Say what one may about these people and their faiths, yet think about how amazing it is —

Human beings have created art, song, and dance; tens of thousands of gods; histories and philosophies and mythologies — all to figure out life.

And then think about something else.

Think about the negatives, too, for one moment.

You cannot escape the negatives, no matter how beautiful your religion is, no matter how “biblical” your view of the world is.

One moment the Roman Catholic Church finds itself embroiled in sex scandals—the next moment it is the American Protestant Church, as Calvary Chapel and Sovereign Grace crumble under the weight of child abuse. Before that, human sacrifice occurred, documented in the Mahabharata. Isaac of the Old Testament also intended to sacrifice his son for his deity’s pleasure. King David of Israel committed adultery. So did Pastor Ted Haggard. So did Arjuna of Hindu fame. Chuang Tzu was a lazy bastard. Prominent Buddhists are notable money machines; The Purpose-Driven Life is, too.

This is the human element of religion.

It is the element of Midas: everything humanity lays its eager fingers upon transforms into a human endeavor, no matter how superhuman the endeavor might have first manifested.

When the Buddha left his palace home to seek enlightenment, he did not intend to create a worldwide movement full of sects that constantly bicker and would try to oust each other out of power. Neither did Jesus. In the 1950′s, Jim Jones had a seemingly simple goal: to create the People’s Temple, an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless. Decades later, the movement would end with over nine hundred adults and children drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid. The so-called Moral Majority seemed to have the blessing of God in 1978; by 1989 it fell apart, with many of its adherents later appearing in the news for sexual transgressions and drug abuse.

We cannot avoid this human element, any more than I think we can avoid the sense of wonder that provokes us to fashion religion. These things are essential to human being. To be human is to have a personality. And personality gives birth to the great fire that is the drama of human becoming—a drama in which religion plays a central role. It is the canvas on which we portray our search for truth.

I have come to appreciate that canvas, where it comes from. I have come to appreciate and love what each religion I have studied has to offer, and I do so with open arms, with a sincere desire to know and relate and understand.

I reject attempts to make myself and other people afraid to know and understand other humans and how they view the world from their own eyes. People who attempt that are snuffing out wonder, one book and one summer camp at a time.

I think of the child that Antoine de Saint Exupéry talks about, who sees the beautiful house and the grown-ups cannot understand the beauty in anything other than dollar amounts. Those of us who are learning to see the beauty in religions are scary to the “grown-ups” of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling because they cannot understand the beauty in anything other than disembodied doctrines:

“Does it fall under the Theism category?”

“Well, no, but I learned the most amaz—”

“Then off with its head!”

“But it contains an important truth about—”

“It’s not part of The Biblical Worldview™! End of story! Off with its head!

“But I really appreci—”

No! Off — With — Its — HEAD!”

I left that world. And I am not looking back.

If that’s what it means to be a grown-up, I’m choosing Neverland. I will live Where The Wild Things Are. Because I choose to celebrate my childlike wonder.

I choose to live in awe of the world, of humanity, of the amazingness that we — for whatever reason you want to say — have named tens of thousands of gods and created the Downward Dog pose; we sing songs and clap our hands and we eat wafers and say blood is wine; we laugh and cry together and we do all these things because we are that passionate about figuring out this maddening world we live in.

I mean, how amazing is that?

When I realized that, I stopped being afraid of other religions.

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions: Part Two, When Buddhism Saved My Life

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on July 30, 2013.

< Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

*****

“It’s not difficult to see why Eastern religion is such an attractive form of salvation for a post-Christian culture. It assuages the ego by pronouncing the individual divine, and it gives a gratifying sense of ‘spirituality’ without making any demands in terms of doctrinal commitment or ethical living.”

~Chuck Colson, How Now Shall We Live?, 2004

*****

Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life

There were two particularly eye-opening moments I had during my 12 months studying Eastern Classics at St. John’s College, and both revolved around Buddhism.

The first was when my discussion group read a Buddhist text. Going into the discussion, I expected that there would be a lively debate. After all, my class consisted of people with diverse religious beliefs — atheists, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and more. I assumed that disagreement would be plentiful. What I did not expect, however, was that the lively debate occurred primarily between the Buddhist students.

It gave me flashbacks to highschool when Christian homeschool debaters spent hours arguing with each other over free will versus predestination. 

Oh… there is more than one type of Buddhist, I realized. Which was a simple reality. But it was a reality that Summit Ministries, for example, omitted when they taught me about Buddhism. And it is a reality that makes a really big difference.

The second moment was when I became friends with a Buddhist for the first time in my life. I’ll call him C. here. C. was my best guy friend during my time at St. John’s. He practiced Diamond Way Buddhism. And he was nothing like the Christian stereotypes I had heard about Buddhists. In fact, he was the most emotional male I had ever known — and I mean that in a thoroughly positive way. He embraced emotions. He taught me that not all Buddhists believe that “enlightenment” is reached by avoiding emotions. Some Buddhists believe that you need to face emotions head-on, acknowledge their existence, let them be what they are, feel them fully, and then let them pass. Learning to master one’s emotions, he said, wasn’t a matter of ignoring them.

You look your emotions in the eyes and say, “Oh. Hey. You exist. I am going to feel you. Maybe even for a long while. But then you will pass. Because you are not me.”

What C. taught me about emotions is one of the most important lessons I have ever learned in my life. Growing in the conservative Christian homeschool world, where first-time obedience and purity culture were rampant, I was taught to distance myself from my emotions, to be afraid of them:

Don’t be angry at adults. Anger is rebellion.

Don’t look at attractive women. You will lust.

Don’t be sad. You must set an example for others.

Buddhism made me realize that emotions are. They exist. This is just a fact of life. It is ok to feel them.

When I feel attraction towards a woman, that is ok. The woman is attractive, and therefore I experience attraction.

It is ok to feel attraction.

When someone does something that is mean or unfair, I experience hurt.

It is ok to feel hurt.

While this might seem like common sense, it wasn’t common to my experience growing up. And it made me realize that this stereotype I had of Buddhists — emotional asceticism — was actually more descriptive of Christianity than Buddhism — at least the Christianity I was raised in.

It was my American Christianity, not Buddhism, that needed to be told Jesus wept and that was ok.

I owe something else to Buddhism as well, something really big. I owe Buddhism my life. While I never converted to Buddhism, I did practice meditation for that year at St. John’s. To be honest, I pretty much hated the process. I do not like sitting cross-legged, and I do not like keeping my back straight and closing my eyes for an hour. But I did it just to say I tried. And in the years since then, when my depression flares up and my suicidal tendencies become overwhelming, I always find myself going back to my Buddhist meditations.

There is nothing religious about this fact. It is, for me, purely psychological. When all else fails, when my body is shaking and all I can think about is ending my life, it is the repetition of karmapa chenno and the visualizing of running mandala beads through my hands that can get my mind re-grounded. These things — though distant memories from almost a decade ago — are lifelines back to reality when my mental health distintegrates.

Buddhism, not my American Christianity, taught me how to mentally ground myself.

On more occasions than I’d like to admit, Buddhism has saved my life.

People who have difficulty with understanding how complex the human mind is, and how complex religions actually are, would find this a terrifying prospect. You can’t be a real Christian and at the same time appreciate Buddhism, the line might go. But I am not terrified by this idea. Because I do not see Buddhism, or Christianity, as set of propositions that are either true or false. I see them as so much more than that.

I see that I cannot step foot into a Christian church (and have not been able to for years) without experiencing a panic attack. And I know that this honestly has nothing to do with the truth-propositions of Christianity. It has to do with just about everything about Christianity other than the truth-propositions. In the same way, my positive experience of Buddhism — that it has saved my life — also has little to do with truth-propositions.

This is a key part of what I mean, then, when I said in Part One that, “Religion is a complex totality of human and other elements, only one element of which is the sort of truth-claim that one can package into propositions.”

This is also a key reason why I am not ashamed in any way to say that I love more than one religion.

*****

Part Three: I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder >

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions, Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on July 30, 2013.

*****

“Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible world-views are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society.”

~James Dobson and Gary Bauer, Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Kids, 1990

*****

Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

When I enrolled in the Eastern Classics program at St. John’s College back in 2005, I encountered many and varied responses from fellow evangelical Christians. Some proved encouraging and others not so.

The most common response, though, was: “Are you a Buddhist?”

As the months passed and the time of graduation grew closer, the question changed, but only slightly:

“Have you become a Buddhist?”

At first the question provoked but a smile. As it grew more regular, however, and as I began to know more about Eastern philosophies and religions as well as what actually occurred in the minds of the questioners, it provoked a thought process. I realized that, to many Christians I knew, “Eastern” meant “Buddhist.” And “Buddhist” meant some tranquil species of rebellion against the American Jesus — like if Satan made Xanax for the mind. I vividly remember one individual who commented that, if I were to study Eastern religions, I better not become a Buddhist: Buddhists have no emotions whereas, you know, Jesus wept.

Such comments are likely the result of ignorance regarding world religions. A good number of the people who asked this question in 2005 did not shun inquiry. They merely lacked familiarity with Buddhism. They did not know (as I did not know prior to a year of study in the Eastern Classics) that Buddhism, like Christianity, has a dizzying number of denominations, each vying for doctrinal dominion. Consequently, when someone asks me now if I agree with Buddhism, I experience great difficulty answering the question: “Which denomination?” I have to ask. I have great fondness for the emotional freedom and experience-based practices of Diamond Way Buddhism, for example, whereas I dislike the asceticism of Theravada Buddhism. American Zen Buddhism is another story.

I have thus realized, after these conversations with friends and fellow students, that the American Christian mind (maybe even the American mind) has a paltry understanding of some of the longest-standing and deeply rooted ideas of the world. American evangelicals especially do not take time to appreciate, let alone understand, a good number of their strongest opponents in the sphere of religion. Those who have taken time (seemingly not much) only do so to construct flimsy card-houses with the purpose of a surprise attack.

You have groups like Summit Ministries and Worldview Weekend, training up the next generation with nothing more than an arsenal of generalizations, simplifications, and shameless reductionism.

No one seems interested in taking the ideas of other religions at face value and learning to see any sort of beauty or value in them.

To say that other religions can be beautiful or valuable is not an exercise in relativism. But granting this beauty or value will likely suffer the fate of being interpreted as such by many of today’s “worldview” champions. The old guard of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling — Dobson and Bauer, from this post’s opening quotation, and people like Summit’s David Noebel and John Stonestreet, or homeschooling’s Kevin Swanson and Ken Ham — is terrified of anything that sounds “postmodern.”

Postmodernism is like intellectual dub step to the old guard.

In today’s evangelical culture, a defense of religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon seems indistinct from a defense of religious pluralism and intellectual apathy. But that’s because this culture is so afraid of “liberal” arts to the point that it cannot comprehend some basic philosophical and sociological concepts. The fact is, to understand religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon grants humanity the freedom to explore a ground to aesthetics and society that condemns, rather than condones, an unwillingness to pursue truth.

But first: what does “religion” mean? And what would it mean, that one can perceive this noun’s content as “aesthetic” and “social”?

To the evangelical culture, religion is either Christian and thus true or pagan and thus untrue. This proves a stunted understanding, however, because religion is neither one nor many truth-claims which one can either affirm or reject. Religion is no doubt a phenomenon which entails truth-claims. But it also entails much more. Religion is a complex totality of human and other elements, only one element of which is the sort of truth-claim that one can package into propositions.

We need to start seeing religion — and any particular religion — not as a mass of disembodied doctrines but as what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “world conspiracy.” “World conspiracy,” in fact, seems the best definition for religion.

What does this mean?

In The Sacred Canopy, Berger explains that,

“The condition of the human organism in the world is…characterized by a built-in instability. Man does not have a given relationship to the world. He must ongoingly establish a relationship with it.”

The world abounds with the sort of innate precariousness that a Buddhist would term as impermanence — “All things pass,” sighs Kaoru, one of the main characters in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. This line is almost identical to Solomon’s sentiment in Ecclesiastes.

Human and other life forms, buildings and projects, ideas and romances—these all rise and fall, constantly, perpetually, each and every day. As a result of this precariousness, human beings go about selecting structures of meaning in which they can operate. Humans construct families, work places, technology, and institutions in which to control the elements of the world that bear chaos. Out of their constructions human beings hope for an order, a society. Peter Berger says,

“Society, as objective reality, provides a world for man to inhabit. This world encompasses the biography of the individual, which unfolds as a series of events within that world”

But humans need more than order: they need to feel meaningfulness within that order. They require that order to be “ordained” in some way. Thus,

“a meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals.”

This nomos is religion:

“Religion is that human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established, wherein ‘cosmos’ implies not a galaxy but order.”

This final addition to the human world-building project grants the project and its everyday objects and endeavors a sense of purpose, an all-encompassing reason for pursuing the ends of the society. Berger terms this sense of purpose or reason a “sacred canopy” cast over world-building. It is a “world conspiracy” in the sense that humans work together to give their reality a meaning:

“Religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant”

What Berger as a sociologist calls a “world conspiracy,” or “sacred canopy,” a theologian like N.T. Wright might term “worldview.” (1) Jamake Highwater, a historian and philosopher of sexuality, preferred the term “mythology” in his 1991 book Myth and Sexuality:

“All human beliefs and activities spring from an underlying mythology—those metaphors, informing imageries, and paradigms which deeply influence every aspect of our lives and which determine our attitudes about reality—about the world and about ourselves: good and evil, normalcy and abnormalcy, fact and fiction, justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, power and powerlessness.”

Whether one prefers world conspiracy, sacred canopy, worldview, or mythology as a descriptive, the common factor among the ideas is that human being itself contains within it a hope and passion for carving out a home in a hostile existence.

This hope and passion — and all its nuances, quirks, failures, and successes — is the stuff of religion.

*****

Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life >