A personal reflection: What is a religion? Part I

Dear members and friends of the SF Swedenborgian Church,

I have no scholarly authority to give a proper definition of what religion is or what it is not. Thus, my purpose here is simply to contemplate the question, “What is a religion?” and share my personal reflections. Since this is a topic that requires many words, I’ve divided it into three parts for the coming three weeks.

Linguistically, the word religion is derived from the Latin religio. However, the origin of religio was obscure even in ancient times. There are a few classical interpretations which have been accepted as definitions of the word religio, such as “proper performance of rites in veneration of the gods” by Cicero, or “to reconnect” by St. Augustine. Yet, there is no one definition of religion that satisfies all scholars and practitioners of religions in the world. In other words, defining what religion is is a very hard or even impossible task!

In whichever way we desire to define religion or being religious, as soon as it is defined, it will only be valid to a person or a group of people who agrees with the definition. So, I would like to begin with a somewhat conventional understanding of what it means to be religious: one has a strong conviction/faith in something/some being that neither can be proven or disproven by human logic and/or the natural law. Yet, religion or being religious is ultimately about the human experiences of something/some being who is not of human origin. Herein lie the paradox: religion has to be defined and systematized by humans based on their experiences of something/someone that is non-human! Here, non-human does not mean just a different species, such as how a dog is non-human, but rather a difference in the realm of existence and reality itself. For instance, humans live and dwell in the physical reality, while the objects of religion are often  beings/figures whose main domain is in the spiritual reality, the existence of which itself is debatable. A religion or being religious can be understood by means of two methodologies: 1. An institutionalized system of rituals and faith imposed on people promising that they will be part of something bigger than their life; 2. An individual and personal conviction assured by means of what one believes to be true that serves as strong personal faith.

Next week, I would like to explore the difference between these two approaches and discuss what it means to be religious and whether or not it’s a matter of choice.

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee