Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Where in our lives does religion belong?

Religion is a dicey subject. Along with politics it is known to be one of the two big no no's when trying to keep dinner conversation peaceful and civil.

For most, the word religion means buildings (churches, temples, and mosques), beliefs, books (like the Bible, the Qur'an or the Baghavad Gita), the occasional person or two (like the Pope, or the Dalai Lama), and the rare and occasional saint among us (like Mother Theresa). As for the rest, folks tend to think of religion as personal or private. But can it be that easy? A very important piece often does not get the attention or reflection it deserves. What is the place of religion in the larger scheme of life and society?

For example, should religious people do good? Of course, we say. But even with this first simplest and obvious answer, tough questions already arise. What if an irresponsible couple next door constantly left two little ones unattended for long hours every night? What should Bill and Mary, the caring, prayerful, and faithful members of St. Katherine's do? A great many would say, "My gosh, they should not do anything!" That's the job of the city and city services.

Or supposing there was pending legislation, cleverly designed to block a group of believers from moving into my neighborhood, or having a place of worship here? Should conscientious religious people organize or lobby to prevent its passage? Or aren't religious people supposed to stay the heck out of politics? In dozens of situations like these everyday, the neat lines between religion and secular society is tricky.

But if religion is important, and to a vast many it is, then just how it functions in greater society and in day to day life must be important too. What are the rules? Unfortunately, they are not cut and dried, even in a country like the United States. But one thing we can know for sure, good outcomes have their best chance when energetic religious life and secular commitment to a safe and prosperous societies cooperate.

Last weekend, in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Buddhist believers did what no secular or political figures could. Following intense, and extremely volatile naval skirmishes with nuclear-armed North Korea, Buddhist monks from both North and South met together to honor their ancient founder, and perhaps to remind Koreans everywhere that their oneness is ancient, and their wars are young. In this case believers showed a better way by doing something that even could have global consequences.

On the other side, this past Monday, the vice president of Iraq offered a special, government bonus for newlyweds who were mixed Sunni-Shia couples. These special families to be were given $2,000 (to help start married life), a banquet with music, and even a hotel night for their honeymoon. Is that government meddling? Is that blurring the lines of church and state? Or is it a visionary political act to help dissolve forces that foster conflict, terrorism, and radicalization? This time it was the political side that gave the nudge toward a better, more peaceful society.

Where does religion belong in our lives? The answer is never cut and dried. There is no final, fixed formula. But our best chance every time is when the sacred and secular look upon the other as friend and partner.

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