I saw him kneeling in prayer after the service was over in church and people had started filtering out. He knelt with hands folded and head bowed down for quite some time before getting up and moving out. I was struck by the open devotion. Christians are not usually seen kneeling in prayer in formal church congregations. Kneeling in praise and prayer is mostly confined to private home spaces and informal worship congregations.
I saw him do so Sunday by Sunday. He was a familiar face from my Coaching class, but we hadn’t befriended each other. Weeks later when the ice broke and pleasantries were exchanged, I asked him about his faith journey. To my utter dismay, he said that he didn’t really believe in God!! In the months and years of our acquaintanceship that followed I was to learn that he acknowledges God for two reasons – one, because his mother insists that does so and two, he doesn’t want to invite the wrath of God and let something bad happen to him by skipping a Sunday church service.
Whoa!! That was quite a revelation for me. A 27-28 year old young man with patterns of behaviour that he does not believe in! This was years before. He is still the same, rather more diffident!
While parents can and need to instill faith values in children, rote faith does more harm than good. When God is known for who He is, faith exudes automatically. Religion can be passed on down the generations, but faith cannot be. Faith is personal.
The world today stands greatly divided on the basis of religion. In my opinion, it is meant to be so. Different principles of different religions hold good for different people for different reasons and cannot be expected to be uncompromisingly unifying. Religion is a unifying force within ingroups. But when we think of two or more religions, one is the outgroup to the other. And so, divisions emerge.
One corrective thought that the world at large refuses to see is the difference between religion and culture and the difference between religion and faith. This is what I would be focussing on within the limited cope of this article..
Having been a student of World and Indian Sociology for more than a decade, the stark difference between religion and culture is all the more obvious to me. There is no doubt an overlapping line between the two, but both are NOT the same. Culture is largely determined by the geography, apart from many other distinct features (which I will refrain from listing for the sake of brevity). And so we see people in different parts of the global hemisphere eat, dress, believe and behave in different ways.
From times in the far past, humans have been in awe of some supreme power ruling over their lives for which culturally appropriate and functionally reasonable entities were ascribed power. That is how each civilization and culture has contributed its share of gods, goddesses, demi-gods and deities to the world. To give just one example, we have Tefnut known as the Egyptian god of rain, Zeus known as the Greek god of rain, Indra known as the Indian god of rain and so on across various cultures – all revered as rain-causing deities (by those who believe) with deeply embedded cultural connotations and culturally appropriate ways of appeasements. Similarly, there are many more divine entities which are ascribed the functionalities of love, wealth, wisdom, famines, plagues, destruction, prosperity, fertility, etc. across almost all cultures, with very few exceptions. And so, we have this unavoidable amalgamation of religion and culture.
However, the two different constructs that they are, religion and culture though form a symbiosis of sorts cannot essentially be conglomerated into a synthesis.
This is because religion is supposed to find its basis in divinity. Whereas, culture is a combination of geography, language, norms, values, folklores and mores, art, architecture, music, dance, family, society, customs and religions (here goes the list of the distinct components of culture). So you see, religion/s is a subset of the larger set called culture. Equating religion and culture leads to constricting the wider domain of culture, while expanding the narrower turf of religion. Confusing identities and nasty conflicts eventually threaten to rule the roost.
I’ll pause on religion and culture here and switch over to the other distinction – religion and faith.
Religion, being a socio-cultural construct does its part in generating belief in and worship of the supernatural. Scanning through world history and geography would provide us deeper insights into how various religions were born. Just as we have the known planets and the unknown ones in the vast universe, we also have many known religions and many more unknown religions (not to mention the numerous sects, cults and denominations) spread across the length and breadth of the world with multifarious religious practices and rituals. To give an example, Hindu married women in India keep a day-long fast for the longevity of their husbands. This is called Karwa Chauth in Northern and Western India. The fast ends only after the moon is spotted in the evening sky and is seen by the fasting ladies followed by certain rituals. A very similar fast is kept by Hindu married ladies in Odisha at a different time of the year, and this is called Savitri amavasya. This fast by contrast, is observed on a moonless day and comes to an end in the evening in a similar way.
The same religion, same objective, same country but different ways of observations and different sets of rituals according to the geographical divide of the land. Each set of rituals and practices has its own mythology behind it and is held precious by those who adhere to it.
So is it with all religions. Touring across the world (virtually for now 🙂 )would make these understandings even more obvious.
So then, are religion and faith one and the same?
The answer is NO.
One can practise or follow a religion meticulously without having faith in God (as in the case of my friend mentioned in the beginning of the article). Another can have faith in God without subscribing to a religion as such. The former is easier than the latter considering that religion is an identity-essential in society, with few having the option to refrain from such identities.
Again, it is the societal construct that attempts to synthesize religion with faith, the end result of which proves to be a mess. A church-going person is considered to be godly. A fervent ritual-observer is labelled as pious. A performance of certain ceremonials is thought to provide self-satisfaction. Keeping certain fasts, eating or not eating certain foods on certain days are considered to be signs of piety. These are the parameters on the basis of which we (others) assess ourselves and others.
It can be argued that these religious acts are indeed observances of faith. But, the truth is that inherited religion and the accompanying rituals make God and faith esoteric obscurities.
So then, should religious teachings not be imparted? Should faith not be propagated?
Both have their places intact. The Bible says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
If we spare a thought to what matters before God – faith or religion, faith or rituals – we would undoubtedly have ‘faith’ as the answer. God is the echoing Truth of the universe and He treasures our faith in Him. Having God as the object of our faith would help wean away most of the undesirable rituals that have been getting passed on over the ages. He and only He matters.
In the inconclusive debates between theism versus deism or pantheism versus panentheism or atheism versus agnosticism and many more such isms, the truth about God is seldom sought after by the intellectuals and learned philosophers who prefer rather to establish their theories.
No matter what worldview we hold or what teachings have been imparted to us, it is worthwhile to embark on the journey to know God and worship Him for who He really is, not for who we think He may be. Not hollow observance of rituals or cultural religiosity, but a mere simple child-like faith in Him is what He requires.