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The Problem With Religion

In defense of mutability

Cathedral/David B. Seaburn
Source: Cathedral/David B. Seaburn

As a college freshman, I changed my major from political science (with an eye toward the law) to religion (with the goal of becoming a minister). Despite the surety suggested in this decision, one that did lead to my eventual ordination, it did not resolve my struggle with the differences between faith and the container in which it often resides: religion.

Even as a child—and definitely as a teen—I bristled at the constraining nature of religious creeds, structures and rules. When deciding on a seminary, I rebelled against the persistent recommendations of my religious advisers and went to school outside my denomination. When I was examined for ordination and read my statement of faith, the assembled body was so shaken by the lack of traditional language, the emphasis on social justice and the respect for uncertainty (especially about the issue of resurrection) that a significant minority of the body voted against me. My faith and sense of God’s incarnate presence in all of reality kept me in parish ministry for six years, but the structure of it, the religion surrounding the practice, seemed stultifying. It does to this day. I left parish ministry and spent my career in the field of mental health.

I still wrestle with the need for structure and roots as well as process and wings when it comes to matters of religion and faith (and other issues, as well). I found echoes of this struggle recently in a cover story about identity in the New York Times Book Review which featured The Lies That Bind, Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah argues that we are struggling with our corporate identity because of failures or errors in each of these critical Cs.

He begins with creed or religion and suggests that we treat religions as “immutable beliefs” rather than “mutable practices and communities.” Appiah then says that religion "is an activity, not a thing." The book’s reviewer, Anand Giridharadas, adds that we “make religion a noun when it should really be a verb…”

I find this helpful in my own existential wrestling match. I understand the attraction of the “immutable,” which is to say, the permanent and the established, the firm foundation, the sound container in which one can practice one’s faith and find guidance in seeking one’s truth. But I recoil from the rigidity, inflexibility and etched-in-granite quality that characterizes those same containers, those same institutions; institutions that often expend their greatest energy in defending what they deem immutable and the beliefs and practices and tradition and power upon which that immutability is based.

I see these latter qualities in much of what religion (and other powerful institutions) offers today; I see self-preservation and self-satisfaction, attack and defense, disguise and dishonesty. All to maintain the status quo while appearing to embrace newness or change. When any institution or set of beliefs is deemed immutable, there is always the risk that the welfare of the individuals inside those institutions will be ignored, manipulated and abused.

While it still frightens me, I am drawn to the “mutable,” to those beliefs and conceptions and practices and communities that are open to and revel in change, movement, variability and even unpredictability. The traditional structures of my early life journey and faith have lost their gravitational pull. There is too much at stake to stay behind, to settle rather than explore, to reach-for rather than hold-on-to.

Everything changes; everything is in process. Nothing is permanent, including our understanding of God, faith, and religion. They too are in process; they too are mutable; they too are subject to change, and surely benefit from the periodic shaking of foundations.

Perhaps the only thing that is immutable is the mutable nature of our tireless (yet often joyful) efforts to create meaning, to sort through why we are here, and to decide what we are to do during our short visit in this place.

David B. Seaburn is a writer. His latest novel is Parrot Talk. He is also a retired marriage and family therapist, psychologist and minister.

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