The Purpose of Religion by Joan Chittister

The Purpose of Religion (e-newsletter Jan 16,2012)

Religion has various functions at various stages of life. It is a guidepost from early life through to the end. It is a direction, a map. But it is not a guarantee of anything. Religion has corrupted as much as it has saved. Clearly, there must be something more than the religion itself that must be our goal.

In early life, in youth, the function of religion is the formation of conscience. Religion sets the standards that mark the path. Every religion, according to the Universal Code of Ethics adopted at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999, accepts four nonnegotiables: not to steal, not to lie, not to murder, and not to exploit another sexually. These are the guidelines of the good life. There is a law above the law, we learn. And that law is the end toward which we tend.

In middle age, religion becomes a social guide. It is a measure of our relationship with others. It creates the standards that measure the quality of the soul as well as the behaviors of the person. It becomes an attitude toward life. Some things are holy, some things are not. It is the ideals to which we cling, even as we drift a bit from the moorings of our early life. All the absolutes begin to be tested. We begin to understand that religion is more a deep-down struggle to believe and to do than simply a way of acting, sterile on paper, full of thorns in the flesh.

Finally, as we grow older, when we begin the last stage of life, it is clear that behaviors and failures are not the stuff of religion much anymore. Now, the ecstasy of life and the surrender to the Mystery become the last of the revelations of religion. Now, everything we learned long ago, gave up to some degree long ago, never left completely long ago, begins to make sense. Begins to become me. Begins my new beginning as a person.

Then, in the later years, religion ceases to be simply a series of rites and rituals, of rules and answers for which I get some kind of eternal points. Religion becomes what it was always meant to be: a search for a relationship with the Spirit who draws us on. Always on. Even to the point where “on” is unclear.

Religion is not a millstone around the neck anymore. It is the warm, soft, strong, hard awareness that yes, it has all been for something worthwhile.

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