“Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.
Each separate being in the universe
Returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
Every year I teach Genesis to college students. One thing that often puzzles them is the lists of names; why take a whole page to list all of Noah’s descendants?
I tell them a story about when I worked at the Grand Canyon for a summer when I was their age. During orientation, a park ranger was giving a talk about the Native American cultures indigenous to the region. He started by asking how many of us know who our grandparents were?
Everyone raised their hand.
Next, he asked how many of us know who their parents were?
Almost everyone raised their hand.
Finally, he asked how many of us know who their great grandparents’ great grandparents were? One man in the back—who revealed himself to be of Navajo descent—raised his hand. Imagine, Ranger Roger said, knowing your precise place in a family history reaching back hundreds or thousands of years. For the Jews, the Biblical narratives reminded them who they were and where they came from. What we moderns may deride as “ancestor worship” in primitive cultures serves a vital purpose.
The word “religion” is related, etymologically, to the word “ligament.” To remember where we came from is to literally re-member ourselves—to restore the connection that the emergence of self-consciousness severs. The term sin tends to be loaded with moral weight, as a personal failing for which we feel guilty, a red balance sheet we are forever trying to clear. But a better way to understand the term is “separation.” Religion, in this sense, means healing the rifts that rise up within our minds, between our minds and bodies, between each other, and with the world.
We are great at watching the turmoil of beings, but terrible at contemplating their return. “If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow.” Religion, at its best, reverses this existential entropy.
But what does it mean to be religious?
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