Religion as Rightness

As the sociologists will tell you, religion is notoriously difficult to define. Typically, religion is defined as sacred beliefs and rituals that bind a community together.

I was struck by John Haught's definition of religion in his recent book The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe. It's a view of religion that's been rattling around in my brain.

According to Haught, "religion" refers to a seismic change in human consciousness that occurred during the Axial age, the great spiritual awakening that occurred in the East, in Greece, and in the births of the Abrahamic faiths. Religion, for Haught, names what emerged in cosmic history during this epoch, and what is held in common across these wisdom traditions.

And what would that be? What is the core of religion?

According to Haught, the core insight of religion is "rightness." Here is Haught describing the dawn of "rightness" in human consciousness during the Axial age:
What was occurring during the axial period--and continues now--was the birth of a new sense of rightness. The new wave of consciousness began to make sharper distinctions than ever before between a right way and a wrong way to live, think, act, work, and pray. Indian mystics during the axial period, for example, distinguished a higher calling to reality and truth from a lower and lazier contentment with illusion and attachment to immediacy. They sought to purify piety of contamination by distracting symbolic imagery and warned against a life of vain attachment to passing allurements. Ultimate rightness, they said, is neti neit, "not this, not that." ... The Buddha (circa 500 BCE), in his Noble Eightfold Path, sought to teach right wisdom, right action, and right appreciation. Even though he was not concerned with finding a deity to worship, or a permanence beneath perishing, the Buddha was nonetheless measuring human piety, moral conduct, and wisdom in accordance with an incorruptible standard of "rightness." In China Laozi was looking for the right Way. In the Greek world Socrates and Plato noted the sharp difference between opinion and truth, between what is transient and imperfect on the one hand and what is real and perfectly good on the other. The prophets of Israel a bit earlier had laid out a path for authentic human existence in which "doing right" (tzedek, tzedekah, mishpat) came to be associated less with sacrificial offerings and more intimately with the ideal of social justice as commanded by a God whose preeminent concern was for the poor and oppressed. The prophet Micah taught that the right way to live is "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Centuries later Jesus of Nazareth, identifying himself with the prophetic tradition, distinguished between the present age of injustice and the "right" age of compassion and peace now dawning. He spoke of a "reign of God" in which superabundant love would transcend mere fairness. His apostle Paul referred to the work of Jesus as "justification," a term that implies "making things right." The evangelist Luke wrote of the early Christian movement as the "the (right) way" (hodos), and the Gospel of John presents Jesus as "the way, the truth and the life." Still later, Muhammad would set forth the Five Pillars of Islam as the way to keep his followers on the right course in their pilgrimage on Earth.
Not denying the existence of supernatural beliefs and rituals throughout history, Haught defines the core of religion as this dawning of "rightness." He writes:
When I use the term "religion" in this book, I therefore mean an awakening to the dawning of "rightness" ... It was during this "axial" time in human history that devotees began to acknowledge formally that rightness is real--indeed more real than anything else.
And a bit more from Haught on the connection between rightness and religion:
The long and gradual cosmic awakening to rightness has become explicit, in widely different ways, in wisdom traditions such as Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Platonism, Christianity, and Islam. By promoting values that they take to be universally and unconditionally good--for example, compassion for life, love of truth, and care for other humans--religious traditions sometimes think of rightness worshipfully. For them it is the transcendent ground of all being, truth, and value. At times they enshrine, adore, and even personify rightness, treasuring it as what is most real. To emphasize its universal and inexpressible realness, they endow it with the qualities of hiddenness, transcendence, and indestructibility. To religion the inaccessible, comprehensive, and unsettling reality of rightness is the ultimate reason why humans seek truth, why we have a sense of obligation, and why we long restlessly for perfect beauty. In our intellectual, moral, and aesthetic experiences we all, at least tacitly, anticipate rightness--even when we deny it. This becomes obvious whenever we catch ourselves in the act of looking for right understanding, right action, and right satisfaction. Even ordinary human consciousness is inseparable from a tasting of rightness.

In religion, however, the tasting intensifies to the point of savoring. In religion people become explicitly and thankfully aware of the reality of rightness. Religion is a gradual but grateful awakening to the elusive horizon of unrestricted being, goodness, truth, and beauty. These are "transcendental" ideals that, for the sake of linguistic economy, I refer to collectively as rightness.

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