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Religion: What Is It?
Open To Thinking: A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2014-03-05

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Religion, for better and for worse, is a fundamental force in all human cultures, including our contemporary 'secular' civilizations, allegedly built upon non-religious principles.

There are several productive ways of studying religion, ways that are as free from ideology and preconceptions as is humanly possible. William James developed a pragmatic approach that focused on the effects of religious experience rather than its causes.

Consider Paul's conversion experience, his 'being knocked off his horse' as he journeyed from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Jewish followers of Jesus. Did Paul actually meet Jesus in this experience? Did Jesus actually make Paul an apostle through this experience? We don't know the answers to these questions. We don't really know whether Paul was actually knocked off his horse. But, from a pragmatic point of view, none of those things matter to the 'truth' of Paul's religious experience. What we can know and what we do know is how Paul responded to this experience: what Paul taught in his writings and what actions Paul took in creating Christianity as a religion independent of Judaism. These things are true whether from God or from epilepsy or from a horse throwing Paul off his back just for-the-hell-of-it.

James' pragmatic approach enjoys an intellectual kinship with a variety of methods generally called phenomenological which investigate the question 'What is Religion?' through the study of the structures, symbols, and objects of 'religious' experiences without defining in advance what is or is not a religious experience.

One type of phenomenology examines the 'objects' in a given religious experience.

For example, in the East Liberty ghetto where I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Italian community focused its prayer life primarily on the Madonna, with St. Anthony running a distant second. Even the German nuns, who taught me to read and write, affirmed this primacy of Mary by the dictum: 'How could God ( that is, Jesus the Christ ) deny his mother's request.' St. Anthony was invoked for anything lost: lost things, lost causes, lost persons.

Descriptively, therefore, my East Liberty, Italian community had the Madonna as the center of its actual religious life, with God the Father, the God in the Heavens ( the High God or the Sky God ) as the acknowledged and respected, but largely distant, Supreme God.

The primacy of devotion to the Madonna holds true for Italian Catholic communities in general, with Jesus the Christ and/or various saints taking second place depending upon the specific sub-groups.

My mother developed a special devotion to St. Joseph because she felt the need to give my brother and myself a 'real father' to guide us into manhood and through the perils thereof. In my 'hood' this task was no easy job even for a saint. She frequently informed St. Joseph that he wasn't holding up his end of the bargain. In Tennessee Williams' 'Rose Tattoo,' Serafina della Rose, the Sicilian widow, would turn the statue of St. Joseph toward the wall when he failed to deliver as he should. In these instances, the story and the image of St. Joseph are the objects of religious experience and expression.

If we compare the iconography in the churches of the Catholic version of Christianity with that of the Calvinist version, we see at once and dramatically the profoundly different focuses of these two religious traditions. In the Calvinist churches, the pulpit usually dominates the sanctuary space, with the altar and the crucifix sometimes equally present, sometimes wholly subordinate, and sometimes not present at all. Hearing and responding to the Word of God has primacy of place in the liturgy; the Bible is the principle symbol of the living presence of God in the community.

In the Catholic tradition, there is a veritable pantheon of icons surrounding the primary symbols of the altar, the crucifix, the Madonna, and the favorite saint, with the consequence that there are many operative centers of this community at worship.

This comparison of iconographies leads us to another way of studying religion through an analysis of its primary symbols.

Let us consider this trinity of symbols in the worship of the Italian community in which I grew up: the baby Jesus, the Madonna, and the crucified Christ. What kind of god reveals itself in these inter-related icons? What kind of divine power expresses itself as a baby with its arms stretched out asking to be picked up and cared for, or as a grief consumed mother holding the broken body of her son, or as a person who suffers and dies just like you and me.

The above reflections concern the content of religious experience. In another column I shall discuss the social functions of religion.

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.


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