Wednesday, February 02, 2005

What Does It Take to Live a Religious Life?

What does it take to live a religious life?

I don’t mean “religious life” necessarily in the sense of being diligently observant of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim rituals. Certainly a religious life would entail one’s being observant in this way, but I think it is more important to be philosophically committed to the core ideas of one’s religion.

Abstract, egghead terms like “philosophically committed” are easy to dismiss. What I mean, though, is a kind of default mindset, a natural way of thinking all the time. As an example, I remember that my wife and I, at an early point in our relationship, understood that we were going to be together, to be married, and to build a life together. Breaking up or not being together ceased to be any part of our thinking – they ceased to be at all likely outcomes of anything happening in our lives.

I want this same kind of comfort and stability in my relationship with religion, specifically Judaism. I want to have a similar kind of entrenched commitment to and belief in a Jewish understanding of the universe. Obviously, I don’t feel that I live a religious life or that I have a strong internal foundation of Jewish belief.

Having doubt is perhaps a virtue. Posing questions about G-d, even directly to G-d, is about as Jewish as you can get. Besides, who can take seriously a person unwilling to examine his or her own spirituality? The problem for me is that I never seem to reach a point where I can say, “OK, I believe. Tomorrow, I might have doubts again, but right at this moment, I fully and genuinely believe in and love G-d.”

I understand that the best way to overcome my doubt is to study Torah, perform mitzvot, and participate in a Jewish community. Reading advice columns and other commentary – such as can be found abundantly online – provides little help for me.

For example, in “Is the Divine Just a Cosmic Party Pooper?” Rabbi David Aaron says, “People think that serving G-d is demeaning; servitude implies a slave-master relationship. But that is not the real meaning of serving G-d. The opportunity to serve G-d is the greatest gift we could ever imagine. It's empowering. To serve G-d means that we can do something on behalf of G-d. It's an unbelievable honor!”

If this formulation of the matter is intended to be persuasive, I don’t find it so – it’s essentially a he-said, she-said. One person equates serving G-d as a form of diminution; another feels honored to serve G-d.

Two sets of standards are needed here: criteria for diminution and for honor. Now, I am not looking to try and objectively determine whether it IS demeaning to serve G-d or whether it IS an honor. The criteria will influence the outcome, and if your definitions are more restrictive than mine, then we’ll get different results.

The point is, though, that someone needs to consciously install a standard. This is something I never see commentators do. Everyone gives his or her side of the he-said, she-said angle, and that’s it. Making a case is apparently a dying art.

I think that, for me, these are two sympathetic concerns, living a religious life and making cases. One way I need to find, explore, and express my beliefs is to argue for them. No, I don’t think I am someone who argues for certain beliefs; I argue for the things that justify and support beliefs. Maybe I hope to achieve a religious life and a certainty of belief by establishing the proper context.

It sounds silly when it is formulated like this, but it’s good at least to come to a conclusion. Conclusions are, after all, the context of conclusions yet to come.

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