We are in the season of lists that look back on the year and designate best books, blogs, films, music, and other items. This is a ritually consoling way of taking stock of the previous 12 months, highlighting those events and stories and products that stood out as special or unique, and reminding folks that as one year passes, another is about to begin.
Religion lists are especially prominent this year, with authors claiming the obvious about what stood out in the world: a new Pope; disappearing Jews; gay marriage; Muslim violence; the death of Mandela, and so on. It's an easy and fun task to pull up these stories, rank them, and say a few words about each to remind readers of the incessant, often easily forgotten, news cycle of current events that fade from view almost as quickly as they emerge in public consciousness.
The real story about religion is that it won't go away, and whatever blips and blasts make it to CNN or Fox or The Huffington Post will inevitably be pushed aside by new stories that fleetingly capture the imagination. Perhaps this year we can look at religion and identify some stories that never die, that are not simply events that happened over the course of 12 months but are, in a sense, eternally returning and deeply rooted in human cultures and consciousness.
So with that in mind, let's dig beneath the surface of things and dredge up some religion stories that are thousands of years old. Here are the top 5 religion stories of all time:
5. The sacred is elementary. The sacred is always present in societies, a basic elemental way of thinking about the world, identifying what is of greatest importance, and unifying groups of people together. Totems, taboos, territories, time, and so on are all tied in to what counts as sacred and how that is differentiated from the profane. Nothing is more important to social identities and solidarity than the sacred -- it is both the glue that binds individuals together and the source for profound and meaningful religious experiences that shape cultural values and ideals. Gods and spirits, texts and flags, animals and landscapes are only a few examples of sacred phenomena found throughout human history.
4. Religious conflict is inevitable. While the sacred can unite groups around shared values and common rituals, unfortunately it can also divide people against each other and justify competition, conflicts, and killing. The engines of human history are fueled by contestations over the sacred; because we can't agree about this elemental fact of social life and so much is at stake in protecting the sacred from threats and profanations, it has been a perennial force in establishing enemies and ensuring warfare. The sad truth about religion through history is its centrality as a source for violence and bloodshed and hatred. History proves this point without a doubt, and anyone informed about current global conflicts knows this fact continues to be so.
3. Religion is inspirational and can transform humans and societies. On the other hand, religion is not all bad and can, at times, bring out the best in people as a force for social justice, individual transformation, and cultural regeneration. The sacred has long been a constant and powerful source in human societies that can heal and restore those who are sick and suffering; inspire leaders and artists to create new ways of seeing the world and its mysteries; and rally individuals to unite and overcome obstacles that threaten the social order. Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and the Buddha, Muhammad and Black Elk are just a few names that come to mind in this regard.
2. The monotheists can't figure out human sexuality. Monotheists have had a lot of problems through history with their one God, but perhaps the most vexing and longstanding has to do with human sexuality. Of course not all Jews agree with each other; no do all Christians; nor do all Muslims, yet even with a variety of perspectives within these monotheistic religious cultures, sexuality remains a heated, contentious, and confounding human reality that leads to contradictions, confusions, and ambivalence. Is procreation the sole purpose of sex? Are gender roles fixed and certain? Can sexual transgressions lead to damnation and divine retribution? Take a gander through the sacred texts and the theologies interpreting them through time to get a sense of the ongoing and vital preoccupation with these questions, and how much is at stake in how they are answered.
1. We all die. Ok, a little depressing for all the holiday cheer, but as the great ESPN sports segment exclaims: "C'mon man!" What would you expect for the number one spot on this list of top religion stories of all time? Death, like sexuality, is a universal reality for all humans. What fuels the fires of the religious imagination and instigates the necessity of religious ritual like death? Mortality is what shapes morals and meaning, challenges the nature and substance of identity, and forces humans to confront and transcend that most sacred of objects, the corpse. Death is at the heart of religion, and how societies have responded to death--how they dispose of the dead, glorify them, keep them at bay, and live with the unavoidable reality of one's own death--is a never-ending collective task that is both compelling and fascinating.