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Understanding Religion Through the Lens of Relationships

For believers, God is as real as mother, father, neighbor, or friend. It may take on a somewhat different character, but it is a relationship no less.
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To this day some of us old Beatles fans are still perplexed by John Lennon's relationship with Yoko Ono. As the biggest rock star of his day, Lennon had his pick of comely admirers. "Why pick her?" we all wondered. She was (how do I put this delicately?) not quite a raving beauty and there was little to suggest that her lack of "skin-deep" virtues were compensated for by charm. In short, to most of us she was just downright weird. Paul, George, and Ringo apparently concurred, intensifying the centrifugal forces already at work on the former Quarrymen.

For his part, Lennon was either oblivious or contemptuous of others' assessments of his personal life. In songs and interviews he praised his wife and their relationship, which, despite its very public ups and downs, was still intact at the time of his murder in 1980. If happiness, durability, and prosperity are among the metrics by which a successful relationship can be measured, then John and Yoko did alright.

Lennon would probably be dismayed that his personal life provides an apt analogy for religion, but it does. John's relationship with Yoko forever transformed the way he understood himself and the world around him. It is this same relational/transformational power that lies at the heart of religion, as well, and this is a prime reason why religion becomes such a difficult issue to discuss rationally.

To outside observers, John's relationship with Yoko seemed strange, unsettling, ruinous of all that he had struggled so hard to create. Can't Paul or somebody reason with this guy and make him see how bad she is for him? It's the Beatles, after all -- they can't break up over her, please! But for John, it all looked very different. To him, she was something of a savior, a mentor, a true soul-mate -- with her he saw things that he had never seen before, experienced feelings and ideas he had never known before. The Beatles paled in comparison. We couldn't understand that because we never had a relationship like that. What Yoko was for John is what God, Allah, Jesus, Vishnu (fill in your appropriate deity) are for the devout.

Understanding religion in relational terms is not new. Nearly half a century ago, anthropologist Robin Horton defined religion as "an extension of the field of people's social relationships beyond the confines of purely human society." For most religious believers, supernatural agents -- gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. -- are as much a part of the social world as the friends, coworkers, and family members that they interact with on a daily basis. Missionary and anthropologist T. Cullen Young observed that for the African villagers with whom he worked, the community was a single unit with no important distinction between its members here on earth and its long-departed ancestors.

Psychologist Lee Kirkpatrick has been at the forefront of applying attachment theory to the study of religious behavior. He finds that emotional attachments to God, Jesus, and other supernatural agents often serve the same purpose and confer the same psychological and physical benefits as attachments to parents, romantic partners, and significant others. The same panoply of feelings that accompany human relationships is present in religious relationships as well. People experience joy, companionship, security, and anxiety reduction when their relationship with God is going well. In bad times however, people can feel angry at God, betrayed, and abandoned. When things get really bad, counseling may be needed to repair one's relationship with God. In the Jewish tradition, this can take the form of hitbodedut -- where one is encouraged to speak to God with all the directness and candor that one uses with a close friend. The image of Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, admonishing God with a wagging finger pointed skyward is not too far removed from this practice.

Neuroscience studies have added even more credence to the relational model of religion. Brain scans show that when someone has a religious experience or enters a deeply religious state as a result of intense prayer or meditation, the parts of the brain essential for processing social emotions and intentions are activated. For example, one recent study monitored brain activity as devout Christians prayed either the Lord's Prayer or an improvised prayer and compared this to when they recited a nursery rhyme or an improvised prayer to Santa Clause. Though the outward behavioral actions were similar, it was only when the actions were directed at a (believed to be) real person (God) that the social/emotional parts of the brain were activated. These parts included those involved in "Theory of Mind," where one is processing information about another's intentions, emotions, and mental state. The authors concluded that at the brain level, talking to God is like talking to another person. "Relational cognitivity" is the term neuroscientist and theologian Nina Azari uses to describe the brain's processing of religious experiences. Mysterium tremendum et fascinans -- the great and awesome mystery of a frightful yet irresistible "Other" was how theologian Rudolf Otto put it nearly a century ago.

The important message from this research is that for believers, God is as real as mother, father, neighbor, or friend. It may take on a somewhat different character, but it is a relationship no less. This is why religious belief can be so tenacious even in the face of what skeptics consider to be overwhelming scientific evidence against the supernatural. If religion is ultimately a relationship, then the evidence for (or against) God is not found in empirical data, philosophical proofs, or cosmological constants. Instead, the evidence is found in the relationship itself. The relationship is the evidence. The believer knows there is a God because he senses God's presence, he speaks with God, walks with God, and laughs with God daily. Moreover, the relationship transforms how other evidence is interpreted. Through his relationship with God, the believer understands that evil is not evidence against God, but evidence for free-will. Similarly, nature's beauty and order are not just evolutionary accidents, but subtle hints of God's grace at work in the world. The skeptic tells the believer that our universe is not divinely designed, but the predicable outcome of there being an unimaginably large multitude of different universes about. The believer responds that of course it would be that way because God loves infinite variety -- and on it goes; one might as well try to talk John out of Yoko.

This all seems to suggest that reason, logic, and evidence are of no use in trying to help believers and skeptics find common ground. Actually, I think the opposite. I think this clears away the clutter leaving a firmer footing for dialogue. Relationships should not be evaluated on whether or not they exist -- that goes nowhere. They exist for those who have them, and they don't for those who don't. A far more constructive approach is to examine the consequences of relationships. If one's relationship with God produces physical and psychological benefits that in turn lead to greater happiness, healthy self-restraint, and compassion for and service to others, then the relationship is good. As the skeptic is all too aware, you only go around once in this life, and if God makes it better for the individual and those around him (or her), then God is good. However, if on balance, one's relationship with God produces greater ignorance, arrogance, and intolerance, then a divorce is probably preferable. Paraphrasing scripture, "by their fruits shall they be judged" -- so "Let It Be."

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