Practice vs. Belief
What forms the center of your religiosity?
One of the first things I point out to new students in the study of religion is that belief is not the cornerstone of most religious traditions. They are almost always surprised. Having grown up in contemporary American culture, they are used to people questioning their religiosity by asking what it is they believe. Belief has very important throughout the history of Christianity. In fact, people have killed and been killed for having unorthodox religious beliefs
One of my earliest introductions to this as a child growing up within a Pre-Vatican II household was the so-called Baltimore Catechism. This wasn’t a text to read but rather something we were expected to memorize and then internalize. It began, “Who made you?” “God made me.” “Why did God make you.” “To know him, love him, and serve him” and continued for 129 pages teaching us the essential beliefs of our tradition.
Similar theological statements were embedded in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed recited during every Mass. After the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, when the Catholic Mass began to be celebrated in English, we stood and recited this creedal summary during every service. We may not have understood what we were saying or the theological arguments that led to each statement, “… God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father…” but we were firm in our understanding that this was the best summary of Christian beliefs. Different traditions, particularly different Protestant traditions, might differ on some of these points and, as a result, have a different creedal statement. Some churches might focus on particular portions of these statements, ignoring others, but each has some statement distilling their religious beliefs. Thus it is common for strangers who want to have a conversation about their religion to begin by asking, “What do you believe?”
But this is not a world-wide phenomenon. What comes as a surprise to many of my students is the lack of a firm creed within other religious traditions. Even in the other monotheistic traditions (Islam and Judaism) practice, what one does, is more important than having a structured articulation of one’s beliefs. Muslims pray, Jews keep kosher, Hindus do puja. People of all religious traditions express their devotion by enacting certain private or communal religious acts.
In January, Austin Kleon wrote a short post where he quoted the religion scholar Elaine Pagels’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. During that interview Dr. Pagels talked about her own religious practices including attending an Episcopal church, doing yoga, meditating, walking in the woods, and talking with friends.
At this time, when some communal practices like attending services are difficult, I’m wondering how each of us are expressing our own religiosity. What practices, religious or otherwise, are sustaining us in this unsettled time. Have you continued a long-standing practice or taken up something new? Are you re-defining common activities, like walking in the woods, taking to friends or making bread, that you might not have previously considered as religious? Have you taken up something new or re-stared a lapsed practice?
How is that working for you? Let’s talk about it in the comments.