Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I Seek God, But I Seek Bread First

Sean Ewart

Where does religion fit into Maslow's hierarchy of human need? What priority, in other words, should we place on religion? This question is taken up again and again in religious (and secular) works, perhaps most strikingly in the Bible in the book of Haggai. Briefly, this book deals with the prophet Haggai and the Hebrews after they are returned to Israel after years of captivity in Babylon. The Hebrews had gotten to work rebuilding their homes, their families, and their lives as soon as they had arrived back in Israel. The prophet, however, was shocked by their behavior and called out, “is it a time for you to be living in your paneled houses while [the house of the Lord] remains in ruins?” The Hebrews had put their own physical needs before that of God's, they had put themselves first. But had they ever really abandoned their faith? Indeed, we cannot know whether or not they had rejected their faith, or simply their religion – an important definition.

There is a god shaped hole in our lives. This much is obvious. Roughly 90% of the United States believes in some sort of god, and the rest of us are continually mulling over the god hypothesis whether we want to or not. Religion, at one time, was both science and mysticism. It at once explained the world and gave meaning to it. Today, with the advent of modern science, religion has been relegated (for most) to the role of pure mysticism. Science explains the 'hows' of life, and religion explains the 'whys.' For many, however, including at least 45% of Americans, the 'whys' of life hold more credence than the 'hows' and they insist on a literal interpretation of the ancient scriptures. For them, whether or not Moses crossed the Red Sea by divine wind is less important that why he did. The fact of the matter is less important than a deep belief in the reason behind it.

There are no atheists in foxholes, so they say. In fact, Marx went so far as to call religion the 'sigh of an oppressed people.' But this begs the question: is the desperate faith of the suffering really the dogmatic religion of the ancient cults like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism? To these 'oppressed persons,' isn't the faith itself more important and even far removed from the legalism of the mainstream religions? For them, the failure of science is that it is impersonal. Why are they in the foxholes, or suffering abject poverty, or being herded like animals into gas furnaces? The comfortable can abandon faith in the supernatural – and do – but the helpless are bound to it.

This fact does nothing, however, to curb the reality that humanity depends on understanding the 'hows' of life to survive. We must know what causes physical phenomenons, and our failures in this field can be observed in such catastrophes as Katrina in 2005 and the Tsunami the year before. But maybe there is something to be said for faith being a crucial element in our mental survival. Perhaps, while science is crucial to our physical survival, faith is crucial to our psychological survival. We all need purpose, a will to live for some greater cause than simple pro-creation. The questions raised by faith (which lie at the heart of religion generally) are questions about the logic of the universe. While it is easy to write off religion, it would be foolish – even self denying – to ignore the questions raised by faith.

Faith provides meaning in our lives. It seems less important what people believe than that they believe. In other words, the difference between religion and faith is dogma. Religion is a set of dogmas while faith is a personal quest for meaning. Religion is the luxury of the leisurely while faith is the necessity of the helpless. Science, most likely, will never be able to satisfactorily answer the 'whys' of life. Religion, conversely, is ill-equipped to answer the 'hows.' Thus, as the Hebrews of old, we secure our lives first and determine their meaning later – and if we have time, we establish the dogmas of our faith as it becomes established religion.

I propose that the 'whys' of life should be honed by the 'hows.' Faith should be a search for meaning within the cold world of scientific discovery. The 'whys' of life should never eclipse the 'hows,' for what sense does it make to secure our lives only to turn around and deny them? Without bread we would die, and without faith we would have no reason to live. Thus I seek god (in the abstract), but I seek bread first. The latter allows me to live, the former to live well.

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