What people think about that which one science fiction author dubbed “Life, the Universe, and Everything” is enthralling, I will readily admit. A fascination with the glittering variety of belief systems to which human beings have ascribed in different times and places is one of the things that first drew me to the academic study of religion in college. I can (and did) while away many an intellectually stimulating hour in gleeful discussion and debate over theology, all the juicy details and bizarre minutiae and sweeping emotions and contradictions that coalesce into our thoughts about God.
It’s fun for a religion geek like me to talk about beliefs. It would be foolish — perhaps even dangerous — of me to declare “belief” the defining aspect of a religious life.
The temptation to reduce religion to the acceptance of a certain set of statements about the nature of the divine is there, no question. Even the language we often use to discuss religion bears the mark of our preoccupation with what we think about God rather than how we behave. As Karen Armstrong notes in The Case for God, “today we often speak of religious people as ‘believers,’ as though accepting orthodox dogma ‘on faith’ were their most important activity.”
Those “I believe” declarations, no matter how interesting they are or how satisfying they might feel to formulate, may serve only to obfuscate the critical issue: how do we behave toward others? Toward the capital-‘O’ Other? Is it more important that I affirm in my mind, I believe God calls us to pursue justice, or that I behave justly? Does it matter that I think compassion is a divine ideal if I fail to act compassionately? Without actions to reify the beliefs we seem to enjoy discussing so much, religion becomes an empty intellectual exercise, idle speculation that accomplishes nothing and helps no one beyond providing an entertaining mental diversion.
As we approach the Days of Awe, I must ask myself whether my actions are worthy of the beliefs I claim to hold dear. None of the things I “intend,” “hope,” or “believe” will do me or the universe I share with all of you a bit of good unless I act, here and now, to better myself and to help my fellows. In that way may I serve as a partner to the Holy One in tikkun olam, repairing the world.
#BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.