Monday, July 23, 2012

What is Religion?

7/23/2012—Greetings from Penn Yan, N.Y.

This summer I have been writing in law and religion, mainly the Free Exercise Clause. At the same time, I have been reading with my teacher the Contributions to Philosophy by Martin Heidegger (the new translation—see below, July 4). Both activities raise the question of just what we mean by religion.

In constitutional law, this issue comes up when religious exemptions are proposed for religious objections to various laws. This is the issue right now over the contraception mandate in Obamacare and religious employers, like Catholic hospitals.

But the issue also arises in Heidegger, who writes of the play of the fourfold—earth, sky, mortals and immortals. Heidegger writes constantly about the gods and their interplay with humanity. We do not know whether the gods are near or far, coming or going.

The long Christianization of the gods is part of the forgetting of being that has characterized the West. This has to do with turning being into a being. I cannot claim to understand Heidegger exactly of course. But I do see that what we call God is very much a being—the supreme being, in fact, who is no different really than a large-scale human. (This point has been made in other contexts by Christian critics, who see how people treat God as idol worship.)

I could not tell you whether the gods are “real” in Heidegger, only that the question is false to his thinking. It is like asking whether beauty is real. Or the inspiration of creativity.

Heidegger is teaching us about the deepest mystery of reality. And I could not tell you whether this is religion, or philosophy, or poetry. Somehow, that mix needs to inform our pedestrian debates about religion in public life.

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