As we enter anew the (albeit short) season of new beginnings, CrossFit classes will inevitably fill and un-fill; I will buy another weekly planner to fill up until February, and then I will lose it under my car seat. It’s fun to joke about this time–and everyone does. It’s also about the only time that we humans are on to something that, for the most part, we are completely unwilling to fess up to: the reality that if we are infallibly anything, we are infallibly religious. It is, as Robert Farrar Capon says, “everybody’s favorite subject, bar none.” And here, at New Years, we’re actually okay admitting that. In Health, Money and Love (and Why We Don’t Enjoy Them), Capon talks about this, using three Cs, and then talks about Christianity–in its truest sense–as no religion.
Religion is the attempt on the part of human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something outside themselves–something they think to be of life-shaping importance. Notice that I have deliberately left most of the details out of this definition. The nature of the attempt is yet to be specified: it could involve thoughts, words, or deeds, and it could entail anything from meditating on a mantra to feeding your firstborn to crocodiles. Likewise, the right relationship is still undefined: it might be one of harmony and union, or of cautiousness and control, or even of fear and total avoidance. Finally, the something outside themselves if very much up for grabs: it could be God, or the goddess, or the gods, or Satan; but it could also be nature, happiness, fate, the forces of the universe, the spirits of the dead–or, to my point in this book, health, money, or love.
In any case, on this definition, religion is an attempt to influence someone or something; and it invariably results in the creation of a program designed to exert such influence. This program may be about God, or the good life, or good sex. It may be strenuous or relaxed. It may call for the commitment of a lifetime or need only the whim of a moment. But whatever its incidental variations of goal or style, it will always have three essential characteristics: it will involve a creed; it will demand specific cultic practices; and it will insist on certain patterns of conduct in its adherents. Creed, Cult, and Conduct, then–the three Cs of the program of religion. Let me flesh them out briefly.
Creed encompasses everything we think (or believe, to use the word loosely) when we undertake the program of a particular religion. Such thoughts may involve subjects as diverse as God, money, Satan, or jogging for your health. They may amount to nothing more than vague attitudes of approval or disapproval, or they may entail subscription to entire body of formal doctrine. “The universe is nice,” for example, is a possible creed…In every case, though, each such creed will turn out to be a formula for thinking about the “something outside ourselves”…
Cult stands for all the liturgical practices our religion’s program calls for. These can range from chicken sacrifices at dawn, to Morning Prayer and Sermon on Sundays, to not eating saturated fats, to transcendental meditation, to owning a house in the Hamptons. At first glance, this spectrum of practices may look like nothing more than individual preference at work; but in fact, the particular “liturgies” we engage in are almost always dictated socially, by our coreligionists–by our fellow Episcopalians, possibly, or by our fellow health nuts, or by our fellow yuppies…In the last analysis, therefore, all such practices, conventionally pious or not, are undertaken precisely for religious reasons: we do them on the assumption (once again) that if we get them right, the relationship we are seeking to establish will become a reality.
Conduct, finally, covers the rest of the territory of religion: it stands generally for the behavioral requirements that the program of our religion lays upon us, but specifically for the moral aspects of those requirements…Depending on the particulars of our program, we could earn a religious good conduct medal by having one wife, or two wives, or none–or simply by never marrying our mother-in-law. We could give all our goods to the poor or we could keep them for ourselves…Or–to run out the list at random–we could lift weights, eat yogurt, wear garlic around our necks, or not step on sidewalk cracks. But once again, and for the last time: every one of these things–when done as part of the program of a religion–would be done on the assumption that if we got it right, it would land us in the New Jerusalem, or the Old Eden, or the Good Life–or whatever state our religion names as the fulfillment of the relationship we desire.
…To all of that “religious programming” I have only two things to say. First, none of it could have necessitated anything, whether in fiction or in real life: if we end up contented at the end of our religious exercises, it would not have been a consequence of their pursuing the exercises but simply the result of their having, by grace and forgiveness, accepted the luck of whatever draw they made. Religion, as a device for insuring anything, just doesn’t work. Second, though–and much more important–if the Gospel is indeed the end of religion, then the Gospel itself would not enjoin upon them even the smallest smitch of our religious improvement. It would have assured them of their reconciliation in the mystery of Jesus’ new creation, and invited them the believe him. What they did after that might be wise or foolish, just or unjust; but none of it would have been a condition without which Jesus’ reconciliation of them would have been void…