On religion

One of the pleasures of blogging (this is blogging, right?) that I recall from its early-oughts heyday was coming up with a blogroll, the list of recommended sites that floated off to one side of your own online musings and which, if well-chosen, might lend them a sense of seriousness or, at the very least, a context. A personal blog might list your friends. Something for public dissemination might point to others doing similar kinds of work – or in fact others doing exactly the opposite sort of work but on the same topic. 

We don’t have such a list at Line of Beauty, but if we did, our friend Ben Crosby would certainly be on it. Ben is the closest thing to an Anglican divine I’ve met either in meatspace or online, but he combines his theological acuity with a wit and humor that make him a very good follow (Substack; Twitter). 

A couple months ago, not long before the two of us came up with this joint endeavor, I read what was, I think, my first ever Substack post: Ben’s reflections on the relationship between the Daily Office and public worship and how the saying of daily morning and evening prayer, whether by lay people or clergy in the Anglican tradition, has tended over time to contract into a private devotional when in fact it was always meant to be a part of public worship, a category now dominated by Sunday services. Ben followed up recently with thoughts on weekly worship and how we can understand this as a duty – as was once a near-universal opinion – and not merely something recommended to us as useful, improving, or enjoyable.

While these reflections take their starting point from the history of a particular liturgical tradition (which happens to be our own), they are hardly inside baseball. Ben is pointing to a broad cultural phenomenon – one that Tara has written extensively about – of seeing the value of religion as lying in the transformation of ourselves, as part of a spiritual project one may take up. If choice is our framework, organized religion – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or whatever else – is unlikely to win. After all, when religion is organized it is necessarily unpersonal, or at least not bespoke. And if one is called to opt in, one can just as easily opt out, whether for another tradition or simply for the self-care that modern American culture emphasizes. (I leave for another time a proper interrogation of the relationship between self-care and the care of the self that Michel Foucault identified as an ethical imperative in the ancient virtue-ethical tradition.)

Ben makes use, in the second of his pieces, of what Thomas Aquinas says about religion in the Summa Theologiae, where it figures not as a practice or even a domain of life but as an excellence proper to human beings – a virtue. Even more surprisingly, on Aquinas’ analysis, religion is a moral virtue, governed by principles that stem from human nature, not a theological one. This is the idea I want to further investigate here.

We can start from Aquinas’ description of the activities that are characteristic of religion. As Ben explains, “For Thomas, religion is the virtue which governs the relationship of the human being to God, falling under the category of justice. Justice in the broadest sense is rendering to others their due (ST II-ii 58); religion is the virtue by which we render to God the reverence we owe him. God is owed reverence by virtue of his creation, preservation, and redemption of his creatures, and this reverence is fittingly expressed in worship both private and public.”

On this picture, religion is, to be sure, a cultivation in us of an appropriate set of attitudes in recognition of what we owe to God. But it is also a cultivation of certain practices – the Latin word is ‘cultus’, which we might translate either ‘worship’ or ‘cultivation’ – that serve that end. External actions are central to the exercise of religion on this view, because it is a part of justice, the virtue that for Aquinas perfects the will, the capacity in us that reaches out into the world in order to shape it.

That said, it is true that, just as courage transforms us by enabling us to overcome obstacles that would deter us from appropriate action, religion transforms us by enabling us to overcome our tendency to focus on ourselves. Indeed, there is a tendency that leads towards the virtue of religion in even the purely secular recognition that we do not make ourselves be what we are – the recognition that only something that lies beyond us (whether it is Nature or our nature or some other power) could explain this. 

A similar thought animates the discussion of natural religion in Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a philosophical novel by the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufail written in the late 12th century, about a hundred years before Aquinas’ Summa. Our hero Hayy, despite growing up isolated from other human beings on an island and raised by a doe, comes to recognize, purely through reflection on his nature and that of the natural world around him, that he is a uniquely intelligent being in a world ordered by an intelligent first cause. (This intelligent first cause is the same as the so-called God of the philosophers, and Ibn Tufail’s novel became influential in early modern Europe when it was translated into Latin and English in the late 17th century.)

Hayy’s recognition of his nature and its origin in turn leads him to adopt behaviors that imitate the orderly movements of the heavens and the intelligence of the Creator, as the appropriate response to what he has discovered. In fact, Hayy comes to think that imitation of the intelligent and benevolent Creator is more important to him than any other human pursuit. It is only later, however, when Hayy encounters Absal – a faithful practitioner of a religion that bears a striking resemblance to Sufi Islam – that he learns about ritual practices that honor the Creator, such as prayer and pilgrimage. Ibn Tufail thereby suggests to us that tradition completes and fulfills a natural impulse, though he also goes on to suggest that ritual practices function as a restraint on and guide for those who cannot attain, like Hayy and Absal, to a philosophical understanding of the universe. 

Returning to Aquinas, we can now perhaps appreciate why he claims that religion, while it is not a theological virtue, stands above all the other moral virtues (praecipua inter virtutes morales – ST II-II q 81 a 6). The reason, somewhat paradoxically, is that religion is the one moral excellence that turns out not to admit of supererogation – that is, acts meriting the kind of praise that accrues to someone when they go beyond what is strictly demanded of them by duty. Even filial piety, which, like religion, involves repaying a debt whose full satisfaction lies beyond us, falls short of this quality. We can imagine people so devoted to their parents that they act not simply meritoriously, but in a way deserving what Aquinas calls glory. But in relation to the worship of God, the only glory is His.

We can carry this abstract philosophical and theological point into our concrete understanding of religious practice. As I noted, the practice of religion corrects our desire to set ourselves up as miniature gods, fully in charge of our own lives. If worship simply accrued to our merit, then our aim would be to respect that counsel of humility. And worship would then be an instrumental good, an excellent thing to promote in society and in one another to the extent that it brought about such humility. Many people have recommended religion on these grounds.

But if worship is something we owe, even as it always falls short of its end, then we must think of the humility that worship cultivates in a more positive light. Our lowliness becomes a vantage point, from which we can look properly upward and outward. And our celebrations must be all the bolder, to reach across this gap.