Real Religion

"As with a Zen koan, one cannot understand a paradox, but one can apprehend it. Throughout the centuries, mystics of all faiths, including Christian gnostics,* Islamic sufis, and Jewish kabbalists, have delved into the paradoxical to reach beyond literal meaning to its underlying mystery, in the hope of at least a brief moment of epiphany. Using techniques such as allegorical interpretation, deep meditation, and even ecstatic dance, they aim at breaking down the dualistic intellect--or rather, leaping beyond it--to approach the ineffable. The paradoxical [as, for example, the Virgin Birth--FB] becomes not just a conundrum, but an essential tool to revelation.

"In fact you could argue that a real religious sense cannot exist without paradox. Divinity must be paradoxical, or it loses its power to hold the imagination. Pascal maintained that the only lasting religion is one that goes 'against nature, and against proofs.' For what is the grandeur of the divine if it does not supersede the known and the human?

"Dogma and forms of worship are merely the exterior characteristics of particular religions.** They do not even being to touch the interior, which is the religious sense or spirit: the sense of the sacred, the apprehension of the divine [well, yes and no. See Sayers--FB]. And since the divine is by definition beyond the physical--metaphysical--the only way we can come close to it is indirectly, through paradox, metaphor and allegory [hear, hear!--FB]. That is, through poetry.

"All the great religious writings came into being not as 'texts,' but as oral poetry [possibly, but she's making a good point here--FB]. And the power and endurance of the prophetic and wisdom writings in the Bible lie in the spirit of poetry. For poetry thrives on the enigmatic. It creates room for the imagination to soar, for the senses to expand, for the mind to marvel. The essence of the religious spirit is poetic; the rest--the legalistic side of what we now call organized religion--is prosaic.***

"This is why modern fundamentalism is so tragic a distortion of religion. By restricting itself to the most literal interpretations of texts, it becomes blind to the religious spirit. It becomes, in fact, anti-religious. The sacred is reduced to a set of legal strictures; awe and mystery to obedience and punishment. Lacking all sense of the poetic, fundamentalism hates paradox, and denies mystery. Enigma is anathema. It is religion made harsh, and at the same time--why not be paradoxical about it?--made bland."

--Lesley Hazleton, Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother (New York and London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004), pp. 111-12.

*Not sure what she means by this; perhaps "mystics"? Or, better, "exegetes"? Definitely not "gnostics."
**Again, I'm not entirely with her here. See Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (1949) on the importance of dogma.
***Again, too dualistic: she's missing the point of the Church, but her point about poetry is what I'm interested in here.


  1. Very elegant and quite timely. Essence of religion is to make us a better human and to soar above the man-made norm. Have to admit I had to use dictionary but I love reading your blogs to broaden broaden my horiron. Thanks and I can't wait to read your next blog.


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