When style becomes substance

Surely God MUST exist in a place like this?

Science is very hands-on. It’s all about experimenting, observing, manipulating. You can see science happen.

The same applies to sports. And the arts. And almost every other human endeavor. The core ideas and beliefs refer to real, physical things.

Religion is a little different. It’s core ideas and beliefs refer to an entity that cannot be seen. Its narratives involve events that occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago, and whose participants are therefore long gone.

This presents a bit of a problem. How do you make a system of beliefs seem real and relevant if its main players can’t be detected and its founding events are long over?

The solution, I think, is to construct rich physical manifestations of those beliefs. Build elaborate and beautiful cathedrals, temples, mosques, synagogues, and megachurches. Put your leaders in elaborate costumes. Compose music, create art. Build a Wailing Wall or a Kaaba. Devise traditions like the Eucharist.

It’s good to have your beliefs confirmed by the senses, to be shown how concrete they are.

So perhaps religious paraphernalia are more than expressions of religious worship. Perhaps they are also vitally necessary components of a stable religious faith. Without them, the core beliefs become naked ideas – less grand, less compelling, and less relevant without their physical expression.

I would even venture to say that the physical manifestations of religion can serve to misdirect. What the cathedral visitor interprets as a sense of God’s presence may simply be his feeling of awe at the magnificent architecture. The sense of reverence he feels during the Eucharist may be due, in large part, to the ornate design of the altar area and the elaborate robes and hats worn by the priests. The religious fervor felt during the singing of a favorite hymn may simply be due to the believer’s innate enjoyment of music. And so on.

Personally speaking, the bottom line of all this is very positive: Even if the beliefs underlying religion may not be accurate, they have inspired people to produce all manner of wonderful art and architecture. And we can all enjoy it.

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One Response to When style becomes substance

  1. L.Long says:

    Joseph Cambell said that the RCC had it down right, great costumes, really elaborate ceremony, latin speak (WOW! Latin this must be wholely,holy,holely speaking!!), great churches, elaborate art, stain glass—-VERY IMPRESSIVE.
    In fact toward the end of my involvement with the catlickers one chief complaint was the occasional hippy-dippy guitar music and folk style singing and the lose of latin speak.

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