What is Religious Studies?
When I tell people that I have a degree in Religious Studies, most of them have no idea what that means. When they ask me what I studied, I always tell them the same thing: I studied language. I don’t just mean that I learned how to pronounce long words like Avalokiteshvara, Dhammacakkappavattana, or Madhyamaka Prasangika, though I definitely did that, too (the trick is to say them with confidence so that people think you’re right even if you aren’t).
You see, there are many ways to define religion. Sometimes I like to say religion is what we do, because you can do anything religiously, but the definition I always come back to is language because I believe religion is the language that humans use to describe/dialogue with the sacred. Your religious language might be quite different from mine, or it might be from a related linguist family tree, but everyone experiences the sacred and finds their own ways to talk about it. Even if the branches of our particular religious languages have grown far apart, we are all growing out of a shared human trunk and we all have the same roots.
No human culture or individual has ever been cut off from the sacred because existence is inherently sacred; your very life is just as mysterious and ineffable as the life of the universe, and anyone who goes through life without experiencing awe and wonder hasn’t truly lived at all. You don’t have to believe in a god to be overwhelmed by nature, and you don’t have to be an atheist to be taken aback by a wondrous scientific discovery – we’re all in this together, and the majesty of life permeates and energizes our existence. We all have access to the sacred, no matter what we label we give to it with our particular languages.
What is the Dao of the De?
Now that I have successfully annoyed my Senior Seminar professor by horrendously burying the lead (and thrown in some laborious metaphors to boot), I’ll tell you what this is all about. I’ve started a new blog series, called Dao of the De, that will feature short, poetic commentaries (sometimes called capping verses, or poemmentaries if you like combining words to make weird sounds like I do) inspired by holy scriptures from a wide range of religious traditions. This series is an invitation to journey with me, to explore humanity’s rich religious languages, to experience the unity within our diverse traditions, to learn that their wisdom is our wisdom, and to embrace the beauty of the other.
Of course, the truest way to experience any religion is to do it and be it – to kiss it with all five of your senses, to dig down and climb up it with your hands and feet, to dive in deep and swim around it its waters, to warm yourself by its fire and roast marshmallows on its coals, to breathe it in and breathe it out, and to gaze up at its infinite stars in wonder – and I cannot replace that for you, nor would I ever want or try to. What I hope to offer you is as small as a whisper carried on the wings of a moth, but if you take time to listen to these quiet words, you may become still enough to hear the voice of god (or, whatever you might call it).
Max Müller famously stated that a person who knows one [religion] knows none. (At least, its a famous quote in my field.) This could be a rather inflammatory remark to anyone who is a devout believer of one particular faith, especially one with an “exclusive” truth claim, but I do not think Müller meant it to be taken that way. Müller was arguing for religious literacy, which I assert is ultimately human literacy. If we don’t take the time to become literate in each other, we forget that we all come from one source, we all have the same emotions, we all face the same challenges, and that all of the divisions, boarders, and property lines that we’ve drawn up on this earth are only as real as we allow them to be. There is no you and no I, there is we – and that is why I’m writing the Dao of the De.
Religion is not good or bad, it is what we make it – the same is true of existence.
best of the worst
religion is the best
when it highlights
when it facilitates
when it’s a shortcut
religion is the worst
when it’s a sharpened knife
when it creates illusions
of us and them
that create real divides
when we run away
and use it as a cave
when we stop thinking
and become dogmatic slaves
© Rylan Skelly, June 2018
About the Author: I have a B.A. in Honours Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo; I have a love for all major world religions – Eastern, Western, or in between; I’m genderqueer, and I’m comfortable with male, neutral, and female pronouns; I’m married to my dear wife Lynn, who is the love of my life, my best friend, and my muse; I think far too much, and often have too many ideas to know what to do with; and I am a doing being, just like you!
I have a B.A. in Honours Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo; I have a love for all major world religions - Eastern, Western, or in between; I'm genderqueer, and I'm comfortable with male, neutral, and female pronouns; I'm married to my dear wife Lynn, who is the love of my life, my best friend, and my muse; and I am a doing being, just like you!