We live our lives in conditions. Without conditions, life has no meaning. Conditions in life consist of our families and friends, our university setting, our program of study, and even further our genetics, our age, our background, and any number of other factors that make us who we are. Even though some factors in our lives are good and some are challenging, some happy and some sad, without conditions life would not be possible and we would not be able to experience meaning.
Religions of the world often claim to break into human conditions from the outside. Religions often claim to be without conditions or unconditional. There is some truth to this, provided we understand what the “unconditional” label constitutes. Still, in a general sense, every religion is conditional. Every religion, like every philosophy, every psychology and every form of human knowledge, arises from the conditions of life, arises from what life opens up to us for question and examination. Every religion is a product of history, culture and language. Religion as a phenomenon is no different in this respect from any other human or cultural phenomenon.
So, what is the big deal about religion? What value does it have in human experience? Does it even have a value? When we look at the world today and see religion mixed with violence and even inspiring violence, it is hard to answer the question about the value of religion positively.
There is an answer, however, though much depends on what we mean by religion. If we mean by religion to express scientific or technical knowledge, then there probably is not much hope for the future of religion as a human value. If we mean something other than science, something like art, the question might have a different answer. Great philosophers have thought of religion as something like art through which the conditions of life can be affirmed, can be embraced, and can even become a “dancing” partner in the act of self-becoming. Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist. He had no place in his thinking for confessional beliefs, but he did have room for art. He had room to affirm life, to say yes to life, and to dance with life. In this way, even though he was an atheist, he was very religious.
Soren Kierkegaard was a theist and a Christian theologian even though he disliked Christianity and was highly critical of its dogmatic beliefs. Why then did he bother with religion? He did so because religion to him was art. To Kierkegaard to be religious was to affirm a comic view of life. It was a way of accepting life with a kind of grace, and it was a way of affirming courage in life to enact justice and to raise tough questions. Somewhat like Nietzsche, to be religious for Kierkegaard involved saying “yes” to it all in a comic spirit that even embraces tragedy.
Many philosophers and theologians(never mind psychologists and scientists) are highly critical of religion but still hold the spirit of religion through a comic regard of life. John Caputo refers to this comic regard of life as the unconditional. Religion is the call of the unconditional in life.
For Caputo, religion is not a set of beliefs or a conviction to certain doctrines. Religion is openness to the unconditional, to an element that breaks into the conditions of life with questions, alternatives, imagination, curiosity, and even a justice imperative.
Caputo asks us to consider the example of the sinking of the Titanic. He wonders why the eight-member orchestra on the Titanic played while the ship went down. Caputo suggests that the members of the orchestra could have sought to get on lifeboats to save their souls. Or, if heroic, could have helped others board lifeboats. What were they doing playing music as they sank to their deaths?
To Caputo, this orchestra’s choice is an example of the unconditional. While the actual conditions on the Titanic suggest that one would do anything but play music, the unconditional elements in life hold a certain power. It is not the power to change the circumstances and not the power to save us from the conditions we are in, but it is the power to say yes in the conditions and take the conditions beyond the immediate setting through self-acceptance. The music was the unconditional element, and in this sense it was the religious element in the midst of tragedy.
No one gets out of life alive. That is the tragic fate of everyone. But anyone can make a difference in life. That is the comic possibility. The choice to try to make a difference is an unconditional choice that must be played out in the conditions in which we live. It is the choice to play music even when there is no good reason to do so. It is a comic choice and a deeply religious one. It is the value of the unconditional as a work of art.
Dr. David Galston