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Why Study Religion?

The answer to this question is as easy as it is important: Studying religion puts us in touch with imagery and truths that give our lives depth, i.e., meaning. Put another way: Studying religion puts us in touch with our “roots” so that the sap can flow freely from the depths to the surface of our everyday lives, “sap” that carries vitality and a sense that it’s all worthwhile.

Okay, one final way: Studying religion confronts us with the facts of the collective unconscious in the depths of the human psyche, facts that authenticate one’s conscious decisions or give meaning to one’s unchosen fate; these age-old universal “facts” or archetypes carry libido (i.e., psychological energy) to the ego at the center of consciousness so that it feels confident, “on track.”

Reverse any of these answers, and you get a person who is shallow, living a useless existence. Or who is depressed and wonders, “Why bother?” Or who overrates the ego and pretends a lot (i.e., is pretentious) but really has no idea where his or her life is headed.

Of course, one does not need to study religion if one is religious: a Christian, a Buddhist, etc. Being religious does all those positive things just described. For modern persons, however, the traditional religions are dead.

First of all, they are anachronistic, originating in times long past when world views could be rather narrow, when it was possible to believe in miracles, and when the necessary ethical constraints were clear. Second, the line between the symbolic and the literal has always been fuzzy in the established religions. Even today, people who can still go to church on Easter are not quite sure they must believe Christ rose from the dead or if they are just to live in renewal themselves; Buddhists may want to believe that Gautama was just a man but wonder why he looks like that, with fire coming out of the top of his head and with gold skin. The ministers don’t help and keep their sermons ambiguous; the gurus tell funny stories to give the impression they know more than they actually do.

Just shy of 1900, Nietzsche saw through all this and announced: “God is dead.” He didn’t “kill” God, of course, but merely had the courage (or foolish audacity) to say in writing what even a child could notice, that the Emperor was not wearing any clothes. We have been living with that announcement for more than a century now—fundamentalists shout back, “No, He’s not dead!” But, increasingly, people are moving psychologically out of sixth century BCE India, out of first century CE Mediterranean attitudes, even out of the psychology of sixteenth century Reformation Europe, and agreeing with modern Nietzsche. C. G. Jung helps us to realize that it is possible to drive a 2017 Toyota but have a world view—a set of values, attitudes, and a set of moral rules—that belong to much earlier periods of history, all justified by “holy writ” like the Bible or the United States Constitution. This is a way of saying one can live with a split psychology . . . but only for a while. True, the Amish in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, still drive horse-drawn buggies down roads built for cars; and that way they keep their anachronism more or less intact. But there’s something about driving that Toyota or watching television every night or insisting upon modern medicine that wears away at the disparity of the “old way” of looking at things and the new way that will eventually insist upon being known and lived.

The archetypal fairy tale announces that the Child was correct about the Emperor. But it does not say this fresh new way of seeing included the arrogance of disparaging the crowd who thought they still saw “beautiful clothes.” So we are not allowed to do that; the archetype will not permit it. Disparaging others still caught in the old projections is not child-like but childish and pretentious, hinting that one knew it all along! Nietzsche was actually sad that “we” had killed God. He went insane.

Now what? How do we keep the sap flowing? To begin, we expose ourselves to the wisdom of the ages. We study the world’s religions and try to see what they saw but in a new way—with a sophisticated modern understanding that gives us the feeling that we have been “Resurrected” from the dead, as if “Fire” were miraculously pouring forth from our minds.

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