Many believe religion to be a relic from the infancy of human history and that they themselves have moved beyond such silliness. I have many nonreligious friends who assume that, because I call myself religious, I must believe in invisible beings, and pray for magical powers. It is rare that such friends can listen long enough to get past that image of religion. The reason I call myself religious is a bit hard to talk about but might be put in a kind of parable we might call the “Hair of the Dog”. Imagine a hair growing out of a dog became conscious and trying to understand its situation. It would face three paradoxes that would make the task difficult, if not impossible.
First, the hair could not detach itself from the dog to get a picture of the whole of which it was a part. It would have an imaginary picture of the whole but, of necessity, that picture would be extremely partial and always from its own point of view.
Then, the hair would see other hairs, but it could not hold them at arm’s length to realize they were other versions of itself. They would appear to be isolated and separate objects. More importantly, the hair would have no way of realizing that it was not seeing others objectively. It could only perceive other beings as their image reverberated within itself.
Perhaps the strangest situation of all would be that the hair was was actually growing out of what it was trying to understand. It would not be merely “on” the dog it would also “be” the dog. But this relationship would be invisible to the hair, because it would literally be unable to get out of its own light.
Religion, or metaphysics, is not an arrogant attempt to pierce the veil of reality to find a supernatural core. For me, metaphysics is working with our perceptions of the human condition. Religious concern is not with reality as it is in itself, but only in reality as we live it subjectively. The insights of religion are put in stories so we not only think them, but feel them as well. The symbols of religion (so long as we do not take them literally) can be humble reminders of the warped nature of human perception. They can be a kind of corrective lens so we can remember not take our perceptions at face value. The symbol “God” can be a reminder of everything too large, too deep and to immediate to grasp.
The symbols of religion can remind us that there is always an infinity beyond our biggest idea of things. It recognizes the “whole” will always be a mystery to us. The symbols also remind us that we do not perceive other beings objectively, nor are they here for our purposes. They, too, are a mystery. And, finally, religion is remembering that we ourselves are not orphans of the universe, we are its children. Religion is remembering that our deepest essence cannot become an object of our perception either. Strange as it is to say, we are an inscrutable mystery even to ourselves.