Religion as Art
Religion has a problem: after thousands of years of religious probing and development, we haven’t arrived at a definitive religion. There have been tendencies, of course: a movement from polytheism to monotheism, masculine deities dominating feminine ones. In short: religions act like expressions of their societies, not of singular and immutable truths. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze noticed a similar problem in his own field. Despite centuries of philosophers arguing about a relatively small set of ideas, it didn’t seem like philosophy was getting any closer to a set of definitive conclusions about reality. In light of this, Deleuze proposed a radical reconceptualization. Philosophy, he said, might better be considered a form of art rather than a science—philosophy as the art of concept creation. In a talk I recently gave at Tulane, I argued religion can be thought of in the same way. Taking religion as art instead of a wager on absolute truth removes it from competition with scientific claims. It makes no sense to go up to a painting in a museum and ask our friend, “Can this painting be proved?” In the same way, it makes little sense to ask of a religion if it can be proved. It cannot. Not because religion is necessarily false, but because it’s true in a different way from physical truths. Despite their claims to the contrary, religions and their many founders have likely never had access to “ultimate truth.” Religions have always been about the truth of us. The gods didn’t create humanity to resemble themselves, we created the gods to resemble us. Religious imperatives like “Thou shalt not kill” are not universal laws (after all, earth’s ecosystems cannibalize themselves without end and the universe doesn’t seem to mind). Rather, these ethical imperatives are expressions of what humans wish to see in their own societies. I believe religions, and any spiritual framework for that matter, can be more fruitfully understood as works of art. Just as philosophy is the art of concept creation, religion is the art of living.* In this light, the global Rolodex of saints, tzadiks, mythic heroes, martyrs, bodhisattva, prophets, gurus, etc., can be read as a directory of lives well-lived. Each tradition curates its own gallery of exemplary lives for its adherents—lives likely edited-down and beautified, but that nonetheless stand as examples of what it means to live-out a masterpiece in that particular tradition. The world has been filled with masters of painting, fugues, and sculpture. Spiritual masters are those who made their own lives into works of beauty. Among these masterpieces, none is supreme. Just like there will never be a final work of art after which no more art can be made, so too will there never be a final religion, a final way of living, after which no other can follow. *More accurately: religion is the art of living in relation to the unknown.