04/08/2013 12:10 EDT | Updated 06/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Does Following a Methodology Make You Religious?

There is an interesting disconnect in our world today regarding religion. Being an adherent to a certain religion is simply seen, to most people, as a description of the way by which this individual achieves spirituality. This is not, however, the way that religions -- even more so, traditional religious systems -- actually view themselves.

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A worshipper holds a Bible during a church service July 22, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. Many residents affected by the attack at a midnight premiere of 'Batman: The Dark Knight Rises' in Aurora have turned to their religion for comfort. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/GettyImages)

There is an interesting disconnect in our world today regarding religion.

To most people, religions are really seen as describing methodologies, ways by which individuals attempt to find spiritual expression. Abraham Maslow, the noted psychologist, described how human beings have a drive for what may be termed "spirituality" -- a certain existential -- perhaps, what we may also term transcendental -- state -- and religions, over the centuries, offered the means by which people could reach this psychological plateau. Being an adherent to a certain religion, as such, is simply seen, to most people, as a description of the way by which this individual achieves spirituality.

This is not, however, the way that religions -- even more so, traditional religious systems -- actually view themselves. At a religion's core is the presentation of truth and, most significantly, the definition of right and wrong. To a religion itself, while spirituality may be an outcome of adherence to the faith, that is still not what the essence of the faith is. Adherence demands the acceptance of a certain reality with the subsequent consequences -- and this is what really defines the consciousness of the truly devote adherent.

Herein lies the disconnect to which I refer. Individuals from both sides in addressing each other ignore this chasm of perspective and speak solely within their own terms, not addressing the other within the other's parameters of understanding. This makes discussions between the two groups most challenging as one speaks one way while the other speaks another way. How can we discuss any topic touching upon religion if we do not even recognize this rift in our ability to communicate?

Contemporary discussions regarding many ethical issues often reflect this problem. Believing that the issue of religion is simply one of methodology, many individuals, in discussing an ethical issue with devout followers, will still approach the matter viewing the other's commitment as simply a decision of methodology. The ethical issue is thus addressed without an honest and full recognition of the impact this devotion to a certain religious stand can have on the decision. What is lost is the context of the broader, theological background. The religious individual often did not adopt this specific ethical or moral stand through his/her own personal, decision making process but, rather, accepted this particular conclusion as part of the general acceptance of the faith. Any further discussion thus demands an understanding how this stand also connects with the primary and causal theological underpinnings of this person's religious grouping.

By extension, it may also be warranted to further consider how this religious group reaches such decisions in the first place. A specific ethical conclusion is but part of the larger system and this system cannot be ignored. This individual is not independently rendering this ethical decision but is abiding by it because it is the conclusion of his/her general and overall religious adherence. This general conclusion, in all its parts, may, as such, also have to be part of the discussion.

The challenge works the other way also. Oftentimes an adherent to a faith will simply respond to a question with a reference to the faith, with even an implied assumption that the questioner also must accept this reference with the same devotion.

This may project this individual as an honest and true believer in this faith but it clearly prevents the conversation from developing any further. There is often not even an explanation -- let us say, such as "that pursuant to my belief, God instructs as follows" -- but just a simple statement that throws the name of the deity into the conversation as a matter of fact, without the recognition that the very debate may be whether this is, in fact, the Divine direction. The results are discussions of proverbial "apples and oranges" as both sides avoid the broader necessity of extending the language of the dialogue to recognize the differing religious perspectives.

This is not to say that every social debate is thereby inherently stymied by the religious distinctions of its constituent groupings. The simple need is clearly for the recognition that the greater theological issue must also be considered within the context of any such discussion.

The further problem may be that we, in our society, are generally reluctant to bring religious faith into our discussions -- and, in some respects, for a very good reason. The value of freedom of religion impacts on us, in many ways, to refrain from such discussions as the results could be challenging. In a certain way, it is easier to accept the value of freedom of religion if we believe religious choices to be solely about methodology and not substantive issues. The fact is, though, that religious commitment does impact substantively and, as discussions regarding important societal issues are still most necessary, we have to be able to include religion in our discussions as well.

I have been contemplating this idea for some time now. Over and over again, I read about debates within our society that suffer from this problem, where underlying theological perspectives are effectively on the table but never honestly addressed -- or even mentioned.

Further investigating this matter is, as such, a direction in which I want to go in my next number of postings -- beginning, perhaps, in how I can incorporate freedom of religion into this dialogue. Then, perhaps, I could discuss the referencing of the Bible. Of course, I will be working within my own parameters as an Orthodox, Jewish rabbi but this should also present a further call to others to respond from their variant, religious perspectives. Honest, constructive dialogue on so many of our societal issues could be the result.

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