Days in December seem to have a lot more energy that most other times of the year. Reflections on the effects of that energy on each of us and on our relationships with others gives me an opportunity to further ‘unpack’ some of the meaning I give to the word ‘order’ when I use it to define religion.
Earlier I offered the following definition of religion (remembering that I want to restrict the use of the word religion to social organizations—a ‘communities of faith’): “Anything human can be considered religious if it helps to create, maintain or restore order to a group of people, a community, by referring to something beyond that community.”
Christmas, Kwanza, Hanukah, winter solstice celebrations, and other celebrations at this time of year, seem to me as rituals which different faith communities (=religions) use to help direct that energy into not only maintaining order but increasing the possibilities for richer, fuller living by referring to something beyond.
As counselors these days give us a unique opportunity to learn more about our clients as they respond to these possibilities and stressors. They also give our clients unique opportunities to further develop what is good about their lives and to change dysfunctional behaviors and thinking. So that if religion is an important part of our client’s life, these days also give us opportunity for our client to clarify the support they get from their involvement in their religion as well as to examine, and hopefully change, any dysfunction that comes from such involvement. And, as always, it is important that we do not assume the significance of these rituals for a client.
Order is critical for meaning in life and an environment in which life can thrive. I often hear the claim that basically all religions are the same. They all have ideals of peace and harmony and love and treating each other with respect and dignity, etc.—all words found on holiday cards at this time of year. But note that these are all qualities needed for ‘order’ in a community. Remember that story of many blind sages examining an elephant and coming out with different descriptions because they are each feeling a different part of the elephant. I like the story but I would also add that the elephant is not really there! Or, more precisely, that ‘elephant’ is the ‘ordering’ of the community in which the sage finds himself or herself.
Which is related to a definition I was told when I wanted to major in philosophy in college:
A philosopher is a scholar who is in a dark room seeking a black cat that isn’t there. A theologian is one who has found that cat. You see, it is the power of the human mind to believe in things unseen that makes religion so powerful—more powerful than ‘things seen’—and gives hope to all of us! And rituals such as those followed this time of year embody opportunities to experience that power.
Many don’t realize that a system can order itself creating new information in that ‘order’ without requiring an agent who creates it. Eastern religions tend to acknowledge that truth; Western religions often don’t. However, counselors who think in systems experience and work with that truth as they work with families or organizations. And their work can be amazingly powerful—almost magical!
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.