Discover more from Jon Ogden
Religion Is a Language: Reza Aslan at BYU
Last night I heard Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, speak at Brigham Young University. I read Zealot nearly a decade ago, and it revolutionized my view of Jesus, so I was surprised and intrigued to learn that Aslan was speaking at my alma mater. (As it so happens, Zealot remains the most engaging book I’ve read about the historical Jesus, though I’d recommend other books for being more rigorous in their scholarship.)
Aslan’s speech — ”Why I Am a Believer: My Journey of Religious Exploration” — was part of the Richard L. Evans Memorial Lecture series, a series that commemorates Evans, a former LDS apostle, for his interfaith bridge building efforts.
Aslan first told his own story. He grew up in Iran with a mother who was mildly Islamic and father who was ardently atheist. When the Iranian revolution of 1979 came into full swing, his father rightly sensed that something was amiss and migrated with his family to the US. Here, Reza faced prejudice for being an Iranian during the Iranian hostage crisis.
When he was a teen, he was invited to an evangelical youth camp, which led to his conversion to Christianity. Then, years later, he read about the historical Jesus and realized that there’s quite the gap between the Jesus of Christendom and the Jesus of history. As he told the audience last night, this discovery led him away from institutional Christianity even as it deepened his respect for Jesus.
He soon realized that what he wanted more than anything was to explore religious traditions from the inside. So he did, participating in rituals around the world. In the process he realized that there’s no consensus about what religion is. It’s not a group of people who worship God or gods, since the Jains and certain strains of Buddhists don’t worship divinity. It’s also not a hierarchical institution, since the Quakers don’t have a hierarchy.
For Aslan, religion is a language. It’s a way of communicating about something transcendent that can never fully be put into words. (“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” the first line of the Tao Te Ching reads.) So we human beings use religion — again, a language — to try to communicate about or experience the transcendent.
Aslan didn’t invent this metaphor, but for some reason hearing him use it on BYU campus gave me more confidence to use it publicly myself. It’s a metaphor I’ve long felt drawn to because it cuts in two directions.
First, the metaphor cuts against a traditional, exclusivist take on religion. After all, we don’t say that English (or Cantonese or Spanish or Punjabi) is the world’s “true” language. Rather, we recognize that English is one of many possible ways to communicate. By framing religion as a language, we can hold each tradition (including our own) with humility, recognizing that we might be able to learn something from how other traditions communicate about the transcendent.
Second, the metaphor cuts against a militant atheist take on religion. Just as we don’t say that English is the world’s “true” language, we also don’t say that English is a “false” language. Languages aren’t 100% right or wrong. They’re organic (and often clunky) attempts to communicate subtle thoughts and feelings. So it follows that if religion is also an organic and often clunky attempt to communicate about the transcendent, then blanket statements like “religion is evil” don’t make sense. You can do evil things with language, and you can do evil things with religion, but language and religion aren’t inherently evil. They’re simply tools for communicating and framing our experience.
One powerful aspect of this metaphor is that it allows for the move that Aslan has personally made. He’s returned to Islam in his own way and on his own terms — not from a position of saying that his religion is the one true religion (he was emphatic that it’s not), but instead from a position of personal preference. He personally prefers the language of Islam, in light of his own cultural upbringing, as a way to communicate about and experience the transcendent.
Aslan closed his speech with a final metaphor that he attributed to the Buddha. (From what I can tell, it’s an erroneous attribution — one that likely came from Sufism — but it’s a useful metaphor nonetheless.) The metaphor says that if you want to reach water, you don’t dig a bunch of one-foot wells. That will never get you to the Source. Instead, you need to dig deep.
When you dig deep into a single religious tradition, you access states and experiences you couldn’t otherwise access if you just studied that tradition on the surface (or from a distance). In short, you need breadth and depth, all while recognizing that the most important thing isn’t the well. The most important thing is the water — the water of Life, to use the Christian “language.”
This is a different take on religion than many traditional Latter-day Saints may have encountered before, but to me it’s the healthiest path toward growth. The metaphors of language and wells open up an expansive approach to faith. Time will tell if the LDS tradition will fully embrace such an approach, but hearing Reza Aslan speak at BYU last night gave me hope.
Thanks for reading Inside Voices! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.