“What Are You Doing?”: The Ultimate Religious Question

Galen Guengerich | OnFaith Voices By on

The tradition of theology initiated by Frederich Schleiermacher in the late eighteenth century and clarified by William James at the dawn of the twentieth century insists that religion is not mainly a set of beliefs. Rather, religion is first and foremost a way of life. On these terms, the ultimate religious question is not “What are you thinking?” but rather “What are you doing?”

If you want to know what we think is important, look at how we spend our time. If you want to know what we value, look at how we spend our money. If you want to know what we believe, look at how we live.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems, Robert Hass makes a similar point in the title poem, which he calls “Time and Materials.” Hass observes that life is a slow and gradual accretion of experiences. The goal, he writes, is . . .

To make layers,
As if they were a steadiness of days:

It snowed; I did errands at a desk;
A white flurry out the window thickening; my tongue
Tasted of the glue on envelopes.

On this day sunlight on red brick, bare trees,
Nothing stirring in the icy air.

On this day a blur of color moving at the gym
Where the heat from bodies
Meets the watery, cold surface of the glass.

Made love, made curry, talked on the phone
To friends, the one whose brother died
Was crying and thinking alternately,
Like someone falling down and getting up
And running and falling and getting up.

The implied question to which this poem responds is “What are you doing?” The answer is: falling down and getting up and running and falling and getting up. Making love, making curry, and talking on the phone to friends. Lives are not created in a dramatic instant or even over a spectacular week, like the world according to the book of Genesis. Rather, lives are laid down in layers, a gradual accumulation of actions.

This is a significant change from the standard religious view. Religion has often encouraged believers to view their time in human history as a special time and to view themselves as a specially chosen people. In recent centuries here in the United States, this conviction emerged as the religious face of our civic sense of manifest destiny.

Whatever its form, however, the view that we are exceptional, either as believers or as humans, seems unwarranted. As Copernicus discovered centuries ago, human beings do not stand at the center of things. In fact, the more we learn about the universe, the more non-special our location here on Earth becomes. The Earth orbits an ordinary star in an undistinguished region of an ordinary galaxy.

We probably aren’t living at a special time either. In 1969, the Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott visited the Berlin Wall and found himself wondering how long the wall would last. Was it a temporary aberration or a permanent fixture of modern Europe? He made the following conjecture. If he divided the wall’s total history, from beginning to end, into four quarters, and if his visit was located somewhere randomly in that history, there was a 50 percent chance that his visit happened in one of the middle two quarters — not in the first quarter of the wall’s life, and not in the last quarter. Using these terms as the basis of further calculations, Gott concluded that there was a 50 percent chance that the wall would come down sometime between three and 24 years later.

It came down 20 years later, in 1989. Using the same approach, Gott asked how long the human species is going to last, assuming that we are probably living during the middle 95 percent of the ultimate duration of our species. Gott concluded that there is a 95 percent chance that our human future will last more than 5,100 additional years but less than 7.8 million additional years.

In other words, chances are that we are ordinary people, and these are ordinary times. To me, that’s the good news. It enables me to live my life as it unfolds, in steady ways on ordinary days. If my focus in life — religiously and otherwise — is to stand around waiting for special moments or supernatural events, I will end up missing the 95 percent of my life that makes up 95 percent of my life. As Gott demonstrates, chances are that I will spend most of my life in ordinary ways. And it’s how I spend most of my time that will mostly determine whether my life as a whole is satisfying.

To be sure, many religions seem fixed on the ends of the earth — either the creation or the apocalypse, or both. But enlightened faith thrives not in the miraculous but in the mundane, the steady unfolding of days.

I recall a scene described by the late Andre Dubus in his book Essays From A Movable Chair. Dubus was an award-winning writer who had lost his leg in an auto accident. He tells about making sandwiches on Tuesdays for his second- and seventh-grade daughters and taking the sandwiches to school. He writes:

On Tuesdays when I make lunch for my girls, I focus on this: the sandwiches are sacraments. And each motion is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, knife, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments, as putting the lunches into a zippered book bag is, and going down my six ramps to my car is. I drive on the highway, to the girls’ town, to their school, and this is not simply a transition; it is my love moving by car from a place where my girls are not to a place where they are; even if I do not feel or acknowledge it, this is a sacrament. If I remember it, then I feel it too. Feeling it does not always mean that I am a happy man driving in traffic; it simply means that I know what I am doing in the presence of God.

If I were much wiser, and much more patient, and had much greater concentration, I could sit in silence in my chair, look out my windows at a green tree and the blue sky, and know that breathing is a gift; that a breath is sufficient for the moment; and that breathing air is breathing God.

Enlightened faith humbly accepts the sufficiency of each moment. It embraces the steadiness of the days as they unfold, and the purpose we can fulfill within them, and the sacrament of gratitude we can express through them. Presenting us with time and materials, it asks: “What are you doing?”

Image courtesy of Leeroy.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.