Ian Packer on Religion

In commenting on Ethics, Religion and the Secular, Ian Packer notes:

“It is important to recognise from the outset that there is no single, clear identifiable thing called ‘religion’. The various communities around our world with distinctive convictions, worldviews, practices, rituals, pieties and spiritualities are not all variations of one underlying common genus. When we use the word ‘religion’, we are using a term somewhat like the word ‘game’: and as Wittgenstein suggested, it is difficult to come up with a definition that can incorporate everything from chess, professional tennis, ‘catch’, hide and seek, solitaire and so on. So too, to organise Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other ‘religions’ under a rigid definitional scheme is highly problematic. And yet this mistake is commonplace.”

So if someone said to you, “All games are the same,” or “All games lead to the same goal,” would you warmly celebrate the statement as profound and insightful? Or yawn? Can you think of a definition of religion that encompasses both western and eastern religions?

5 thoughts on “Ian Packer on Religion

  1. I agree. I was always annoyed by the evangelical line of explanation “Christianity isn’t like other religions – it is not about being good to satisfy God” – that description more aptly describes misunderstood Christianity than it does eastern religions.
    Any attempts to define religion will admit more members to the class.


  2. My response may not be as definitional as your question requires, Matt, but I do think it addresses some of the issues that any religion attempts to address.
    I think “religion” is humanity’s attempt to make relationship with “the transcendent” and “the immanent” manageable.
    On a hospital visit with some Aboriginal friends last night, I had an unexpected conversation with a highly intelligent, self-confessed “Jewish atheist”. The community Elder, Aunty Ellen, whom my friend and I accompanied to visit her even more elderly nephew in the “respiratory ambulatory ward”, has a remarkable habit of pronouncing blessing on anybody she encounters. “Bless you, dear”, “Bless you, thank you, God bless you , dear, in JESUS MIGHTY NAME” and “bless your children and your grandchildren, thank you dear” consciously and constantly escapes her lips whether it be to the young man who held the door open for her to shuffle through, the person who gives her a car ride down the road, or to the man sitting on the other couch in the visitors common room where we finally found her relative after an eventful attempt to find the correct ward. Aunty Ellen is an expert in the field of respiratory and ambulatory blessing – breathing and walking… blessing all who cross her path as she gets around. Whenever I have been in her company, I have never met a person who didn’t respond positively to her well-meaning proclamations. Smiles, no worries, happy days, thanks-for-taking-an-interest kinds of replies are all I’ve ever observed.
    So the “man on the other couch” copped the same genuinely warm God/Jesus invocations as we arrived and moved some chairs to gather around Aunty Ellen’s nephew. My friend, spontaneously remarked, “Oh, he’s probably Jewish”, and began a friendly conversation, although mindful of not intruding if the man preferred solitude. Since he was open to an unexpected chat, she continued on for a couple of minutes with some polite inquiries about his background and deftly involved me with my European cocktail heritage and then promptly left me to chat on while she joined Aunty Ellen and nephew, Gilbert, on the other side of the room.
    Oh Lord, what now? Should I courteously excuse myself and join the others, or continue an awkward kind of conversation with a stranger? Awkward because it was obvious that I was a Christian and he was a Jew, and a self-confessed, atheist one, at that (several loaded and trashed terms, already). Awkward, because I was full of energy, in an upbeat mood, and here was a man bored out of his brain, walking with the aid of a frame, and sick, sick of being cooped up in hospital for 3 weeks already, so his subsequent conversation revealed. I thought, Oh Lord, how can I speak to this man and make sense… be sensitive to his predicament… and yet be myself, true to my spiritual journey, not dumbed down, but authentic to living “life to the full” as has been my experience of interaction with God, and I might add, only gaining in intensity as I age… 52 this week, no less, alas! 🙂
    I find that if one talks (respires) and walks (ambulates) with God and others in a genuinely humble and well-meaning way, one may at times find oneself in some unusual situations. Sometimes, it’s a bit awkward, but authenticity prevails, and formative, if not always happy, outcomes are possible. My surprise acquaintanceship with “the man on the other couch” ended with a sense of having had a significant conversation with an intelligent person who had been born and brought up in a respectable Jewish family, who had been a radical student demonstrator in the turbulent 1960’s (nuclear disarmament, Aboriginal rights, Vietnam protests) and who had enjoyed the contemplative environment of a university librarian career and who experience peace and unity through a regular practice of communing with nature. However, now ill in hospital, his ability to breathe and walk were diminished and he wore his dressing gown of loneliness for all to see and perhaps for the perceptive few to actually notice.
    I guess my reason for relating this little story was to illustrate my suspicion that “religion” leaves little room for mystery and adventure; for appreciating precious and unexpected encounter; for engaging meaningfully with that which presents itself spontaneously on the path of life (whether pleasant or unpleasant). Its codification and specification tends to make “the transcendent” and “immanent” aspects of life manageable, impersonal, and a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, rather than a personal, relational immersion in the experience of “the other” kind of life. “The other” may be “the man/woman/child on the other couch” or the God on the “other side” of perception. I would rather be a spiritual being having a human experience than merely a human being having a spiritual experience. Breathing, talking and walking with God and others sifts the religious manageability out for me.


  3. Eric, likewise I find the evangelical line about “religion” a little annoying, but partly because I find Buddhists and eclectic religious consumers saying the same thing. It’s always, “You have religion. I have spirituality.” Pejorative usage rarely adds much to understanding. Can’t we all call a truce over the word?


  4. Lucy, you’re quite right. Codification of religion inevitably strips away much of the lived life of actual religious practitioners. A Jewish atheist is a great example because it challenges the neat boundaries of academia. There is no substitute for real conversation and dialogue.


  5. Great quote here via Wild Hunt Blog:
    “The gods of Hinduism are not the same as the orishas of Yoruba religion or the immortals of Daoism. To pretend that they are is to refuse to take seriously the beliefs and practices of ordinary religious folk who for centuries have had no problem distinguishing the Nicene Creed of Christianity from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism from the Shahadah of Islam. It is also to lose sight of the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions. But this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?”
    Read the rest of the post at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s