Assessment: religion as a cultural (f)actor

Final part (conclusion) of “Four essays on Religion and Freedom “ – Dick Wursten, tr. from the Dutch 2019

Previous: The Imperialism of the Religious Identity Marker

The previous essays were based on an approach to ‘religion’ as a human phenomenon, an integral and integrative part of human culture. That is what religion is, at least (no one will deny this, not even a militant atheist). The visible church (limiting myself to my own religious culture, but mutatis mutandis this applies generally) is run by human beings, even when they themselves believe that = in the end – it is God who runs the church. Those two statements can occur simultaneously. NB: I do not suggest that religion was invented or created by man. That is way too simplistic. You cannot invent a religion. Religion is something that has grown with mankind. 

Culture and religion:  tools from the human survival kit

Culture, including its religious emanations, is the way in which humanity managed to survive (as a species) in a world (natural environment) that was not necessarily benevolent to it. Cultural artifacts (from basic tools, primitive weapons, clothing, cooking, tribe-clan-nation-building, arts, sciences, and engineering, to entire philosophical, ideological, and religious systems of meaning) in a sense compensate for man’s biological vulnerability as a mammal. It is this capacity for cultural adaptation that has allowed him to survive. Culture in this broad sense is thus a tool from the survival kit of homo sapiens, and not just one, nay, an essential and indispensable one. Take away all those cultural achievements, which I just listed, and it is done with humanity. Like everything else in human history, this tool developed gradually, cumulatively, through trial and error. The same is true of the religious component. Just read any religious history book. Each time, religious contents and forms adapt to circumstances, to the needs and needs of man, of society. This is usually through the path of gradualness (evolution), but sometimes with great shocks (leap-variations, reformations, revolutions). It is all part of it. So religion too is a cumulative tradition, a thoroughly historical phenomenon. Obviously, a certain institutionalization helps to maintain the chain of lore through time. The “official religion” organizes that. It frames, establishes rules, distributes tasks, provides transmission, ritualizes. Importantly, living religion often has a kind of love-hate relationship with the institution. After all, that channels a dynamic that wants to go in all directions from within itself. That leads to tension. Removing that tension is the death of any vital cultural expression. Without institutionalization, the energy dissipates and evaporates. Too much institutionalization petrifies and suffocates. Managing that tension well is critical to the success of any cultural institution, not just the religious. The polarity of “Dynamics and Form” is essential (belongs to being itself) to revisit a term from an almost forgotten theologian-philosopher of the last century (Paul Tillich1).

So anyone who compares Christianity of 1500, 1000, 500 and 200 years ago to today and focuses on “how people lived it” will be impressed by the enormous transformational processes that have taken place under a seemingly unchanging outer shell. Devotions come and go, but also things that seem unchangeable such as dogma or the institution itself have constantly taken on a different meaning in all these centuries, if only because they have shifted place in perception, changed color in interpretation. A religious institution therefore has more of an organism than of a building. And at the same time, it is typical of this component of the human cultural project that it must offer the suggestion of eternity and stability. Indeed, one of the core functions of religion (functional definition, I am aware) is to provide a counterbalance to transience (mortality) and disintegration (of society). This function correlates precisely with the moment when man resorted (had to resort) to “culture” in order to hold his own in an inherently non-human-friendly world. For this he had to rise above his biological determinacy. NB: the ‘must’ in this sentence is not an indication of an external assignment or decision, it is an observation. This is how man as a species has survived and thus this is how man has become what he is. He transcends his status as “mammal,” “primate,” and becomes himself a cultural phenomenon.

The human imagination

From then on, he is not just a mammal endowed with reason but a spiritual being. Man now designs himself. Naturally still determined by his physical basis (the common term is biological nature), he develops from there, thereon, more and more and more complex strategies for survival. This problem-solving ability results in all sorts of tricks and tips, from tools and weapons to complex organizational forms and functional divisions of labor. The point is that this therefore no longer has anything to do with biological evolution (which is far too slow), but with mental evolution, culture. The core capacity for this could be called the imagination or imaginative capacity.2

Imagination (“imaginatio”) is a form of thinking, as much as discursive thinking, and analytical and synthetic ability. Man can imagine a world, project it onto reality (from developing an idea to formulating a hypothesis) and test it. In this way he tries to get a grip on that reality, to “bend it to his will,” and to protect himself against impending dangers. People can look beyond their nose and thus prepare themselves for what is not yet. This spiritual ability influences real life, and itself creates new realities, with – inevitably – new problems. This is how man stands in the world, how he makes his way through unruly life. It draws him and makes him what he is. You can define all animals from their biology (physical, neurological). So can man. You can suspect in some animals a form of consciousness that seems to have formed from that physical basis. That is intriguing. However, there is only one living being that is aware of this state of affairs – a “consciousness squared” you might call it – and has made it his trademark and of it: man. He can think after and think ahead. This is how he determines his place in the world, this is how he makes his way through life, and this is how he is stamped. His being is always in the process of becoming. Deftly put: Man endlessly transcends himself. The material and immaterial precipitation of this is what we called “culture” above. Take that away, and man is lost in this world, literally and figuratively. So the religious component (institutionalized or not, systematized or not) within this whole is both something very ordinary, and something very special. Something very common because it is part and parcel of culture and therefore human. This part of culture is also part of the survival kit. I am not being mysterious or lyrical about that. The evolutionary scientist may feel free to include this in his survival story (which, by the way, he has been doing for a long time, with fine results), but this too marks man, belongs to him. As mentioned in the first chapter, the human imagination and its tendency to make causal connections and see patterns (even when there are none) is sufficient to make the emergence of religious artifacts (from rituals to a religious doctrine) plausible. The neurological wiring is there. Logical says the natural scientist, because otherwise religion would not have developed (Pascal Boyer: evolutionary biology & Justin Barrett: cognitive science, see Essay 1). Even with these statements, a god-believer can still agree, in my opinion. That humans are hard-wired to run transcendent ‘programs’ (software) says nothing about how the external reference in that program (e.g., ‘god’) exists. But this generally human (‘ordinary’) is at the same time something special, for this imagination makes man who and what he is: a self infinitely reinventing (and hopefully ‘transcending’, transcending) mammal.

These insights, and I would now like to draw attention to them in conclusion, can be unfolded in two directions. On the one hand toward culture, on the other toward what we call religion. The latter exercise is fairly often made. Sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists try to investigate the general human basis of certain religious activities. For example, they devise experiments in which one can map the physical basis of certain religious activities. Very often they focus on prayer. Probably because this seems to be a clearly definable activity, and there are measurable elements. What brain regions are activated during prayer, and what do those brain regions relate to? However interesting, but the results often say no more than that praying activates parts of the brain, in itself a trivial observation. And if one manages to find (or simulate) analogous processes in the brain, that too says no more than what it says, namely that the effect of prayer is similar to other human activities (which, incidentally, are remarkably often related to stress reduction). Still this says nothing about causation. And the relevance to the life of the ordinary believer is small, since one usually selects religious professionals (Buddhist monks, Christian nuns) in such experiments. However, monastic tidal prayer is still somewhat different from the way an average person prays. Experiments that try to measure the effectiveness of religious actions (does intercessory prayer for the sick help?) through double-blind statistical research are a lot more fascinating in that respect, but almost always degenerate into a war of interpretation between believers and others before publication. Add a talent for cognitive dissonance in some believers and a tendency for reductionism in some atheists and you soon stop reading. By the way, Augustine already knew that prayer has more to do with “constructing your soul” than with “instructing God”3

Culture viewed as/from religion

What is much less done, but I think is actually much more interesting, is the reverse movement. Looking at what we call “ordinary cultural phenomena” through the lens of religion, and by that I don’t mean that you start claiming all kinds of things that people do for official religion, as some Christian apologists sometimes do (“You see, you are actually religious too, because…”), but in an exploratory constructive way: an attempt to map out how “eternity” has fanned out across numerous time-bound phenomena.4 Official religion, of course, has captured and shaped much of man’s transcendent activity. It has often attached not only a truth claim to it, but also a kind of copyright. It administers it, and if it does not appear in the religious canon of the dominant institution, then it is not a religion, but “superstition,” “popular belief” or “wrong belief” (formerly: all other religions). This sometimes made it seem as if no serious “religion” occurred “outside the religious institution. This is a misconception. In previous chapters I have referred often enough to ‘lived religion’ or ‘everyday religion’ and argued that these religious manifestations have as much right to speak as official religion. So I won’t go into that further now. What matters to me now is that in addition to this religion-internal dispute over what religion may be called-there is much else in human culture that performs the same function as what we call religion, without us recognizing and acknowledging it as such. This is because we immediately associate religion with the explicit reference to a separately existing outside world (heaven, god or gods and whatnot) and a religious institution (priests, theologians) that controls and interprets the whole. Viewed as a cultural phenomenon, religion is primarily about experiencing transcendence, something that “transcends” ordinary human life. This can be done in many ways. It can be by “elevating” man himself by giving him the sense of being included in something beyond him. It can be done equally by simply giving him ground under his feet so that he feels that he will not perish. What is essential in this cultural-philosophical approach is that the “separate existence of an entity or a reality” is not the point here, but rather the “act of transcending” itself, or in other words, the “act of belief. And by this I do not mean the rational acceptance of the set of beliefs, but the existential experience that existence in general is “right. Foundational Experiences. It is about ‘having Faith’, finding ‘Basic Trust’. I am well aware that in official religion one cannot exist without the other (fides qua presupposes fides quae), but the distinction is necessary in order to detect within the cultural evolution of humanity also foundational experiences that do not refer to a religious set of beliefs, although their impact on people is as great as with religious experiences. In other words, even outside the church, people perform “acts of faith” (experience “basic trust”) and feel “included in a larger context. If you want examples, think about what sports (especially soccer) and music mean to people.


The European missionaries, to their amazement, saw the Amerindians (both in Central America and in the Caribbean) playing diligently with a rubber ball, in a walled square. I already referred to it in the first chapter. They didn’t quite know what to make of it. There were many rituals, there were all kinds of wonderful signs on the walls surrounding the square, and the game was played with great commitment. The rules of the game were difficult to fathom for an uninitiated observer. However, it was clear that the players were specialists given the virtuosity with which they played the ball around. The involvement of the audience was also intense. They sympathized with their team to such an extent that it seemed as if they were completely absorbed in the game. In some areas these games were accompanied by sacrifices and great ceremony. In other words, it seemed to be part of the religion. Elsewhere, they saw children reenacting it and then it seemed harmless. They did not come out of it. This dilemma can only be broken by placing religion back into that creative imaginative human activity called “culture. This game, it was clear, was a product of this. And depending on the context, it fulfilled the exalted function, which we normally attribute to religion: it made people feel that they were temporarily included in a higher context. They sympathized, empathized, and had a sense of being part of something that transcended ordinary human activity. Things that are usually channeled into what we call religion, but that belong to the cultural competence of human beings in general. And of course that is context dependent. Children imitate it at home (they do with religious rituals too), adults can also do it “for fun,” but within a highly ritualized context, in a well-defined place during a strike time period, it takes on that extra charge. What applied to that Amerindian ball sport also applies to soccer today, with one clear difference: Soccer is not part of institutionalized religion, but is entrusted to a royal soccer association. That means that the attribution of meaning is not mandatory for every citizen, although you sometimes doubt that when you see the mass hysteria surrounding soccer tournaments, where country teams compete against each other. Not for nothing has it been suggested that the sacredness of official religion was transferred to the nation-state sometime in the 19th century, but this aside. In theory, you may say out loud that you think soccer is “nothing. Some will find it blasphemy, but you won’t be condemned for it. Remarkable also in our time, for how many people that sport means much more than a pastime. That one kicks a ball is not the point. In itself that is nothing, and is nothing at all. Again, only the highly ritualized version, bound to time and place, has “it. Then it releases something in man. No doubt it has to do with the feeling of being included in a group, of belonging. You, although sitting in the stands, are part of the battle being fought, the defeats and victories are also yours. That in itself is strange. You don’t fight yourself, you don’t win, you don’t lose. Others do that for you, the players on the field. But you experience it by proxy. In religious language: the soccer players perform a priestly ministry, and you get to share in what they perform (communio realis). Sometimes this goes very deep. Some people get totally absorbed and have a lot to give for their club. They “live for soccer”: true supporters, loyal fans, for better or worse. They live towards a match, talk to each other about it. It fills their lives, lifts them above everyday reality. And it doesn’t matter whether the club is 4th provincial or playing in the Champions League. There around that field things happen that make it feel worth living, together with the comrades. There are club songs, logos, flags that make the feeling visible externally as well. There are speech choruses, and sometimes there is even “community hymn singing” with a set repertoire (Wembley, Cup Final). People fall around each other’s necks when goals are scored, people comfort each other when they lose. And then the match is over. And the players exchange their jerseys and a general reconciliation and/or a huge brawl follows even among the supporters. If you put all this next to descriptions of all kinds of rituals and celebrations in a religious science book (including the associated psychomotor and psychosocial mechanisms), you won’t have much trouble discovering parallels. It does indeed have something sacred, sport, and yet it is utterly human. And even though the meaning does not apply to everyone, nor always, nor in every context, soccer can do it: lift people’s lives out of everyday existence and give spectators the feeling of being absorbed into a world that far surpasses the mundane, and at the same time give people the feeling that things are right, that things are right, right down to the trance. In short, soccer qualifies in terms of function as “religion,” mind you, not as a surrogate religion, as haughty theologians sometimes say, no, just on par with that which adorns itself with that term, official religion. And when it comes to the intensity of experience, the latter often makes a muddle compared to the former. In the rituals surrounding the Olympic Games, which we know in its romantic late-modern corruption, the religious component of sport is still visible. It was integral to Greek religiosity, as was theater, for that matter. That does not mean that athletes and spectators were more pious than we are then, that is a typical retrojection fallacy, it simply means that in that culture the religious component that is always in sports (if played seriously) was made explicit in terms of the ubiquitous official religion, something we no longer do, and the Amerindians might (or might not, it doesn’t matter).


Foot-ball (soccer), already took us to ancient Greece. There also lies the origin of our word music. That which the “muses” produce. According to ancient Greek sensitivity, the muses are at the origin of all human creativity, science as much as dance. This creativity counterbalances the condition humaine. It helps man to transcend himself and become “human,” it arms man against impermanence. So it goes without saying that music and religion go very well together. And this is actually noticeable in all religions. How much music from our Western culture does not have its roots in the church? Its uplifting power, its guiding quality, it has naturally made it the protagonist of the church. But that does not doom music outside the church to not have that uplifting power. It is inherent in everything people bring about when inspired by the muses. Phrases like “people today seek in art, or music, what they used to seek in the church,” or more disparagingly, “Art as Ersatzreligion” again miss the point. Art expressions that open worlds that are not available, that incite dreams, that stimulate the imagination, are on equivalents of the official “religion” as a signifier. The distinction between “religious music” and “profane music” is artificial. The musical man who was Martin Luther summed it up succinctly: “All good music comes from God” and “Where people make music together, the devil has no chance. That music composed within religious institutions still has that transcending and founding power even after their demise needs little argument. We need only refer here to the annual hype surrounding J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. But it applies equally to music that is independent of any explicitly religious insititute; to music from both classical bourgeois culture and contemporary youth culture, and not only solipsistically (via one’s own mp-3 player), but very emphatically also as a group experience. The “spiritual” significance of summer pop festivals cannot be underestimated. And not just Tomorrowland.

Laundry Day

Very nicely, this “secular religious” component became visible when in 2012 the techno-music festival Laundry Day pulled off a promotional stunt of stature. It applied to the Federal Government (Justice Department, division: worship, services) to be recognized as a “religion”. In its own words, it met all the criteria set by the Belgian state for religion to be recognized. It had a significant number of adherents (60,000 they claimed, the number of visitors to Laundry Day), had been active in the territory for a long period of time (1998 was the first edition). They had their own rituals, namely the annual pilgrimage of all adherents to Antwerp in September. They even had a credo: God is a D-J and they do believe unconditionally in the power of music, and the equality of all people. It was a publicity stunt – the theme of the 2012 festival was “religion and spirituality”. All media picked up on the message. The spin doctors could be satisfied. Whether the recognition file was really submitted, I do not know, in any case it was not followed up. Too bad really, because I would have liked to know how this would have turned out. Indeed, in my opinion, this file stood a good chance of being “recognized,” because it indeed quasi meets the requirements that the legislature has formulated over the past two centuries for a religion to be recognized as a “worship service”. In addition to the criteria already mentioned, there is only the formal obligation to establish a ‘representative body’ to represent the voice of its supporters in its dealings with the government, one of the biggest bumps in Islam’s road to recognition, by the way. Should the nifty marketing guys and girls of Laundry Day have set themselves this goal, they would probably have arranged it in no time, too. More important to me, however, is this: in terms of impact and significance, they are qualified to be called an equivalent of “religion. Just ask visitors what this festival means to them. Very often you will hear sentences like: ‘When I am here I am in another world for a moment’, or: ‘The music gives me an enormous kick to go crazy here together with all the others’. That can count as a ‘transcendental experience’. I also heard someone say: ‘If I have experienced that weekend here, I can go on for another year’. If that’s not a ‘foundational experience’!

Religion approached from culture

Porting religion into the immanent frame

Even when the ‘sacred canopy’ is torn (in a secular society) people keep constructing a symbolic universe. They can’t resist – on pain of being less human. People continue to give meaning to things they experience, experience, endure . In this way life is lifted above the human, temporary, coincidental. Even within ‘the immanent frame‘ (Charles Taylor) man continues to search for transcendence. He knows he is trapped between birth and death, but he will not let himself be crushed. And he does so by doing all kinds of things that give him a sense that it matters, that he matters, that life is worth living, even when things go badly, even when it hurts , individually and as a group. ‘acts of transcendence’ and ‘acts of faith’. Again: I do not use the term ‘religion’ here to claim these things for a ‘god’ or for an ‘official religion’, but simply to underline the meaning it has for being human. The subtitle of this paragraph sums it up in the language of computer programmers: They sometimes try to ‘tune’ an operating system that was actually designed for device ‘x’ so that you can port it to device ‘y’. They never quite succeed, fully achieve their goal. Often you see published (on a website/forum), a list of working, half-working and not (yet) working functions. Applied to religion: ‘Tuning’ the software developed for a system in which there was an upper world, in such a way that it can be used for an ‘inner worldly’ system, ‘the immanent frame’. Some programs are perfectly transferable because they contain no reference at all to that upper world, others still do a fine job even without that reference. Of the former, ‘sports and games’ (i.c. soccer) was an example, of the latter ‘music’. As in the world of computers, there is much more to the world of religions and the religious than this. Some things will not be transferable, but the experiment has only just begun. It will be interesting to see if you can also “tune” typical church rituals around birth, marriage, death so that they can continue to function even within the immanent frame.

The biggest handicap here seems to be not the actions themselves, but the interpretation, the explanatory language around them. The experience of the meaningfulness of ritual acts precedes their understanding. I have said it many times in this book: Any articulation of religion is secondary, and perhaps more so than we realize. Indeed, even in the process of making meaning, it turns out to be only of secondary importance. After all, even if we find out, that the story we have been told with it does have big gaps after all, not to mention the indigestible parts, the signifying acts continue to work, not all of them (e.g., I think the Eucharist is struggling), not always, but still: around birth, at coming of age, marriage, and death. And this applies not only to the actions themselves, the gestures (physically, that is!), but also to some of the co-transmitted words. Even the word “god” remains meaningful to many people, even though they do not believe in his existence as the official church textbook dictates. Infant baptism remains attractive even when there is hardly any commitment to the institution and its teachings. Apparently it offers a form to express one’s “joy and wonder” at the birth of a child: new life! Feelings of deep gratitude and responsibility are also overwhelmingly present. And to be able to say ‘thank you’ it is convenient to have an address. And that’s where ‘God’ is back. And many people, living within ‘the immanent frame,’ actually have surprisingly little trouble imagining that ‘giver of life’ at that moment, so much so that they feel addressed by him and take him as witness at this crucial moment in their existence. Ditto for wedding celebrations and in another way also around funerals, where words like “eternal life, resurrection, heaven” do seem to have meaning for people living secular lives. This means that words that have lost their direct reference and no longer say anything as such can still remain meaningful. It’s not the big dogmatic stories, then, that do it, but some words, turns of phrase, stories, actions, images. The Leiden-Brussels philosopher Ger Groot wrote an essay about it and called this phenomenon: the credit of the creed.5

This brings me naturally to my very last point. The explicit “set of beliefs” can act as a jammer when it comes to meaning transmission. Words that once conveyed meaning can apparently become a stand in the way of that same meaning. There is a need for a new ritual, you then read, including a new language. And there are experiments (Alain de Botton). I have nothing against them, but I don’t actually believe in them. You can’t invent rituals, only receive them. In the world of meaning, social engineering has nothing to say. You already have to have a very sensitive mind if you want to do anything here. And, it doesn’t have to, in my opinion. Instead of new language, a good hermeneutic might be enough. The main thing is to say the same thing differently. To clarify this a bit more, I turn again to the story of the Muses and to the creative power of Language (ποίησις, “poiesis”). Contrary to what we think, this evocative language is actually still very much present in the Christian tradition. It is only hidden from view by two things at once. On the one hand by the crushing preponderance of doctrinal language in the Christian tradition (which makes that religion seem to consist of a “set of beliefs” that must be adopted) and on the other hand by the fact that one approaches the Church’s source book too much as “Holy Scripture” and thus forgets to simply read. Were we to do so, just read, as we read a literary text from our cultural tradition, then the creative power of that language would once again become palpable and at the same time (automatically, because implied and intimated in the narratives of that book) more attention would once again be given to the importance of ‘Faith’ instead of the fixation on ‘Beliefs’.

The language of the story and the suspension of disbelief

Language that confers meaning does not argue, but creates the reality it evokes. It is musical language, “poiesis” creative, evocative language. Such language imparts meaning, accompanies rituals, interprets them, without killing the act itself. Religious language belongs to that category. It gives food for thought, stimulates the imagination, unlocks perspectives, opens windows on the world, etc. Many professionals who try to capture “revelatory religion” (based on a book) in language seem hardly aware of this. They postulate and pontificate, make statements about all sorts of things, reason about them. Thus they speak of god and man as if they were the most ordinary things in the world, as if they were simply available. Well, they are not, neither are they. That is precisely their strength, that is what makes them special, both of them. Man has looked for words to say about “god” and “man. That is not a simple matter. God is by definition ineffable and man endlessly transcends himself, his being is in the making. In the biblical narratives (and even the dogmas, but it would go too far to go into this) one is much more aware of this, than many a theologian. The trick, however, is to approach such texts open-mindedly, that is, to receive them as what they are: a collection of texts that take us back to the time when our culture was beginning to take shape. We should not focus on actual truth claims contained in those stories. Those are secondary, and in many stories even completely irrelevant even. I do know that many believing readers see it differently, but I maintain my position and ask only that you take a moment to read along with me. A piece of the story of the beginning as told by the Bible. Not the first story, but the second (Genesis 2: 4ff), about Adam in paradise. Actually, I have started wrong at this point. Adam sounds like a person’s name and Paradise like a particular place. That is 2x incorrect. ‘ha-adam’ in Hebrew is not a name, but means ‘man’ and, in this story, he lives in a beautiful garden, the Garden of Eden, indeed a paradise place (also for the reader of the time a mythical place, not locatable on any map). This man is then told that he felt he was missing something. Even though the sun was shining, he was surrounded by all kinds of animals, he could eat whatever he wanted, he did not feel good about himself. Tell me, do you have the impression that this is a “history story”? I don’t. The style, the words, everything suggests that this is a story about ‘man’ in general. Here is probed about ‘the human predicament,’ ‘la condition humaine,’ how he is put together, what moves him, what he gets stuck on. But we must continue: ‘And God said, it is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper for him, who will suit him.’ Man falls into a deep sleep, God takes a rib from his side and models from it a second man, a woman. And then when man awakens from his coma, and sees that fellow man for the first time, he exclaims “At last a man, like me, my flesh and blood. At this point, the writer drops the word “ha-adam” and switches to “man” and “woman” (ish, isha). It is clear: this is about sexuality, and human relationships. And indeed in the rest of the story he outlines with a few well-chosen sentences how man, though bound by birth to his parents, detaches himself from them and ventures into a new adventure together with a new partner: ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, attach himself to his wife, and they shall also be physically one.’ It is clear, it seems to me, that the first intention of this story is not to communicate an event that took place about 6,000 years ago. The person who says that cannot read. The purpose of this story is to impart wisdom and insight that will be of use to you as a human being, especially in the intercourse between the sexes. That is the primary intention. Of course you step into the story as if that is how it happens. That’s just how a story works: “Harry Potter,” “Madame Bovary”. Reading any story assumes a “suspension of disbelief” for the duration of the story. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. The biblical stories are no different. Apparently, people liked this story about “man” so much that they continued to retell it. Thus it was handed down from generation to generation, and probably updated. It became part of Jewish culture, it acquired a high status there, it became a sacred text. And when around the time of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah, the main texts were collected, it was decided to include it in the book describing the primordial history of mankind (Genesis 1-11), immediately following a kind of liturgical text, with refrain phrases, in which the creation of all things is sung with an eye for detail and a sense of order, while time is rhymed according to a cycle of seven days. Remarkably, you should pay attention: the first series of stories in the Bible all have a high “conditon humaine” content. The fratricide, the flood, the building of the tower of Babel. They still appeal, that is, if you read them as they were written, not as mysterious texts, conveying secret knowledge from God, but as mirror stories to put your own life story (which every person constructs) next to, to test against. The great story of the Exodus also opens up new perspectives on life again and again. In the second chapter, it was the common thread on the road to religious freedom. And so I could go on and on. Certainly the Old Testament is a Fundgrube for “strong stories. It would take a separate book to flesh this out. And that the story of the passion of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament is life-shaping needless to say. If only it is told well. In short, stories in the Bible contain prompts that help determine your place in the world and organize your life, individually but also as a society. Narrative, that is, free and inviting. My advice to the church is to radically strip the texts of all knowledge claims regarding “states of affairs” (remove them from the cognitive register) and instead read the texts as literature, focusing on their narrative power. The power of narrative is that it allows the listener to feed his own imagination. He can thus imagine possible lives, he can place his own life next to it, in it. It opens perspectives, it lets light in. A good story makes a person think. Thinking through, thinking after, thinking ahead. Exactly those things that we have put forward as characteristics of human culture. Exactly those things that gave religion its transcending and grounding power. In my opinion, with this way of reading you also do justice to the texts and they do not lose meaning. On the contrary. Read in this way, I think it automatically becomes clear why that book has always been re-read and why those stories are still inspiring. ‘Ces textes nous racontent,’ says Philippe Lechermeier in the preface to his retelling of parts of the Bible: ‘Une bible,’ it is called. It is a réécriture that focuses on the cultural transmission of the texts in which the founding power of these stories must be restored. In the Dutch language, Guus Kuijer has also made an impressive attempt in his ‘Bible for non-believers,’ an eye-opener also for believers. Telling each other stories is a powerful conveyor of meaning, especially if they are stories that already have a long tradition. And exponentially if, in passing on those stories, you also appeal to the same creative imagination from which they were born.

The benefit to society is that by retelling religious stories taking into account their musical source, they lose their divisiveness (which they have when read as texts from which to extract “sets of beliefs”), and begin to profer meaning, direction for humans living in the immanent frame. Thus read, they lay a foundation for a shared culture, where identities are constructed narratively and not confessionally.

© Dick Wursten: fair use policy : ie all use is permitted provided the source is mentioned.


  1. cf. HM Kuitert,  Everything but knowledge , Ten Have-Baarn, 2014
  2. ”Non ut Deus instruatur sed ut ipsa [sc. mens ] construatur”, found in Liber de Gratia Novi Testamenti ad Honoratum. See: Augustinus,  Epistulae  ( ep. 124-184 A ) – ed. A. Goldbacher 1904, CSEL 44, letter 140 (there p. 217)
  3. reference to Meerten ter Borg, An extended eternity ~ The human deficit in modern culture, Ten Have-Baarn, 1991
  4. Ger Groot,  The credit of the creed ~ Religion, disbelief, Catholicism,  Sun-Nijmegen, 2006
  1. German-American theologian (1886-1965), according to which religion simply was the depth dimension of human culture.So, when people are engaged in what concerns them most: The Ultimate Concern, they are participating in ‘God’, as the Ground of Being. Heidegger is never far away. In the three volumes of his Systematic Theology (1951-1963) he sets forth his theological theory of being (ontology), interweaving theology and philosophy. In volume 1, he brings this essential and therefore irresolvable tension under a threefold rubric: Freedom & Destiny, Dynamics & Form, Individualization & Participation. In tthis tension (paradox, dialectic) a human being must live, endure life. It’s the Human Predicament. And that is fine, because both poles need each other. This is how man becomes who he is.
  2. cf. H.M. Kuitert, Alles behalve kennis, Ten Have-Baarn, 2014
  3. ”Non ut Deus instruatur sed ut ipsa [sc. mens ] construatur”, found in Liber de Gratia Novi Testamenti ad Honoratum. See: Augustinus,  Epistulae  ( ep. 124-184 A ) – ed. A. Goldbacher 1904, CSEL 44, letter 140 (there p. 217)
  4. reference to Meerten ter Borg, An extended eternity ~ The human deficit in modern culture, Ten Have-Baarn, 1991
  5. Ger Groot, Het krediet van het credo ~ Godsdienst, ongeloof, katholicisme, Sun-Nijmegen, 2006