Preparing to teach a college class in religion has me asking the question, What is religion? In the context of a particular faith we can invoke the music, stories, ritual, and symbols that shape its identity, but the general question about the nature of religion is harder to address. What do people have in common when they practice religion?

Scholars trace the word religion to the Latin religare, which means to bind fast or connect, having to do with humans and gods. It contains the same root as ligament or ligature. So we can say that religion binds together the natural world and the realm of the spirit. It also connects those who share the same faith with one another, and it connects the various aspects of an individual’s life within a worldview that helps to make sense of one’s experience.

Inspired by Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God, we might say that religion is the practice of bringing our hearts and minds to an attempt to live, along with others, in the awareness of the greater reality. It means concerning ourselves with what is really real. Mircea Eliade, in Patterns in Comparative Religions, also invokes the sense of ultimate reality when he says that “Sacredness is, above all, real.”

Religion is based in the experience of its founders and their encounter with this ultimate reality. It offers a framework for those who follow, helping them to understand and perhaps to experience the divine in a similar way. It also allows a community to grow around that shared understanding and experience.

Whether we view it positively in terms of community or more negatively as an institution, religion is an aspect of the collective. For better or worse, it’s what we do together in an attempt to find meaning.

Yet according to Joseph Campbell in Thou Art That, “Carl Jung says that one of the functions of religion is to protect us against the religious experience. That is because in formal religion, it is all concretized and formulated. But, by its nature, such an experience is one that only you can have. As soon as you classify it with anybody else’s, it loses its character.”Campbell accurately points out the tension between the needs of the individual and those of the group, a tension found not only in formal religion but in any group, from the family to the nation.

In my own experience, I find that religion at its best grows out of spiritual life. The spiritual heart of religion, as I understand it, is the desire to live in relationship with what might be called the Divine. Ideally, everything we do begins with that.

The religious community that I know well is the church, which is made up of all kinds of people at different places in their faith journey. Some of them would agree that spiritual life is the heart of their experience of church, others are mainly focused on the work informed by it. But over time, through discussions and worship experiences, from friendships and shared work, the church offers a place for all people to cultivate richer and more meaningful lives. At its best, and in spite of its worst, the church offers both challenge and encouragement to grow in myriad ways. From what I know of them, this is the way of other faiths as well. Religion can offer a framework in which to shape a life with greater meaning and joy.

What do you understand religion to be?