In the opening of Religion and Nothingness, Keiji Nishitani makes a stunning claim:
[F]rom the standpoint of the essence of religion, it is a mistake to ask “What is the purpose of religion for us?” and one that clearly betrays an attitude of trying to understand religion apart from the religious quest. It is a question that must be broken through by another question coming from within the person who asks it. There is no other road that can lead to an understanding of what religion is and what purpose it serves. The counterquestion that achieves this breakthrough is one that asks, “For what purpose do I myself exist?” Of everything else we can ask its purpose for us, but not of religion. With regard to everything else we can make a telos of ourselves as individuals, as man, and as mankind, and evaluate things in relation to our life and existence. We put ourselves as individuals/man/mankind at the center and weigh the significance of everything as the contents of our lives as individuals/man/mankind. But religion upsets the posture from which we think of ourselves as telos and center of things. Instead, religion poses as a starting point the question: “For what purpose do I exist?” (pp. 2-3)
Two clarifying remarks are in order, I think.
First, Nishitani implies that religion can only be, let’s say, authentic for the one who has directly experienced the limits of human autonomy and self-centeredness. If he hasn’t experienced such limits, especially given that atheism is the default at this stage of modernity, then he can only continue to pose questions of religion that are not just trivial but also ill-begotten. The New Atheist is clueless about the essence of religion, and he doesn’t have the slightest clue about how clueless he is. Nor, for that matter, does any skeptic, agnostic, or cynic. If you haven’t been there, then you don’t know and you don’t know that, and what, you don’t know.
Plainly, if our time, as I suggest, is marked by homo psychologicus, then religion can be nothing to this one.
An anecdote: someone once wrote to my Rinzai Zen teacher to ask about certain characteristic features of Zen in order to ascertain whether Zen could be a good fit for her. My teacher replied: “What are you willing to give to the practice?”
Second and related to the first, the religious quest is only intelligible for the one who experiences it “from the inside.” Once my life has been split open and I see, right here, the great matter of birth and death, I begin my religious quest. To another not split open, the question often yet illegitimately arises, “But what’s all the fuss, huh? Of course, we’re going to die. Get used to it and move on.”
A closing thought: I do worry that, in the light of our entrepreneurial age, some who come across this post may misread Kishitani’s counterquestion: “For what purpose do I exist?” That question cannot be answered, let alone heard, from the standpoint of the human agent. Purpose, in Kishitani’s sense, is not something I do or could ever make. In fact, the human agent must begin to doubt itself, its autarchy in order for there to be an opening to what is beyond the human: that is, to what Christian Smith has called “superhuman powers.”
The religious quest is not ever for the smug at heart. To that one, the essence of religion shall, because it must, remain veiled. Yet to the one ready for conversion (metanoia), the mystery begins to unfold its inner secrets about the nature of reality.