Religion provides a way to find meaning and comfort in an existence fraught with suffering and injustice, Lowell L. Bennion told Sunstone Symposium participants during the closing session Saturday.
Addressing the subject, "The Moral Component of Religion," Bennion said going to church or participating in religious rituals are not a substitute for living moral principles such as compassionate service, humility, integrity and love.If anyone could discuss the "essence of true religion" with authority, it's Bennion because of his extraordinary example of selfless service, Sunstone organizers said.
Bennion is a revered humanitarian and "good neighbor" who has gained a reputation for his small acts of service to those in need. He recently was inducted to the Beehive Hall of Fame, is a former University of Utah sociology professor, founder and former director of the U. Institute of Religion, and executive director of the Community Services Council (which provides services to the low-income, handicapped and elderly).
Mostly, Bennion is known as the man in a rusty pickup truck delivering home-grown vegetables to Utah's hungry and impoverished.
The Sunstone Symposium, sponsored by a private foundation, concluded Saturday its three-day conference which focuses on theology.
"I believe the unique and primary role of religion is to help people cope with the uncertainties and tragedies of life," Bennion said.
"Religion is a search for security in an insecure world; an effort to triumph over the contingency and powerlessness we face in mortality. Religion enables people to rise above fear and meaninglessness and to feel at home in the universe," he said.
Quoting one of his favorite philosophers, W. P. Montague, Bennion said, "Religion is the faith that the things that matter most are not ultimately at the mercy of the things that matter least."
Truth, beauty and goodness are not at the mercy of a nuclear catastrophe because they have cosmic support, he said. Religion helps people retain hope and trust in life.
Because human beings are social by nature, ritual and church affiliation play a large role in helping people to experience religion. Rituals may include ceremonies, singing hymns and ordinances.
Rituals facilitate commitments and enable people to share faith and love. Rituals have symbolic meaning and, because they are tangible, they lend a measure of objectivity to religious feeling.
"Our beliefs and rituals are not ends in and of themselves. They must be translated into lives of integrity and love to be efficacious," he said.
But the practice of rituals is shallow without the moral aspect of religion. "Unless people practice justice and mercy in human relations, their rituals and worship are vain and hypocritical. Why? Because God is a person of integrity and compassion and demands these attributes of those who would serve him."
Bennion said ethical religious principles bring immediate satisfaction.
"Even if I should lose my faith in immortality, I would still hold fast to the ideals of moral living because it promises life at its best - here and now."