Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Content Free Religion

Karen Armstrong explains again her view that religion should not be about belief, and used to be about something else entirely:
The biblical God is a “starter kit”; if we have the inclination and ability, we are meant to move on. . . . Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual or the Highway Code; you have to get into the vehicle and learn to manipulate the brakes. The rules of a board game sound obscure and dull until you start to play, and then everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice. You may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible or to dance with unearthly beauty. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy –what the Greeks called ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the norm.

Religion, too, is a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart. Like premodern philosophy, it was not the quest for an abstract truth but a practical way of life. Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work. Classical yoga was not an aerobic exercise but a full-time job, in which a practitioner learned to transcend the ego that impeded the ekstasis of enlightenment. The five “pillars” or essential practices of Islam are all activities: prayer, pilgrimage, almsgiving, fasting and a continual giving of “witness” (shahada) in everything you do that God (not the “gods” of ambition and selfishness) is your chief priority. . . . If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it.

“Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.
As I have written before, I find this appealing but can't get to it. For me, the words get in the way. Armstrong can say all she wants that religion is a way of life, not a list of beliefs, but go to church and you don't hear anybody talking about getting to ekstasis through practice. You hear that through faith in Jesus you can have eternal life. I regard this as a statement not so much false as incomprehensible. And when people say things that to me have no meaning, I leave the room.

Classical yoga was a practice, but it was a practice based on a baroquely imagined universe full of gods and spirits and vortices of power, all illustrated in the yoga manuals as purple cartoon monsters. Once I see the cartoon, the practice loses its appeal.

The ultimate point of prayer may be that the practice of asking for blessing and giving thanks shifts something in our minds and gives us a better relationship with the universe. But to pray you have to imagine a being that you can address with words. Did anybody ever actually pray to being itself?

How would Armstrong write a hymn? What words could she put it in that wouldn't be affirmations of some particular belief? I know secular people who love Handel's Messiah, which for them is a spiritual experience devoid of religious particulars. But the actual words are quite specifically Christian.

I am also dubious about Armstrong's history. It is very difficult to know what even our close friends "really believe," but to assert, as she does, that people like Confucius, the Buddha, and Jesus had no particular theological beliefs requires ignoring half of what they said. Religion is a mix of many things -- half-understood rituals, ancient stories, moral instruction, and so on -- but particular beliefs about the nature of the universe have always been an important strand.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I strongly second Anonymous' lovely endorsement.

I think it's possible Armstrong's stance in part reflects her years of studying Islam. Islam, like Judaism, has really a very simple theology, and (also like Judaism) its great historic figures are mostly jurists. It has been said that one could be an atheist and still be a Muslim--but one could not fail to practice shari'a, and remain a Muslim. The same point could be made about Judaism. Both express the supreme importance of obeying the deity rather than believing the right things about Him. Among the three, at least, only Christianity places so much store on the particulars of right belief, and it has done so since at least the days of Paul.

Of course, religious legalism is based on a certain set of beliefs about the universe, especially that the main duty of humans is to demonstrate their faith and respect for the Deity by obeying the Deity's law. And Muslims, for example, believe that polytheism is especially offensive to God; but the Qur'an tends to describe polytheism as an action rather than a state of mind.

She troubles me more in her basically therapeutic stance on religious action. Five prayers a day may afford some folks a sense of inner peace or some such, but the reason the religion says you're supposed to do it is because God said so, and if you don't, you're not a Muslim.

Perhaps the real problem with her stance is that what she wants is a consensus religion, one that serves universal human needs. It might be added that the commentator you quote in your just-previous post, who wants art museums to be secular temples, also wants them to be temples of a non-divisive, consensus religion. This desire is not discreditable--who could live through the 20th century and not value consensus over conflict?--but long-term religious consensus may be impossible, and may kind of miss the point of religious passion anyway.