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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Part 7: Thinking Religiously

Karen Armstrong's new book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence is a good place to start thinking about religious thinking.

Here she traces traditional religions of East and West to show their complex relationship to assassination, war, massacre, genocide, terror, revolution, suicide bombing and other forms of violence. Religion, she shows, does not cause violence and is frequently unconnected to violent acts. Yes, at times it is used to promote, even sanctify, violence. But it is more often used to promote peace and neighborly love.

She is especially critical of those who say that Islam or any religion is inherently violent and that the world would be better off without religion. Such an attitude might even promote the violence that the anti-religious are trying to minimize. She has plenty to say about how American and European interventions based on their quasi-religious concepts or their characterization of non-Christian religions have induced blow-back and other violent reactions in Islamic countries.

Instead of indicting religions, she shows that if you really want to know how violence happens, check out changes in the economy and the political supports and structures of that economy. In the change from hunting-gathering to an agricultural economy, bounded territory, land ownership, and surplus produce became prime movers of empires ruled by force with classes maintained by force. The industrial economy and the rise of big cities led to nation-states which are monopolies of the means of violence and to the violences we experience today.

Armstrong uses "religion" in various ways to make her points. Indeed as is often the case, the concept of religion is different for the pro and anti-religionist. Religion is a complex phenomenon and concept that we need to think about especially in relation to war and peace, violence and non-violence. I find five meanings to the concept and offer a fifth for consideration.

1. The traditional religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) are what a historian or anthropologist discovers by examining their institutions, writings, rituals, actions, and their development. This is mainly what Armstrong means when she denies that religion is the cause of violence.

2. Religion as a psychological phenomenon.  Belief in or sensing spirits or supernatural phenomenon have been studied by neuroscientists and psychologists. And there is also the idea of the holy, the feeling of ecstasy, the witness or hearing of a divine being, the sense of wholeness and meaningfulness that observers have described in themselves or in founders of religions or religious orders. Armstrong cites Chris Hedges, former war correspondent, who witnessed the ecstasy of the warrior martyr killing and dying for his mission, cause, and people.

3. Modern religion, after the Enlightenment, the rise of science and mechanistic technology, the rise of republicanism, and the new industrial state where the sacred is separate from the secular and Church is separate from State. Modernization movements occurred within and outside traditional religions and their churches to apply rational thought, to adjusts religious doctrine to new science, to accommodate secular society. But counter movements of the "old time religion" fought to retain orthodoxy, to maintain fundamentals, and to condemn secular humanism. Armstrong indicates that in a sense there was no "religion" before modern times, because what what we call religion today was simply an aspect of all human live, activity, and being.

4. Religion as culture. Armstrong's treatise suggests to me a more inclusive and probably more abstract model for understanding religion. Three desires of humanity are to survive, to act, and to know. These make up the drives to life, to power, and to meaning and are associated with the three realms of human existence: economy, the realm of production and consumption to fulfill life's needs; politics, the realm of communal action where persons achieve respect as doers; and culture, the realm in which meaning is sought, discovered, and experienced. The desire to know and the search for meaning is built into our ability to think. We make and find that meaning in organizing the environment through symbols--through language, through science, through art, and through religion with its narratives and rituals and teachings that give to all of us the reason to keep on searching, expressing, and relating to others in the process.

Using this model of culture, religion is not an option unless we would cease to be human. Religion is the story, vision, or model that unites and relates all there is. It is what gives meaning to our personal lives and our political economy. That is why there are both household gods and devotions and public gods and ceremonies. That is why the divine right of kings moved civilization from feudalism to nation-states. That is why Max Weber could connect Calvinism to Capitalism. Art expresses that meaning and science refines it. And philosophy critiques artistic, scientific, and religious expression so that it becomes more inclusive and is also adapted to changing material and social environments. As Armstrong points out, even atheists and secularists, capitalists and socialists, peacemakers and warriors have narratives of meaning that "sanctify" their actions. And an important element in changing behavior and institutions is rewriting the narratives that give them meaning.

5. Religion as transcendence.  In thinking, there is the objective focal experience of the environment as it is being patterned by categories/symbols; and there is the immediate background experience of consciousness in tune with other consciousnesses. Consciousness is the awareness of our bodies in symbolic activities, engaging in the world with others. Consciousness is intentional, that is, in process in space, time, and community, between the world as I find it and the world as I think it should be. The "should" comes from the intentional and directional dynamism of my thinking existence. In other words since I select, refine, and use the categories to make my world and with others to make our world, I/we are able to respond. That is, I/we are responsible.

This responsibility requires that we not get caught in our categories (e.g. stereotypes). It requires that we constantly renew and revise or refine our categories with the help of other thinkers. It requires that we do not use our categories to hold back or oppress others, but rather to challenge them and ourselves to do better, to solve the problems that our old categories are causing, to reach for the patterns that will put all of us together within our common world through science, art, and philosophy, The climbing across boundaries and moving beyond the obstacles that we have created is the definition of "transcendence." It can be encountered and experienced in our thinking selves.

Indicating and articulating the transcendence of every person, facilitating transcendence in ourselves and in others, joining with others in their acts of transcendence in art, science, speech, and social action, respecting the particular ways that they do the dance of life by letting ourselves undergo their style of celebrating their world is religious thinking in our postmodern world.

Violence may be necessary in the world as it is, but it excised from the world as we would like it to be. Violence, as Karen Armstrong demonstrates, is a fixture in human history. Violence is rooted in human nature and nurture. We are a violent species. But through thinking we are also a species that can change itself,

Thinking religiously is thinking about thinking as passing beyond and going across the limits of the artifacts that we use to be in the world. Thinking religiously is recognizing that every human artifact, including symbols, rituals, beliefs, doctrines, words, books, and institutions are transitory and must never be considered ultimate or absolute. Thinking religiously is neither demonizing or deifying religion and its expressions but accepting religious thinking as the drive for meaning that supports human life and community.


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