Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting Religion

Sadly, I am fluent in only one language, and will probably go to my grave in that lamentable state. I can carry on basic conversation (as long as everyone speaks slowly) in Spanish or Portuguese, and can credibly give you the gist of a newspaper article in either of those languages. I can read signs (for the most part) in French, and could probably do so in Italian, though I haven’t really tried. A basic knowledge I have of how German works, but scanty my vocabulary is. I’ve picked up a bit of Latin from studying music, and retain a smattering of Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek from my seminary work.

So while I haven’t actually gone deep in any language other than English, my exposure is broad enough to enable me to draw some important generalizations. One of these is that different languages are not just different vocalizations for the objects and actions that are common to human experience. They are different ways of thinking, different ways of perceiving our common experience (which leads one to question how much of our experience is actually common). When Americans (for example) hear someone who is still learning English try to speak it, we find their mistakes amusing, and while we are perhaps likely to chuckle at their errors of word usage more than their errors of syntax and grammar, it is the syntactical and grammatical errors that tell us most clearly that we’re listening to someone for whom English is not a mother tongue, because syntax and grammar are the discernible signs of how the speakers of any given language perceive and process their sensory and interior experience.

So while one may study comparative languages quite fruitfully, doing so leads inexorably to the realization that one is actually studying comparative systems of thought, and eventually to the even deeper realization that one cannot fully comprehend any system of thought except from the inside, by taking the risk of “going native,” surrendering any pretense of objectivity.

But while I am an amateur philologist (in the strict etymological sense of both those words), I am not a linguist, and this post is not really about comparative languages. I’m setting up an analogy, which I wish now to apply to religion, and to “comparative religions.” Just as a linguist learns that one can take objective comparison only so far, and that comparative study is actually likely to yield deceptive results unless one subjectively enters another language and the system of thought that it represents—in other words, that there is no such thing as a genre we can call “language”, of which the various actual languages are mere speciations—so there is no such thing as a genre we can call “religion”, of which the various individual “religions” are mere speciations. Indeed, I think it is arguable that there is no such thing as “religion.” We can speak meaningfully of phenomena known as Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or Taoism, or Zoroastrianism, etc. etc., and comparative analysis of these phenomena may be fruitful to a point. But only to a point. Eventually, one hits a brick wall, and in order to fully comprehend Buddhism, one must subjectively embrace Buddhism, from the inside. A non-Buddhist may be able to make some true statements about Buddhism, but can neither fully understand Buddhism nor explain it.

Here’s a glaring example of what I’m talking about. In the late nineteenth century, historical and literary criticism, in tandem with ascendant empiricism, seemed to be setting explosive charges to the very foundations of Christianity. In America, a movement among some east coast Protestant scholars gained momentum in response to these developments. In time, they published a series of articles that affirmed what they called the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith (virgin birth, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection, to name the big ones). The movement they initiated began to be known as “fundamentalism.” It was not a populist movement in its origins; it was led by learned academics at mainstream institutions. What they professed varied in no substantive way from what anyone who says the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed with uncrossed fingers also professes.

A generation later (mid-1920s), “fundamentalism” went lowbrow, and the movement became known for embracing not just the creedal verities, but a hyper-literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, and a six 24-hour day Creation, thus acquiring a patina of intellectual obscurantism and a generally pugnacious spirit. Still, the appellation “fundamentalist” made sense only the the context of Christianity; it was not a phenomenon that anyone would have thought to correlate generically with “religion.”

Fast-forward now to the late twentieth century, and the rise of activist militant Islam. Academics of a “comparative religion” stripe, with the eager cooperation of thoroughly secularized journalists who were largely ignorant of the history of American Christianity, noticed within Islamist quarters the traits of intellectual obscurantism and general pugnacity that they associated with the Christian “fundamentalists” that they believed themselves familiar with, and wasted no time coining the phrase “Islamic fundamentalism.” That they would be so quick to do so, and that the public would consider it appropriate for them to do so, is a testimony not only to their historical ignorance and intellectual laziness, but is clearly incoherent to anyone who has ever made a serious effort to learn another language. There is Christianity and there is Islam, but Christianity and Islam are not only not the same thing, they are not the same sort of thing. Failure to recognize the inherent limits of a “comparative religion” approach leads invariably to a failure to understand either Christianity or Islam.

So, from the perspective of everything I have written thus far in this post, I’m entirely sympathetic with the spirit behind a Facebook group that one of my “friends” announced to the world today that he “likes”: Christianity … It’s not a religion. It’s a relationship. I have effectively disavowed any claim that Christianity is “a religion,” because I’m not sure there is such a thing as “a religion.” And I can certainly affirm wholeheartedly that Christianity is about relationship (not just “a” relationship, actually, but a network of relationships).

But now I’m going to flip, and turn my laser in the opposite direction.

I had a Facebook friend request today from somebody I don’t know. The request is in the holding tank while I discern what to do. We have one mutual friend, someone whom I revere highly, so there’s a good chance this person will get the green light. But when I looked at the profile, I saw under the category of Religion (yes, Facebook apparently thinks there is such a thing) that this person identifies as “spiritual.” He has plenty of company, apparently. “Spiritual but not religious”, some surveys indicate, is the fastest growing self-identifying category, especially among the Millennial Generation (late teens and twenties, at present). It’s cool to be spiritual—that indicates both personal depth and commendable open-mindedness—but suspect to be religious, which indicates narcissistic and closed-minded judgmentalism. (I’m going to leave aside for the time being the whole question of what “spiritual” can even coherently mean apart from the concrete practices that constitute Wicca or Candomble or Confucianism, but it’s a big question.)

Even among many professing Christians, there is an aversion to the term “religion”—hence, the Facebook group referenced above. With some, even “Christian” is eschewed; the new hip label is “Christ-follower.” There’s even a video that parodies the Mac-is-cool but PC-is-nerdy ads: “I’m a Christian … well, I’m a Christ-follower.” Christ-followers are, by implication, SO not religious.

If so, then they’re missing something quite valuable. Christianity may not be a species of the genus “religion,” but that is not to say that there are not dimensions of Christian faith and practice that are quite clearly religious. The Latin stem in the word “religion”—lig—denotes binding, tying together, unifying, making coherent (the same connotation as there is in “ligature”). There are things that Christians do that not only testify to their identity as Christians, but serve to form them more deeply as Christians. Habits of public worship, private prayer, devotional practices, evangelism, stewardship, study, fellowship with other Christians, and service (ministry)—these are all elements of religion. One can hardly conceive of what it would mean to be a Christian apart from these things. They are what bind us to Christ, to one another, and to our true selves. Religion is an eminently valuable and positive word that we (Christians) should not blithely surrender to the semantic refuse bin. Christianity may not be “a religion.” But to be a Christian is most assuredly to be “religious.”

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