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Archive for the ‘Religion and Society’ Category

In the First Great Awakening, which occurred in colonial British America in the 1730s and 40s, 98 schisms took place in Congregational churches in New England. “New Lights,” who were “awakened” to a heightened personal experience of needing to be redeemed by Jesus Christ, split from the “traditionalists,” who refused to relegate ritual and ceremony. By 1800, a further splintering occurred as many Congregational churches in New England had shifted to a Unitarian basis. Even by the 1750s, several Congregational preachers were preaching universal salvation—a teaching that put those preachers at odds with those of the First Great Awakening. In theory, a New England town could have three Congregational churches (or two plus a Unitarian church) standing side by side on the central green. At the time of any of the schisms, the particular basis of the split must have seemed quite important to Christianity.

More than two hundred years later, the significance of the “conflict” between personal experience and ritual would long have passed, at least with respect to any demand to split off from an established denomination. In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the matter deemed significant in this sense concerned “social issues,” especially that of homosexuality.

For example, the leadership and two-thirds of the laity of the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina split off from the Episcopal Church in November 2012 due to the denomination’s approval of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay clergy. The break-away conservative group filed suit in a South Carolina court to get ownership of 35 parishes. The matter was also in federal court, where the conservative break-away group argued that the freedom of religion plank of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives the group the right to leave the denomination. “We have the freedom to remove ourselves,” Rev. James Lewis of the break-away group said. That argument is a red herring, however.

The freedom of religion language in the First Amendment maintains that the government cannot tell a citizen (or resident) which religion he or she must sign up with or practice. The language does not apply to the infighting within a denomination. Freedom of association would be a stronger basis for that, but even that constitutional basis would not guarantee that the church property goes along with the dissenters. “We strongly agree with the freedom of religion and the freedom of these folks to go their own way,” Matthew McGill, a lawyer representing the Episcopal Church said. “You simply can’t take it with you.” In other words, freedom to form a new association does not entail the freedom to assume ownership rights of the property of the pre-existing group. In actuality, the issue before the courts is property rights.

As traumatic as the “social issue” ecclesiastical splits may seem in its time, it is by no means the case that the contentious issue will still divide churches even fifty years later. The fighting itself, however, could hurt the image of Christianity, though any long-term decline in membership would likely have more to do with recognition of the cumulative splits—all of which seemed vital at one time only to have this perception defeated by time itself. Put another way, the ecclesiastical splits due to gay rights may someday look just as unnecessary as the splitting during the First Great Awakening looked by the time of the “social issue” splits. For people to assume such significance in matters whose gravity passes so easily with time reflects negatively on the strength of their religion, especially if the fighting takes place in and through the religion. As Nietzsche would say, such a religion would have to be human, all too human.

For more, please see Valerie Bauerlein’s article, “Church Fight Heads to Court,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 14, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324010704578418983895885100.html?mod=ITP_pageone_1

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In the 1940s and 1950s, only about five percent of adult Americans did not identify themselves with any institutional religion, according to the General Social Survey. That number rose to only eight percent in 1990. By 2013, however, the percentage of people who don’t consider themselves part of a religion had jumped to twenty percent. Interestingly, there was no discernible upward trend in the percentage of people who expressed atheist or agnostic beliefs. Several implications can be drawn.

One implication is that it cannot be assumed that a person does not believe in “God” just because he or she does not belong to an institutional religion. Indeed, “atheism” does not make sense without a “theism.”  Put another way, atheism is part of the religious paradigm, serving as the negation of a theist belief. People can be spiritual without being religious. This does not mean that they are “new age.” Nietzsche, for example, was accused of being an atheist just because he criticized the dominant conception of God (as, for example, being vengeful). A vice ascribed to the deity in how it is being conceptualized discredits the conceptualization itself. “God is dead.” This does not mean that the living God of experience is discredited, as it does not depend on the concepts that are ascribed to it.

Another implication is societal in nature. As the percentage of people not identifying themselves with a religious paradigm (i.e., basic framework, including of concepts and conduct such as ritual and prayer) increases in a society, the religious world-view itself becomes increasingly demarcated as delimited in nature. That is, the default in society turns to viewing the religious world-view as foreign rather than as a given. The disparate nature of the religious paradigm as being very different makes it easy for the non-religious to keep away from it, as well as to view it as foreign. The world of religion is perhaps inherently delimited because its concepts do not have currency outside of the religious paradigm. The historical hegemony or even universality of religions in societies may therefore have been artificial in nature, such as by means of being forced on people. If so, the declining salience of religion in modern society may be nature’s way of restoring to religion its rightful place, similar to how water finds its way eventually down the stream.

Another implication is that it may not be reasonable to assume that even a highly charismatic leader of a particular religion, or sect thereof, can bring people back to religion. The assumption that such a leader could accomplish such a feat presumes that 1) not belonging to an institutional religion is a problem and 2) the problem does not lie in the religions themselves, or in religion itself. Also assumed is the problematic assumption that a leader can make such a difference. It may be that religion itself puts too much emphasis on the religious leader or founder, attributing too much significance to him or her relative to the value of the teachings themselves. Such anthropomorphism may be one reason why not identifying with a religion is not a problem, but, rather, a sign of spiritual health instead. According to David Hume, the human mind has great trouble holding on to “pure” concepts of divine simplicity. We tend to add our own human characteristics to the divine, even to the point of constructing the god-man concept. If religion is incapable of being purged of error, it is right and fitting that people refuse to identify themselves as not belonging to a religious institution.

Besides the implications above, one question that “comes out of the data” regards whether people who do not belong to an institutional religion can sufficiently “exercise” their spirituality. A related question is whether spirituality can exist apart from the religions. One might also ask how well spirituality can do within a religion. To the extent that a given religion (or religion itself) is rigid, it may be that certain expressions or manifestations of spirituality are snuffed out or excluded outright. The trend of “none-religious” may provide more opportunities for spirituality to come into its own. We should not assume, in other words, that the trend is toward secularity if it is defined as the absence of spirituality in addition to religion.

 

See Katherine Bindley’s article, “Religion Among Americans Hits Low Point, As More People Say They Have No Religious Affiliation: Report,” at the Huffington Report on March 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/religion-america-decline-low-no-affiliation-report_n_2867626.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

 

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The Pope celebrating Midnight Mass in 2012

The Pope celebrating Midnight Mass in 2012

Sometimes a plea on behalf of God can tell us more about our society and ourselves than God. That the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church would use his homily during the Midnight Mass of Christmas 2012 to ask people to make room for God is hardly news. It is like the President of the United States urging Americans to become better citizens—hardly worth printing such obvious messages. However, behind the Pope’s expected plea is something not immediately obvious about us and our culture in the modern world.

Referring to God, the Pope asked, “Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full.” It is ironic that the advent of time-saving tools has resulted in our time being “completely full.” This is not necessarily so; rather, valuing the gadgets tends to fill up our lives.

In other words, valuing the self-contained world of things means that exogenous “things” like God do not occur to us. “Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the ‘God hypothesis’ becomes superfluous,” the Pope said. Even thinking of God as knocking treats God as a thing, or entity, and such thinking can be informed by a culture ensconced with things. Alternatively, God could be thought of as the experience of transcending things. It is this experience, which involves reaching without being able to grasp, that is excluded by an orientation to ipads and computers, for example.

“There is no room for him,” the Pope said. “Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.” Pivoting from God as a “him” that is requesting attention—what I would call an object orientation—the Pope came to rest on what lies behind our desires. We want ourselves because we want to the kind of happiness that can lie within our reach. This sort of satisfaction requires being full of ourselves in the sense of taking our realm as the whole rather than as a part. In contrast, transcendent experience eclipses being able to grasp a desired object—indeed, even the concept of an object—and thus treats the human domain or world as relative or a part.

Put another way, we live in a culture in which selfishness and impatience are the norm and our desired reach is not very far from ourselves. It’s all about us. We want ourselves. Not only do we not see God in others; our focus on what we want does not even admit the sheer existence of what others want. In contrast, one byproduct of regular transcending is heightened sensitivity to others because existence itself is felt more.

The connection between perceiving one’s very existence as transparent (i.e., perceptible) and being more oriented to others is also in the Pope’s homily. “Let us ask the Lord that we may become vigilant for his presence, that we may hear how softly yet insistently he knocks at the door of our being and willing. . . . Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves, that we may recognise him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world,” The “door of our being” suggests a more transcendent orientation or “gaze,” a byproduct of which is sensitivity to the existence of others and thus their desires.

For more, please see: Philip Pullella, “Pope Christmas Eve Mass 2012: Find Room For God,” The Huffington Post, December 25, 2012.

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A call by Mormon women in Salt Lake City to wear pants to church had by the end of 2012 stretched around the world and, perhaps all too expectedly, created a backlash that included even death threats. Beyond the issue of what counts as “proper attire” that according to the Mormon Church is “a sign of respect for the Savior”—a matter the Church leaves up to the individual church member—is the “elephant in the living room.” Specifically, is a pathological loss of perspective inherent to religion itself, or merely a symptom of having gotten religion wrong?

I contend that women wearing pants to a church service hardly counts as a big deal, whether in secular or religious terms. In terms of feminism, the “protest” has its most significance. “Wear Pants to Church” was meant to draw attention to the role of women in the Mormon Church. In religious terms, however, drawing attention to gender equality takes the focus off of transcendent experience, wherein the stuff that we think is so important in the world is marginalized or relativized. This is not to say that women who wear pants to church are somehow less religious.

In fact, bashing the women wearing pants on religious grounds only further removes both sides from the opportunity for religious experience. The loss of perspective is particularly salient in the “no” camp. For example, a man at a church in a Salt Lake City suburb said, “Women who want to wear pants, they just don’t know how to follow the Lord.” Besides treating something that is not religious as though it were in fact vital to it, the man had completely lost perspective, as Jesus is nowhere on record as having said as much. Prime facie, what one wears is not so determinant concerning the ability to have a religious experience—although wearing distinctively religious garb can have religious significance in that the purpose of the vestments is to remove one from the world in to the realm of the sacred. Unfortunately for the man, his comment about pants and following the Lord is too profane to be counted as being oriented to the sacred. Indeed, the statement indicates that he had missed an opportunity to engage in transcendent experience, wherein issues that seem important in this world are also transcended.

I contend that religious rightly understood as being of or at least oriented to transcendent experience does not contain or trigger lapses of perspective. Rather, perspective itself is transcended. A “religious practitioner” losing perspective—particularly if doing so is a weapon of sorts—is not really a religious practitioner. Rather, such a person is taking the artifacts of religion as ends rather than as means, then using those ends as means to inflict pain or otherwise harm another person. That religion has so often been abused may raise the question of whether the decadence is in religion itself—or at least whether religion can afford its artifacts.

For instance, the popes who raised troops to fight in the Crusades promised the recruits salvation in fighting for the Lord. The troops no doubt believed that because they believed that Jesus is the Son of God that they would be saved even in killing rather than loving their enemies on the battlefield. Considering the carnage under these “religious” auspices, one might argue that historical Christianity could ill-afford its focus on Christology rather than on principles such as “love thy enemy” and “turn the other cheek.” To be sure, such principles can be viewed as means to trigger a shift of perspective capable of giving rise in turn to a transcendent experience, rather than merely as moral dictates of Christian ethics. Generally speaking, if “Jesus as the Son of God” is used as a weapon, even in passive aggression, the attendant loss of perspective alone signals a lack of religiosity. The question is perhaps whether the loss is inherent to Christianity or a falling away from the real message of the faith to something that is more easily recognizable—even potentially self-idolatrous.

The Mormon man who said that women who want to wear pants just don’t know how to follow the Lord was likely also capable of saying that people who don’t believe that Jesus is a god-man are going to hell. In using Christology as a weapon, the Mormon man would be castigating himself into hell because he would be essentially keeping himself from transcending to something deeper and more fundamental than even theological concepts.

Abstractly speaking, experience is distinct from cognitive belief. Getting caught up on a particular belief, even if it ostensibly concerns a religious idea, can have the opportunity cost of foregone transcendent experience. Put another way, a loss of perspective divides whereas religious experience transcends divisions—being oriented to the unity of a more fundamental, or transcendent, source. Religio literally means, “back to the source.” In contrast, losing perspective by treating little things as vitally important even in religious terms distants one from a more fundamental source wherein the little things are even less significant. Therefore, getting upset about pants, or even particular cognitive beliefs, pushes one away from one’s very source or basis. Such a use of “religion” weakens one, or reflects one’s weak state. Perhaps it could be said that religion is susceptible to being abused by weakness in the name of religion, and that the world too often is blind to the abuse itself—treating it as part of religion and therefore as legitimate and perhaps even laudatory.

For more on the story of Mormon feminists using pants as a symbol, see Timothy Pratt, “Mormon Women Set Out to Take a Stand, in Pants,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.

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