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cavenaughgodisnotreligious - GOD isnot Religious...

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Unformatted text preview: GOD isnot... Religious, Nice, "One of Us," An American, A Capitalist Bli'lil Lai ihain. i'illliil‘ BrazosPress Grand Rapids, Michigan Yale Divinity Library New Haven, Connecticut © 200-1 by I). Brent Laytliam Published by Brazos Press 21 division of Baker Book House Company PO. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-0287 w ww. brazospress .com Printed in the United States of America All rights reserved. No part of this publication maybe reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any meansafor example, electronic, pho- tocopy, recording-without the prior written permission oi the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews. Library of Congress (lataloging—iml’ublicarion Data D. Brent Laytham God is not—: religious, nice, ”one of us,’ by] D. Brent Laytham. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 1-587-13401-7 (pbk.) 1. God. 2. United Statesi—Religion. I. Laytham, D. Brent. II. Laytham, D. Brent. III. Laytham, D. Brent. B'I”103.(§62 2004 23l~dc22 ’ an American, a capitalist / [edited 2003025188 Scripture is taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright I989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. “Counting Blue Cars,” words by]. R. Richards, music by Scot Alexander, George Pen- dergast, Rodney Browning, J. R. Richards, and Gregory Kolanek © 1995 EMI APRIL MUSIC INC, MONO RAT MUSIC and BIGGER THAN PEANUT BUTTER MUSIC. All rights for MONO RAT MUSIC controlled and administered by EMI APRIL MUSIC INC. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission. I995, 1996 Human Boy Music. All rights reserved and One ofU.s, by Eric Bazilian © US Inc., Miami, Florida 33014. controlled by Warner Bros. Publications {a g , E L’. if 1.; J lion Ix \U'l' Klilillilllll‘ l 1he chapter titles in this book are intended to be jarring and provocative. We all know that to get an audience these days you have to be shocking, so we have put together the theo— logical equivalent of the lerry Springer Show. The title I got stuck with, however, seems rather unprovocative and common. ”God is not religious” is a sentiment one hears quite regularly from the most ordinary of folk. First, it reflects a common prejudice against organization and institutions. ”Organized religion” is a term that registers on the scale of what is cool somewhere between ”Brussels sprouts” and "orthopedic shoes.” I was work- ing as a pizza cook in high school the first time somebody told me ”God doesn’t live in a church.” What he seemed to mean was “I like to sleep in on Sunday.” But he was expressing a 97 98 Goo IS NOT... dominant sentiment of popular culture: God is most readily accessible to the individual acting on his or her own. Second, the “God is not religious” sentiment reflects the common claim “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Religion seems to denote crabbed dogmatism, bureaucratic sclerosis, and dead ritual. Spirituality, on the other hand, seems to offer freedom, vitality, and a direct encounter with the divinity of one’s choice without the intervention of any other person. Celebrities pa- rade their spirituality on talk television, and publishers cash in on a booming how-to-be-spiritual market. Nevertheless, I have no intention of confirming the com- mon wisdom. I do not like Brussels sprouts, but I am a big fan of the “organized” part of “organized religion.” To be against organized religion is like being against organized hospitals. I am going to criticize the concept of “religion,” but not in order to vindicate “spirituality.” In fact, I think spirituality is just an extension of what is wrong with religion. And what is wrong with religion is not that it is organized, but that it, like spirituality, has been used to turn faith in God into a consumer item for our private consolation and amusement. So, I hope to end up being provocative after all. When I claim that God is not religious, I mean to say that “religion,” like “spirituality,” has been used to privatize Christian practice, marginalize it from common life, bury God deep within the confines of the individual self, and thereby turn the individual over to the disciplines and designs of the nation-state and the market. In other words, the term “religion” has been part and parcel of the trivialization of God in our society. To show all of this, I will first do a short genealogy of the word “religion”; tracing the changes in a word’s meaning helps to free us from the sense that its present meaning is necessary or unchangeable. In the next three sections, I will show how the concept of religion has been used to facilitate the interiorization, privatization, and relativization of the Christian faith. Finally, I will end with some reflections on how faith in the living God helps us lose our religion. These five sections involve a bit of intellectual history—the discus- sion of thinkers and movements and events that may not be Goo Is Nor RELIGIOUS 99 familiar to everyone. Though it may seem to be at first glance, this discussion isn’t the least bit academic and esoteric. Rather, it is the story of how religion in our society has tried to show God the door. Genealogy of “Religion” The meanings of words change and adapt to meet new cir- cumstances. Words do not exist in dictionaries but in real-life exchanges among living people. The dictionary struggles to keep up with adaptations, adding new words and meanings and marking others as archaic. In the case of religion, varia— tions on the word have been around for millennia, but the way we use the word today is relatively new. Its rise accom- panied new arrangements in power in Europe and the world, arrangements that posed, and still pose, significant challenges for the Christian church. The word derives from the Latin religio, a minor term that did not originally mean what we take religion to mean today. Religio referred to a binding obligation (from re + Iigare, to re- bind); to say that something was ”religio to me” meant that it represented a special obligation. The term referred not just to cults of the gods but also oaths and family obligations, things we would think of as “secular.” When Christians began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the word had very little importance, mostly because it didn’t translate any one concept that the Christians considered important. In the of- ficial Latin version of the New Testament, the Vulgate, religio appeared only six times, as translation for several different Greek terms. In the KingJames Version of the New Testament, “religion” appears only five times, to translate three different Greek terms, not always the same ones the Vulgate renders religio.1 Only one ancient Christian writer, Saint Augustine, wrote a treatise on religio. He uses the term to mean roughly what we mean when we say “worship,” including “secular” uses of the term, such as “He worships money.” Whether a certain practice of religio is true or false depends on its object, 100 GOD IS Nor . .. which can be anything from the one true God to mere material things.2 In the medieval period, no one seems to have bothered to focus an entire treatise on religio. In his magisterial Summa Tlleologica, Thomas Aquinas devoted only one question out of over six hundred to religio. When the term is used in the premodern period, it tends to refer either to the state of being under monastic vows or to a particular virtue shared by all Christians. In Aquinas’s discussion of religio in the Summa, it refers both to what we would call the piety of the Christian and to the liturgical practices through which piety is directed to God; that is, it refers both to our devotion to God and to our acts of devo- tion, like communal prayer and Eucharist. Aquinas devotes an article to showing that religio includes a bodily act. This is important, because for Aquinas and the medieval church there is no separation between interior piety and the ritual actions that express this piety. There is no separation of body and soul: the soul is disciplined through the body, and the body expresses what is in the soul. Thus a virtue is a bodily habit. Furthermore, religio is not an individual thing. It is a virtue engaged in the communal liturgical practices—the ways of worship—of the church. When the term passed into English around 1200, it referred to monastic life in general. But in the next couple of centuries the meaning would be expanded to include a notion of plural- ity: the “religions” of England were the various Christian or- ders—Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, etc} This, of course, has very little to do with our modern idea that Christianity is itself a religion, one species of a genus of things that includes Islam, Buddhism, and Baha’i. As we have also seen, religion before modernity is nothing like the kind of private, interior experience that it will become in modernity. At this point in time, however, a radically new idea of religion is about to emerge, just as the modern state and capitalism burst on the scene. This is not a coincidence. arm/Iv z: .: jw , Goo Is NOT RELmious 101 Interiorization The origin of the modern concept of religion can be seen clearly in the thought of two fifteenth-century Christian Platonist thinkers, Nicholas of Cusa and Marsilio Ficino. For Cusa, religion is identified not with rites or bodily practices but with an essence that stands behind the practices. The body interfered with true religion. What was needed was ”that man would have to walk according to his interior rather than his exterior nature.“ The ”interior man” was one who relied on reason, not the senses: ”all who use their reason have one religion and cult which is at the bottom of all the diversity of rites.”S This bottom, for Cusa, was still Christian; the com- mon essence of religion was in reality faith in Christ. But it is a different Christianity, because his conception of religion interiorizes a ”real” core that is distinguished from “mere” external actions (like the church’s worship). That is new. Ficino took up this theme and claimed that religion is an innate human impulse planted by God in the hearts of all without need of special revelation. Unlike Cusa’s view that some rites (Christian rites) were better than others, Ficino had a more positive view of the diversity of rites. He saw this variety as ordained by God to give beauty to the world. As such, however, they are mere ornamentation. The real thing, the essence of religion, is worshiping God in one’s heart. The highest form of religion is worshiping God as Christ did.“ The next step in the invention of interiorized religion comes in the sixteenth century, when religion comes to be under- stood as a set of doctrines to be believed. Some scholars note this change in the meaning of ”religion” already in Calvin’s work in the sixteenth century; others say it does not occur until Calvin’s successors have interpreted his work. What is clear is that by the time the Calvinist Hugo Grotius wrote De Veritate Religionis Christianae in the early seventeenth century, he was able to say that the Christian religion teaches, rather than simply is, the correct worship of God. The addition of "the” to ”Christian religion” is highly sig- nificant as well. Christianity is now a religion, understood as 102 Goo is NOT . .. a system of doctrines. And since there have been several such systems elaborated among human peoples, it is now possible to speak of ”religions” in the plural? This change from reli- gion as a virtue to religion as doctrine is very significant, for it limits the range of Christian faith from the entire body of the believer to the space between the ears. Faith for Aquinas was a virtue, and therefore a type of bodily habit to be practiced; in the modern era, faith would come increasingly to be seen as an interior attitude of receptiveness to a set of doctrinal propositions. Religion would continue to be located “within” the in- dividual, but the emphasis on doctrine would fade in the thought of many of the new theorists of religion. In the early seventeenth century, for example, Lord Herbert of Cherbury located religion in a faculty of the mind known as “natural instinct.”8 Truth in religion was available to all people through the exercise of this mental instinct. Lord Herbert distilled all world religions down to a simple and virtually contentless piety innate in all humans. Unlike in Cusa and Ficino, Christ did not provide the key to true and proper piety; Christ was merely an exemplary teacher of true religion. Indeed, all "out- ward expressions” beyond the simple worship of “God” and the acknowledgement of our sins were to be regarded with suspicion as priestly additions to pure religion. True religion is without a church, without doctrines, without discipline or formation through bodily practices. Lord Herbert made room for revelation in his scheme, but revelation was validated only by appeal to inward emotional states, the “intimate divine apprehensions” whereby we “feel within us His saving power and a sense of marvellous deliverance.”9 Here Lord Herbert anticipates the next step in making the concept of religion even more gaseous; the essence of religion would come to be located not in rational thought but in feeling. The great figure of this movement is the nineteenth-century founder of liberal Protestantism, Friedrich Schleiermacher. For Schleiermacher, the essence of religion was neither thought nor action, but feeling and intuition. The highest experience of religion was a deep, immediate apprehension of oneness e 3: G01) Is Nor RELIGIOUS 103 between the individual and the infinite—a ”feeling of abso- lute dependence.” Schleiermacher did not thereby dispense with revelation, for he was convinced that the ability to name this feeling as religious only came from the knowledge of a particular tradition of doctrine and practice. That is, Schleier- macher could name this experience as an experience of God only because he had been given this language by the Christian tradition.10 Nevertheless, in Schleiermacher religion is firmly based in individual experience and is identified with something essentially nonrational. God has been fully interiorized, buried deep in the recesses of the individual heart. It is a short step, therefore, from religion to the kind of spirituality that infests popular culture today. Although church attendance is down 12 percent over the last decade alone, publishers have dubbed that same time period the “decade of the soul.” For example, witness the growing market share of the Chicken Soup for the Soul phenomenon, now in its 6th Bowl, with niche titles for the golfer’s soul, the NASCAR soul, the pet lover’s soul, and so on, with crossover products in video, music, and toys.11 For this brand of spirituality, God is a cop- ing mechanism, a kind of “divine Prozac.”12 People pick and choose their own gods, though often without acknowledging it. These gods are not ”out there, ” a reality in the universe that reveals itself to us, but rather ”in here,” small and avail— able to fulfill our wants. As one devotee of such spirituality told the Washington Post, “We discovered the God within. That’s why we need God. Because we are God.”13 Of course, this shrinking of God down to the confines of the self is not what Schleiermacher had in mind. But this type of feel-good spirituality represents only the logical extension of the inte— riorization of religion. Privatization Once religion is driven inward, it becomes relatively easy, and appears inevitable, that it should also be driven out of public life. Consider this quote from Schleiermacher: ”Religion 104 GOD Is NOT . ., . . . in its own original, characteristic form, is not accustomed to appear openly, but is only seen in secret by those who love it."H Religion, in other words, should be felt but not seen. Religion in modernity, because individual and nonrational, has been separated out from the public domain and made a private concern. We are accustomed to seeing this process as inevitable, a sifting out of two essentially distinct things—the religious and the secular—that had previously been confused. As we have seen, however, religion was not simply there to be separated out like metal from its ore. Religion was invented as a necessary adjunct to new forms of political and economic power. In order for the state to emerge in modernity, it would be necessary to remove the church from the public domain. The new concept of religion was integral to this process. Secularization, therefore, is not just a separating out of the religious from the secular but the invention of a whole new conception of society, one in which God would rule hearts and minds, but not bodies—and certainly not visible political and economic processes. To see the difference, all we have to do is compare ”secular” in early Christianity and modernity. For traditional Christianity, the sneculum was not a space but a time, the time between the fall and the second coming of Christ. During this time, certain instruments of power, guided by divine providence, were necessary to restrain sin. 1n the modern era, by contrast, the secular is not a time but a space, a supposedly neutral space outside the influence of “religion.” The secular is an autonomous space, ruled by sheer arbitrary power, in which politics may carry on as if God did not exist.15 It was not always so. In the traditional Christian worldview, there was no human activity that fell outside of the workings of divine providence. Marriage, economic activity, charitable foundations, relationships of kinship, festivals and celebra- tions, political institutions, and death were all enfolded into the liturgical life of the church. All of these relationships and activities were, of course, fraught with conflict, and they were rarely fully just or completely loving. But the point is that there was as yet no formal attempt to separate power from GOD Is Not RELIGIOUS 105 love using the logic of public-private or secular-sacred dualities. There was, in other words, no attempt to confine the activity of God to a private sphere so that the machinations of the human will could operate without interference.” This ended with the advent of modernity, when the state took over and shoved the church aside. In the medieval era, civil authority was regarded as the “police department of the church.”[7 Beginning at least in the fourteenth century, how- ever, the civil authority began to assert its own independence from the church. By Luther’s time, civil rulers had already substantially taken over the church’s right to appoint bish— ops and abbots and had taken control of church revenues in many countries. Both Catholic and Protestant rulers were intent on taking over power from the church. Luther’s theory of the two kingdoms, then, was not really such a new idea, but responded to the aspirations of princes, both Catholic and Protestant, to rule without church interference. Luther taught that every Christian is simultaneously subject to two kingdoms, the temporal and the spiritual. To the temporal powers, kings and princes, the power of coercion over bodies has been given in order to keep the civil peace in a world full of sinners. To the spiritual power, the church, has been given only the Word of God for the persuasion of souls; ecclesiastical courts, for example, were eliminated. The net result was that the church became the province of souls; bodies were handed over to the emergent state.18 At first the powerful new modern state would continue to take on sacred duties. Eventually, the state would become secu- larized. Either way, however, the state became the primary focus of the individual’s public allegiance, and the church became increasingly privatized. As john Neville Figgis comments, by the close of the sixteenth century,...
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