RELIGION IN GENERAL


“One can no more be religious in general, than one can speak language in general”
-- George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine

If we are not lying, we are saying things we believe are true. Or at the very least, what we wish were true. And when we intentionally refrain from saying things, we tell on ourselves.


Recently, Rabbi Andy Kahn (@rabbiandykahn) said on Twitter: “Is it just me, or is the term ‘person of Jewish faith’ grating?... I don't know many actual Jews who identify as ‘people of Jewish faith.’ It reduces Judaism to a belief system, when that's only one face of the multifaceted jewel.”


I can’t speak for the rabbi, but I also don’t call myself a “person of faith,” and for the same reasons; because “person of faith” tends to function for progressive Christians in the same way “judeo-christian” functions for culture-war conservatives: it gestures to a supposed pan-religious consensus about this or that issue and, more broadly, it describes a ubiquitous mode of existence: the “religious.” Religions, such language assumes, may have some specific historical or cultural forms, but they all spring from a universal human need and address a universal human practice. “Person of faith” and “faith communities” work as democratizing speech. In common use, it is a way of politely refusing to suggest one religion is “better” than another. It has the side effect of suggesting none are at root different than another.


From anthropology and sociology we are given the idea of religion as arising from cultural pressure toward social cohesion. Religion, on these older models, serves a social function. It arises in order to satisfy social and psychological needs. In classical philosophy of religion this has meant that religions can be analyzed by how well they accomplish this function. Modern comparative religion was rooted in liberal Protestantism, so it is perhaps not unsurprising that the “highest” form of religion was often understood to be Protestant Christianity. It was the least “superstitious” and most deferential to the authority of the state. Other religions fell on a scale from mere tribal animistic paganism to a culturally-universal monotheism, ideally reigned in by the reason, objective morals, and the state. Once one had seen behind the curtain of what religion was “really about,” one could rise above the affective and delusional nature of religion and realize its rational fulfillment. Religion within the bounds of reason alone passed quietly into the highest form of supersessionism – overcoming religion entirely. In the short term, said the giants of the 18th-19th centuries, popular religion should be encouraged by the state because the plebs were not yet capable of enlightened religion without their system of prayers and hymns; but the state must also blunt the political force of such religion. Our understanding of the genus “religion” came to birth as not just an academic idea, but a political program. The state defines what religion is, and exercises authority over elements it deems unsuitable for public practice.


As Saba Mahmood puts it:


"Political secularism is the modern state's sovereign power to reorganize substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices." Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report

Few these days consciously believe in this continental tradition. Contemporary Christian progressives would be loath to create a hierarchy of religion. The progressive religious language I am discussing owes more to William James, who understood religion to be a response to an “experience” of “the divine.”


...the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Varieties of Religious Experience (emphasis added)


The experience is ineffable. It is also private. No sooner does it pass into corporate and linguistic form than it is perverted. Religions institutionalize this bare experience, and so devolve into their various forms; which forms are always necessarily transgressive of the real thing. All are equally guilty of codifying the holy.


Both James and the theorists before him either were or had once been Christians. They theorized religion, if unwittingly, with Christian assumptions and modes of thought. We Christians ourselves, by way of a supposedly universal discourse, have come to believe we must eclipse our own speech. Not only our speech but the speech of others as well. And this point is important to make. Neutral religious language implicitly makes claims on other religions, and presumes to speak for them and define their content. We all must learn to use the broadest, most generic speech possible so as to make of each religion a type in a category. We have convinced ourselves that we can practice religion in general.


The attempt to practice religion in general manifests in several idiosyncratic ways. One lies only in the intention of the person, as Christian language is deployed in a euphemistic sense to refer to the “higher purpose” of religion: such as when “resurrection” is evoked to indicate any flowering of hope or joy from an experience of despair, or where one subsumes the power and efficacy of the Eucharist under the category of “experiencing the divine.” So, we partake in the sacrament, ultimately, for the same reason that a Muslim (so we say!) performs Salah. What the church has generally said about the Eucharist is useful insomuch as it conforms to the broader “purpose” of religion. Theological euphemism functions such as to undermine our own convictions.


Another more recognizable example is when transitive verbs come to be used intransitively, so as to leave the object of the verb indefinite. Perhaps no words are used so obviously in this way than “faith” and “hope.” One doesn’t have hope in the Resurrection or in God’s promises, one has hope as such. The object is plastic, fluid. All “persons of faith” presumably have hope, just as they all have faith. That’s why we’re all “persons of faith!” Faith is here a universalizing concept, uniting all religious communities by essentializing their particular convictions and complex histories. And the purpose of why we gather as “persons of faith” in “faith communities” can be considered without reference to the explicit framing of baptism or Pentecost. The purpose has been transformed to be about experiencing “community” as such. We baptize, Hindus practice Diksha, but to the same end.


What we lose in such universalizing linguistic moves is the ability to give any account for the existence of the Church. We don’t gather because God has called us in the power of the Spirit to participate in the Body of Christ Jesus. We’re not really there because as Gentiles we’ve been grafted by grace into Israel – we gather to “experience the sacred” or “the holy.”


Walter Brueggemann, in “The Costly Loss of Lament,” points out that when particular kinds of speech fall out of use, Christians actually lose the ability to fully relate to God.


"One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology. Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being."

There is a cost when inherited speech passes over into the aspirationally universal; and that cost is the loss of our ability to adequately give witness to God’s saving action and to the Church’s testimony. We lose the plot of why the Church exists, as our reason for being can be registered as equivalent to any meaningful gathering. We cannot be the subject of prayer, of lament, or adoration, because “a robust resource network of faith communities” is not a personal subject in the way Israel or the Church is. There is no semiotic field of founding narratives, iconography, holy Scriptures, covenant interactions, and so on, which are generative of corporate identity and action.


To be clear, I don’t think that the phrases “person of faith” or “faith communities” are used intentionally to dissolve the integrity of Christian faith. The problem is the larger philosophy of religion, now woefully out of date (my initial thought to criticize progressive Christian language came largely from post-colonial religious scholars). Yet it is not unimportant to know how this language has come to us, and the effect it has on our ability to give an account of what we believe about sin, death, and the difference Jesus makes. Indeed, unveiling our particularity and history has the effect of allowing other religious bodies to give their own account of why they exist. One only encounters the other when the other is not merely a reflection of the self. The possibilities of religious dialogue and cooperation are stronger when real difference is allowed to exist.


The suggestion that we abandon progressivism's supposedly neutral language could be read as a mere reactionary attempt to reinstall linguistic control of a perceived “liberal” threat. But it is generic language that is non-generative, because the ideological boundaries of what constitutes “generic religion” are already fixed; and unlike a continuously renewed attention to Scripture, and the Church’s history of meaning, there is no generative source for creative variations on semiotic themes within a neutral religious discourse. Because, again, nobody actually practices religion in general. It has no scriptures, no liturgies, evangelical content, or dialectic.


The latest statistics of the Episcopal Church have just been released, and the numbers are grim. We’re going to be given many reasons why this is fine, even good, by the leadership that has presided over these decades of decline. By others, we’re going to be told we need to be doing “new things.” Indeed. But the “new” in our day may in fact be learning to speak again a strange dialect – the language of this particular faith, with a particular life, and a habitual pattern of speaking.


And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new


Tony Hunt

Minneapolis, MN

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