Tuesday, September 30, 2008

religion & society

Thanks for all the comments on my last post. It's good to be able to share stuff like that with my Quaker family, who understand what it's like to listen and allow silence and speak the language of discernment.

I wanted to add, however, that I think my comments came across as a little harsh toward my professor and his reaction. I thought he did a pretty good job of allowing silence and creating that space. I think where the problem came in was that then he decided he needed to respond to what had been shared using "academic language," and that he at least in that moment felt like "academic language" couldn't communicate with whatever language she'd been speaking. I personally feel like if academic language can't communicate with language of the Spirit, then academic language is not useful. But I think that's not the case. I think when people in the academy try to learn about "the sacred" or whatever it is in this realm of theology and ethics and social sciences that they're studying, they just have to be able to engage the subject in a manner that is both academic--thinking well--as well as...soulful, I guess. Willing to open up their soul to what's going on around them, and then try to state this in a way that can help others learn and grow.
Last week in class a chaplain shared about some of his experiences trying to be a moral voice in the midst of the armed forces. I respect the fact that he's trying to do that, and in some ways I think it would be an effective place to help people think about their ethics and the way their actions affect others...but somehow I don't think they'd let me be an army chaplain if I was showing people the humanity of the enemy and counseling people to become conscientious objectors! So I don't agree with this guy's basic premise, that we can be Christians in the army, doing the will of God. (Disclaimer: I'm sure there are Christians in the army, intentionally trying to seek and do God's will, but I think as with all of us at times, they are not in the right place. That doesn't mean that God can't speak to them there, or that God can't use them there, and use a bad situation to bring about some good, but I don't think it's the best place for them to be in order to live out God's love in the world.)

But the class started talking about ideologies, and thinking about whether a religion can be just a religion without being an ideology. An ideology is something that helps us build a cognitive system of how we can view the world--puts everything into a category so that we can make sense of the world. Unfortunately, human ideologies usually end up explaining the way things are and legitimating them, rather than challenging the hierarchical and unequal structure of authority that has built up over time. So the question is, can a religion be just focused on its God/gods without straying into ideology? Can it just help people connect with the divine without enforcing the idea that there are certain authorities (besides the self) that have to act as mediators to that divinity? Is this even a good idea?

We're reading Durkheim, who is basically the father of sociology and wrote around the turn of the 20th century (he died during WWI). He thinks that all religions stem from the desire humans have for being part of something bigger than themselves, outside themselves but fully supporting them and making life possible. I'm with him up to this point. He thinks, however, that all religions are ideologies: they create systems of meaning that explain the world as it is and legitimate the power structures already in place. Religions are an attempt to make even bigger what is actually happening: we yearn for a divine world, a world that makes sense and where our short lives have meaning and purpose. For Durkheim, there is no such thing, but what is there is society. Our societies make it possible for us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something that goes on after we die, something that grows and matures over time and that we have a part in making better. We are willing to fight and die for our social group because we see the "eternity" of our society and the transience of our own lives. To take part in continuing our way of life means that we take part in the eternal, and therefore in a way are immortal ourselves. Religion is basically a fear of death, of meaninglessness.

Here's what I think: I think that yearning that we have for something greater than ourselves is because there actually IS something greater than ourselves that we can sense and tune in to, that all people around the world have sought because it is there. It permeates everything in the universe but it is Other. All religions point toward this sense, this understanding that we as a collective humanity have. Some are more in tune with it than others, or are more practiced at tuning in. But why would we all want such a thing in the deepest part of ourselves if it didn't exist? (I suppose that's not a very logical argument, since we all want lots of things that don't exist, but the basic thing they have in common is a desire for good: for safety and love and joy, for having all our needs met and living lives of fulfillment and purpose. Where would we have gotten the notion of an ultimate "good" if it didn't exist? I guess this is Aristotle's point with his "forms," but that's another post...)

OK, so I think there's a God out there, and I think all religion points to the reality of God--some better than others. (I'm not saying here that all religions are true and right and good, but that they all point to this yearning humanity has for God.) I think we can have religion without ideology, but it's really hard. We have to make it anew each day through listening and allowing our traditions and preconceived notions to be broken down, not allowing "authorities" that aren't speaking from God to sway us into believing something that isn't true or necessary. But we're such creatures of habit that this is almost impossible to do, especially with a group!

Soon I'll write about what I think of Quakerism in all this. Basically, I think Jesus' message in its "pure" form is not an ideology, but as we live it out we make it an ideology by creating power structures and institutions, and by separating our world into "sacred" and "profane" moments or objects. Quakers and most renewal movements try to get rid of all this extra stuff, but then after a generation or two we also get stuck in our traditions and power structures (or lack thereof) and fall into the pattern of an ideology.

Why is an ideology more comfortable than a true faith? I don't know exactly, and that's a question I'll have to explore this semester, here and in my paper for the class. But right now I have to go read more Durkheim!

No comments: