Wednesday, June 17, 2009

So "Jesus wasn't religious"?

[a spin-off from posts "On Religion", here and here]

The popular claim in some Christian circles that "Jesus wasn't religious" isn't just a throw-away line; it's a softer version of the old slur that Jesus wasn't Jewish.

I'm sure those who say he wasn't religious don't mean to be anti-semitic; they probably don't even mean what the phrase "not religious" would convey to the average person. They do know Jesus was actually Jewish, and if pressed they remember that Jesus went to the Temple, observed Passover and in various other ways lived the life of an observant Jew.

Some people are confused about Jesus observing the Jewish Law. Of course there are stories in the Gospels which depict Jesus or his followers engaged in disputes with other Jews, notably the Pharisees. While the place of the Pharisees in these stories seems to have grown with the Gospel tradition itself, reflecting the life-setting of the early Christians, there is no reason to doubt such disputes took place between Jesus and other religious teachers or authorities.

Yet these were disputes about religion, among the religious. The positions that Jesus took may have been unique in some cases, but fit well into other evidence for disputes among Jewish teachers of the first century. Jesus disagreed with some other Jews, but shared the religious matrix within which these disputes were held.

So Jesus was certainly an observant Jew, and hence certainly religious in a specific way.

Why then does this issue even arise? Partly because of misunderstandings about what "religion" is, and partly because religion itself is in such bad odour, particularly in the more secular parts of the West such as Australia and Europe. The "Jesus wasn't religious" crowd don't want to be connected with the historic Churches, which have justly had widespread bad publicity in recent years. Nor do they want to be associated with the musty mediocrity associated with benign but declining "mainstream" Christianity. Some of them don't want to be associated with newer "McChurches" either, to their credit.

This much is understandable. But it's also dangerous and self-deceiving. However much emergent or evangelical or whatever forms of Christianity flee from "religion", they find it staring back at them in the mirror. Faith doesn't exist in a vacuum; all communities produce rituals, customs and cultural accoutrements that make them "religious" as well as believing. Claiming somehow to transcend the inevitable consequences of being human and in community, and to have attained a purity of spirituality or doctrine or practice that others cannot, is an old and familiar heresy. The fact that "religion" is a marketing liability won't matter in the end - if the truth won't set us free, nothing else will.

Besides that general difficulty, denying or ignoring Jesus' particular religion is too big a price to pay for making him irreligiously cool. Christianity's incapacity to deal with the religious Jesus is related to the burden of anti-semitism which the West has not shrugged. The Church proclaims the unique and universal significance of someone who had a specific culture and history; if for Christians he transcends that culture and history too, this is not because in Christ God was choosing a "fresh expression" of truth that rejected Judaism, but by the costly and permanent engagement with history that we call the incarnation. Any Jesus we meet outside that history is possibly not Jewish, or religious - but he's not Jesus either.

[The image above of Marc Chagall's painting is from "The Arty Semite"]

Saturday, June 13, 2009

On religion (II)

From the Melbourne College of Divinity Centenary Colloquium, "Religion at the Crossroads"

Odd as it may seem, some Christian Churches are now quite enthusiastic followers of the anti-religious bandwagon – themselves excluded from such rejection of course.

“Jesus wasn’t religious” is a catch-cry in these circles – a devastating mistake, and if unintended then still a real slur against his religion, which was of course Judaism. To say that Jesus wasn’t religious is not just grossly inaccurate but is a new and more liberal version of the old anti-semitic slur, that Jesus wasn’t Jewish [note: I'll post separately on this point soon].

In Christian circles the rejection of religion is of course somewhat different from the "Ditchkins" version. It doesn’t mean atheism or revisionism, and will usually be theologically "conservative" (if fundamentalism can be called that); “religion” in this context seems to mean “anything we don’t like about other people’s religion”.

You do not have to travel far from here to come across congregations with a relatively large number of younger members, whose leaders have told them that their adherence is not a form of religion – but even if their bands and casual gear don’t look like traditional Protestantism, no one much outside that circle is being fooled. Of course they are religious, both in the obvious sense that they are members of a group with religious purposes by any reasonable definition, and also in the sense that despite their rejection of traditional forms of liturgy, such groups quickly form their own traditions. They generate forms of music, language and behaviour that, however hard they try, will eventually - even immediately, to tell the truth - look quite distinctive and, yes, religious too.

Even in plodding mainline Christianity, still more beholden to the outward forms that Gen-X fundamentalism has labelled "religious", this view has its defenders. There is a sort of pathos about seeing a greying congregation of Anglicans, gamely singing along with John Bell that Jesus “upsets religion, fearless both of fate and cost”. The problem isn’t just that it’s wrong – he did upset people, but not specifically the religious – it’s that the irony of singing this as a hymn in rather uninspiring but very religious contexts seems entirely lost.

Although it will rarely be obvious at a Megachurch, the anti-religious view of Christianity has some impressive intellectual allies, in names like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Forgive me under these circumstances for saying fairly bluntly that Barth, whose views we know, was in the end wrong, and that Bonhoeffer, whose views were only hinted at, tends to be misquoted.

Bonhoeffer clearly envisaged a sacramental and ritual life in a Church after Christendom and not just "meetings" centred on studying the Bible, whatever else he meant. Barth actually argued in a way not completely alien to my comments earlier, that religion belongs thoroughly to the realm of human and historic theory and practice, but wanted to claim that Christianity or its Gospel were completely other than religion. The truth in this is the recognition that there must be an utter distinction between the completely other whom the faithful dare name God, and the sum total of human thoughts and actions called religion.

Yet those human thoughts and actions are all that is available to us, at least for public discourse and for communal celebration in religious traditions, in the thoughts and actions of Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, and just as much of Jesus too. The scriptures of the great religious traditions are likewise embedded in the cultural realities of their origins and transmissions. And some of us will still claim not only that these thoughts and actions - or rather some of them in particular - are worthy not only of continued critical intellectual engagement, but of personal commitment.

To make a slightly more modest claim, these thoughts and actions are precisely what the academic studies of religion and theology can concern themselves with; even while these may examine or posit claims about the transcendent, they do so in the languages and forms that are wholly human and historical, else they would be unavailable for critical study. This is not to say that Christians (or others) make no other claims about the reality of God; but we have only words and objects and actions through which to make them. These words and objects and actions are the subject of theological study, and of religious studies too, despite other differences between those two.

In the case of Christianity, the need to teach this "religion" is obvious but also urgent. Teaching the Christian tradition, teaching theology, is no longer a matter of deconstructing bad traditional religion, as it may have seemed to be in the mid-twentieth-century and still seems to a few post-Christian commentators. Such religion is almost dead, and theological students today have rarely been strongly formed in any religious tradition, good, bad or indifferent. We no longer have the luxury of treating the Church as a given, since the 'mainstream' – and a bitterly euphemistic term that has become – is being squeezed between fundamentalism and secularism. The space between might well be termed the “crossroads” – and the path we now take is crucial.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

On religion (I)

Extracted from a presentation at the Melbourne College of Divinity Centenary Colloquium, "Religion at the Crossroads" at Trinity College, Melbourne, June 11 2009.

“Religion” is a modern invention. The idea that religion constitutes a distinct realm of thought and practice, to be arrayed alongside of but quite separately from music, physics, cooking, sex, politics and whatever other realms of activity our society defines and recognizes, would have made no sense to the authors of the Bible, or even to the early moderns who wrote or translated works like the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible.

Although it obviously has to do with phenomena such as faith, approaches to the numinous, and practices such as liturgy, "religion" generally has not been a distinct realm of practice but the overarching theory that informs and includes our whole practice, in terms that attempt to take the transcendent into account.

By contrast, in modernity both critics and often also proponents have pushed religion back from the public sphere. They, or we, have sought to create, usually deep within the human person, a safe but harmless place where religion might thrive as a matter of private judgement without threats from sociology or science. Having defined religion in terms that are largely private, to do with phenomenology but not sociology, we have created a situation where religion is of course eminently dispensable. Thus defined it has little purpose, or might be a sort of optional extra in life to scratch an itch in that other very modern category, “spirituality”.

The problem with this view, or at least one of the problems, is that whatever transcendent foundations or lack thereof may really be involved, historically and humanly speaking religion has not been just about phenomenology, or even what since William James we have commonly called "religious experience". It has been about the symbolic, ritual and yes of course spiritual underpinnings of everything.

Religion is, in our current terms for dealing with social phenomena, fairly close if not quite identical to the idea of "culture". Religion is not just prayer; it is Westminster Abbey, the Alhambra and Angkor Wat; it is vegetarianism and keeping kosher and Easter eggs; it is Bach and the Blues and Bhagavad Gita; it is T. S. Eliot and the Psalms and Rumi.

The tragic absurdity of the fairly common view that religion has been responsible for most of the world's ills, and wars in particular, is therefore correct in a surprising if limited sense – but only if we accept and understand that it is "responsible" for everything else too. Those who espouse that sort of view engage in an extraordinary sort of special pleading which grants credit for all virtue to other areas of activity or endeavour, and all vice to religion, rather than facing more honestly the deep ambiguity of human experience of religion, and indeed of humanity.

So the study of religion is the study of people and culture, including of ourselves (whoever "we" are) and our culture, not just that of others. To teach and research history or art or philosophy without religion is either disingenuous or impossible; one either bundles the religion in and hopes it won’t be noticed, or excises it and offers a culture in tatters.

Without such study we are poorly equipped to deal with challenges within society that have a religious dimension. One such is the growth in prominence of Islam in Australia and the fear it has engendered, marked by unhappy events from street thuggery to dubious town planning decisions. This reaction is of course at least partly related to the emergence of what we might better call Islamo-Fascism than “Islamism”. That phenomenon exploits and colludes with secularism to mystify Islam. Yet even without that, we – other westerners, religious or not - show ourselves poorly equipped to respond to genuine, mainstream Islam. This is not least because we do not know how to deal with religion, including but not limited to Islam, when it makes claims that go beyond the artificial safety of western interiority. Our religious ignorance colludes with our racism (sorry Mr Rudd) to render us powerless and then, by turns, fearful and angry, even of someone in our streets who simply seems to be wearing one too many items of clothing.

Institutions which would study religion and promote its understanding both critically and sympathetically have a very real social calling in this regard, to help us all think about religion as a social and historical phenomenon in the present even in a secular society.

But there is also a further need which, for the westerner, may be a prerequisite for such engagement with or understanding of the religious “other”. We "Anglos", mostly Christian or post-Christian, tend to think not only that religion is for other people but that culture is too. The common but degraded form of multiculturalism that centres on food and folk-dancing is really a form of soft racism, in which a people who have forgotten their own culture stare nostalgically and voyeuristically at others who seem not to have, yet. The study of religion, or inter-religious exchange, cannot afford to be further versions of this desire for the other at the ostensible expense of knowledge of the self, but must mean the thoughtful engagement of one grounded person or community with another. In religious terms, it is hard to fake respect for another’s beliefs when one manifestly rankles with one’s own.

We need therefore sound, critical, deep engagement and study of Christian tradition in the university setting, precisely as a form of social and historical self-understanding – not chauvinistically or exclusively by any means, but with the same balance of sympathy and unflinching pursuit of truth that should characterize any other discipline.