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.


  1. Always about the truth. How important that really is.


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