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This is slightly modified version of a blog post published on July 28th on Quaker Universalist Conversations.
Brent Nongbri is a post-doctoral research fellow in early Christianity at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His 2013 book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, offers a corrective to the conventional modern uses of the term “religion.”
That corrective stands as a direct challenge to Quakers who call themselves “universalist.” The challenge is not that universalist intuitions about human faith and practice are wrong, but that we confound our perceptions and prevent clear discernment by continuing to use the concept of “religion” in it’s traditional senses.
Nongbri emphasizes two sets of distinctions to undergird his argument. The first is the distinction between the ancient world and the modern world, the boundary being loosely defined by the 16th century Protestant Reformation. During this era there were profound shifts in how European Christians conceptualized what we now call “religion.”
The second distinction is between descriptive and redescriptive scholarly accounts of groups of people. Descriptive accounts are “an observer’s best effort at reproducing the classification systems” of the people being studied. A redescriptive account “freely employs classification systems foreign to those of the people being observed.” (21)
Since the 17th century, Western thinkers have described the cultic and contemplative practices, mythologies and sacred texts of other peoples using categories based on their conceptualization of Christianity. Even with the 19th century shift toward describing other cultures as independent phenomena rather comparing them with Christian cultures, scholars continued to expect those peoples to have “religions” with the same categories which they had defined for Christianity.
The crucial error, according to Nongbri, is that these categories are applied to Christian and other cultures as if they were descriptive, when in fact they are redescriptive. Post-Reformation thinkers have looked for what they define as “religion” by looking for those ingredients in the cultures they study. If they find phenomena which they can squeeze into their categories, they call that the “religion” of those people.
Inventing Ancient “Religions”
For example, the first European description of “the religion of India” comes from Henry Lord, an Anglican chaplain with the British East India Company.
For his 1630 tract, A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians [note 1], Lord relied upon Brahman interpreters. However, since they merely did their best to answer the questions he posed, the tract is actually redescriptive, not the descriptive work he and his audience believed it to be.
For one thing, Lord grouped all the cultic practices, superhuman beings and holy texts of the Indian subcontinent under the rubric of the “Indian religion” (which, by the 18th century, came to be known in the West as “Hindooism” [note 2]).
Having done this, Lord then tried to fill in the predefined categories which Christian colonialists carried with them into foreign lands.
For example, seeking to identify their “holy scripture,” he came up with “a booke of theirs called the SHASTER, which is to them as their Bible, containing the grounds of their Religion in written word.” (110-11) As Nonbri explains in a footnote, “‘Shaster’ in all likelihood refers to the Sanskrit term śāstra, which is a general term for a rulebook rather than the name of a specific text.” (208)
The History of “Religion”
The bulk of Nongbri’s book is a thorough and fascinating account of two historical processes.
First, Nongbri describes how medieval European Christians inserted the notion of “religion” into ancient texts by translating as that term words which had other meanings in the original languages. [note 3]
In addition, whether they were considering cultures of the ancient world, such as Greece or Rome, or groups in their own time which practiced what they saw as heretical versions of Christianity (including, surprisingly, Judaism and Islam), they did as Henry Lord did with India and sought phenomena to fit into the expected categories of “religion.”
Second, Nongbri reveals how Reformation and Renaissance thought drastically changed Christian Europe’s conceptualization of the whole cluster of cultural phenomena which we now group under the heading of “religion.” Driving this shift was the change in the nature of European governance during the 16th and 17th centuries. During “religious wars” of that era, princes and leaders increasingly embraced the notion of “religion” as separate from “politics.
By the late 17th century, John Locke, a “prominent voice in the domestic and international affairs of the British government” (100), was describing “religion” [note 4] as
purely a matter of the salvation of the individual…. Whereas the medieval church had been conceived of largely “as an inviolably holy body, possessed of unchallengeable, because divine, authority,” Locke presented the church, or rather churches, as much more circumscribed entities….
The church was now a voluntary assembly of individuals who gather together for the sole purpose of obtaining salvation. Any gathering for this purpose ought to be tolerated by the civil authorities, provided that the participants played by the rules of the game, the most important of which was, do not disturb the functions of the state. (102)
That rule, “do not disturb the functions of the state,” is crucial in Locke’s schema. “Religion” is to be strictly a private matter, perhaps shared collectively by groups of believers, yet never to have a say in the legal or moral life of the state. For Locke, “religions” were convenient tools for socializing and controlling the behavior of their “members”—so long as they did not interfere with the commercial and colonial interests of nations.
By the 19th century, thinkers such as Rudolph Otto and William James had completed the redefinition of “religion” as being about private, internal experience, not about shared ethnic phenomena which are part of defining a people. In this new conceptualization, “each individual religion is celebrated for its uniqueness, and all are thought to be legitimate paths to individual ‘salvation’ or ‘liberation’ or ‘self-realization’.” (130)
Letting Go of “Religion”
A theme which Nongbri presents early in his book is that modern Westerners tend think to religion is “just there,” that religion is a human universal. What he hopes for us to learn from his work is that “religion” is a historically recent concept which we have extended outwardly through space and backwards through time.
In the natural way of all humans, we mistake the categories which we have learned or created for actual descriptions of reality, rather than remembering that they are artificial boundaries—redescriptions—marking out the patterns which our cultures and our own beliefs have seduced our brains into “seeing.”
What Nongbri wants us to be able to do is to see the phenomena themselves, to lay aside our categories so that we might recognize how other people, other cultures, organize their own narratives of interaction with the sacred.
Then, instead of seeking something to label as their “religion,” we might notice that the ancient Greeks, for example, organized their corporate rituals and belief systems around ancestral tradition. The ancient Romans organized theirs around what celebrated and preserved what they perceived as Roman ethnicity. And both the Christians and the Muslims organize theirs around heresiology, around the contentious question of who is worshiping correctly.
With this new openness and freedom of perception, Nongbri believes that we could then still use “religion” as a redescriptive term, employed in its mundane sense “to discuss things involving gods or other superhuman beings and the technologies for interacting with such beings.” (157)
We could, for example, focus our attention on the ways in which government entities such as the Supreme Court
determine what does and does not get to count as religion…. What sorts of interests are involved in such decisions? Who is doing the defining and why?
In other words, a good focus for those who would study “religion” in the modern day is keeping an eye on the activity of defining religion and the act of saying that some things are “religions” and others are not. (155)
We could also use the redescriptive approach to ask
“Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?” Take the example of capitalism…. [We] might ask different questions, such as “How might we understand human behavior differently if we, as a thought exercise, regard capitalism as a religion?” (155-56)
What would happen if we were able to let go of “religion” as a descriptive category?
Perhaps we would become more able to see clearly—and to appreciate and value, without necessarily embracing—what other people, other peoples, regard as sacred. Perhaps we would become more able to allow others their different narratives of interaction and interrelationship with the sacred.
We would not have to either agree or disagree with their narratives. We would simply ponder the sacred itself and, perhaps, learn from without having to gauge the truth of other people’s narratives.
And so it is.
1. Nongbri writes: “The name ‘Banian’ most likely derives (by way of the Portuguese and Arabic) from the Gujarati word vāṇiyo, a person of the merchant or trading class.” (208)
2. “The term hindu, which is itself ancient, was derived from the local name of the Indus river and was a geographical identifier, referring to people or things from India.” (110)
3. Latin religio, Greek thrēskeia and Arabic dīn, for example, each went through a range of connotations across the centuries, but none of them meant what modern English speakers mean by “religion.” Latin religio was used by the playwright Pautus in the 2nd century BCE to mean “scruples”; by Cicero in the 1st century BCE to mean “divine and human rules”; by the north African Christian Tertullian in the 3rd century CE to mean “worship,” “rite” or “reverence”; and by Augustine, northern African bishop of Hippo in the 4th-5th centuries CE, to mean “worship.”
4. In a tract entitled Letter Concerning Toleration.
Cover of Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, by Brent Nongbri (2013).
Frontispiece of A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians, first volume of A Display of Two Forraigne Sects, by Henry Lord (1630).
Sculpture of the Dance of Shiva, from the blog, Wonder, silence, gratitude.
“Ebenezer,” by Mike Shell. When my late mother moved to Florida from South Carolina after 40 years in her church choir, the members gave her this copy of the stained glass cross in the altar window.
Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, 6/13/2014.
Stephan Finlan is pastor of Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence, Rhode Island. He has taught theology at Fordham, Drew, Seton Hall, and Durham Universities. He is author of The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition (2008), Options on Atonement (2007), and Problems with Atonement (2005).
The follow is an excerpt from The Family Metaphor in Jesus’ Teaching (2009; 2nd ed., 2013).
Why is it that religions seem to evolve so slowly, and to perpetuate so much superstition and hostility to other religions? It is partly the fact that religion is always deeply involved in the values and traditions of particular groups, and so with the defining of social boundaries and the rejection of out-groups and out-group characteristics, as a function of group survival. But there is more, having to do with the boundaries of human consciousness, which makes religion the arena for the deep, the delusional, the imaginary, and the uncertain.
Religion often explores the marginal, the outrageous, the horrifying, the unbearable, and the unreachable. But these explorations are not always healthy. They express everything that is in the religious heart: fear, imagination, desire for prestige, the quest for meaning, the impulse to escape, truth-hunger, moral insight, spiritual hope, intimations of immortality.
Religion is a storehouse of good and evil, of maturation and of failure to mature, of vision and of obsession. But the religious life of Jesus shows an instinct for moral unification and love, based on trust in the watchcare of the heavenly Father.
We see the sanity of Jesus in all his interactions with people, his impatience with pompous and unloving teachers, his outrage with hypocrites, and his gentleness with people who had been wounded by life, even if they were not ideal models of family life—the woman at the well (John 4:7-27), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52), the woman who anointed his feet (Luke 7:37-48).
Jesus’ revelation is not just his teachings, but his life of trust and familiarity with God, which led to a life with others that was devoid of fear and coercion. “Do not be afraid” was virtually the watchword of his religious life—a religion without psychopathology. (92-93)
And so it is.
Two simple metaphors to enrich the meta-conversation about faith and practice across the boundaries of religious language.
In the first, Hystery on Plainly Pagan writes about why she “resists theism”:
For me, what some might call “God” is that which is both intimately real and even commonplace and wholly Other and Ineffable. If I use the word “God”, people think I mean what I do not mean.
The butterfly is pinned and people think I mean wings and legs and antennae when what I meant was flutter and delight and tenderness.
The essence of the butterfly cannot be pinned. The Essence of the Divine also cannot be described. To me, this is the real meaning of idolatry, to settle one’s faith in any given word or concept.
In the second, Siegfried Goodfellow crafts a tale called “Trickster and the Tree” on Heathen Ranter. Here is a piece of that tale:
So Trickster was out and about walking through the world of people as he often did, and he came upon a group of people in a meadow, and he went up to one person and he said, “Would you like to know what kind of tree the world hangs in?” And the man naturally curious wanted to know, and Trickster told him, “It is an ash tree in which the world hangs”. The man was interested, and Trickster then went on to the next man and asked, “Do you know what kind of tree the world hangs in?”. The man asked, “What kind of tree is that?” And Trickster said, “It is the yew tree,” and then went on his way and found a third man, and said, “Do you know what kind of tree the world hangs in?”, and the man asked, “What?”, and Trickster said, “It is a giant ficus tree.”
Then Trickster just laid down on his side in the sun beneath the lazy shady tree and watched the events unfold…
Be sure to read both blog posts in their entirety. They have much to say.
And so it is.
Note: I deleted an earlier version of this post (see comment on “Apology to Quaker Quaker and its host”).
In recent years I’ve been reading and corresponding with a whole spectrum of individual Quaker bloggers, folks who share, in their own posts and in their comments on each other’s posts, an on-going meta-conversation about Quaker faith and practice across the boundaries of religious language.
These Friends write about their efforts to do something highly peculiar: to self-identify as Evangelical Christians or Universalist Christians or Jews or Pagans or Buddhists or Nontheists, and yet to say, “Clearly we are all Friends sitting in the same Circle.”
Coinciding with this meta-conversation is a growing enthusiasm (I use that word in its original sense, “inspired by god”) among people who have come to identify themselves as “Convergent Friends.”
For a while I mistook the Convergent movement as being identical with the larger meta-conversation. I hope I now have a fairer and more accurate appreciation for Convergent Friends as a movement within Christianity.
I’ve been helped by looking at the Convergent Friends blog hosted by C. Wess Daniels, and, in particular, by reading Daniels’ article, “Convergent Friends: Passing on the Faith in the Postmodern World” (originally published in the July/August 2006 issue of Friends United Meeting’s Quaker Life).
As a child of at least ten generations of German Lutherans on both sides, I have Christianity “in my genes.” It is my “native religion” and my “native religious language.”
I can well remember times of spiritual and emotional excitement with other Christians. I have experienced from the inside that powerful sense of coming home to something new, one’s own religion rediscovered, reinvented and reinvested in as a living faith and practice.
“The empty day” speaks from the heart of that homecoming experience.
Given the centrality of Jesus in my life, I appreciate and lift up the experience of Convergent Friends. I welcome what they are giving witness to.
However, as I’ve written elsewhere, by the time I reached Lutheran seminary myself in the early 1970s, the Christ had shown me a larger circle. It is one with him as the center, yet with an infinite circumference.
This circle includes all people of faith—including secular faiths which do not call themselves faiths. What centers us is that Unnameable which confronts us with the kinship of all people, all beings.
When I became convinced as a Friend, I again experienced from the inside that powerful sense of coming home to something new. I found a communion of practical faith and practice, intent upon nurturing kinship above belief.
In the previous post, I shared some gentle guidance from other Friends about transcending the imaginary boundary between “Christians” and “non-Christians.”
What this age needs more than anything is genuine, kinship-centered conversation and communion across that boundary.
I am neither a Christian nor a non-Christian. I am in between.
In between is a comfortable, blessèd place, because God is there. In between is where Jesus lives, both as a historical man and as a son of God. This I know experimentally.
The traditional Christian metaphor is that the Christ reigns from within the walls of the Holy City.
Jesus, however, lives out here in the present, in between, with the dogs and the sorcerers (Revelation 22:15).
And so it is.
Within the past few weeks, I have witnessed too many cases of misunderstanding and hurt feelings over language and the unreadiness to listen beyond language.
Overtly, the struggles are framed as being between “non-Christians” and “Christians,” between “secular” and “religious,” between “liberal” and “orthodox.”
They are framed as being over who has been hurtful, disrespectful, hostile or even exclusionary toward whom.
The sad irony is that all of these people are passionate about lifting up loving kinship as the highest principle for human behavior—whether it is framed in terms of humanistic ethics or of divinely established covenants.
We each have our own private languages for naming to ourselves what we believe.
We gather, when we can, with others who seem to share that same language.
We attempt to extend our kinship boundaries to still others, who share our passion for loving kinship, though they seem to speak a different language.
We stumble again.
Our differing languages get in the way. They get in the way because they are not about the present. They are about where we came from, what we believe blessed us, what we believe hurt us.
We react to languages and labels and categories, instead of to individuals.
Then, even in our attempts to make peace or to confront unthinking hurtfulness, we find that our languages, our labels and our categories interpose themselves between us.
Here are two “spoken ministries” for listening beyond language.
The first is from Hystery, posted recently on her Plainly Pagan blog:
Here are some questions for Christian Friends
1. Is this person a non-Christian? If so, do they have a Christian background or do they come to us from an entirely different spiritual or philosophical background? Do I truly know enough about their background to make judgments about their intentions?
2. If this person is a former Christian, do I know why they now no longer call themselves Christian? Which Christian perspective (out of the multitudes) is in their past and how does that affect their relationship to christ-centered language? Was their experience with their version of Christianity predominantly positive or negative? What care and sensitivity does this individual require to encourage their best gift of love?
Here are some questions for non-Christian Friends
1. When you hear Christian language, are you overlaying your own frustrations with judgmental Christians onto your interpretation of the current speaker’s words? Can you take the time to hear this speaker as a precious individual ? Are you remembering that there are many Christian perspectives or are you making stereotyping judgments?
2. How familiar are you with scriptural language as it is often used by Friends? Can you make better interpretations of their meaning if you delve more deeply into this poetic language as a foundational aspect of historical Friends’ witness or are you confusing this language with the usage of Christian language from other historical traditions?
For all Friends encountering someone whose background differs from your own
1. Can you, like the Native American man who was moved by John Woolman’s ministry, hear where their words come from? Can you discern kindness and good intention in this speaker even when their words offend or confuse? ( William Penn said, “Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.”)
2. Do you really want to injure or reject this person before you who wants to belong in your society and who has exposed their difference to you in trust?
The second “spoken ministry” is from Wendiferous, who does not blog but sends marvelous, loving emails to practically everyone on the planet:
I confess, I enjoy experimenting with loving my enemies. I plumb my heart for enemies to love.
And, I don’t say (when asked) whether or not I’m Christian. I say: “That’s for you to figure out.”
And so it is.