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Terms that Shape the Debate

December 30, 2014
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In my last post I suggested (not for the first time) that Santa might be thought of as a god. I mentioned a story one of my friends told me about a Hindu shopkeeper in India who believed that Santa was an American god. Over Christmas I had a short discussion with my brother (who is very interested in other cultures) about how one might correct this impression. He thought it might be impossible – Santa might fit within the definition of a god offered by causal Hindu theology in India. It was interesting to note that this definition of a god didn’t line up with the one at use in casual Western theology.

Last Christmas I was given N.T. Wright’s enormous book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”. This Christmas I finally got close to the end (so close that I may even be done before this posts!). In this book Wright spends what feels like an excessive amount of time combating the charge of supercessionism. (Supercessionism is the belief that Christianity has superceded Israel – that Israel has been more or less bumped out of God’s plan by something called “the church”.) I say this seems excessive because Wright is attempting to spell out what Paul believes and yet the criticism of supercessionism seems not to be really about whether Paul might have believed such a thing but whether it would be “nice” of him to believe such a thing. Much of this debate is hung up in identities – of Paul, of first-century communities, and of modern Christianity and Judaism. Perhaps most importantly, the charge of supercessionism is only a bad thing from a perspective where Pauline Christianity is a separate religion from first-century Judaism (something that Paul almost certainly wouldn’t have agreed with and a statement that presupposes a unity of first-century Jewish practice that is also disliked by the same people who dislike supercessionism) and in which it is a desirable goal to retain religious diversity (in a way that nobody suggests it is desirable to maintain diversity in views of the center of the solar system, for instance)[1].

Moreover, the entire program of religious tolerance is built on a basis in which not only can Christianity and Judaism be cleaned separated and identified as religions (unlike, say, a belief in werewolves[2]) but one in which the modern program of religious tolerance with its value systems and beliefs is not itself a religion. This is counter to some conservative Christian ideas in which the modern liberal form of religious tolerance (as opposed to the ancient form, not punishing your neighbors for believing differently than you) is really a new religion attempting to take over from the religions it claims to be safeguarding.

Religious intolerance suffers from a similar problem in several of its forms. In intolerance between things generally recognized as religions there is the issue of separating one’s own religion from everything else. When Sunni Arabs kill (mostly) Sunni Kurds for supposedly religious motivations a different form of identifying religions is at work than the one I use. In intolerance of all religions one is required to be able to identify religions and separate them from non-religions and do so using a set of criteria that leave all religious mostly homogeneous in key aspects[3] (or at least easily grouped into a few main groups) so that all religions can be criticized without having to write a massive tome criticizing each and every religion. And, of course, many of the louder modern critics of religion sound a lot like religious zealots themselves and so they must be able to explain why their system of values which they evangelize so eagerly (and in which they claim to have found the salvation of the world) is not itself a religion[4]. Indeed, I recently read an article in which the author criticized religion for being stupid (literally stupid, not merely “stupid” as a generic insult) and then was identified in the tagline as the author of a work advocating “transhumanism”, a set of beliefs I consider to be a religion.

The point of all of this is that a huge portion of our modern world assumes that terms like “religion” (along with all sorts of related terms, like “god”, “worship”, “temple”, and so on) are clearly defined and makes pronouncements that depend upon having clear definitions. However, these terms are actually much less clear than normally thought. I’ve previously written about how hard it can be to separate a religion from a philosophy but how do we separate religions out from their branches and associated cults? When Judaism spawns Christianity and Islam (which themselves spawn Baha’i) or Hinduism spawns Buddhism at what point do we label the new branch a new religion? Why does Hinduism include a diversity of beliefs which is wider than the differences of belief between several other things generally considered to be separate religions? Why do most evangelical Protestants consider Seventh-Day Adventists to be Christian but Jehovah’s Witnesses to be something else? How is it that all of this diversity can be considered to be similar enough to warrant treating it under one heading either to embrace it or despise it?

Gods aren’t much better. How are angels and gods different? Why is the Tao not a god? Or, for that matter, why are the Fae Folk (fairies, back when they were considered dangerous magical beings and not magical butterflies on permanent sugar highs) not gods? If gods are central to defining religions it would be nice if we could decide what a god was!

As is probably rather obvious I think a lot of modern thought on these issues is hopelessly confused. In fact, in America I think much of modern thought uses categories from American-style Protestantism applied across a much more diverse world of ideas. I have in fact run across people who believed that all religions were effectively clones of one another with nothing but a few key names to differentiate them. While this sort of thing is close to true in many “tolerant” circles I am referring to this in a very strict sense – the person in question believe that Muslims believed that Mohammad was the Messiah, God’s Son, who died an atoning death to save the world and that Buddhists believed the same of Buddha and so on. The issue with thinking about these issues in a confused manner is that nobody in the modern West can really avoid dealing with people who believe differently than themselves. Some of these people may be friendly and some hostile but without actually thinking about the key terms we can’t have an intelligible conversation.

The lack of an intelligible conversation hurts Christians most in three ways: first, it allows both those hostile to Christianity and those who are false friends of Christianity to muddle it into a big pot called “religion” (perhaps “theistic religion” if such distinctions are even recognized) and then attempt to treat the pot without dealing with what’s inside. Second, many Christians internalize these ideas and cannot themselves understand how to think about these treatments of religion as a whole category. Third, it creates odd blind spots in Christianity. Another debate Wright engages with in “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” is whether Paul used language reminiscent of Rome’s own political language to undermine Rome’s claims. It is clear that this debate has been framed by many as a debate about whether Paul is doing religion or politics. Some want to “rescue” Paul from his unfashionable religiosity by making him an ant-imperial political activist and some (including Christians I know) seek to deny that Paul could have made political comments because he was a religious thinker but the fact that Paul didn’t face this sort of either-or choice (because it belongs to a later divide between religion and politics) is missed by many.

Given all of this I want to take time to explore some definitions. In the next articles in this series I want to looks at gods and religions and what these terms really mean. I have previously treated the topic of religion from one viewpoint and I have also discussed diversity in the ideas of afterlives (a component of many religions which is sometimes thought to be crucial and which is often treated as if all religions were popular-level Christianity). However, there are many other angles to be looked at and I believe the clarity will open up new angles on common cultural debates.

1Also, and this is a point I will go into in more detail in another article, it presumes that religions shouldn’t change. Modern conservationists of animal species are generally keen to prevent species from being wiped out by outside action but don’t generally worry about internal forces reshaping a species into something different. Religious preservationists appear to worry about all changes.

2Which was once a widespread enough belief that I have found a medieval sermon denouncing those who believe in werewolves.

3One of the key components of a religion, popularly-identified, is belief in a god or gods. This is one reason why the definition of “god” is so important.

4Note that evangelization can be used in a secular sense (although not its original secular sense, to declare good news) and that the world can be saved in many ways that do not involve “salvation” in its popular Christian sense (although they do involve salvation in a number of the sense that appear in the Bible).

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2014 1:48 am

    “The issue with thinking about these issues in a confused manner is that nobody in the modern West can really avoid dealing with people who believe differently than themselves.”

    I had this discussion with my dad recently, when he mentioned he’d been visited by some Jehovah’s Witnesses. He wondered how anyone could believe what they believe and claim it was directly from the Bible, such as the idea that the last days started precisely in 1914.

    He’s more familiar with the Bible than I am, but I don’t think it occurred to him that this probably happened gradually starting from a more mainstream tradition, and because of a selective reading that found what it was looking for (in this case, a way to calculate the end times which had to be amended post-1914).

    It’s tricky, I think, because to understand how ideologies differ you have to consider how they develop. As with your examples involving Paul and first-century Judaism or transhumanism, that means accepting the idea that your ideology might be subject to some similar processes.

    • Eric permalink
      December 30, 2014 11:04 pm

      I actually used Seventh Day Adventist’s and Jehovah’s Witnesses as a pair of examples in this post because they spring from the same theological stock. One side of the pair crossed the invisible line, though.

  2. Eric permalink
    December 30, 2014 11:08 pm

    As further evidence of my main thesis I saw today a conservative commentator criticize Pope Francis for preparing a statement on climate change. The commentator invoked the common definition of religion by stating that he obviously wouldn’t criticize the Pope on a matter of religion but when the Pope stepped into science or politics (he seemed unclear which category best encompassed climate change) the Pope was open to criticism. While I generally agreed with his comments about how political engagement can hurt popes it was interesting to see him claim that the leader of the Catholic Church should apparently not read “non-religious” writings and issue calls to action outside of the “religious” sphere. Unfortunately, I suspect a number of Christians will find this claim perfectly natural instead of basically odd.

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