Friday, June 30, 2006

Religion and Theology as Mutual Exteriority

Why yes, I'll be writing essays with titles like that this fall! I have to start warming up my lingo spewer.

Over the past year, on and off, lurking in the background of my mind, has been a line of thought that I only now feel ready to properly express. It seems to me that my problems in these threads on Jamie's and Joel's blogs can be be used to point to a fairly startling idea: religion and theology are not united, at least not in the way people think they are. There is a body of human activity - from magic spells to mass - that is geared to answering particular human needs. This body of human activity ("religion") exists independently of (and possibly prior to) the intellectual study of God ("theology").

I am not arguing that religion and theology never meet, or that religion does not make rational statements about the world. I am arguing that the one does not require the other. When they meet, it is because the individual in which they meet finds it useful for them to do so.

As I said, this has been developing in my head for about a year now, so some history on my thought and reading is in order. For the sake of comparison, it should be noted that I wrote a post on this topic almost a year ago. I hadn't thought of the religion/theology split past a single line in the final paragraph.

I've dabbled a bit in what might be called "academic" theology over the past year; Paul Tillich, Augustine, NT Wright, Meister Eckhart. The most striking thing I have noticed: while these men have left their fingerprints are on much of modern Christian belief, that's all there is - fingerprints. The men - and women! - who have written the theological masterpieces are but vaguely recognized names for the vast majority of Christians. Augustine's towering books are ignored in favor of "Jesus loves me, this I know." I don't juxtapose the two to disparage either, but to point out that the simple creed has no need of Augustine's serious study.

Theology, as an intellectual study, requires human intellectual capacity. All theologians have to engage in literary and philological analysis, historical research, anthropology and philosophy. These are not pursuits that everyone is capable of. The best works of theology are simply beyond the reach of many people; it's tough shit. Pick up Thomas Aquinas, if you don't believe me.

Religious activities, on the other hand, require no intellectual capacity. I don't mean that to sound condescending; religious activities just don't require one to reflect on the symbolic or ontological significance of Euchrist. Religious activities are effective (for reaching whatever goal you think they are reaching for; the specifics do not matter for this discussion) whether or not you have a sophisticated intellectual understanding of them.

This is not to claim that lay people are totally thoughtless. That would be embarrassingly arrogant and obviously wrong. Everyone engages in thought that organizes the world according to their imago. Religious people form and express statements that justify and clarify the religious aspects of their imago. Professional theologians do the same, of course.

It is for this reason that religion and theology are seen as a unity; all religious believes are theologians after a fashion. However, the sophistication of the theology one uses to clarify or justify their religious activities is secondary to the activity itself. This thought comes from my dabbling in philosophical anthropology, namely Ernst Cassirer and George Bataille. Both place religious activities in the realm of human activities. For Cassirer, religion is a "symbolic form" that humans use to organize the world in particular ways. For Bataille, religion is part and parcel of the human desire for ecstasy - a longing to stand outside one's self, a kind of mystical experience. Both Cassirer and Bataille consider "religion" as something distinct from particular belief systems or theologies. I did, by the way, write the post "A Theory of Religion" almost immediately after reading Bataille and Cassirer.

So, one can speak in tongues without an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues surrounding the tongues "debate." One can engage in the three religious activities I outlined here: ecstasy (called "subsumation of the individual" in that post, but I've changed it because of the wordiness), totemism and the concept of symbolic cause and effect with any theological backing, or sometimes no backing at all. Religious activities all have a unity that no exclusivist, sophisticated theology can overcome. For example, most religious promise that one can affect physical reality through symbolic acts. A shaman cuts a chicken's throat, and expects a good hunt. A group of Christians hold hands and prays for traveling mercies. The two activities come from the same place in human nature - conflicting theologies notwithstanding.

But does it stop there? Are theologians simply engaging in an activity that is functionally identitical to a much more casual line of thought? I would say no.

Theological thought views God as an object of study, not veneration. This is not to claim an impersonal disinterest, or that a theologian cannot attempt to honor God with his actions. However, just as religious activities do not require theological thought in order to function, theological thought does not require religious significance in order to be engaged in. Theological thought can be approached as an academic subject, the same as literature and philosophy. If a particular theologian insists that their theological work is an act of religious veneration, they are not making a theological claim; their insistence rests in their philosophy.

To cap this post off, here's an metaphor. Think of religion and theology as two travelers. They both begin in the same place - human nature - but they are most definitely two separate people. They leave the city by two different gates, out of sight of each other. Then suddenly, one sneaks up on the other so carefully and gradually and they walk parallel lines for so long that they think they have been together since the beginning. Religion never notices that theology is a bit arrogant and aloof, while theology never notices that religion is simply ignoring him except when he needs help.

And now for my patented blink-and-you'll-miss-it conclusion. My professors hated this.

"I'll draw out implications of this idea in future posts."


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