Tanya Luhrmann states the obvious

But I hope she didn’t write the headline: “Belief is the Least Part of Faith.”

Tanya Luhrmann has made a name for herself as the explicator of Evangelical Christianity (especially its experiential side) to American secular culture (ie readers of The New York Times). I suppose her intended audience is also mainline Christians. She does write well and insightfully about her experience with a particular form of Christianity (the Vineyard fellowship and Pentecostalism) but she is remarkably unknowledgeable about other forms of contemporary Christianity.

Thus her piece begins today with an anecdote about her recent visit to a university church which she says is very similar to the church she attended as a child. The conversation there centered on belief. She writes the following:

Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

Her column includes a quotation from one of her interviewees that supports her argument: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

Luhrmann comments:

secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

Now, in the course of the piece Luhrmann points out that scholars of religion do not generally think “belief” is any more important to religion than other elements–ritual or devotional practices, for example. Her argument might be stronger if she cited someone besides Durkheim. And she appeals to Wilfrid Cantwell Smith observation that “belief” in the way it’s commonly construed is itself a modern phenomenon.

Where she goes wrong is in failing to engage the attendees at her service in the very sort of conversation that she engaged her Pentecostal subjects. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of questions to hear people expressing complicated relationships with faith and belief and that they attend church services in spite of their uncertainties.

When I taught religious studies, I always began my introductory courses with an exercise in which I asked students to define religion. Invariably, their responses overwhelmingly had to do with faith or belief–that was true whether they were mainline, evangelical, pentecostal, or secular. It’s ingrained in our culture; it’s one of our basic assumptions wherever we land on the spectrum of religious faith and practice. And most of us, evangelical, Catholic, or mainline, clergy or lay, have a rather complicated relationship with the question of faith but continue our practice in spite of it.

I’m hoping Luhrmann will begin to study more closely the religious practice and religious commitments of those people who too often serve as a foil for her discussion of Pentecostals. It’s difficult to be a bridge between two communities when you lack basic understanding of one (and her apparent blindness to the complexities of non-Pentecostal Christianity makes one wonder whether her analysis of Pentecostals is accurate).

The Scientific Study of Religion

Tom Bartlett explores the “new science of Religion” discussing the New Atheists and those, like David Sloan Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral) who try to explain Religion’s origins scientifically and especially through Evolution.

Bartlett begins with the question whether religion has been a force for good or evil. The new atheists assert its malevolent influence in human culture, while Wilson and others attempt to prove the opposite.

One of the authors cited by Bartlett, Scott Atran, disproves the widely-held belief that religion has been responsible for most wars in human history:

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Atran is especially critical of those scientists like Dawkins and Dennett who try to argue religion away:

In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

Does a definition of religion necessarily involve belief? Ritual and Religious Experience

When I used to teach Intro to Religion, and even when I taught Intro to Bible, one of the exercises I would give my students on the first day was to ask them to define religion in a sentence or two. Invariably, the overwhelming majority would include “belief” in their definition. I would then give them a collection of definitions from scholars over the last century and a half, showing the wide range of thinking about the nature of religion, including many that made no reference to belief or faith.

I bring this up because the British philosopher John Gray has reviewed Alain de Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Gray capsulates de Botton’s argument in this way:

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which

very often coexists with faith.

But in the course of his essay, Gray points out that most of the world’s religions have had at their core the practice of a way of life, rather than assent to a sent of doctrinal beliefs, and that there are strands within Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Christianity, “that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all.”

Gary Gutting attempts to offer a philosophical challenge to Gray’s argument about religion. But his argument is dependent upon a slightly different definition than Gray’s. Gutting begins with a different starting point, not a definition that attempts to encompass a wide variety of religions, but a narrower one that focuses on salvation. He cites Islam and “mainline” Christianity as prime examples.

Then he tests Gray’s argument with the problem of evil.  The only plausible answer for a theist is that God is beyond our capacity to understand; but if that’s the case, we can’t be certain that God will act to save us:

Once we appeal to the gap between our limited knowledge and God’s omniscience, we cannot move from what we think God will do to what he will in fact do.

I was reminded of this debate thanks to something a lunch companion said this week. We were talking about the Book of Common Prayer’s power to shape us as Christians, as its language and liturgy becomes ours over time, and comes to shape our experience and understanding of God.

We are approaching Holy Week when we will enter into the drama of the last days of Jesus’ life, participating as individuals and as communities in those ritual re-enactments. We enter into the stories, become the stories. We participate as well as observe. For many of us, the drama of Holy Week, experienced over a period of years or decades, have shaped us in ways we can’t even articulate.

Am I able to articulate a theologically-sound doctrine of the atonement? Hardly. Do I experience the saving love of Jesus’ death on the cross? Of course! And never more powerfully than while participating in the liturgy of Good Friday.

Religious Belief is Human Nature?

Yes, according to a recent, massive study done at Oxford. Here’s the report from CNN; here’s another account from The Telegraph.

Given the widespread presence of religious notions, the study concluded that religious belief is not likely to wither away: “The secularization thesis of the 1960s – I think that was hopeless,” one of the study’s authors said.

If that’s the case, one wonders what he thinks about the announcement that Pfizer College (in California) will establish a Department of Secular Studies.

The Belief Instinct

Last week, Slate excerpted Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct. He argues that having a theory of mind was useful for us in the evolutionary process, to be able to imagine other people have thoughts, intentions, and emotions, and extending that even to inanimate objects. Ultimately, then, we projected a being (God) with a super mind, similar to our own. It’s rather simplistic, at least in the excerpt we’ve been given. Other thinkers, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and theorists like Pascal Boyer, have placed the evolutionary origins of religion in other aspects of our brain. Bering does write with humor:

There is a scientific term for this way of thinking—”theory of mind.” It’s perhaps easiest to grasp the concept when considering how we struggle to make sense of someone else’s bizarre or unexpected behavior. If you’ve ever seen an unfortunate woman at the grocery store wearing a midriff-revealing top and packed into a pair of lavender tights like meat in a sausage wrapper, or a follicularly challenged man with a hairpiece two shades off and three centimeters adrift, and asked yourself what on Earth those people were thinking when they looked in the mirror before leaving the house, this is a good sign that your theory of mind (not to mention your fashion sense) is in working order. When others violate our expectations for normalcy or stump us with surprising behaviors, our tendency to mind-read goes into overdrive. We literally “theorize” about the minds that are causing ostensible behavior.

Josh Rothman responds. He views Bering as positing religion primarily as animism:

If belief in God is instinctual, then how do atheists overcome that instinct? I don’t believe in God – but I don’t find myself fighting some built-in tendency to personify the universe. (Neither, I suspect, does Bering.) If Bering is right, then one would expect very religious people to have very overactive theories of mind. But that hardly seems true: religious people don’t, as a matter of habit, personify inanimate things or over-read other people.

He concludes by asserting that religion is not about the search for personality but the search for meaning:

If there’s an instinct at work, it’s the instinct to make sense of things. That’s why it’s a mistake for Bering to dismiss theology: Systematic theology is about making sense of the universe, and it’s at the heart what makes religion useful.

The introduction of animism in the debate leads to another essay. Stephen T. Asma attacked the New Atheists by arguing that their view of religion was too narrow. Instead, one should look at Animism, which Asma contends is the world’s biggest religion. It sees a world inhabited by spirits, who can affect the lives of humans and need propitiation. He writes:

Religion, even the wacky, su­per­sti­tious stuff, is an an­al­ge­sic sur­viv­al mech­a­nism and sanc­tuary in the de­vel­op­ing world. Religion pro­vides some or­der, co­her­ence, re­spite, peace, and trac­tion against the fates. Per­haps most im­por­tant­, it quells the emo­tion­al dis­tress of hu­man vulnerabil­i­ty.

 

The nature of religious authority

There has been considerable discussion about the nature of authority in the Anglican Communion, precipitated by the recent Primates’ Meeting. These discussions often focus on the locus of authority (is it the bishop, the national church, the local congregation); less often do they focus on the origin of that authority. The lack of conversation about the source of authority is largely due to the notion of apostolic succession, although the challenge to that idea comes from those who view scripture or adherence to some doctrinal formulation to be more important than a genealogy that can trace authority to the apostles.

It’s interesting occasionally to compare the sources and loci of authority in one’s own religious tradition to those in others. There is currently something of a debate taking place within American Zen Buddhism that can shed light on our controversies. The source of the current conflict is described here. Here’s a call from one Zen practitioner for a “Protestant Reformation.” But the problem in Zen predates the current controversy. There’s a fascinating book that describes similar developments in the San Francisco Zen Center, entitled Shoes outside the Door.

Given the apparent centralizing and bureaucratizing tendencies in the Anglican Communion, it’s important for us as Episcopalians and Anglicans to do all that we can to resist such efforts. An interview with Bishop Mark Sisk of New York details some of the issues, and the cultural/political differences between the American church and other branches of the Anglican Communion.

The New Metaphysicals

I recently complete reading Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Bender’s new work is widely acclaimed. Telling the stories of a spiritual practitioners who call Cambridge, MA their home, Bender uses their lives to rethink how scholars understand contemporary spirituality and the study of Religion. She begins by trying to locate some historical connection that binds the array of new age religious practices found in Cambridge to the city’s history as the locus of 19th century metaphysical speculation. And connection she does find, at least insofar as William James The Varieties of Religious Experience continues to shape, often implicitly, the way new age practitioners approach their own experience and attempt to enter into dialogue with social scientific analysis. The stories she tells are gripping, often of “lost souls” who through some experience have found a connection to something that seems much deeper than themselves, much deeper than the reality they experience in day-to-day life. We see them trying to make sense of their experience, and make connection to others whose journeys seem to converge with theirs.

For scholars of religious studies, Bender offers some provocative suggestions about how to understand and interpret contemporary spirituality, and by extension, religion in general. For example, she begins by noting

“that spirituality, whatever it is and however it is defined, is entangled in social life, in history, and in our academic and nonacademic imaginations.” She continues by observing that most recent definitions of spirituality attempt to define it as “a distinct category of action or activity (or mental state); and that they attempt to “extract something essential from it.” (p.5)

In her conclusion, she argues that she has demonstrated in her study that neat and tidy distinctions between the spiritual (or religious) and the secular are inadequate to explain the reality of religious life in America and the production of spirituality. Perhaps most interesting is that she sees the development of American spirituality and the scholarly analysis of religion and spirituality in the early 20th century as impacting one another.

While there is considerable material here for scholarly reflection, Bender also raises questions for those involved in congregations and religious institutions. Her argument that what is important is not so much the direct experience itself but how it is interpreted, explained, and how individuals incorporate that in their lives and in their social environments. One gets the sense that the “new metaphysicals” with whom Bender speaks are actively attempting to make sense of their experience and draw on a wide variety of resources in doing so.

She distinguishes between experience in “congregations” and spiritual networks. While such distinctions may be useful for her analysis, one wonders about the relevance of that contrast. It is likely that there are people who have had similar experiences but remain embedded in congregations, even as they try to integrate those experiences into their lives. It is also likely that some congregations may push people with such experiences to the margins. I’m also reminded of those studies that say among the most important roles that clergy can take on is that of spiritual guide.

All in all, there is much food for thought here.