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Monday, 31 October 2011

Which Religion? Whose Spirituality?

Browsing through a questionnaire on social attitudes at the start of my long march through a PhD, I was brought up short by some questions that invited me to assess my religiousness and/or spirituality.

The problem is that I don't consider myself very religious, or very spiritual for that matter.

The difficulty is that both terms are used generically, without clear definition,as though we all knew what the essence of religion and spirituality respectively are. Unfortunately, for anyone wanting to use the terms this way, there is no such thing as a "religion" and no such thing as a "spirituality" without further qualification.

The question we need to ask, with appropriate apologies to Alasdair McIntyre, is "Which religion? Whose spirituality?"

As the question implies, both religion and spirituality at the very least, need some form of qualification before I could even begin to think about, contemplating giving any sort of an answer to the above question.

The issue of specifying which gods we are worshipping is important, because as Rowan Williams pointed out in his address Analysing Atheism, Unbelief and the World of Faiths, the early Christians were in a very significant and life-threatening sense not religious.
... to understand what atheism means, we need to know which gods are being rejected and why. Thus an early Christian was an atheist because he or she refused to be part of a complex system in which political and religious loyalties were inseparably bound up. 'Atheism' was a decision to place certain loyalties above those owed to the sacralised power of the state.

Simon Barrow in What difference Does God Make, makes clear, drawing on the work of Nicholas Lash, why "individual religiousness" is not really the point.

Before modernity, the term ‘gods’ was understood, correctly, as a relational one, designating whatever it was people worshipped – gave ultimate worth to. It resided in occurrences, activities and patterns of behaviour – not concepts. Explains Lash: “The word ‘god’ worked rather like the word ‘treasure’ still does. A treasure is what someone... highly values. And I can only find out what you value by asking you and by observing your behaviour… There is no class of object known as ‘treasures’… valuing is a relationship.”

However, with the dominance of instrumental reason, ‘gods’ became, correspondingly, things (objects, entities, individuals) of a certain kind, a ‘divine’ one. Analogously, the ‘home territory’ of God-understanding shifted from worship (the assignment of worth-ship) to description (the assignment of properties). It became a metaphysical enterprise rather than a matter of appropriate relationship. The difference is that the former has to make claims about essence or ‘being’ (of a person, a thing, or ‘god’) in order to find it meaningful. The latter does not, though it needs a good idea of what it speaks.
This double shift of meaning and affection fundamentally corrupted and disabled the modern comprehension of ‘God’ – because God is, logically and necessarily, beyond definition (delimiting) and categorisation. God is most definitely not a ‘thing’ belonging to a class of things called ‘gods’.[10] “Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists all have this, at least, in common: that none of them believe in gods”, says Lash. Therefore religions are best considered ‘schools’ in which people learn properly to relate to God precisely by not worshipping any thing – not the world nor any part, person, dream, event or memory of it.
Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, nationalism and even atheism offer specific, and in varying ways overlapping and competing schools, in what it is to be and live humanly in the world in which we find ourselves. Spirituality, like religion is never generic. And in the account of religion that I am arguing for the substantive difference between "religion" and "spirituality" begins to disappear, in so far as spirituality is expressed in differing, and non-generic ways of learning to live in relationship to the world.

The key difference is that "spirituality" is seen as differing from "religion" in being less tied to institutional structures and intellectual formulations. This outcome is what we might expect if the move in public identification from "religion" to "spirituality" is the result of the deconstruction of Christendom. This process has generally fallen under the label of secularization, a process which is notably been played out in the geographical areas of the world shaped by Christendom.

In the light of this development the sociology of religion needs to be reconsidered and perhaps de-constructed as being powerfully shaped imaginatively and historically by its relationship to Christendom and its underlying assumptions. Such an exercise might have the helpful result of relativising its explanatory usefulness for Christians thinking about mission and church growth strategies. The analysis offered by this discipline with its focus on the "decline of religion" and the "rise of spirituality" if used without appropriate caution could simply result in importing the problematics of Christendom back into our ecclesiology and practice of mission.

Note: an edited and slightly extended version of this is now available on Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity and Society blog.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

What should we return (render) to Caesar?

The gospel reading this week was Matthew 22: 15-22 on the much quoted, but much misrepresented passage on "rendering to Caesar".  The comment by Jesus on paying imperial taxation "give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar - and to God what belongs to God" has been frequently used to underwrite a political quietist stance in which a line is drawn between political activity and "religion".

Well, this approach just won't wash for a number of reasons starting from the fact that the distinction between a private sphere of "religion" and a public sphere of politics would have been incomprehensible at the time. To read such a distinction back into the text is anachronistic. We need to read the incident within its historical context. As a Jew, speaking to Jews, Jesus would have been understood to have been reminding his interlocutors of the prior and total claim of God over their lives. The books of Moses and the Prophets, whose authority he held in common with his interlocutors, were devoted to spelling this profound claim out in redundant detail covering the whole of life, from agriculture to food to economics in an arc whose trajectory pushed increasingly to emphasise the central character of the claims of justice and and mercy in walking humbly before God.

So what is going on here?

James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts I think helps us get a handle on at least part of what is happening with his study of conflicts between the powerful and the oppressed, and his account of the difference between the onstage, public, and the off-stage roles and the differing accounts offered by both groups. What makes this passage so rare and so interesting is that Matthew offers us in the story an account of what the powerful, though still subordinate groups (remembering that the Romans are in overall charge),  the Herodians and the Pharisees are saying off-stage as opposed to their on-stage performance.

In this on-stage moment, they offer Jesus an opportunity to say in public what they suspect he might be saying as a member of the discontented oppressed class off-stage. What his reply offers is an account of a politics that is theologically unassailable, from their point of view, but is nevertheless quietly subversive of his interlocutors and the stance they have taken in their practice of engagement with the Roman empire.

Jesus' answer while apparently deferring to Caesar, is subversive in that it places people in a position in which they are invited, by implication to consider what it means to "give back to Caesar what is his" as against "giving back to God what is his". It does so by inviting, implicitly, a consideration of the question "what is Caesar's?", a question that, in Caesar's terms, should not even be asked. Such a question brings the possibility of a political and socially critical  discipleship into view. What we owe to Caesar, or the liberal democratic nation-state of Australia, itself aligned to an imperial power, is always, and must always, be open to question against the prior claim to return to God what is God's.

What should we return to Caesar? Not an easy question, but one that should be struggled with continually and communally. We can start our reflection on this question from Jesus' the point that the prior claim is to return to God what belongs to God, a practice which acknowledges that the baseline of the human is filled out for us paradigmatically in the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus. We learn from him what it looks like to return to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to return to God what is God's.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The irony of a "dead democracy"

The death of democracy was announced in a letter to the Canberra Times this morning. There is a certain irony about this announcement.

Democracy understood as the continuing struggle to try and place limits on the accumulation of unaccountable and arbitrary power by the state is always a struggle. And the recent demonstrated ability of vested interests to buy a decision by the expenditure of 20 million dollars in advertising against a proposed mineral resource rent tax shows why we have reason to be concerned about its future.

The death of democracy was announced in the very week that the Federal Government decided not to proceed with amendments to the immigration legislation that would have handed substantially increased  power to the Minister for Immigration that could not have been disallowed by Parliament, or reviewed by the courts.

This outcome was purely accidental and resulted from Tony Abbott's campaign of saying no to everything that the Government proposes. Nevertheless, even if only temporary, and for quite bizarre rreasons an attempt to extend the arbitrary power of the state has been at least delayed.