Thursday, 30 October 2014

Who is the Object of Religion? And Who the Subject?

A Taxonomies of Religion Post


Robert Hunt blogs about interfaith conversations at his Patheos blog
Interfaith Encounters (catchphrase/subtitle: A Christian at the Crossroads of Religions). Hunt is himself Christian, which might well colour his own assumptions about these conversations; the assumptions, or investments, a person brings to their understanding of others’ religions is going to be a recurring theme from here on out. In fact, that’s why I’m bringing Hunt up in the first place: his work often addresses the assumptions people bring to interfaith conversations. Two of his more recent posts helped me think about how other people think about their own religion.

For instance, he begins “Inter-religious Dialogue past Modernity” thus:
The obvious must sometimes be said: for inter-religious dialogue to be of any value those involved must know what they are talking about. And not just expertise. They must know what they have in common, what this “religion” thing is that they supposedly share.
He gives the example of a participant who claims that all religious people believe that gay marriage is forbidden by God. This participant’s claim, and the way he makes it, reveals that he understands religion as conformity to God’s commands; religion “is to listen and obey.” Later in the post he describes this position at greater length:
[religion is] faithful obedience to a complex network of divine mandates ranging across the realms of ritual worship, ethics, law, family life, and politics.
Hunt goes on to note that other religious people would disagree with that participant because they have a different idea of what religion is. These religions people—often progressives—understand religion as “the human application of certain universal ethical principles to ever changing situations.” In this latter view, humans must turn to religion again and again looking for these principles, and order and re-order society, continually, according to the principles they find in revelation. Tradition is a lesson which we can use to guide us, since it shows how our predecessors applied these principles, but it cannot be a command.

Hunt argues that this difference can make dialogue difficult—and while he’s talking about interfaith dialogue, I think we can note that it makes intrafaith dialogue difficult as well. However, he notes a third possibility, one which seems increasingly prominent:
religion is a form of faithful listening attuned less to God’s command and more to God’s voice as a source of healing, life, comfort, emotional support, expanded consciousness of reality, inspiration, or direction.
This third possibility does not strike me to be of a piece with the other two types. Those first two types were fundamentally moral; this last is relational. One might argue that it is, in a sense, moral, because healing, life, comfort, emotional support, expanded consciousness of reality, inspiration, and direction are the things which equip as to make moral decisions. Still, I wonder if it fits better in his other taxonomy for religions.


In “The Human Role of Religion,” Robert Hunt sets out another two ways of looking at religion. The first way “examines the human person as one who asks questions, and then examines religions as providers of answers to those questions.” The second way insists that “the proper relationship of humans to God, to the Transcendent, is to answer the question posed to us by God, not vice versa.” The first view is an Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment view, with the autonomous subject examining an external world; as the world is an object of study, so God, Hunt observes, becomes “the object of worship.” The second view insists that God is not the object of our religions, but rather the subject; Hunt bases this view in the Book of Job.

That last move is actually Hunt’s first move: he thoroughly disapproves of the provider-of-answers model of religion, so much so that he suggests it will destroy religion and, likely, humanity. It’s not my purpose here to discuss the merits of Hunt’s analysis, though I may do so at some later point. But I’m reminded of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself; there’s a certain pop-cultural image of humans having to account for their lives at the Pearly Gates, which is a genre of account-giving I hadn’t considered when discussing Butler. (Of course, Butler’s whole point is that one cannot really give an account for oneself, since one doesn’t know one’s origins and so on; if one’s life must be defended at the Pearly Gates, let’s hope we have an advocate who knows us better than we do.) I want to say it’s telling that Hunt locates the second view of religion in the Book of Job, but I’m not sure what it tells. Presumably a Confucian scholar would not locate such a view of religion in a book from the Bible.

At any rate, if “Inter-religious Dialogue” is about the moral dimension of faith, “Human Role” seems to be about the relational dimension of faith. Because of this, I wonder if religion as hearing-God’s-voice-of-comfort might not be better grouped with these two views…but since these two views are opposite and complementary, it stands out here, as well.


I made a possible chart, derived from these posts:

The final column is intended to work out which framing is most important for a person; I tacked the God’s voice as comfort bit here as a way of including it.

I hope you noticed that I have “Religious Person” rather than “Religion” in this chart. I’ve done this because it seemed like nonsense to ask these questions of a whole tradition. For instance, neither Christianity nor Islam as a whole is inclined to either the view of religion as obedience to a command or the view of religion as application of universal principles; there are Christians and Muslims in the first group and in the second, and it seems easy enough to defend either position with those religions’ own resources. It seems more accurate to ask these questions on the level of individual communities and believers, though I suppose a religion might well include an explicit exhortation to one or the other; however, even if it did, that wouldn’t mean its adherents wouldn’t ignore that exhortation.

A few preliminary comparisons come to mind. The view of religion as obedience to commands sounds an awful lot like what Tillich describes as a juristic type of faith, and the view of religion as application of universal principles sounds like Tillich’s ethical type of faith, though it also sounds like Tillich’s element of prophetic self-criticism in its willingness to change according to context. Meanwhile, the view of religion as the attempt to give an account of oneself to the universe, or to God, sounds somewhat like the experience of holiness as judgement over the present that Tillich says characterizes the moral type of faith. I would be hesitant, though, to equate the view of religion as a provider of answers with the experience of holiness in the here and now; at most they seem alike in their focus on finding something in the world before you. The two schemas seem to have some overlap, but they differ enough that I don’t think we should collapse them together, or at least not quite yet.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ultimate Concerns

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

Paul Tillich was a Christian existentialist and philosopher popular in the 50s and 60s and one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. He was known for his book on popular theology The Courage to Be and The Dynamics of Faith and his multi-volume treatise of more academic theology, Systematic Theology. He worked by correlating human experience and alienation with Christian revelation. Many people, both academic and not, Christian and not, were attracted by his work, though his influence over contemporary theology has largely waned. (But hopefully it is making a resurgence! While it is imperfect, what I’ve read of it is good stuff!)

For Paul Tillich, faith—or religion—is the state of being ultimately concerned. In The Dynamics of Faith he argues that people are ultimately concerned with something; they are concerned with something they take to be ultimate. The Ultimate (that is, God) is a final arbiter of value: in particular, the Ultimate makes promises and threats. When the Ultimate promises inclusion and threatens exclusion, it can do so successfully because the Ultimate is not contingent on anything else and its activities cannot be thwarted by anything else. When people are ultimately concerned with something that is not the Ultimate—success, or humanity, or a flawed vision of God—they are bound for misery and failure, since the thing with which they are ultimately concerned cannot deliver on its promises. (His argument gets confusing at this point: he writes that people are always ultimately concerned with one thing, and as such all people are religious, but then he writes that atheists are concerned with competing interests. He seems to contradict himself.)

Tillich’s opening in Dynamics offers a possible question, then: About what is a practitioner ultimately concerned? What does it mean for this idea of the Ultimate to promise inclusion, or to threaten exclusion?

Because the Ultimate is not contingent on anything else, it cannot be captured by any description or formulation humans—inherently limited beings that we are—might make about it. Thus there can be no perfect dogma about God. Rather, religious creeds are symbols (signs that participate in that which they signify) and they only signify according to the community’s language. As the community changes, and its language changes, the symbol’s ability to signify God diminishes. Thus any religion that seeks to approach God—the Ultimate—and avoid a false vision of God must be able to change its symbols (that is, its creeds and dogmas). A religion, Tillich argues, which honestly acknowledges the ultimacy of God, must contain a tradition or mechanism of criticism against its own terms. According to Tillich, Protestantism is the only religion which is capable of this criticism—that is what he identifies as the Protestant Principle and the Reformation’s very raison d’ĂȘtre—and this is why Protestantism is the best and truest religion. (Of course, according to Tillich Protestantism has largely failed in this regard due the rise of biblical literalism and inerrantism.) While I disagree with his claim that Protestantism is uniquely self-critical—Buddhism and Daoism leap to mind as religions which contain self-criticism in response to the ultimacy of the Ultimate—I feel like this might make another good question: Does the religious tradition contain an internal mechanism for self-criticism? Does this religion insist that the Ultimate, as Ultimate, cannot be timelessly described in creeds and other symbols, or does it take those creeds and symbols to be timelessly true?

In the second half of Dynamics, Tillich addresses different types of faith. There are two major groupings, each of which contains a few subgroups:

·         Ontological types of faith
o   Sacramental types of faith
o   Mystical types of faith
·         Moral types of faith
o   Juristic types of faith
o   Conventional types of faith
o   Ethical types of faith

After cautioning that all religions participate in all types of faith to some extent, but human limitation means that religions favour one or two types and only imperfectly assimilate the others, Tillich launches into a description.

Ontological types of faith experience the holy in the here and now. Moral types of faith experience the holy as judgement over the here and now. Ontological faith is the holiness of what is; moral faith is the holiness of what ought to be.

Among the ontological types of faith, sacramental faith experiences the holy in an object while mystical faith experiences the holy beyond objects and within the self. Sacramental faith experiences holiness as present within an object, or sacramental bearer; it describes “the state of being grasped” by the holy through that specific medium. Sacramental faith runs the risk of forgetting that the object is merely a bearer of the holy and that it cannot itself be holy, since it is a materially contingent object through which the Ultimate reaches humans in their limitation. Mystical faith, then, seeks to avoid that risk by seeking holiness beyond objects. Mystical faith does not reject the concrete or material, but rather reaches toward the ineffable, the ground of all being, the Ultimate. Often mystics achieve this by going inward through meditation, contemplation, or ecstasy, identifying the human soul as the point of contact between the Ultimate and humans in their limitation.

Among the moral types of faith, juristic faith involves obedience to a law, one that permeates all life; the law is felt as both a gift and a command, since life is satisfying within the strictures of the law. Tillich characterizes Islam and the Judaism of the Second Temple as juristic. Conventional faith remains poorly defined in Dynamics of Faith; he gives Confucianism as an example but explains no further. Presumably it involves the maintenance not of divine commands but of social expectations and thereby maintains societal order? Ethical faith demands obedience to justice as a way of reaching God; justice, I think, can be understand as something beyond adherence to rules but instead a commitment to principles which are not easily codified. The Hebrew Testament prophets are an example of this.*

But bear in mind that these forms are usually somewhat interconnected. Sacraments are generally marked out as separate not just in space but in behaviour: in order to approach the bearer of holiness, practitioners must observe ritual purity which resembles, or is, a juristic type of faith. The prophetic wisdom of ethical faith can often derive from mystical faith. And so on.

This schema offers an obvious set of questions to ask of a religion: Is this religion more ontological or moral, and how much more? Insofar as it is ontological, is it more sacramental or mystical, and how much more? Insofar as it is moral, is it more juristic, conventional, or moral, and how much more?

An issue that will keep coming up in this project is what I’m going to call investments. Tillich is invested in not just Protestant Christianity, but existentialist Protestant Christianity, and this comes through in his starting point (the ultimacy of the Ultimate) and his approach to faith (the human experience of the holy). It’s not just that, for Tillich, only Protestantism can put “Yes” in the column about self-criticism. Rather, Tillich’s desire to ask what a person’s ultimate concern is supposes that, indeed, a person might have only one concern, a view determined in advance by his monotheism, or his particular monotheism (“No one can serve two masters”). And Tillich’s sense of the sacramental bearer kept separate by ritual purity does not seem to make sense in religions which recognize all things as bearers of holiness (and I mean this in the sacramental sense, not just the sense of the goodness of Creation). His idea of what religion looks like comes from the anthropology that preceded him, and that anthropology was … well, it was the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Nonetheless, these might be questions we could ask, so long as we watch for when they stop making sense for a particular religious tradition or a particular religious person. I’ll write more on these questions of application later.


*Tillich argues that the Roman Catholic Church has been unusually good at unifying all of these types, but failed—has continually failed—to recognize that the Holy Spirit demands answers again and again, and has instead rested with its old answers. The groups of Christians that would become Protestant recognized that the Roman Catholic Church lost and excluded prophetic self-criticism in its authoritarian hierarchy, and that the growth of sacramental elements of faith overwhelmed the moral ones. The first of the two problems preventing a correction of the second, making the break with Rome inevitable. However, in response to Roman Catholicism’s overemphasis on the sacramental type of faith, Protestants have historically emphasized the moral dimension, losing both ontological types of faith. However, Tillich sees a possibility of reclaiming the unity of all types of faith in Paul’s description of the Holy Spirit. Make of all this what you will.

**In this chart I’m trying to replicate Tillich’s representations, not supply my own. Feel free to quarrel with his interpretations.



Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Prophet, Sage, and Shaman

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

In the last post, I noted Chaotic Shiny’s
Religion Generator and the sorts of fields it gave describing the religions it generated. A number of these involve its clergy, and what they do. For instance, clergy might be community leaders, spiritual protectors, healers of the sick, judges, inquisitors, or a connection to spirits and the deceased; they may be monastic, celibate, or rich; and they might study to become clergy, be raised from birth for the role, or elected by the people.

Looking at a religion’s religious specialists is not a bad way of getting a quick handle on some of the deeper orientations of a religion. In my undergraduate program I took a course on the Religions of Native Peoples, and the professor described the Prophet-Sage distinction often made between Western and Eastern religions. Western religions, the story goes, have prophets, who receive divine wisdom from above; Eastern religions have sages, who look within to achieve enlightenment. On a more immediate level, Western religions have priests (or rabbis, or imams) who mediate or facilitate the people’s relationship with a higher being; Eastern religions have monks (or gurus, or masters) who guide people as they look within, whether they look for emptiness, the Way, or God. Indigenous religions tend not to have either prophets or sages, she went on to observe, but shamans, who communicate and negotiate with the spirits around the community. The different roles the clergy perform in relation to the divine or the spiritual reflect a fundamental orientation on the part of the religion as a whole: prophet-based religions look upward, sage-based religions look inward, and shaman-based religions look around them.* Those are the directions they look because that is where they expect to find reality, or the part of reality that is not accessible through more mundane means.

It strikes me as interesting that role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons contains some sense of this distinction when it offers cleric, shaman, and monk classes, as though its creators had some intuitive (or explicit?) sense of these distinctions. One of the other notable divine classes, the paladin, is an especially interesting addition: a religious specialist who is not so much clergy as a guardian of the faith. (To clarify, I think of barbarians as primal paladins: guardians not for the guards but for the spirits.) I’m still not quite sure what to make of the paladin: it seems almost like the mundane dimension of religion.

Of course, there are problems with this framework. First, not all sages are alike, as not all prophets are alike and not all shamans are alike. A Hindu guru, a Buddhist monk, and a Daoist priest expect to find very different things when they meditate. Second, and more importantly, traditions rarely have only one type of religious specialist. Christianity, for instance, has had its share of monks and mystics who look within for God—Teresa of Avila comes to mind—while Buddhism has its share of priests making petitions to the bodhisattvas. Alexis Seniantha was a Christian shaman, using Dene Tha’ dreaming to receive messages from God; dispute Seniantha’s orthodoxy or authenticity if you like, but the point stands that Christianity as a sociological phenomenon has occasionally had shamans. Moreover, I might suggest that exorcists and others talking about spiritual warfare operate as a mix of priest and shaman. Meanwhile, shamanic traditions have had prophets and a number of their practices bear a resemblance to meditation. So, first, we cannot stop with these roles when looking at a religion and, second, it would perhaps be more helpful to identify which kind of religious specialist is most prevalent in a tradition, and then identify the extent to which the others play a role.

Of course, a final consideration is what role religious specialists even play within the religion. For some religions, clergy are central: Roman Catholicism, for instance, requires ordained priests for most sacraments. The Baptist churches, however, talk of the priesthood of all believers, arguing that Christ fulfils the priest’s role of mediating between God and the believer; clergy perform many of the same functions as Roman Catholic priests, but do so on behalf of the congregants. But I think a clearer example might be the distinction between Inuit and Dene traditions. Inuit traditions rely heavily on a shaman (or angakok) to mediate with the spirit world; the Dene have no specialized religious profession, however, and all Dene are expected to engage in some level of shamanic activity (such as dreamwalking).** A shamanhood of all practitioners, I suppose.

There are of course lots of other fine distinctions between religious specialists, worth looking into. For instance, Max Weber distinguishes priests from prophets: priest’s claim to authority comes from his service to the sacred tradition, such as ordination and the maintenance of rituals; the prophet’s claim to authority comes from revelation and personal charisma. Priests, according to Talcott Parsons, tend to maintain the status quo and stabilize society, while prophets tend make religion a force for dynamic social change. In the view of Victor W. Turner, prophets are in fact more like shamans than like priests, since prophets, shamans, and mediums all perform ceremonies on an occasional basis, according to needs that arise, and all communicate with the divine or spiritual directly, while priests perform ceremonies according to a calendar and communicate with the divine or spiritual through ritual or ceremonial language. So that might be another distinction: occasional versus calendrical ceremonies, and static versus dynamic. And while these divisions would seem to suggest something about the religious tradition itself, they might say more about the particular religious specialist and the particular community they serve within that religion.

When making this chart, I first tried to use examples of actual religions and religious sects, and I ran into a serious problem: I felt like most of my assessments were unfair. In particular, I wanted to put Roman Catholicism and Baptist churches under Static rather than Dynamic, but I recalled that certain of the Baptist churches were incredible forces for change in the United States during the 50s and 60s; Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher, after all, and to divorce his politics from his religion would seriously mischaracterize both. Similarly, nuns and laywomen from the Roman Catholic Church have played significant roles fostering peace and resisting military regimes in Latin America and, again, to divorce their religion and their activism would mischaracterize both. Furthermore, trying to assess this for something like Daoism or Buddhism proved difficult because 1) I knew perfectly well that there have been multiple kinds of both and 2) I knew perfectly well that I knew neither well enough to make an accurate assessment. So I used fictional examples in the interests of not misrepresenting anyone real. But my inability to use this chart for its stated purpose is an important warning: such attempts at classification work better for a well-defined subject (black Baptist churches in the United States in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s) and a subject about which you are relatively knowledgeable. Questions are great—really, questions are very important—but you need to think about how to address them in responsible ways, too.


* And, indeed, it might be more accurate to cut to the chase and stick with prophet-based, sage-based, and shaman-based rather than rely on generalized geographic or demographic designations.
** This is according to the religious studies professor mentioned above.
† These are all from Game of Thrones.



Monday, 20 October 2014

The Religions of Textbooks

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

One of the quickest approaches to understanding religions is the sort of basic facts overview you often encounter in textbooks or encyclopedia (especially
that one) when you first look it up: who founded it, when and where was it founded, how do people practice it, what are their sacred texts (and do they have any). Often such sources present other facts, attempting to address the religion’s particular beliefs and worldviews, but at best these are usually very generalist. It might sketch out a broad understanding, but not one that can really help you anticipate what any individual practitioner believes. I think of this as the textbook approach. Let’s go over a few examples.

In an interview in the back of a later edition of God Is Not One (I’ll update when I get it out of the library again so I can tell you which later edition), Prothero defends his inclusion of New Atheism by noting that particular strands of atheism meet the 3 C’s definition of religion. The 3 C’s definition isn’t one that I remember from my Religious Studies minor, but a Google search suggests it’s pretty common. These C’s are as follows:

Creed – Shared beliefs about ultimate reality, creation and order of the universe, the place and meaning of humanity, and/or the final destiny of humanity and the world.
Code – Behaviours, attitudes, and conducts which practitioners try to maintain.
Cult* – Shared forms of worship, shared symbols, and/or worship of the same being or object.

The 3 C’s are a definition—something is a religion if it has all three C’s—but these features are also a good way into understanding that religion. They are what make up the religion, after all, at least according to this definition. (Note: “Code” is sometimes rendered as “Conduct” and “Cult” is sometimes rendered as “Ceremony.”)

In my Google search, however, I found another document that used 5 C’s:

Creed – as above
Code – as above
Cult – as above
Community – Groups of people which engage in ceremonies together, with a particular organizational structure.
Central Myth – Stories re-told and re-enacted that make the other features of the religion meaningful to the practitioners.

These basic categories might work well for our chart., a platform that describes itself as “Hosting the Conversation on Faith,” has a similar, though more fine-grained, approach. In their Library they have a Side by Side Comparison feature which allows you to compare traditions in a chart. The sorts of information provided include date of formation, number of adherents, place of origin, deity, sacred text, current headquarters, and different aspects of historical origin (including its influences) and development. It also has a few sentences for each religion on different beliefs: Sacred Narratives; Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings; Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence; Suffering and the Problem of Evil; and Afterlife and Salvation. It also addresses issues of ritual and worship and issues of ethics. This can be a very helpful summary, especially if you’re quite new to the religions described, but it lacks any sense of which set of beliefs are more important to practitioners. It’s notable that the categories under “beliefs” seem well-suited to describing Christianity but poorly suited to describing, say, Shinto. Moreover, it does not attempting to describe the sort of “deep” cosmologies that I’m thinking about—for instance, the problem/solution approach does more to suggest the overall worldview, even though it lacks the sort of details Patheos’ Side by Side Comparison provides. This is handy…but it’s way too much for the chart I have in mind, which is already pretty huge.

A common subset of these sorts of questions is to ask what deity the religion worships. This question makes more sense for some religions than others, but since a popular, though faulty, definition of the word “religion” is something like, “belief in and worship of a deity,” I suppose I can see why you’d ask it. So you could have something like the following chart:

Atheist (there are no gods)
Cult of Reason, versions of Zen Buddhism, Daoism
Monotheism (there is one god)
Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Rastafari, Atenism
Polytheism (there are many gods)
Hinduism, Shinto, Neopaganism
Pantheism (all things are God)
Versions of Hinduism, versions of Daoism
Henotheism (there are many gods, but we worship only one or only one at a time)
Versions of Hinduism, versions of ancient Greek and Egyptian religions

But that’s only so helpful, right? I guess if you just didn’t realize there were alternatives to whatever you were used to, this sort of thing might by mind-blowing. And while such details might help you understand where the philosophical texture of a given religion is grounded, it won’t give you access to that texture.

I think one of the most interesting schemas I’ve encountered is Chaotic Shiny’s Religion Generator. Chaotic Shiny is a website that has random generators for writing and gaming. The religion generator has a ~36** fields, so it can produce quite varied religions. A lot of those fields are the same as those above, but there are some interesting ones that start to add that texture I’m looking for: Focus has a number of goals, somewhat reminiscent of Prothero but less problem-based, like “repentance,” “leader worship,” “spreading peace,” or “self-improvement,” that gives a sense of what’s important to practitioners; Deadly Sins (“neglect,” “self-injury,” “wrath”) and High Virtues (“piety,” “moderation,” “tolerance”) give a moral snapshot that goes beyond mere prohibitions; Major Taboo gives a sense of the cultural neuroses the religion might have, including things like “bodily functions,” “sex,” “money,” “strong emotions,” and “mental illness.” This generator is intended to produce interesting and unique religions for fantasy gaming contexts, but its categories could also serve as a template for understanding existing religions.

The problem with such frameworks, of course, is that the sorts of categories chosen usually reflect the kind of religion the person making the categories follows or knows: emphasis on belief over ritual, for instance, or sins over impurities, reflects Christianity, and the world it shaped, more than whatever religion you’re using the framework to describe. Furthermore, it tells us little about individual believers, and their approaches to the religious tradition they live in. But it is still a good, and necessary, starting point.


*The word cult refers here not to brain-washing and isolationist religious groups with charismatic leaders, but simply to religious practice, deriving from Latin cultus, meaning “care,” specifically the care owed to God or gods and their temples, shrines, etc. “Cult” thus refers to worship, to keeping sanctuaries clean and pure, and the performance of proper ceremonies. Think of cultivation. I suspect it was the negative meanings that became attached to the word “cult” that caused some people to shift from Creed, Code, Cult to Creed, Code, Ceremony.

**Some randomly-generated responses affect what fields follow them, so there may not always be exactly 36 fields.



Saturday, 18 October 2014

Taxonomies for Religions Index

The other day a friend of mine observed that I am obsessed with understanding other people’s philosophies and how those philosophies affect their actions. She isn’t wrong. In yet another attempt to create a framework for such understanding, I’m attempting to compile taxonomies for religions.

What is a taxonomy for religions? This first post is a good example. By “taxonomy for religions” I mean a way of conceptualizing religions and seeing how they are different from one another. (And, I suppose, they give opportunities to see when they are the same.) So in that first example, you can divide and group religions according to the problem they see in the world and the solution they offer to address it. In a way, a taxonomy is a set of questions which narrow in on particular features in order to help us understand the things we’re putting into the taxa (in this case, religions).

But isn’t that narrow? Aren’t there more ways of grouping religions than just problem/solution? Absolutely. And that’s why I want lots of them. I hope that by overlaying them we can create a more detailed (or, I like to think, textured) view of each religion. That’s what I want to do here: if I gather enough such taxonomies in one place, we can start building a really complete understanding of each religious tradition.

Religious tradition? Wouldn’t the problem/solution question apply to sects within religions, too? Or even to individual believers? Yes, yes, and yes. It’s almost like you’ve read my first post! Some of these taxonomies will apply to believers better than to religions. For example, Richard Beck talks about Winter Christians and Summer Christians. This applies to believers (Christians, specifically), not religions. But you could also note that some religions, and some sects within religions, accommodate Winter Believers better than Summer Believers or vice versa. As such you could create categories—or taxonomies—on the Religion level according to the sorts of beliefs/attitudes it encourages or accepts on the Individual level.

What are Winter Christians and Summer Christians? The linked post contains a good explanation, but I’ll also explain it in a later post.
But, more importantly, how are you supposed to play a cleric or paladin in your D&D session next week if you don’t know what religions and religious people are like? Oh, you’re the DM? Then how are you supposed to make up the behaviours and beliefs of the Cult of Tiamat?

So if I basically don’t care about religion and I don’t plan on playing a cleric, then there’s no point reading any of this? You say you don’t care about religion, but maybe you’re thinking of something different than I am. Do you care about philosophy? Or metaphysics? Basic approaches to ethics or decision-making? Or a person’s fundamental understanding of the world, so fundamental that it remains somewhat obscure to the person holding it? About worldviews? Cosmologies? Cultures and subcultures? Then you care about religions, just maybe not the ones with God and stuff in them.
Links go live as I write the posts, and titles will updated as that happens. Will hopefully gain more entries as you recommend stuff. 

You obviously care about this, but why should anyone else? It’s really important to understand why people act the way they do and think the things they do! How else can you reason with them or predict their actions? Also, if you’re one of those people who needs to understand a person in order to empathize with them, then how else will you be their friend? You don’t want to go around assuming that everyone thinks the same as you do about things, do you? (If so, how’s that working out for you? And for the people around you?)

Isn’t that an unnecessarily and unhelpfully broad definition of religion? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s a whole other series of posts that I plan on writing someday. In the meantime, the basic question to ask is whether the worldview under consideration can fit in these taxonomies. Most of them can—even if they appear to be, or consider themselves, non-religious.

Would you like people to recommend taxonomies for people to add to your list? Absolutely! Thanks for asking! Write it in the comments! Or e-mail me, if you know my e-mail address! (Maybe I’ll rig up a burner account for this thing…)

But what if the ones I might recommend aren’t exactly scholarly taxonomies? In the last few years it’s started to seem like you mostly care about scholarly stuff, and I’m afraid that’s not really the world in which I live… Don’t worry about it! Didn’t I just prattle on about D&D? And take a look at my Table of Contents; it has lots of non-scholarly stuff.

Speaking of, maybe you’ll want to get on to that Table of Contents before you lose readers…? Oh, right. Good thinking.

Table of Contents, with Sloppy Annotations
  1. Religion as Problem and Solution or Religion as Obsession and Epiphany – On Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One and W. Paul Jones’s Theological Worlds, to whit, all religions observe that something is wrong with the world and try to address it.
  2. The Religions of Textbooks – On the 3 C’s, the 5 C’s, Patheos, enumerations of the divine, and RPG random generators, to whit, the sort of Religious Studies 101 overview of a religion.
  3. Prophet, Sage, and Shaman – On clergy and other religious specialists, religious classes in RPGs, and the priesthood of all believers, to whit, different kinds of religious specialists and what they might indicate about the religion in question.
  4. Ultimate Concerns – On Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, to whit, looking at what people are ultimately concerned about, whether they recognize the ultimacy of the Ultimate, and different types of faith; further, how taxonomies have investments.
  5. Who is the Object of Religion? And Who the Subject? – On Robert Hunt’s blog Interfaith Encounters, to whit, whether a believer asks questions of the religion or the other way around, and what role morality plays in that relationship.
  6. Freud’s Ghost – On Richard Beck’s blog Experimental Theology and book The Slavery of Death, to whit, does religion deny death or face it honestly, and how does it handle doubt and suffering?
  7. That Kitchen Drawer with Assorted Stuff – On Sam Harris and wakefulness, Edward Fesser and trads/mods, stuff I’ve written before about genres, and anything else I find that doesn’t warrant it’s own post.
  8. Guide to Religion for RPGs – trying to cobble all this together for use in D&D and other RPGs; also, for fantasy worldbuilding generally, with commentary on having to do the same thing four times for religion, sect, community, individual..
  9. Summary – trying to cobble all this together, as above, but for more general purposes.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Religion as Problem and Solution or Obsession and Epiphany

A Taxonomies for Religions Post


Have you heard the metaphor figuring the world’s religions as different trails up the same mountain? It’s reportedly a Hindu concept, but I know it through Huston Smith’s The World Religions, and if you’ve heard it I have little doubt that it came to you through Smith indirectly. It was a controversial claim when Smith made it (though one many people were ready to hear), but it might not be an entirely accurate one. For instance, Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One is almost wholly devoted to showing that religions have very different senses of the world and therefore very different goals. They do not converge upon the same peak, he claims.

Prothero’s way of understanding religions is an interesting one: he says all religions observe that there is a problem in the world, but they offer different diagnoses and therefore make different prescriptions. Religions also have a set of techniques for achieving the solution and a set of exemplars for guidance and encouragement. For Judaism, the problem is exile and the solution, therefore, is return, while for Islam the problem is pride and the solution submission; for Confucianism the problem is chaos and the solution propriety, but for Daoism the problem is artificiality and the solution flourishing. Prothero’s framework is a useful way of conceptualizing a religion. At the least, the framework forces you to ask particular questions about a religion which you may not have otherwise thought to ask. (Geez, I should make an index for all the posts in which I write that.)

Prothero runs into trouble when he deals with Christianity, however. He writes that Christianity’s diagnosis is sin while the prescription is salvation. But sin means so many different things to so many different Christians, and salvation means so many different things to so many different Christians, that its almost meaningless to define Christianity in this way. (Indeed, I’m fairly sure there are Christians who understand sin/salvation in something like each of the terms Prothero uses to describe the other religions: Islam’s pride/submission, Confucianism’s chaos/propriety, Hinduism’s samsara/devotion*, Buddhism’s suffering/awakening, Yoruba’s forgetting/connection, Judaism’s exile/return, Daoism’s artificiality/flourishing.) I wonder, therefore, whether a Muslim might have the same response reading Prothero’s book: “But what does pride mean? Aren't there many ways of submitting? Of course you could think of pride as a kind of forgetting or a kind of exile, and submission as a kind of connection or a kind of return.”

Which leads me to suspect that these four categories might be more useful not as a description of religions writ large but as a description of a particular person’s own religion. The question is not, “What problem does Christianity see in the world?,” but, “What problem does Christian see in the world?”**


Prothero’s framework, when phrased on the level of the individual, sounds much like W. Paul Jones’s obsession and epiphania. I know of Jones’s work through Richard Beck, who gives a summary: every Christian lives in a “theological world” (Jones gives five of them?) defined by an obssessio—a defining conundrum, quandary, wound, or question—and an epiphania—the experience or hope of an answer to that question. For many Christians, the obsessio might be the threat of God’s judgement, and the epiphania would thus be the promise of God’s forgiveness; for others, the obsessio might be the way we harm others, and the epiphania the promise that one day we will no longer do so. I hope you can see by now the similarity this has with Prothero’s framework: Prothero uses different terms and add techniques and exemplars, but the obsessio/epiphania distinction is at the heart of his description.

Moreover, these seem to be useful questions for anyone’s worldview, whether religious or not. But I’d caution that, of course, these might not be beliefs, exactly. You may not be able to simply ask, “What do you believe is the one big problem with the world?” After all, I think lots of people would say there are a few different problems with the world and these don’t necessarily have the same source. Rather, it seems to be about attitude. You should maybe ask, “What problem with the world, or with yourself, takes up the most of your time and your headspace?” That’s probably more accurate. And then, “What do you do to address it?”

It’s worth observing, I think, that Prothero’s formulation is a bit more bloodless than Jones’s. Problem and solution are very technical or matter of fact. Diagnosis and prescription are maybe even worse: there’s a disease, yes, but diagnoses and prescriptions are what make diseases manageable and knowable. Obsessio and epiphania, though, have a bit more emotional kick: rendered into English, obsession and epiphany suggest the urgency of the problem and the overwhelming nature of the solution.  If the problem is your obsession than it’s not something you’re going to be able to deal with in a detached manner; if the experience of solution is an epiphany, than you’ll never be done trying to figure it out. The same idea, maybe, but there’s a different sense of stakes. Jones, of course, is writing as an insider, and Prothero an outsider, and it shows.


All this, I think, is a helpful way to conceptualize world religions on the one hand and individual expressions of those religions on the other. You could make a chart:

Religions as problems and solutions
All nice. All good. But this seems incomplete, doesn’t it? As I said, you can imagine a Christian who conceives of sin mostly as pride, and salvation mostly as submission. And yet they would not be the same, really, as a Muslim who thinks in much the same terms. The techniques and exemplars might account for a bit of the difference, but…surely there’s more difference, isn’t there?

I love taxonomies. I sometimes think that I have a taxonomic imagination. But I recognize their limitations, and one of those limitations is that there are usually many different ways of organizing objects and you have a very different sense of a set of objects depending on how you organize them. So one way of handling this is to use several taxonomies, layered atop one another, to create a bit more texture. You don’t have a set of nested classes, like in biological taxonomies, but rather a set of fields for each entry. In which case, you need a bunch of useful taxonomies, and you need them all in one place for ease of use.

That’s what I plan to do. In the next… however long… I will try to collect taxonomies meant to organize either the world’s religions or individuals’ expressions of those religions, and present them here for my own use, and for anyone who might find them useful. (One use I can imagine is worldbuilding. I’m fascinated my fictional religions, but so many of them seem flat and uncompelling. I feel like using frameworks like those in this post, and those I plan to post, might help make more fully-fleshed religions and religious characters in novels and RPGs.)


Samsara means “wandering,” literally, but in Hinduism it refers to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth which characterizes reality.
** I am the only person allowed to make this pun.
*** Prothero includes a coda on atheism in God is Not One. He characterizes the problem/solution as religion/atheism, nothing that even though the stated problem is religion, the solution is itself religious in nature (by definition). I’ve added my own take in brackets for the problem/solution and then filled out the rest.
 Bokononism is a fictional religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.
 Not a religion, but I want to suggest that there are other kinds of “theological world” than nominally religious ones.
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