Monday, 22 December 2014

Quest and Castle

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

I’ve been calling on Richard Beck a lot for this series; this makes a degree of sense since 1) his work has been fairly helpful for my own religious formation and 2) his work is specifically about personality types in religion. So I wrote about theological worlds and obstacles to love. I forgot, however, about his work on Quest, prior to this work on death and love. I’d like to outline Quest now.

As usual, Beck’s work on Quest has to do with a very simple context and question: Let’s say you’re Christian and you believe that it is important to love and aid both your neighbour and your enemy, but you notice that an awful lot of Christian don’t do much loving and aiding of neighbours and do rather the opposite for enemies, and it seems rather like being Christian makes them worse for it; how do you live out your Christianity, then, when your Christianity seems to be the very thing getting in the way of your specifically Christian goals? So Beck looked at the psychology of belief, and tried to find traits that correlated with fruitful faith and traits that correlated with less fruitful faith.

What Beck and others working in this area have found is that “a certain configuration of religion […] is highly explosive.” These traits include certainty, ingroup mentality, infrahumanization, and victimization. Certainty means that you feel that what is right or wrong is an obvious and universal fact. Ingroup mentality means that you create an ingroup (those who agree with you) in opposition to an outgroup (those who don’t). Infrahumanization means you view the outgroup as less intelligent, honest, or righteous on account of being the outgroup. Victimization means you see yourself as a victim of the outgroup, which justifies your aggression towards them as a form of self-defence. People with such traits regarding their religion are likely to become hostile, unwelcoming, ideologically radical, and sometimes violent.

In contrast, a Christian could instead have different traits, which Beck outlines:
1.) Pragmatic belief: We don’t act from certainty, but from the best information we have on hand.
2.) Religious Experience: We only get “hints” and “guesses” about God’s activity and will in the world. Thus, we act humbly.
3.) Discernment: We cannot interpret our own religious experience. To do so would lead to deviance. We must intermingle our story with both Scripture and the larger community.
4.) Agreement: We seek to find expanding circles of agreement, thus reducing ingroup/outgroup tensions.
These traits relate to a variable, introduced by Daniel Batson in the 1970s and further researched by others, including Beck, called “Quest.” People who score high on the Quest variable tend to view faith as a quest, or journey; specifically, they have three related features:

1. They are prepared to address existential questions in their complexity.
2. They are open to change.
3. They have a positive view of doubt.

Beck and others have found that the Quest variable correlates with altruism and people who score highly on it report better relationships with God.

If Beck’s primary metaphor for this orientation is a knight on a quest (he uses a picture of one in the post), I think a good metaphor for the opposite orientation would be a knight in a castle. I’m taking this image from Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be. In this book, Tillich discusses the courage to be as the courage to existence in the face of inevitable and pervasive non-being, with three specific anxieties: fear of fate and death, fear of guilt and condemnation, and fear of meaninglessness and emptiness. He describes one afraid of death in the realm of meaning, who is thus unwilling to acknowledge and face the threat of emptiness, as one who has built around himself a castle. I think this is a good image to pair with that of the knight out on a quest.*

So then we have another taxonomy or, really, a spectrum along which a given practitioner can fall: on the one end is Quest, which involves readiness to face existential questions, openness to change, and a positive view of doubt; on the other end is Castle, which involves a sense of certainty, ingroup mentality, infrahumanization of outsiders, and the perception that one is being victimized. While Beck’s work has been on Christianity, I think we can see how these traits could apply to almost any ideological position.

But if you’ll permit me, I’d like to venture out a little from just discussing taxonomies. I have two thoughts about Quest and Castle.

The first is that Quest and Castle necessarily influence belief content to some extent, at least if that belief system is coherent. For Castle theology, one must somehow account for one’s certainty; what is important with regard to religious knowledge is correctness, that one’s beliefs align with orthodoxy (defined by some standard). In Protestantism, this tends to lead to particular ideas about the Bible and the hermeneutics of reading; in Catholicism, this tends to lead to particular kinds of ecclesiology. I think this is the conventional picture many people have of religion, that it has an authority-based epistemology. For Quest theology, however, one must instead account for the possibility of knowledge that isn’t certain. To a lot of people, I think, knowledge that isn’t certain is hard to imagine—knowledge just isn’t knowledge if it isn’t certain. But that’s a poor (or immature) epistemology. Knowledge is always pieced together pragmatically. The question is how a mature epistemology works in relation to religious knowledge.

The second is that Quest theology offers an alternative to the sort of story you hear from the so-called New Atheists. Beck refers to Sam Harris, but I’m thinking more of Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion. The first half of the book concerns why religion is wrong, and this half is…well, it isn’t very good. That has been discussed elsewhere. I want to focus on the second half. In this part, Dawkins argues that religion is bad, because religion operates by faith. According to Dawkins, religion always transmits by belief in authority. Religious moderates, therefore, cannot meaningfully dispute with religious extremists because religious moderates essentially agree with religious extremists that listening to and not questioning religious authority is a valid epistemology, and the moderates have no way of arguing that their own authorities are better.** But Dawkins is mistaken here; while some religious moderates might share the extremists’ epistemology, not all religious people subscribe to an authority-based epistemology. Dawkins ignores or is unaware of the Quest variable in religious personality.

If I have time, I think exploring Quest theology, and what it might mean for religious knowledge, would be worth a whole series of posts. In particular, I can imagine three ways of organizing a Quest orientation (one of which retains an authority structure) which might be worth elaborating. But I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.


*Speaking of knights like this, I remember I must get around to another taxonomy sometime: Kierkegaard’s knight of faith and knight of resignation.
**I cannot recall for sure if Dawkins uses the moderate/extremist distinction. I think he does, but I might be misremembering. It’s worth noting that this language is a problem; “moderate” and “extremist” imply that the primary difference is degree of religiosity, when the difference is something more like socialization or propensity for violence. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has recently written about this.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Random Religion Generator

A Taxonomies for Religions Post, Kinda Sorta

My brother introduced me to a Random Generator site which allows you to fairly easily make your own random generators. I made one for fantasy-style religions. It's a bit long and kind of got away from me. To some extent it was based on the "Taxonomies for Religions" series, but it isn't very close to the questionnaire I wrote previously. (Some of the names a terrible, I'll warn you, and it's also filled with kind of corny jokes.)

Here's the link: Religion Generator.

And here's a sample: 

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Graveside Crowd

A Note on Depression, Perhaps

Today—the day I post this, not the day I write this—it will have been one month since my father died. As they say, he finally lost the battle against cancer. A short battle, though, with a rapid decline: there were only a few months between his diagnosis with a very treatable form of cancer and the total disintegration of his lungs. We were expecting it, I guess, but not so soon. When I got the call to fly out to Alberta, I knew what it meant, but I had not thought it would happen then.

We are not a family to mourn. What mourning we did, we did in the twenty-six hours between the time he lost consciousness and the time his body stopped. We did that little mourning as he turned from person into mere organism into mere matter. Even so, my mother noted that she often forgot what was going on as we spoke between us; I never forgot that I kept vigil, but it was hard to believe why it was I had a vigil to keep. And then, when he died, we told morbid jokes and we laughed. I cannot speak for my mother and brother, but I was exhausted and, to be honest, relieved that we would not spend another wakeful night in the hospital, sleeping in uncomfortable turns. Maybe this is why I laughed so hard.

When we got home, all three of us e-mailed some to explain what had happened, and we posted to Facebook so that we would not have to tell the rest individually. This is when the ritual began. This is when the world of the family, visited only by tactful nurses, was punctured by the social world. This is when the expectations arrived.

There we were, gripped in gallows humour, attempting to console those who looked to console us. The clichés of grief were all most of our Facebook friends and acquaintances had to offer, and they offered them in earnest, but to me they were mere noises, letters, pixel arrangements. I performed the role, or at least I tried, but it did not come easy; in that moment, I was not sad. But there was a certain injustice to it, I thought, that I should be made to perform this role for which I was not suited even though I was the one, supposedly, in need. Convention cannot encompass the enormity and variety of death; when it addresses the needs of those it addresses, they feel great comfort, I think, but for the rest of us the conventions can seem alien and false, even or especially when meant in earnest. I delivered my lines, as badly written as they were, because I recognized that this script is all my friends had to show that they cared, and I appreciated that they cared.

The only times I felt sadness were when people who knew my father grieved for him, too. These times were hard: cousins reached out, in clear distress themselves; his coworkers, who I had never met but whose admiration for my father was obvious, were shocked and confused; old friends of his did not know how to respond. That does remind me of one bit of tradition that meant something to me: one of his oldest friends, who still attends a church my family attended, promised to ring the bell once for every year he lived. I was not there to hear it, but I can imagine the bell of the old Lutheran tower ringing out across the crisp autumn swamp and farmyards on the other side of the country. In these cases all the social veneer fell away, but those few things which held meaning for us.

After a week I returned to Vancouver. I had classes to attend—but I did not attend them. They did not seem to matter. Death can really clarify your priorities, it is said; maybe this is so, but for me the trivialities were stripped of urgency only because everything was stripped of urgency. I had no motivation. I had no feelings of sadness because I had no feelings at all. Rather than emotions, I had symptoms. Low affect, low energy, high apathy, and disordered sleep I know well: it was depression again. It had been looming all term, and it came without surprises. I tried to finish out the term, and succeeded, but the final assignments I submitted only warranted a passing grade, I’m sure. Most people seem impressed that I managed them at all.

There is good news: other than the continued ruin of my sleeping schedule, my depression seems to have lifted. I regained my energy and motivation in the days before my assignments were due, thank goodness. For the most part, I have faced the people I know in the consciousness of my father’s death, and accepted their condolences, and I do not need to do this again. I have yet to see his sisters, my aunts; that will be hard. People still ask me how I am doing and I try to give them answers that aren’t flippant or facetious. The best answers, I’ve learned, are the vague ones: “Well… you know.” “As well as can be expected.” “Surviving.”

Because what else is there to say? I guess that is what the clichés are for: there is nothing to say, so we say phrases that mean nothing. In their absence of meaning we are left to understand that which cannot be said. But what happens when that which you cannot say differs from that which they assume you cannot say? Then clichés are not mandalas, but masks. And yet there is still nothing else to say.

More Notes on Depression

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Post-Hoc Mission Statement

A Taxonomies for Religion Post

I had planned to write a summary for this series as it relates to real life to follow the one related to roleplaying games, but as I sit here I realize there’s nothing to say about real life that hasn’t been said about the roleplaying games, which I guess should come as a surprise to no one. So I’m not going to write the second of those posts; just go read the first one. What I am going to do is reiterate this project’s mission on a slightly bigger level, insisting on some caveats and imagining situations where you could use it.

Those caveats, then: In no way is this series of posts enough to achieve real understanding of any religion. You could grab this series of questions—that is, after all, what this is, a series of questions rather than a series of categories or, really, a series of questions because it’s a series of categories—and sit down in front of any religion and fill in all the little blanks. I really hope this helps you. I’ll talk in a bit about why I think it would. But when you’re done with that you won’t be done. Not at all. Because when you’re done with all this, you’ve still got to know how the religion works, how it’s structured, what it looks like on the inside. These questions will open the door for you, I think; you’ve got to step in after that.

What these questions are supposed to do is clear the preconceptions from your head. I suspect that most people have a dismally narrow view of what religion is. This includes the religious and the non-religious in equal measure, and I’m sure it does not discriminate by religion or denomination. This also includes the sorts of people who say other people have a narrow view of religion; this includes, I imagine, myself. Look again at Robert Hunt’s introduction to one of his distinctions:
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.
In his example, Hunt argues that one of his interlocutors merely assumes that all religious people imagine religion the same way; it does not even occur to this man that there’s another way of thinking about it. But there are other ways of thinking about and doing religion, and so this man fails to understand them. And so, if you’re debating with someone about a workplace policy or you’re trying to learn about your friend’s religious tradition or you’re drafting a diversity training policy or you’re engaging with philosophical and critical thought coming from a person who adheres to a religion that you do not, and so you’re trying to understand that person’s worldview, you’ll be seriously limited if you are making assumptions about their religion that simply aren’t true. In this series I want to help knock those assumptions out of your head; that is, I want to knock these assumptions out of my own head. I also hope to do so in a way that makes future knockings easier and more productive, too.

But that’s only the first step, as I said. I knock out the assumptions by offering alternatives; these alternatives may also help. But they might not, too. They might not be all that important to the religion you’re looking at. That’s why I want as many as I can get. But once you’ve got all these frameworks, you have to start figuring out how they fit together to produce the details which the rest of it won’t generate. And you’ve got to look at it in historical and social context, sometimes because stuff people say is religious is not really indigenous to their religion at all (so-called-Christian capitalism) and sometimes parts of their religion comes from their politics (American evangelicalism’s inherent racism). The real work follows the frameworks, and there’s no guide for it, because it has to arise in response to the particular religion you’re looking at.

And, of course, finally, you’ve got to get a sense of the individual. Psychology becomes pretty important then. I’ve got some suggestions about where you might start—personal epistemology definitely comes to mind—but you’ll need a toolbox bigger than mine currently is. Because, all else told, the individual matters at least as much to the religion as the religion to the individual.

Hopefully, though, after all these caveats, I’ve made a place where you can begin. Hopefully I’ve got you asking some questions.



Thursday, 20 November 2014

Taxonomies and Mythopoeia

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

While trying to find ways to frame my understanding of different religions, and different individuals’ religion, is a worthwhile activity in itself, I would be lying if I claimed that my primary motivation was anthropological or psychological. Rather, I’ve primarily been imagining that this project would be useful for writing fiction: in a realist context, for creating a plausible variety of plausible religious characters (including those who believe themselves irreligious*); in a fantastic context, for creating a plausible variety of plausible religious characters and for creating a plausible variety of plausible fictional religions. If you write or worldbuild for any other reason, I suspect it might also be useful to you; the place where I can imagine this happening the most for the most people would be when playing D&D or some other tabletop RPG.

This post is here for you if you plan on using this series to make a D&D character.**

Depending on your learning style, you may want to skip down and peruse the questions themselves before reading the explanation, or you may want to read the explanation first so you better understand what you’re looking at.

Of course whatever game you are playing is probably going to have its own religious world built into it, with gods and suchlike for you to worship. These may even be rolled into its class system. For the purposes of mechanics it makes sense to start with what the game and the DM give you, but most RPGs I’ve encountered, including D&D, don’t delve much into the religious worldviews each sect or religion follows. You don’t get much sense of what it’s like to worship Bahamut or Tiamat or Lolth. That’s where the ideas I’ve been working with might come in handy.

Now, unfortunately, the sets of questions I’m about to ask you of your character are enormous. You may not want to do this much work for one facet of your character’s personality. (Of course, if you’re really invested in your character you might want to after all, but most people probably don’t). So you’ll need to trim it down according to the amount of work you want to put into it. But this might be a good thing: of the posts I’ve written so far, there might perhaps only be two or three that really seemed useful to you or got your attention, so it might make sense to focus on the associated questions.

And yes, I said sets of questions. From what I can tell, for a very thorough character-creation you’ll need to ask the first set of questions three times and the second set once. The first set of questions addresses a religious community; the second set addresses a religious person. But religious communities are often like a set of Matryoshka dolls set one in another: there is the religion writ large (say, Christianity) and there is a denomination, sect, or other internal division (say, Roman Catholicism) and then there is a particular group of people (say, St. Mark’s parish on UBC campus). Even this is a bit clumsy, of course, since you could say that Canadian Roman Catholicism is different from Brazilian Roman Catholicism, or West Coast Roman Catholicism different from East Coast Roman Catholicism. Or, less geography and more ethos, Pre-Vatican II Catholicism is different from Post-Vatican II Catholicism. But let’s go with three levels (religion, sect, community) for the first set of questions and one level for the second set (the individual). But that’s the thorough method: I recommend that you choose which levels and questions your complete according to what’s most useful to you at the time. You can always return to this post if you want to flesh your character out even further.

But why specify all of these layers in the first place? Well, first, you can talk about some broad strokes with a level of certainty but in order to get details that are useful for character creation you might need to drill down to increasingly local levels. Second, you might get different or opposite answers at different levels. There might be a religion that tends to be upwards in focus (a prophetic religion), but it might have a minority movement within it that tends to be more inwards in focus (a sage religion), while one of that movement’s temples might be more in line with its local community and focus slightly more outward than the other temples (a shamanic religion). And your character, coming from that religion, might be more sympathetic to any of those strains, but the fact that the temple they come from differs from the movement, which differs from the religion at large, might change how they approach other members of their religion. Indeed, it’s important to note that your character might be a black sheep in their community—maybe they’re relieved and excited to get out into the world and try to find new ways of approaching the gods, or maybe they’ve learned to be defensive, secretive, or argumentative about their religious beliefs because they are used to being the odd one out. These questions can help you figure that out.

I’ve included a short version down at the bottom, if you want to see an example/avoid making your own. I’m sure it says as much about me as it would about any character I made.

The First Set (Religion, Sect, Community)

What are this religion’s teachings? (Creed)
What are this religion’s behavioural norms? (Code)
How does this religion worship? (Cult)
How do members of this religion organize? (Community)
What stories does this religion tell? (Central Myth)
How many gods does this religion teach exist, and what are they like? (see the related post for some, but only some, of the possibilities)
What is this religion’s history?
How large is this religion?
How many different sects does this religion have, and what makes them different?
What major taboos does this religion observe?
What are this religion’s marriages like?
What are this religion’s coming of age rites like?
What are this religion’s funerals, or responses to death, like?
What problem does this religion see in the world? (ex. sin, chaos, artificiality, suffering)
What solution does this religion offer for that problem? (ex. salvation, propriety, flourishing, awakening)
What techniques does this religion offer to help practitioners achieve that solution? (ex. prayer, etiquette, physical disciplines, meditation)
What exemplars does this religion offer to show practitioners how to follow those techniques and achieve that solution? (ex. saints, noblemen, heroes, gurus)
How large of a role do clergy play in this religion?
Do religious authorities in this religion gain their authority from their knowledge of tradition (priests) or through apparent revelation (prophets and shamans)?
Do people turn to this religion on a mostly calendrical basis (priests) or according to needs that arise (prophets and shamans)?
Is this religion mostly a force for change in society (prophets), or a force maintaining the status quo (priests)?
What is this religion’s ultimate concern?
Does this religion contain a mechanism for/tradition of self-criticism?
Is this religion more likely to experience the holy in what is (ontological faith) or in what ought to be (moral faith)?
Is this religion more likely to offer experiences of the holy in a sacred object (sacramental faith) or to encourage looking beyond the concrete and trying to find the holy within yourself (mystical faith)?
Is this religion more likely to explain religious morality as pervasive religious laws (juristic faith), as social etiquette (conventional faith), or as obedience to a more abstract sense of justice (ethical faith)?
Do members of this religion usually think of religion more as a set of answers to the questions people have about the universe, or more as a set of questions the universe/the gods demand people to answer about themselves?
Do members of this religion usually think of religion more as an ethical philosophy (either a set of rules or a universal principle), a set of questions (asked either by the believer or by the universe/the gods), or as a voice of comfort for the living?
Which obstacle to love is this religion better designed to address: the Fear of Death, the Experience of the Absurd, or both?
Does this religion encourage denying or facing that obstacle to love?
Does this religion tend to be threatened by other worldviews or is it hospitable to outsiders?
Does this religion encourage wakefulness?
Is the theology of this religion more modernist or traditionalist, in Fesser’s sense? (Fesser’s idea of these terms is pretty specific and not exactly intuitive, so if you’re not familiar with them you should probably just skip this question.)
Which of Scott McCloud’s four campfires governs this religion most (circle all that apply)? Classicist, Animist, Formalist, Iconoclast

The Second Set (The Individual)

How much does your character agree with his or her religion, sect, or community about its teachings and ways of doing things?
What problem or trouble continually and pervasively distresses your character? (ex. inevitable death, personal suffering, uncertainty) This is your character’s obsessio.
What gives solace or strength to your character in the face of their obsessio? (ex. belief in salvation, belief in justice, family, fellowship) This is your character’s epiphania.
Does this character turn to religion to focus upward (prophets/priests), inward (sages/gurus), or outward (shamans)?
How often, or to what extent, does this character rely on or turn to clergy?
Is this character more likely to respect authority that comes from knowledge of tradition (priests) or from apparent revelation (prophets and shamans)?
Does this character turn to religion mostly on a calendrical basis (priests) or mostly according to needs that arise (prophets and shamans)?
Does this character expect religion to be a force for change in society (prophets) or a force maintaining the status quo (priests)?
What is this character’s ultimate concern/about what is this character ultimately concerned?
Is this character willing to challenge their religion’s symbols and theology?
Is this character more likely to experience the holy in what is (ontological faith) or in what ought to be (moral faith)?
Is this character more likely to experience the holy in a sacred object (sacramental faith) or are they more likely to look beyond the concrete and try to find the holy within themselves (mystical faith)?
Is this character more likely to find religious morality in pervasive religious laws (juristic faith), in social etiquette (conventional faith), or in obedience to a more abstract sense of justice (ethical faith)?
Does this character think of religion more as a set of answers to the questions people have about the universe, or more as a set of questions the universe/the gods demand people to answer about themselves?
Does this character think of religion more as an ethical philosophy (either a set of rules or a universal principle), a set of questions (asked either by the believer or by the universe/the gods), or as a voice of comfort for the living?
What is this character’s primary obstacle to love: Fear of Death or Experience of the Absurd?
Does this character mostly use their religion to face or deny this obstacle?
Is this character mostly threatened by people who challenge their worldview, or are they hospitable to these people?
Is this character trying to achieve wakefulness?
Is this character more of a modernist or a traditionalist, in Fesser’s sense? (Fesser’s idea of these terms is pretty specific and not exactly intuitive, so if you’re not familiar with them you should probably just skip this question.)
Which fictional genre would be best for communicating this character’s worldview?
Which of Scott McCloud’s four campfires attract this character most (circle all that apply)? Classicist, Animist, Formalist, Iconoclast

As I said, make yourself a shorter version by selecting the questions you care about. Here would be the sort of shorter version I might use:

For each question, note whether and, if so, how the character differs from her religious community, religious sect, and religion in general on this matter.
1. What is the character’s obsessio? What is the character’s epiphania?
2. Does this character expect to find the divine/holy/sacred/spiritual on high, offering revelation, or within themselves, awaiting meditation, or around them, requiring negotiation?
3. Is this character willing and able to engage in prophetic self-criticism, in Tillich’s sense?
4. Does this character mostly experience the holy in what is or what ought to be? Is their faith more sacramental or mystical, or juristic, conventional, or ethical?
5. Does this character think of religion more as a set of rules one ought to strictly obey or as a set of universal principles one tries to apply in one’s time and place?
6. Does this character primarily fear death or the Absurd, and do they deny or face this fear?
7. Is this character mostly threatened by people who challenge their worldview, or are they hospitable to these people?


*Which is not to say that all irreligious people are unknowingly religious by all or even most useful definitions of religion, but simply that some irreligious people are unknowingly religious by some or most useful definitions of religion. Again, there's a whole other series of posts in what counts as a religion.
**To forestall the complaints I’m sure I’d get if over a dozen people read this post: I do not imagine D&D to be the ultimate, a typical, or even a decent example of mythopoeia (the creation, or in technical terms the sub-creation, of a mythology or myth). While I suspect that real mythopoeia is possible in tabletop role-playing, I doubt the medium encourages anything like the Legendarium. It doesn’t need to. But, as far as mythopoeia goes, D&D is the closest most people are likely to get very often, besides of course the creation of their own worldview. This topic might be worth its own discussion.



Thursday, 6 November 2014

Some Other Ways of Looking at Religion

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

Having gone through all of the taxonomies about which I felt I could write substantial posts, I’m now going to do a quick lightning round for taxonomies which I find limited, but still probably worth mentioning. Think of it as that drawer in the kitchen where you keep the miscellany.

Harris’s Wakefulness

I have not read Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion; rather, I’ve read a single review. So I can’t say much about it. However, it clearly tries to create a dichotomy—which is, in a way, a simple taxonomy—for different religious traditions. Namely, Harris considers whether a religion encourages or discourages wakefulness. From the review, it seems that wakefulness might mean something like ‘a state of awareness of certain neurological truths,’ with a strong Zen Buddhist connection. So Harris finds that Buddhism encourages wakefulness, though some Buddhisms encourage it better than others, while Christianity, Islam, and Judaism discourage it. As I said, though, I haven’t read the book, so I can neither assess the ‘wakefulness’ construct nor his application of the construct to different religions. (I am summarily dismissing the spirituality/religion distinction because that distinction is only useful as a rhetorical device rather than as an analytical one.)

Feser’s Traditionalists and Modernists

As I haven’t read Harris’s Waking Up, so I haven’t read Edwar Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. However, I’ve argued with people on the Internet who like to trot Feser out on occasion, and I’ve read the odd review of Feser, so I might take a shot at explaining his distinction between Traditionalists and Modernists. (A person usernamed Yvain gives a much better summary at his livejournal blog Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz, which is where I get most of my own understanding of it.)

According to Feser, most people today are Modernists; indeed, most religious people today, even very traditional ones, are Modernists. However, the traditional teachings of most religions—or, anyway, of Catholicism and maybe the Orthodox churches—are based in Traditionalist logic, and the theologians in those traditions are mostly still Traditionalists. But because most people are Modernists. This is why most religious people have difficulty arguing for the things they believe; according to Feser, Modernism pretty much necessitates atheism. Traditionalism seems very weird to us, but Feser wants to make a case for it. It’s very hard to give a pithy statement to sum up each viewpoint, but the following three examples might help to sketch out some outlines:

Where Modernists see the human soul as an ethereal presence that exists in some relationship to the body, Traditionalists see the human soul as another name for the body’s shape and nature. Where Modernists see God as either “an old man with a beard” or a more ethereal being “that escapes being an old man with a beard only through a technicality” (Yvain), Traditionalists see God as a being of pure existence and/or another name for existence itself. Where Modernists think religious morality means doing things because God commanded them, Traditionalists understand that religious morality has little to do with God; rather, goodness is the same thing as existence and since God is pure existence, God put also be pure goodness. Modernists see things as existing because of certain causes; Traditionalists see things as existing for certain purposes (or telos).

Maybe this works as a taxonomy. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t be sure. From I can see, I think Tillich’s work drops a bomb in Feser’s dichotomy and blows it to pieces, but maybe Feser has Tillich-proofed it and none of the reviewers mentioned that part. (Or maybe Tillich is the quintessential traditionalist and Feser just wouldn’t like what Tillich does with that? Or maybe Feser isn’t as hidebound as it sounds from his critics and supporters?)

The Most Suitable Genre

I wrote a while ago about using genres as a way of thinking about worldviews. For instance, if a person with this worldview were to write an epic, what would the underworld look like in that epic? Or if a person with this worldview were to write a mystery novel, what would count as a crime? If a person with this worldview wrote the script for an exploitation flick, what plot points or visual cues would they use to establish their identity in it? More importantly, which genre would give them the best way of exploring their concerns: the epic, with its historical or universal arc and its characters’ virtues? the mystery, with its focus on human communities and the things which rupture those communities? the romance novel or romantic comedy, with its focus on interpersonal relationships and individual happiness? the horror movie, with its insistence that there is something worth fearing, and fighting against, especially when one is alone? the western, with its focus on individuals making difficult decisions in small communities but also, simultaneously, on how these decisions feature in the making of a nation?

This question might require a lot of thought, and it might be harder to answer (or require more of a particular kind of knowledge or interpretation) than other questions here, but it might work for some people as a taxonomy.

The Four Campfires of Art

I’m really not sure whether this will work for religions, but Scott McCloud’s Four Campfires come to mind. I’ve written on them before, but I can summarize again. Based on Jung’s archetypes, the Four Campfires represent artists’ different motivations and how these influence the work they create. These Campfires are created by overlaying two dichotomies: Tradition/Revolution and Form/Content.

Classicists, at the intersection of Tradition and Form, have Beauty as their watchword. They seek to create art which as perfectly as possible adheres to the formal standards of their tradition.
Animists, at the intersection of Tradition and Content, have Content as their watchword.* They seek to create art which tells engaging stories according to the tastes and conventions of their craft.
Formalists, at the intersection of Revolution and Form, have Form as their watchword. They create art in order to experiment with its forms and capacities, discovering what it is capable of.
Iconoclasts, at the intersection of Revolution and Content, have Truth as their watchword. They create art in order to tell the truth, by which they mean the stories which have not been told before.

Of course most artists tend to visit two campfires rather than live permanently at one, usually showing loyalty to one side of a dichotomy (Tradition, Revolution, Form, or Content), though McCloud gives a few examples of artists who visit diagonal campfires (Classicist-Iconoclasts or Animist-Formalists). Some artists might even visit three; a rare few might draw from all four.

There is an artistic quality to the performance of religion: a high church service will involve reading of texts (two artistic forms here—the text itself, and the reading of it), music and singing, choreography (ie. liturgy), oratory, fashion (ie. vestments), architecture, and possibly perfume (ie. incense). But even low church services have these features, even if less attention is paid to them. So, I wonder, is it possible to apply these four campfires to religions? Form/Content might indicate a distinction between ritual and belief—for instance, Shinto is sometimes described as a religion without theology but with lots of ritual. And Tradition/Revolution might reflect some of our previous distinctions between static priestly religions and dynamic prophetic religions, or Tillich’s concern with self-criticism. This strikes me as far too simplistic, but I’d like to offer it in case it helps you.

Conclusion and Future Directions

Despite their heterogeneity, I’ve collapsed all of these questions into a chart. Of course, some apply better to religious traditions (wakefulness) and some apply better to religious people (trad/mod).

There are some other comparisons I might want to draw—personal epistemology comes to mind, as do the nominalist/realist distinction and the ideographic/nomethetic distinction—but I don’t think they stand alone as taxonomies of religion. Rather, they are most helpful as ways of thinking about how a person’s adoption of a certain kind of religion might accord with their pre-existing psychological tendencies. Anyway, it’s the subject of another post.

And on the note of other posts, these are all of the taxonomies I have! I would like more (my unachievable goal, actually, is to list all of them), so if you know of anything I missed, please let me know! I’d love to add to my collection. In the meantime, I’m going to talk about putting these to use and I’m going to compile all of these taxonomies into a big list of questions to help you described a religious tradition or religious person. (Also, eventually, I plant to read Feser’s and Harris’s books, so I might beef those sections up at that point.)


*Yes, it’s super annoying and confusing that “Content” and “Form” are both watchwords and half of one of the two dichotomies. If it helps, pretend that the Animist watchword is “Story” or “Engagement” and the Formalist watchword is “Experiment” or “Discovery.”



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Looking Square at Death

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

I’ve already written a fair amount about Richard Beck’s work, including a synopsis of what I’ver read of his Death Trilogy. In case you don’t want to read that, though, here’s an altogether too quick Coles Notes version:

Richard Beck is an experimental psychologist working on the psychology of religion and the fear of death, drawing extensively from the work of Ernst Becker. According to Beck’s studies, most people are intrinsically afraid of death. In order to manage their fear of death, they invest themselves in worldviews which promise that their lives will have some sort of value beyond their death: maybe these worldviews promise a literal afterlife, or maybe they promise that you can live on in your grandchildren, or maybe they promise that you can live on through your achievements. Religion is often such a worldview. Because people deny their fear of death through these worldviews, they defend their worldview against threat as though losing their worldview is a threat to their life. Losing one’s worldview is a psychologically equivalent experience to losing one’s life, in fact. The existence of alternatives to their worldviews can constitute a threat, so people who especially rely on their worldview to avoid acknowledging death can be very hostile to people with different worldviews. For this reason, the fear of death can drive people to bring death and suffering to others. However, not all religious people use their religions to avoid their fear of death; a minority of religious people confront death and doubt directly. This makes them less hostile to alternatives. That said, as much as it is likely better not to deny death through religion, it is impossible to sustain an honest confrontation with death for all of your life, and all people will construct a worldview of some kind, whether they realize it or not. Thus, it is important to build a worldview which is not threatened by the mere existence of other worldviews, so that we do not react with hostility to people who do not agree with us. Only then can we be hospitable to outsiders and loving to those who threaten us. If you’re going to have a worldview anyway, try to have one that helps you be welcoming.

If you’ve been following this whole Taxonomies for Religions series, I’m guessing you can already see the categories I’m going to get from Beck’s work. In this synopsis, we can see two dichotomies. The first is between a) those who tend to use their worldview or religion to deny the fear of death, relying on that worldview’s promise to extend their life past death, and b) those who tend not to use their worldview or religion for such purposes; the second is between a) those worldviews which are threatened by the mere existence of other worldviews and b) those worldviews which are more hospitable.

However, I’ve started noticing limitations in Beck’s work here. As my synopsis and critique argues, it might not be fair to assume that everyone fears death in the first place. Some people—like me—are quite comfortable with the thought that we’ll eventually die. In private correspondence with me, Beck acknowledges as much, noting that his work applies mostly to the majority who do fear death, and not to those of us who don’t. He works on obstacles to love, and for that minority of us the obstacle to love might instead be the experience of the Absurd.* I suppose that our small numbers might explain why so many religions and worldviews are so bad at addressing absurdity rather than mortality as the primary obstacle to love. Nonetheless, this insight gives us another dichotomy: those for whom the primary obstacle to love is the fear of death, and those for whom the primary obstacle to love is the experience of absurdity.

I think I have enough material for some headings for a chart:

These categories are not entirely independent, of course. Beck’s work indicates that those people who use religion to deny the fear of death are much more likely to feel threatened by, and therefore act with hostility towards, people with other worldviews. I’m not sure the correlation is 100%, so there might be a few examples of people who deny death but are very hospitable to those who have fundamentally different worldviews. But one often leads to the other. And, since Beck’s work does not address those whose primary obstacle to love is the experience of absurdity, I can’t say whether the other two columns correlate for such people.

(If you’re familiar with Beck’s work, you might have expected my chart to include mention of his distinction between Summer and Winter Christians. That distinction is good work: Beck notes that while some people tend to assume that complaint about the world indicates disengagement from God, many people are highly engaged with God and highly prone to complaint. These are Winter Christians, the ones who, while experiencing communion with God, more keenly feel the suffering widespread in the world; Summer Christians, meanwhile, feel mostly joy and happiness while in communion with God. I’ve found this dichotomy helpful…but I feel like it’s just a specialization of the above dichotomy, between those who use religion to deny the reality of death and suffering, and those who do not.)

As with the last post, these categories seem to apply to religious people rather than religions; after all, Beck was writing mostly about Christians—or, really, Protestants—of different stripes. It’s a psychological difference that modifies the person’s ideology, not an ideological difference that modifies a person’s psychology. But we can, perhaps, note that some religions are better at supporting some psychologies than others—highly relativistic religions might not prove to be so threatened by outsiders, for instance. When I explained Beck’s work to a friend from Taiwan, she observed that Buddhism and Taoism tend to be quite hospitable to other worldviews; Confucianism, however, is less so. Similarly, we can note that most worldviews primarily address (or deny) the fear of death, but a few, like existentialism/absurdism, address the experience of the absurd.

But let’s go back to the bit about Beck writing mostly on Christians. It’s here that I can see Beck’s investments most clearly. Beck is clearly writing as someone who is already a particular kind of Christian; his motivation is to improve our ability to live out the Gospels and welcome the stranger. As such, he takes as given that moving toward hospitality and love are desirable. His research grows from that. That’s not to say that his empirical findings are somehow compromised because of it: the science works or it doesn’t according to the quality of the experiment design and the interpretation of the results, not his motivations for conducting the experiments. But the pastoral message Beck takes from his research is based on his Christianity. Moreover, it is based on his American pragmatism, as well: the American pragmatists taught that a belief system should be judged by the result it has in its adherents. That is what makes a claim true: if it bears fruit in those who claim it. However, despite these clear investments, Beck’s work might be the most empirically valid of all the ones I’ve examined so far. It may be the case that a group of people might not even be trying to love more, be more hospitable, etc., and their worldview may not address or encourage these issues at all…but, nonetheless, they will either be using their worldview to deny a fear of death or they won’t be, and their worldview will either be threatened by and therefore hostile towards people with other worldviews, or it won’t be.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Let me know if you have a good reason for thinking I am.


* The Absurd, in philosophical language, means the conflict between the human desire to find meaning in life/the world and the human inability to find such meaning, or at least the human inability to find such meaning reliably and with certainty.


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’être—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.


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