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.


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