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
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