It is a simple question. Should religion be treated as a gateway in the model of the city that we explore on this blog? Martin and I have both, perhaps instinctively, said no. Then Martin invited an article on the topic: then I got to thinking: then, well, you’ll see.
Why has this been such a challenge? In part at least the difficulty is with the metaphor of the city, its walls and gates and its implied point of view, standing somewhere outside looking in. But it is a metaphor, darn it! A well behaved metaphor is supposed to adapt to and reflect reality, to allude to it. A well behaved metaphor does not demand that reality be adapted to its imagery. Usually this is a sign that the metaphor has taken on too much, a metaphor for everything, like theories of everything (like religion and like much science) is pushing its luck from the outset.
The city is a metaphor for what exactly? In its earliest form it stands, sketchily detailed, as a composite image of the consummated kingdom or the characteristic of the new earth. It is an image of polity, of civilization and it wears its implications lightly. It has neither temple nor need of one and in this sense contains an implicit rejection of religion as distinct from anything else. This is a holy city, it takes its place on an earth that is filled with the glory of God, in a society where no man says to his neighbour, “Know God”. It is an image of reified Shallom, of the unity of all things at their fullness, of realized and realizing perfection.
But this, while it provides some help in shaping our thoughts, is not the city we are talking about. We are talking about the city that precedes this one. This is the city of human civilization. This is an evolving, historical, deeply flawed human construct. We are interested in the differences between this city and the city to come, and if we have any respect for the image of God, in the similarities between them too. This city, though, can be a brutal place. The worldview and values that have driven its evolution over the last three hundred years have turned it into a machine and humanity into the grist to its mill. It is avaricious, unforgiving, divided, increasingly short-sighted and working often from the blueprint of another domain entirely.
In this city religion is an historic fact. And in this fact religion was, for a very long time until the modern era, fundamental to the shape, function and content of the city. If religion was ever a gate of influence or mode of access to that city, it was vastly dominant and any other gates were designed and operated in subjection either to it, or to its political or imperialistic alter ego on the opposite wall. If this city ever found its apogee we would see in that passage in Revelation a giant temple coming down from heaven. And we would know with tragic certainty that the kingdom of God would never come. God is holy, not religious.
This is the easy bit, nothing particularly contentious, well, nothing much anyway. Someone might want to hit me over the head with the last sentence, but I would be surprised because someone who would want to do that is unlikely to read this blog. Now we come to the difficult things and we have to explore the elusive and frequently divisive question of what we mean by the term religion. I’ll try to clear away some of the directions that I have had to explore and either discard or expand in order to get to this point.
First, there is no point in asking questions like “Is it a gate or is it something that shapes the other gates?” We could ask the same of politics, education of business and economics, and to as little benefit. The distinction if it exists is unproductive. Are our conversations not about how the other gates are shaped? Is that not what we should be discussing? Are we not talking in circles?
Second, we must remember that we have deliberately described the gates in concrete terms. Religion might be easier to fit into our metaphor if the gates were conceptual, if we had an ethics gate, an aesthetics gate and so on. Religion could be jumped on until it fitted more or less into a worldview gate but we need these gates to serve both as soft containers for dialogue and as arenas for activism.
Third, we need a fuller account of this city and our position in relation to it. We seem to imagine a wall with gates and have a viewpoint external to that. But the city itself is very vague. What, and who, lives within it. The obvious answer is everything we know in terms of civilization. The city is full of people, full of churches, steeples, domes, minarets, banks, schools, laws, bureaucracies, institutions, industries and unemployment centres. Religion is there and in some precincts it is huge.
With this in mind let me get awkward for a moment. What does an environmental gate look like when it is approached by a Buddhist. What does an education gate look like when the education is not defined entirely by the need to train economic functionaries in the Western mode. What does the gate of politics look like when the gate is approached by Moslems? The Islamic view is in many ways more socially and politically integrated than any other. Moslems would have little difficulty in dealing with this city; the gates are already defined and historically developed. If I were doing this work in Iran or Bhutan I would have to make quite different assumptions simply because the kingdom of God would require them. (Bhutan, of course, answers the first question. The only country to be a net carbon sink [it emits less harmful substances than it absorbs] the only country I know of that measures its GDP in terms of happiness and arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth… hmm. Too good to be true? Ask the fifth of the population, the Lhotshampas, who were forcibly evicted in the late eighties in the name of preserving the racial and religious purity of the state.)
There is no question but that religion exists as a social phenomenon, the buildings and institutions remain with varying degrees of influence. As such, for us, Christendom exists as a construct of waning influence. It used to be the gate that shaped all other gates, but now it is a peculiarly conflicted place, less like a gate with pillars and doors, more like a hole in the wall with wildly differentiated curtains of spirituality..
At one time religion was the biggest gate of all and dominated all others, especially politics, education and art. If these existed at all they stood not just in religion’s shadow but because of its shadow. Now many of those gates are larger, and each of them assumes that the religion gate is subject to it. Religion, even in education, is still a topic for cultural understanding, for example. The economics and politics gate is dominant. Science would like to be a gate even though it has trouble finding a wall big enough to accommodate the ambition of some of its proponents to become the final and singular answer to everything. Although it rather resents the architecture of the other gates and hates gothic. The point being that scientism and religion both aspire, have to aspire in some ways, to monopoly. Both believe that they carry the same need to be exclusively ultimate.
A religion gate could have whatever spires or domes or minarets you wish to imagine. It can even have at its foundation, Banksy style graffiti perhaps of shifty looking characters laying explosives, except that on closer inspection the drawing of a bomb turns out to be a real bomb, placed at the foot of the Christendom foundation (nobody has dared to draw cartoons on the Moslem foundation, nobody has bothered to draw on the Hindu foundation because, after all, its surface already carries hundreds of images, and nobody can find the Buddhist foundation).
So what is a religion gate like? (Opportunities for mischief abound here!) In Europe, perhaps,it looks quite derelict, its door appears closed and there is no point in knocking because the gatekeeper is having trouble finding the key to the city. Even if the door opened you would be advised to stand aside because the queue is on the inside with people who want to get out. In America there might be a notice fixed to the gate saying ‘Entrance through the door on the right’ and you would have to give the password ‘Born Again Capitalist’ to get access. And all the time this shadowy Banksy figure is painting his subversions. He stands suddenly and lifts his mask to reveal a face like that of Richard Dawkins or Chris Hitchens or the novelist Ian McEwan or the comedian Tim Minchin, who demands that the gate be closed for reasons of health and safety. They believe this gate to be dangerous, that it distorts and deludes all who pass through it, which, of course, none of the others do.
(Excursus – I want to start a campaign for the introduction of a new letter on the keyboard, perhaps an upside down question mark, to denote the presence of irony!)
All of this, however, is a caricature of history. For us the gates are functionally arenas of our mission, and this mission is not, I hope, to render everything religious or to christianize the other gates.
Where I think all this might become controversial is in the range of sensibilities that attach to religion. I maintain that religion by all definitions is a human construct, that it contains all human attempts to define the divine or to describe the holy. This is not meant to be a sociological or anthropological view. More importantly, I insist that this does not demean or diminish its importance or richness. It is a good thing. It is a definition that I embrace fully, and in many ways wish to celebrate. At present I see no good reason to separate from the category of religion the journeys we are on, or the explorations of the emergent movement. The special pleading that claims that we are just christians, just seekers, just followers, just spiritual, just anything you like but we are not religious strikes me as plain silly. The fact that this lumps me in with all the variegated history of the christian religion including the obscenities of much of christendom is simply a matter, I hope, of honesty. There might be much that calls itself church that Jesus would not give that name but he has not yet spoken on that matter. And until he does we are, I believe, still within the constraint that there is no other name given. All who claim that name become responsible for its custody, its demonstration and to a frightening degree its meaning. Surely there are enough parables available to help us guess how this works.
There have been so many conversations on so many blogs seeking a terminology, a nomenclature, that can serve to dissociate ‘us’ from history and separate us from all that we dislike about its errors and evils. I sympathize with this and will happily join in some of these conversations, but there is no other name given, and this means something very important for discipleship. At the very least it means that dissociation is a luxury that we would do well to question. Unless, of course, we also want the unenviable task of explaining just how Jesus dissociated himself from Israel. Good luck with that one. I don’t think I know anyone in Europe and few in America with a neck quite red enough to take on that task honestly.
Without, I hope, any contradiction, I often applaud and enjoy the current appetite for redefinition especially when it arises as a true critique from within and from a passionate love for the body of Christ. But when it comes to a categorical distinction or disavowal then I think we are wasting our energies in quite a selfish way. To attempt to define by the word religion all that we dislike about religion is futile, we will never reach agreement on what that is and then will need another term to embrace what we do like. Then the arguments will really begin. Would we not be better off getting over ourselves to devote our energies to the implications of that often missed little verb, that to all who believe in his name he gives the authority to become children of God? What is this blog about if it is not about becoming?
Martin sent me this link a few days ago that seeks in its own way to address this question. http://www.mikemorrell.org/2012/01/jesus-and-religions-relationship-status-its-complicated/ If you go there note the ‘both / and’ direction of Mike’s useful responses. While there is something quite enjoyable about some of the examples, so many sound utterly self-indulgent.
Why does all this matter in the context of this question about gates? It matters because we are not the only ones doing it and it represents something fundamental about the city. Just about every vaguely plausible spiritual experiment, and those not so plausible, seeks this separation. We need to pause and ask a question here. Why does everyone except the most traditional high church advocate want to dissociate from the idea of religion? Religion is the word for everything or anything that is disliked, that is what others do but we wouldn’t want to. Spirituality is now the preferred sociological term but this is only because it removes the topic from its history and locates it in various places across the post-modern landscape. I have to suggest that this is not the hugely broad and subjectively defined desire that it appears to be. In terms of the history of ideas the rejection of the word religion is actually quite well defined in terms of the rationality of its detractors. Their core anxieties are the rejection of sociological and political power that attached to historic religion, to what is seen as a deadening formality, to the way in which religion is now seen as inhibiting learning, creativity, curiosity and even thought. There is a rejection of domination at the heart of this matter. That this rejection also comes at the expense of historical groundedness is also clear. But it appears that the two primary wings of this rejection of religion are fundamentalism on the one side and the establishment that grows from Christendom on the other.
My reason for being concerned about this disavowal of religion as a category of thinking has little to do with these concerns, all of which I admit to without qualm. My concern is more to do with language and failure to recognize that in the rejection of modernism we are embracing a new form of domination called post-modernism, where no categories can function. In other words, my concern is that if we join in with this rejection of the idea of religion we will lose the ability to speak in any meaningful way. All religious ideas will become minor, competing commodities that are bought into and sold or propagated like any product, according to features, benefits and price. The huge danger of such a rejection is not just the way it cuts spirituality loose from meaning, it is in the way in which we deceive ourselves by doing it. In essence to cut loose from history like this is an invitation to delusion, it deceives us into thinking that we are unaffected by what has gone before, that we have not inherited, that we are freer than we really are. It also allows us to stand outside and point at the past, which brings me back to the question is this what Jesus did with Israel?
Another challenge is in the the way the new atheism sets itself up. There is no way in which the scientistic atheism is ever going to accept that it is essentially a religious exploration but we should not allow it that comfort too easily.
There are it seems two broad arenas or wellsprings of popular disbelief and atheism. Please understand that these are extremely broad but I will focus them quite tightly here. The first is what is called, by its detractors, church. That manifestation of Christian religion which includes us, like it or not, and which has made such limited headway in the task of expressing the kingdom and which has such a variegated history. Many detest God because of the church. And this is, despite protests, the main arena within which the new atheism is active. The second broad arena is, to put it bluntly, the behaviour of God. This is to do with more or less instinctive perceptions, a sort of latent protestantism that tells people what a God should be like and should do even if they don’t actually believe this god exists. In the loosest possible sense I will sweep all this under the lumpy carpet of theodicy, for which I will give an even looser definition: theodicy is man’s disappointment with God
Martin mentioned the proponents of the new atheism, particularly Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. It is new in several ways, not least that it is attempting to be militant in a way that humanism has never entirely managed to be. This exposes something else, much of the energy of Dawkins scientism shares something basic with Christendom, his attacks upon religion are just as much for the survival of his beliefs as those of the most ardent six day creationist. Dawkins is a fundamentalist of similar stripe, and just as capable of toxicity. Just to clarify a little, I regard Hitchens as a much more serious writer than Dawkins. He did not hide behind scientism, he did not pretend that he was somewhow able to borrow credentials from another discipline and he had a better grasp of religion than Dawkins ever will (but he is still and frequently anachronistic). These two are among the vanguard of a quite aggressive and mission driven atheistic movement. The response of religion to these men and those like them, has not been particularly inspiring. In some ways it is more satisfying and certainly a lot more fun to engage with critics who are unsure of their faith position, people like Terry Eagleton who perceptively lumps the two protagonists together as Ditchkins and lambasts them from a fairly clear but not flawless intellectual high ground. Eagleton’s claim that Ditchkins have bought their atheism on the cheap is well made and becomes richer on reflection. When discussing this with my son, Richard, he made what I think is a crucial comment for our purposes. Richard wondered why Dawkins has gone to so much trouble to disprove a god that nobody has ever believed in.
This is similar to many of Eagleton’s arguments. I don’t know what sort of biologist (I mean academic stature rather than breed) Dawkins is, or was, but there can be little doubt that he is a third rate theologian. The reason this annoys me so very much is his long tenure as a Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at such a prestigious university. Most of his arguments would be rejected in an undergraduate paper as cheap shots at a straw man, and he should be more than a little embarrassed to lend his professorial status to them. Perhaps this is why his campaign is geared towards the media and steers so far away from peer review. I say this not defensively but out of disappointment. I have tried hard to like the man but the quality of this work makes it difficult. I do not feel this so much with Chris Hitchens. I believe that Christendom needs people like him. I appreciate his rage.
When I listen to people like Ditchkins I have a vision of Christendom’s birds coming home to roost. Would it not be ironic if, so very recently, Chris Hitchens stood at the gates and heard Peter welcome him as a good and faithful servant? His reply would be typical of course. “Oh bµ**er!”
If we set aside for a moment the ways and the degree to which the church historic, the church of Christendom, has supplied arms to Ditchkins we would not find the impulse of the new atheism entirely powerless. They might be in the vanguard of a populist, and potentially political movement but they do not have the inertia to take it much further on their own. For this to happen, I believe, the core tenets of their faith have to become as trivial and as populist as any other fundamentalism. Only then will they become fodder for the tabloids, and only then will they become the inspiration for politicians. But there are other issues that have little to do with the church itself. Not least of these is the interminable problem of theodicy, the apparent silence and inactivity of God in the face… in the face of what exactly? I am going to mix arguments for a moment. Theodicy is usually couched in terms of the behaviour of God in the face of evil. I do not believe this is where its energy comes from. I think it is the problem of the apparent silence of God in response to pain, to the suffering caused by evil. And this is why so few of the people who experience the problem have ever heard of the word. We all know this pain or we have lived within an impermeable bubble. And the main reason why this, theologically, has become intractable is that the issue is not about God’s power, it is not a problem with omnipotence, the problem with theodicy is God’s love, which is why theodicy is a peculiarly christian problem. So much of this issue might be eroded, perhaps, if God were more willing to sign his work, but there you go.
Chris will you just answer the question?
No, not really. I really don’t care about the answer in the abstract, and I see little point in forcing something real to fit with a metaphor. However, I do think that we should refuse it that status at present. I think we need the discipline of keeping religion in the form of a question mark. But I will also maintain that part of mission for a new earth, as a secondary outcome, will transform religion, will invest the word with new meanings. It is these new meanings, or recovered old meanings, that will deflate the historic contention. And I will insist that a loose definition of the religious as that which, perhaps in the face of scientism, provides the ground for symbolic and creative acts that we need to restore in order to imagine with God. Within this I will also suggest the validity and potential of symbolic enactments, of ceremony, of liturgy of ritual not as hollow or superstitious acts with distant meanings but as potent ways of the Spirit. And if these are not that, then they are part of our task too. If nations are healed by the leaves of trees, if water washes with new life, if oil has to do with something imparted, then we maintain this language of symbols in the face of Dawkins dull and impoverished literalism.
Again I return to the arts, seems inevitable somehow. But populist scientism still holds to the myth that the truth of the scientist is truer than the truth of the poet, and therein sits our battle.
So, while it will be very useful for us to avoid having religion as a gate of this city, the world represented by the metaphor needs to have something that looks so much like a gate that the difference matters little. In the eyes of our society religion exists and whatever its contemporary status, we have to find a response. To both the religiously hopeful and the religiously hopeless we should expect the prophets, the demonstrations of the power of the kingdom, examples of what God means his world to be like. And while the religious might think that it is the religious gate that will redeem all the others, it is for us to think that the kingdom might work in precisely the opposite way. Religion might disappear in the kingdom, but that does not mean that it has to stay pig ugly until it does.