Towards a proper understanding of religious community

29 07 2009

[8/5/2010: Virtually no modification from original posting in July of 2009]

This post is largely critical, distinguishing obstacles that have come between me and a healthy concept of religious community.  It’s propadeutic.  It includes some glimmers of how I want to start talking about religion and community, but an awful lot about what I think may stand in the way of that.

It seems to me that a lot of discussions about religious community assume an outsider perspective.  They seek out a general label for a religious dogma/praxis (Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Pagan, Heathen, Asatru, West African, Santeria, Palo) and proceed from there to describe the various accidents that differentiate the dogma/praxis of one group from that ideal.

This isn’t so helpful for folks involved in working out their relationship to a community.  For those of us doing that, we need a description of the individual’s practice, its roots in the individual’s community, and then proceed to describe the historical (micro and macro) situations that shaped that practice.

More technically, a lot of discussions of religion operate in a deductive frame of reference, with a set of rules about defines this religion or that.  If the community does or believes x, y, z, then it is this sort of faith.  They approach individuals  and communities with the intent to judge their religion according to a model.

The Problem with Categories, Labels, etc.

I suspect some of this has to do with the fetishization of categories in education.  To make it easier to absorb a lot of information, we streamline it into categories.  These categorical associations make it easier to remember and recall broad outlines and also provide a good structure on which to add details which differentiate members of the categories.

However, the categories are not simply ‘in the world.’  They are first and foremost mnemonic, facilitating recollection.  Second, they are schematic.  They do not accurately capture the infinite complexity of the world so much as give us a broad sense of how to move about and select elements of that complexity; they filter new data and allow us to make quick decisions.

In other words, the categories allow us to block off a lot of details so we can focus on those details that most interest us (whatever those may be).  That’s a good thing, because we can only focus and understand deeply so many things.  However, it’s a bad thing when we mistake the shallow categorizations for genuine understanding.  When that happens, we conflate the way we categorize with the way things are in the world.  We begin to treat real objects, real people, as if they were merely relations of ideas.

When we talk to other people, we can fall into the habit of categorizing the subtle details of our life and begin relating to them primarily through those categories.

To get back to the specifics of this discussion, we categorize our religious life as falling into a category (Asatru, Catholic, Lucumi) and regulating our practice of it according to our understanding of that category.  Moreover, we slip into using categorizations framed by other people who share a term (‘Asatru,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Lucumi’) with us.  We look at the religious practice we have and regulate it according to a *GENERAL* idea of what it should be, instead of in response to the *PARTICULAR* reality of our life and community.

There are more than a few ways this can go awry.  I’m going to treat two rough groupings here.  (Yes, exactly, I’m categorizing them!  With all the dangers and possibilities that entails.)

The Dangers of Scholarly Works (fact-based religion)

Plenty of individuals seek out historical works to help them develop a spiritual practice.  They trust that what they have experienced has historical antecedents and that there are also historical precedents for how to relate to that experience.  Historical continuity confers upon their work a certain kind of communal approval.

At first, the approval is likely to be the imagined approval of the community in the past.  Later, though, as the practice develops, it becomes the approval of a present community that develops from that imagined community.

Unsurprisingly, those concerned with some sort of historical continuity for their religious practice often seek out historical, academic accounts of them.  A portion of that, though, ends up being an outsider’s account of those practice, an outsider with an agenda that rarely includes recreating the practices under discussion.  However, the scholar’s access to those materials can be subtly conflated with the authority to alter present practices.

This conflation can be quite subtle.  The reader doesn’t mistake the scholar’s account for revelation, but may accept the categories used by the scholar and try to re-adapt them to their practice.  If the scholar distinguishes family rites from public rites, the reader might begin distinguishing them in their own life and begin to hold them apart in a manner alien to the practices described.

This can occur even when the scholar is careful to state that their categories are organizational and may not properly represent how the original people conceived of the relationship between the practices.  The distinction made by a scholar are often more subtle than those made by non-specialist reader and so easily lost by adoption in a religious practice.  When the reader comes to the scholarly material with an agenda, the distortion is often more dramatic (though equally unintentional!).

This isn’t simply a case of a religious reader being ‘smart’ enough to read a scholar.  It’s a matter of conflicting agendas and the inherent difficulty of separating an account from its agenda.  A scholar often has an interest in providing a degree of coherence to their account and, unless they are religious themselves, are likely to seek that coherence through a non-religious approach.  They aren’t going to consider the validity of revelation in its own right, but as an indicator of some other value like social conflict.

Moreover, by referring to scholarly accounts of a religious practice’s past, it becomes easier to lose touch with the contemporary situation.  Always looking back to preserve means that you are not looking forward to answer the present challenges facing your religious practice, personal and communal.

Of course, the scholar doesn’t even have to be writing about the past.  For those involved in recreating religious practices from other cultural milieus, anthropological work can become a substitute for historical work.

The Dangers of being ‘Spiritual’ (intuition-based religion)

On the other side, though, there is a withdrawal from history and time that can be equally problematic.  There is a popular distinction between spirituality and religion that has a lot of variations, but it tends to go something like this:

There is spirituality and there is religion.  Spirituality is a personal connection to the divine whereas religion is just a connection to a social organization.  Spirituality is alive while religion is, at best, just the worn out shell of someone else’s spiritual experience.

Sometimes, this defense of spirituality is joined to an adjective that describes it, so that a person might describe their practice as ‘Christian spirituality’ or ‘Celtic spirituality’ or ‘Pagan spirituality’ or what have you.

This distinction between spirituality and religion has its roots in a fairly vocal and widespread dissatisfaction with institutional religion rooted in universal secular humanism.  This variety of humanism endorses a deeply egalitarian ethic rooted in a notion of common humanity.  The spiritual individual finds the myths of their religion to be at odds with this, which they understand as a fundamental truth.

At the same time, they have a sense that their is a dimension to life, to the world, that cannot be captured in contemporary scientific discourse.  They have a sense of an order to the world in excess to the order posited by empirical research.  They separate this intuition from its usual concrete expression in religion.  Instead, they posit a universal spiritual dimension to the universal humanity of their humanism.

Since the spirituality is one with their universal humanity, they tend to feel quite free to incorporate religious elements of traditions the world over according to its appeal to them.  Of late, the popularization of concepts like imperialism and (mis)appropriation have checked this somewhat, but the underlying rationality seems to remain intact.

This sort of spirituality tends to be aesthetic, to organize itself around a quality of feeling, treating divinities as representations of those feelings.  Divinities are not honored for their own sake, but as expressions of these deeply felt intuitions.  Where worship proper appears, it is often universalist, treating individual cultural divinities as manifestations of a common, universal spiritual force.

This eats away at the social fabric of religion in two different ways, each supporting the other.  First, the private spirituality reduces communal values and ideals to personal experience, depriving them of their broader scope.  It treats them as tools for interpreting personal experience.

Second, in reducing the communal to the personal, it encourages the individual to equate interpretation with negotiation.  The individual misidentifies the labor of understanding with the labor of communication.  This fosters alternating bouts of argument (asserting the validity of a personal interpretation to the community) and quietism (a withdrawal often rooted in the postulated unity of views).

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