Non-Propositional Religion

My attitude towards religion has always been a predominantly adversarial one, viewing the central tenets of the major monotheisms as repressive and authoritarian, something to be consigned to history and forgotten. However, I’ve never had any particular view about the existence of any deity; I was more concerned with the doctrinal content of the various religions. I shared with Nietzsche the assumption that any deity was unlikely to exist in any form that could be intelligible to us, which left his representations as dangerous fictions. The problem lies with what remains after the doctrinal elements have been dismissed:

"Every age has to redefine what is the essence of Christianity. Asking the question, can you follow Christ and give up being a Christian, strikes a chord with those of us who do take Christ seriously but don’t want to be branded with other people’s ideas of how a ‘Christian’ is defined… The question being asked by many of those stepping back from organised religion is perhaps more radical. Is Christian life essentially a religion at all? Jesus was critical of formal religion that was only for show. St Paul’s passionate teaching, following his conversion, is centred on a personal relationship with Christ – we take on ‘the mind of Christ’ not a dress code or rule book. For centuries the Christian mystical tradition has mapped the interior journey as a way to uncover the ‘inward eye’ that Jesus insisted we need in order to perceive his truth.

Much of the teaching of Jesus is about being open to a new way of seeing reality – being somehow more radically ‘awake’. His questions, like those of the Zen masters, shock us into a new level of consciousness. He is more concerned with how we find self-knowledge and inner transformation than fulfilling the letter of the law… Anne Rice is serious enough about her personal relationship with Christ to feel impelled to detach herself from the public face of religion. No doubt it is her own conscience speaking. Perhaps we just need to acknowledge that we need a new container for the shift in consciousness that is present in the Christian mind as well as in the minds of those outside the church searching for spiritual values and meaning."

Part of the reason for this discussion lies with Karen Armstrong’s account of religion:

"Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world’s best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can’t you fail. This is Armstrong’s principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory – in particular the theory of the divine architect… So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the ‘apophatic’ tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic."

The problem is that Armstrong’s account does to a large extent seem like an exercise in misdirection, defending religion against accurate criticisms by redefining it in a form that bears no resemblance to what is commonly practised. Armstrong’s Durkheimite argument about religion being an essentially social construct seems correct to me, but a large part of that communal aspect is concerned with the authoritarian enforcement of collective norms. In other words, doctrine, quite the opposite of any form of negative theology. In historical terms, Luther’s invocation of Sola fide shifted religion from the social sphere to the personal one, something rather more compatible with Armstrong’s negative theology than medieval Catholicism, even if it weakened the emphasis on practice. The Durkheimite aspect of Armstrong’s thesis also works against her broader argument in other respects; adherents of her negative theology have little reason to follow church ceremonies and institutions, leaving behind those who represent everything Dawkins has been criticising. As the Church of England gradually modernises its believers have no real need for it, either drifting into the secular life it has become indistinguishable from or joining other more reactionary and repressive sects, such as the Catholic church.

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