Are You Religious?

I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.

This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.

On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.  

There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.

This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.

If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.

In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.

I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.

But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.

So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 1: Contemporary Context

East_India_Company_¼_Cent_1845_-_reverse

By 5snake5 – Own work, CC0

 

The East India Company (EIC) was founded in 1600 in England. It became the Blackwater of the British colonial world, a private mercenary force dedicated to protecting the financial interests of wealthy people for more than 200 years. They had a private army that was bigger than the British army, and they became the de facto rulers of India using money and might.

Not coincidentally, the East India Company also played a role in the formation of the United States. Remember the Boston Tea Party? It was partly a response to the monopoly of the EIC.

I start here because before I talk about the spiritual truths of the Bhagavad Gita and how they relate to the Bible, I have to acknowledge the devastating effects of imperial rule and colonialism on India and on the rest of the world. And I believe one of our most difficult spiritual struggles today, in our church and in our society, is the legacy of colonialism. What we experience as dissatisfaction with “the institutional church” and “organized religion” is the way colonialism warps our relationships, our imagination, and our very souls.

There are some people who claim that even though its spiritual roots are thousands of years old, Hinduism is a relatively recent invention. While I think that’s an overstatement, it reminds me of a story I recently heard told by a Lakota activist. He said his grandfather was involved in establishing “The Native American Church” in 1918. “We need this institution,” his grandfather told him, “to protect our way of life from the white man’s institutions.” When the West encounters other forms of spirituality or faith, it forces them to organize in certain ways.  

So when I say that the Bhagavad Gita is not like the Bible, I’m not just speaking theologically, but also socially and politically. It does not have the central place in Hinduism that Christians give to their scriptures. But it should force us to take a step back and consider how we understand what “religion” is, and how it relates to this other idea of “spirituality.”

I would argue that not only is the Bhagavad Gita not like the Bible, but also that The Bible is not like The Bible, because this Greek and Hebrew text has been distorted by our Western colonial view of religion. Colonialism shapes how we understand our sacred scriptures and it shapes how we see the world.

“Orientalism” is a Western way of viewing Asian cultures as exotic and strange. (I encourage you to listen to this NPR piece on the cultural appropriation of “namaste”). The Bhagavad Gita was appropriated by British transcendentalists and mystics, not just because it was true but because it was strangely true. I think this makes it difficult to appreciate how truly strangely true it is!

If we are stuck on how exotic it is, we can’t fully appreciate how other-worldly it is, or what putting it into practice might mean for our world.

I am not a scholar of Hinduism, nor a historian. I approach the Bhagavad Gita as an interested layperson, finding points of connection between the wisdom there and the wisdom of the Bible and my own faith tradition. I welcome your comments, criticism, and discussion as I follow this devotional path.

Prayer:
Holy Mystery, we are a strange mix of the timeless and the now, the universal and the particular. We are shaped by history even as we imagine the future. Help us encounter you in the present, in this moment, and help us to be truly free.

Practicing the Discipline of Non-Prophecy

I can, and have, critiqued the American Dream from within the framework of the Gospel: we are too soft. We are too prosperous while too many are too poor. Our pews are too cushy, our music too out-of-touch, our priorities too scrambled. The modern institution “church” looks nothing like the simple and radical early followers of the house-builder from Galilee. Yadda-yadda-yadda.

But I’m increasingly impatient with this kind of criticism of “the institutional church” or “Christian culture.” Both of these phrases are really empty signifiers waiting to be filled with whatever negative generalizations we come up with. It’s about as difficult, insightful, and radical as bitching about reality TV. (I confess that I do this, too.)

As we’re beginning Saint Junia UMC, and as I read more and more books and authors talking about how the old way of doing things is broken, I am beginning to believe this kind of talk is a symptom of a deeper problem. We are naive, and I believe naiveté is not necessarily benign. It can be sinful.

We often believe that the early church must have been great, because the author of Acts says it was (although you can read Paul’s letters for a reality check). We seem to believe it is possible to love human beings but hate human institutions, human groups, and human ways of organizing labor. We talk about “relationships” in a warm and fuzzy way as if they existed outside the context of schedules, money, power, or leadership. I believe that by thinking in these ways we assert a particularly earnest and Christian naiveté that actually allows systems of abuse, indifference, and exploitation to flourish and reproduce.

Politically, it looks like this: Those of us with money, political power, and the freedom to pursue lives of meaningful work love talking about simplicity and criticizing the “American Dream” because it is yet another function of privilege to voluntarily choose a lifestyle rather than be forced into it.

Theologically, it looks like this: We talk about the importance of churches “getting out the pews” without actually noting that people’s butts occupy them for less than an hour each week. We diminish the importance of worship. We elevate the importance of “low overhead.” We make broad, generalized, negative assertions about church members’ volunteerism, beliefs, and generosity with absolutely no data. We repeat the claims of the harshest critics of “the institutional church” without ever asking “Which church? Who does this? Based on what evidence?” We uncritically make the connection between any given church crisis and a thought problem (theological, institutional, or otherwise) rather than demographic, social, or economic changes. “In order to reach a new generation for Christ,” we say, “we need to be more X,” where X can be missional, evangelical, biblical, liberal, conservative, organic, whatever.

Again, while I am no traditionalist, and I do not want to be an apologist for the North American Institutional Church, I am increasingly skeptical that the movers and shakers who write books about where the church needs to go in the next century have any freaking clue. Most of the stuff out there written by would-be-reformers isn’t based on good data. It isn’t even based on good Bible study. It’s based on people’s strong opinions.

I am trying to practice the discipline of non-prophecy. It is surprisingly difficult to hold my tongue about the grand evils of society or the church and look at specific problems and specific solutions, to name the sin not just of “bureaucracy” but of a particular situation with a particular remedy. I think we pastors have been trained away from such thinking because we have been taught it is not only acceptable, but “prophetic” to make broad, data-free assertions about things we don’t like. I also recognize, on reflection, that this, too, is a data-free rant.

I repent, and I will try to do better.