Friday, October 20, 2006

A Heretic's Guide to Eternity: Chapter 01 - Jesus Beyond Christianity

The first chapter opens in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's prison cell during WWII, where he wrote a short letter titled "Religionless Christianity", a letter "which does not seem to be abandoning the Christian faith as reimagining it." This is the Heretic's goal. To revision faith, not abandon it.

Burke keeps jumping from the term "traditional religion" to "religion" synonymously. As someone whose academic work has largely been in religious studies, it seems to me that Burke is setting up a straw man and given it the title "religion". Anything that smacks of patriarchy or traditionalism can be given the title religion. We'll ascribe all historical fubars (such as any of the Crusades, Colonialism, patriarchy, anti-semitism) to religion. The alternative Burke offers to religion is "spirituality", a "religionless" way to "celebrate the sacred". Everyone digs spirituality, as he demonstrates by citing Bono and the preponderance of magazine articles on the subject. Those historical cock up's were the fault of religion, not "spirituality".

When Burke says that "cracks are appearing in the foundation of traditional religion" he isn't telling us anything new. Judaism was the cracks in Caananite polytheism. Christianity became the cracks in Judaism. Then that cracked into Orthodoxy and Catholicism. And then Protestantism came along and we've been cracking ever since. I'm simplifying of course, but when Burke says "religion is no longer regarded as a place to find peace for the soul" it sounds like students in religious studies courses wanting badly to not be defined as "religious" in the way that people like Durkheim and Eliade implied all men might be.

If we can just distance ourselves from those bad religious people, those modern day Pharisees, then we'll be in the clear. The problem is that Burke never defined what he meant by religion. He implies it heavily, with words like "external and dogmatic belief systems" and "power-based interpretations of foundational texts". He suggests we need to "move past religion".

He states that "Faithfulness to the message of Jesus does not mean that we must simply imitate our forbears in the Christian tradition. To do so might help preserve their formulas, but it will freeze us in history." I couldn't agree more. But it does not follow, to use his language, that faithfulness to the message of Jesus means that we must simply ignore those forebears, or abandon those traditions. I realize I'm only in the first chapter and there's lots more to unfold here, but if this first chapter were an article, I'd be assuming (and I hate doing that, but this is the limitation of the step by step dialogue) that Burke wants to leave "the Church" behind.

I think the ideas Burke has are good, but his dichotomy is false. Most of the academic staff in the program of religious studies at University of Alberta would still label a "celebration of the sacred" as a religious actitivity, therefore a form of religion. Burke wants to define religion as patriarchal Christendom, or perhaps fundamentalism, or both and all the other shit that gets swept under the header of "religion". A better polemic might be traditional religion vs. transforamational religion, which Burke calls spirituality. I know I'm playing a semantic game, but words are powerful, and I dislike that "religion" is equated with some dry, lifeless concept while "spirituality" retains an effervescence and vitality. I also find it suspicious that we will revision, not abandon "faith" but that "faith" is not "religion". And I dig Bono's sentiment that "religion is the temple after God has left it", but that won't change that popularly, we still think of religion as being associated with God. Again, maybe what's needed isn't abandonment of religion but revision. Redemptive revision of the word religion.

Better yet, let's get historical. What is it exactly we're all rebelling against in the West? Is it really the Church of Jesus Christ, or is it the Church of Reverend Jimmy Bakker, and via him to fundamentalism, and via that to Colonial missionary movements, etc., which could be boiled down into the term "Christendom" could it not? The earthly kingdom of the church. As defined over at wikipedia, Christendom "in the widest sense, refers to Christianity as a territorial phenomenon: those countries where most people are Christians, or nominal Christians, are part of Christendom." It's a political entity.

I am not so eager to divest myself of Christianity. There have been many times I've wanted to ditch the phrase, to call myself something funky like "follower of the Way" but I always end up in my explanations telling people I'm a Christian. A Christ follower. You can dress it all up, and the people you're talking to will likely still think "Christian". Christianity, and the church ought to be, to use one of Bonhoeffer's other works, a spiritual reality created by God which we may choose to participate in.

And why not? I'm not proud of everything in the history of Christianity, and I find most church life stifling, but then again, not everything in the Perschon family tree is squeaky clean and I'm not changing my last name to Bush (God, that was inflammatory, wasn't it?).

Maybe I've misunderstood Spencer Burke. If I have, my apologies...hopefully by the end of this road, I'll know more definitively. But in a nutshell, my back's up a bit. Trying hard to keep an open mind, but...well. I digress. Until next week.


  1. You said, "maybe what's needed isn't abandonment of religion but revision. Redemptive revision of the word religion". This seems to me to be a sort of "new spin" or a changing of the lingo. Revising the word religion in a positive light will do nothing to negate the fact that those negative qualities which had previously fallen under the title of religion would still exist. Do those negatives disappear because of a redefined word? You are right, you are merely playing with words. I am going to have to go with Burke on this point.

    I would agree with you however that religion, church and doctrine need not be thrown out with their dirty bathwater. If the foundation of progression is anihiliated then we will be left with nothing. To view anything without its longterm context, or its history, is to limit one's view of reality.

    What then is the synthesis of these two opposing conclusions that I have made here? How do we effectively re-envision spirituality and religion while acknowledging that the past is what composes the present? We cannot merely pick and chose which parts of history to accept. Reconstructing history, although easy and common, is only adding more voices to an already infinitely convoluted vortex of experience. (that is one messed up sentence...but it stays)

    hmm, I have re-read this article over and over and I cannot side with you over Burke. Granted I have not read his book, but it seems to me that you are ultimately making a semantic argument based on his word choice. "A better polemic might be traditional religion vs. transforamational religion, which Burke calls spirituality." I think that you misunderstand his wish to really explore a new way of believing rather than putting a new spin on things.

    These are just my thoughts, fragmented as they are, I am committing academic suicide tomorrow, but I'll go down in a blaze of glory.

    Oh...and I also have a decided opinion that anyone who makes obligitory references to George Bush is subconsciously sexually attracted to him...tsk tsk Mike, a Freudian slip...

  2. I understand Burke's wish just fine. And I support his wish for a "new way of believing things". The problem I have with his argument is that he's using two very emotionally charged words to support his argument. It's arrogance to say that what currently exists as the church is "religion" and therefore bad, while what is to come or is already happening is "spirituality" and therefore good. It creates an "us and them" mentality, which interestingly, Burke ascribes to religion in one of his later chapters, but says spirituality doesn't do the same thing.

    What I'd like to see more emergent church groups avoid is this idea that they/we might have the answer to all of the Church's problems. The Church has been fucked up from day one. That's the trouble with having people in the Church. I get a kick out of people saying they're going to "get back to the New Testament way of doing things" to which I'd reply, "What, having arguments over circumcision and trying to stamp out Gnostic elements?"

    I've been in a similar state of opinion to this idea of "spirituality" and "religion" being something different. It's a false demarcation, and I think the sooner we stop making the distinction, the better.

  3. Again, I havn't read the book, so I would ask, is his destinction between bad=religion and good=spirituality black and white? If Burke does describe it in such blunt terms then I must agree with you. Every facet of religion can be a healthy and meaningful activity if it is not being used to control and manipulate people.

    I agree that spirituality and religion are not entirely different things, but you must admit to some sort of ambiguity. Spirituality may have some things in common or go hand-in-hand with religion, but they are different just by the fact that we describe them with two different words. oh no, now I am arguing about words. words words words and you the fishmonger...

    To say that it is a false demarcation in claiming some sort of difference between religion and spirituality is too simplistic. But, now I am being precoscious and must end with a question: Is it the us/them mentality which you find to be the problem associated with differentiating religion and spirituality? Do you find the us/them mentality to be altogether dangerous and unhealthy?