Monday, March 28, 2016

Christianity as Distinctly Religious: A New Species?

The human mind naturally tends to make (and remake) religion into familiar terms, while resisting the wholly other as such. As David Hume explains, the human mind is naturally drawn to what is familiar to itself; considerably more effort is required to hold onto the notion of pure divine simplicity without adding ornaments. Sociological phenomena such as father-son relationships and the role of a son are more familiar than the Son as Logos and agape.[1] The resurrection is typically thought of in supernatural physiological and historical terms, rather than as whose meaning is distinctly religious and, furthermore, is part of a religious narrative. The Trinity as existing in reality metaphysically is easier to understand than the Trinity as transcending reality, as it’s source rather than its substance. God as the first cause of the Big Bang is easier to grasp than God as the source or condition of Creation. These all-too-easy category mistakes are particularly problematic in that they obscure religion as distinctly religious.
Who thinks of the Son of God as the Logos, or Word—that aspect of God that plays an active role in the creation story as well as the Incarnation? It is much easier to conceptualize the Son from father-son relationships even though Augustine warns against doing so. Who thinks of resurrection as whose historicity is within a faith narrative rather than from a historical account, and is thus conditioned on a distinctly religious meaning and basis of validity? If I'm right, none of us has thought much about what remains after the precipitates of other domains have been extracted such that the remaining liquid is distinctly religious.
That the resurrected Jesus walks through a door and yet is hungry and eats a fish suggests that the concept of resurrection is not at bottom physiological. At the very least, the linguistic device seems to be oriented to obstructing such easy likenesses from other domains. A body transformed spiritually is a distinctly religious phenomenon; it is no accident that it is ensconced in a faith narrative, rather than in a historical account, a book on human biology, or even a text whose body is on supernatural, hocus pocus magic.
That the Passion story is ritually and festively acted out each year means that in “mythic time” Jesus is risen each Easter. Hence Christians rejoice, as if announcing breaking news, "He is risen!" The experience of religious presence that can take place in mythic rather than chronological/historical time has great value and meaning. Yet such distinctly religious meaning and its own sort of validators are overlooked simply in asking whether Jesus was really resurrected from the dead.  "Was" connotes time to a historian, and “really” is taken to mean empirically (i.e., as an observable fact), as if such time and factuality trump mythic time and distinctly religious validation stemming from religious meaning.
Religion itself, moreover, is undercut even if Jesus rose from the dead historically. Whether persons or events in a faith narrative happen to be historical outright or mythic-historical, accepting empirical historical claims as the litmus test undercuts religion itself because it is made subject to the criteria of another domain, namely history. In his book, Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, Hans Frei points out that just asking whether some event in the story really took place gets in the way of the story’s meaning coming through unimpeded.
On a morning after Easter when I was at a grocery store looking at half-priced, tempting chocolate eggs, I conversed with an evangelical Christian woman about the holiday. She told me she had read the Bible thirteen times. "You have to read it all the way through to get its full meaning," she explained, "because the meaning of one chapter is connected to the meanings of other chapters." Thinking of Frei, who had retired from Yale unfortunately before my studies there, I replied that interrupting the reading to ask whether something "really" happened would get in the way of the coherence of the meaning of the Bible as a whole; it would be like stepping out to get popcorn in the middle of a movie. The suspension of disbelief, and hence "getting into" the story-world itself, is eclipsed by the interruption. The woman agreed, though she was visibly uncomfortable with the mere possibility that I might have been suggesting that Jesus did not really (i.e., as a historical occurrence) rise from the dead. Frei would say: Don't even ask the question! Get out of the way, "for Christ's sake," and let the story tell its story. Instead of spoiling for a brawl, this policy not to eclipse the story's own meaning treats religion as sui generis, as worthy in itself instead of needing to defer to the criteria of another domain for some sense of validity.
We are so used to thinking of religion using concepts borrowed from other domains that we would scarcely even recognize something that is distinctly religious if it came up and slapped us in the face and said, "Here I AM!" Elijah found the Lord on the mountain not in the high winds, the ensuing earthquake, or the fire, but in a gentle breeze.[2]
What is the Logos, for instance, and how can “Son” be thought of as such rather than in terms of the characteristics of human sons? Augustine warns that “no carnal thought creep up” in interpreting Jesus’s expression, “As the Father has taught me” in terms of a human father teaching his son. To liken the Trinitarian relationship to a (merely) human one would be, Augustine writes, to “fashion idols” in one’s heart.[3] We are so conditioned to think of the Son of God in terms of being a son of a father that we, Christian or not, have scarcely any idea what "Son" means in a distinctively religious sense; and yet, it is precisely such a sense that can minimize the risk of self-idolatry that comes with anthropomorphism (i.e., applying human characteristics to non-human entities).
We are so used to assuming that overgrown vines from other gardens are native to religion that we have no clue, I suspect, as to what religion’s own garden would look like if regularly weeded.  In fact, I would not be surprised to find that we have been pulling the native plants as weeds! For religion to regain or perhaps achieve its native health for the first time, without the convenient and alluring stain of anthropomorphism, the category-mistakes that come with blurring boundaries must first be recognized and corrected and then attention must be directed to the question of just what is distinctly religious.[4] Perhaps the defining question is whether religion need necessarily be human, all too human; can the domain as distinctively drawn transcend the limits of human cognition, sentience, and perception to have as its referent point the Wholly Other? Can we get out of the way?

1. For more on this point and that of David Hume, see ch. 12 of God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth.
2. 1 Kings 19:11-12.
3. Augustine, "Tractate 40" in Tractates on John: Books 28-54, trans. John W. Rettig, Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 88 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 126.
4. See ch. 12 of God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth.