Origins and destinations

A Little History of Religion, Richard Holloway, Yale

The ‘Little History’ series is aimed at a younger audience, and here Richard Holloway, a one-time bishop who himself is something of a sceptic, aims to foster critical thinking about religion rather than simply acceptance. So while his book is about what religious people say about their religion, he also advises questioning what they say.

For example, he asks of the Moses story, was there really a burning bush? Or was Moses simply talking to himself and hearing voices in his head? Further, was there really a Moses at all? Is this just a story, much like that of the Garden of Eden, that tells us not what actually happened, but what believers believe about themselves and their history, and how they understand the world? (Mind you, if this is so, it neither disproves God nor renders religion meaningless.)

In Holloway’s emphasis, religions originate in the human mind, and, in his own metaphor, are various rivers that have branched out from one stream as responses to fundamental questions about origins and destinations. (Other religious scholars might have their own definitions.) (His streams metaphor is obviously deficient, as streams don’t branch out, they converge, but we know what he is getting at.) Primarily there are two questions: Is there something or someone controlling the universe and the lives of human beings, and what happens to us when we die? (Interestingly, the Israelites, at least in the early stages of their ‘religion’, were concerned with the former but not the latter question. Jesus put it slightly differently, saying that what happens to us after we die is already begun on earth with the ‘kingdom’ he inaugurated. Other religions, particularly Eastern ones, proclaim that these aren’t quite the right questions.)

Religion speaks in symbolic terms to these questions. Holloway has understanding, interest and sympathy, mixed with impatience for conservatism, dogma, violence and quick recourse to the supernatural for explanation. Typically for Holloway, religion becomes perverted when it becomes rigid, and so he links orthodoxy to closed minds and suggests that new movements (as corrections, which the Reformation was claimed to be) come from heresy. This is how religion moves forward. Science often proceeds in the same way. This is all true, but heresy can also create even more rigid and intolerant groups (cults), with whacky ideas. As Holloway notices, religion also has a history of prophets and leaders claiming all sorts of privileged access to God, and moving elsewhere, taking with them a loyal band of devotees, with disastrous consequences. So sometimes the conservative, rigid religious traditions can act as a corrective to the self-serving voices in our heads.

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Bums on pews

Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomena, Rodney Stark, Templeton Press

As religion supposedly declines in the West, those on the outside increasingly want to understand why belief persists. Rodney Stark’s book is not a work of apologetics. It doesn’t aim to explain why God must exist (this isn’t Stark’s immediate concern), but rather why exactly people might come to believe in God. It is a work of sociology, refreshingly free of jargon, which will still illuminate much for those of us within the walls of churches.

In summary, he argues that religions are not fundamentally irrational. We all want explanations for the way the world works, and historically there has been a supernatural element to this. If we are convinced of the supernatural it then makes some sense to interact with this other world, to gain favour for this worldly experience, as well as for a possible next world. We gain these rewards through worship and obedience.

As religions develop, mediators (priests) become needed, and there is an inevitable ritualization and organisation. Pluralism of gods whittles down to monotheism, which provides the best explanation and commands more loyalty, which in turn leads to moral control. Close relationships, especially familial, are important for recruitment and growth of the religion. Miracles help to legitimise the claims of religions’ founders.

In time, religions become more liberal, initially to attract more members, but it is actually the stricter (to use Stark’s term) religions that are growing. Breakaways happen, religions are reinvigorated, or new religions created. There is a tendency to try and monopolise religion (as in the Middle Ages or Revolutionary France) but this is usually counterproductive. Counterintuitively, even for sociologists, our own pluralistic society might be healthy for getting bums on pews, because of the competition involved in attracting followers.

Much of this is sound reasoning, and is confirmed by a reading of the Bible. But no doubt some of this will be disputed, and Christians too might feel the need to debate Stark, at least in their heads, particularly when it comes to his conflation of rigidity of theology and degree of passion. One can be lazily conservative, just as one can be passionately concerned with liberal causes. It also can’t be true that ‘most’ Christians don’t think Jesus is coequal to God, especially when the growth of Christianity is happening in conservative, non-first world settings. And, despite his professed best intentions, his conservative personal ‘preferences’ seep through. He has a typically conservative American aversion to suggestions that justice might be relevant to society’s economic structures too.

Stark has an admirable passion, bordering on the combative, for correcting past sociologists of religion, including his younger self. It may seem oxymoronic, as Stark notes, but there has been a long-lived fashion in the field for talking of religion without reference to God, or gods and the supernatural, in favour of evolutionary or Freudian theories. Stark aims to put God back into the centre of religion. Even most Buddhists admit the supernatural, he says, despite folklore that suggests they are atheistic. This is a particular emphasis of Stark’s, but the book roams much wider.

I do wonder where Jesus fits into Stark’s theorising. It is not quite true, as is often suggested, that Jesus was dismissive of religion; it was rather that he criticised ossified religion. But Jesus often gives categorisations the slip. Stark suggests miracles and visions are often key to attracting followers of religion, but Jesus, rather than espousing mystical theology, talked in riddles and favoured practical applications of faith, such as clothing and feeding the poor. He was a miracle worker, according to scriptural and even non-Christian sources, but didn’t seem to want to publicise the fact. And what might Stark say about Jacques Ellul’s assertion that Jesus was entirely unconcerned with morality? Jesus seems to dismiss ritual, societal standing and detailed explanations of why the world is as it is, largely because these tend to get in the way of compassion.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church’s Journey magazine.)

Moral test

H G Wells

The Great and Holy War: How World War I Changed Religion Forever, Philip Jenkins (Lion).

H G Wells (above) was not a Christian apologist, in fact, quite the opposite. But during WWI even Wells was caught up in the tendency to use religious language when writing about the war, and, Philip Jenkins tells us, later embarrassedly tried to explain away his momentary fervour. The First World War is often thought of as the first modern war, and by extension, a secular one, but religion, if it did not play a part in its beginning, certainly played a large part in the justification for continuing the war, the encouragement of soldiers and civilians, and the explanation for why the enemy was the enemy. Jenkins, in this comprehensive cultural study that differs from the current proliferation of accounts of battles that have sprouted during these hundredth anniversary years, digs up numerous examples, many from popular culture, of how the war was viewed through a religious lens.

At the same time, as the subtitle suggests, Jenkins also notes the changes to religion made by the reorganisation of empires, and by the philosophical implications of the unimaginable carnage. As Terry Eagleton notes in his latest book, although WWI should have killed off the faith in humanity that had been growing since the Enlightenment, rather than faith in God, the idea that God had a purpose for the world took a battering. In time, it was hard to make moral sense of a conflict where both belligerents claimed God was on their side. But of course divine sanction for their armies was precisely what each claimed at the time.

Holy war rhetoric was particularly strong. Germans described the war as a ‘moral test’ and fell back on crusader imagery. Britain, too, evoked the crusades, and the symbolism of recapturing Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire was provocative. It is no coincidence that premillennialism flourished at the time, with such portentous signs abounding.

At the same time, as had happened in Europe for centuries, heightened Christian language mingled with superstitions and an interest in the occult. Germany’s top military adviser was a rabid occult follower, as well as a devotee of Nietzsche. Britain could point to these facts as evidence of the enemy’s anti-Christian nature, but British soldiers were equally susceptible to visions, premonitions, and attempted contacts with the dead.

In general, theologians were reluctant to go against the tide of warmongering, and prominent theologians such as Adolf von Harnack waved the nationalistic flag fervently. In Germany liberal theology had become intertwined with the march of modernity and nationalism, and it didn’t help that the Reformation’s 400th anniversary fell during the war. Most clergy from both sides supported the war, even if they had some reservations about soldiers being equated with saints, and many argued that war was good for the moral fortification of young men, though clergymen had to wilfully ignore Christ’s teaching and example to do so. This was easier when, as in Germany, they could resort to using (and abusing) Luther’s ‘Two Kingdoms’ theology. The language of sacrifice, which Jenkins suggests was less of a ‘euphemism’ than it is today, abounded.

But after the war there was what Jenkins describes as almost an embarrassment over the earlier use of religious language and he suggests that we do not find the same overtly religious rhetoric in the Second World War. It is fair to see the roots of Europe’s secularisation here, but, Jenkins suggests, that is not the whole story. In surveying the post-war landscape, he, typically, moves beyond the borders of Western Europe. The rise of anti-Semitism, particularly within Germany (as Germans tried to find scapegoats for their defeat), led to the Balfour Declaration and the creation of Israel. Christians participated in this new Zionism not just for the security of Jews, but because many believed the resettlement of Israel would bring on Christ’s second coming. Jenkins also notes the war’s secondary nature as a war between competing empires. Dissolution of these empires resulted in the eventual religious division of the subcontinent, and the rise of more evangelical-styled, independent churches within Africa. In Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, where there had been a mix of cultures, stricter religious boundaries were drawn, with consequences that continue today to affect the configuration of world religions within the Middle East and beyond.

(A shorter version of this review appears on Eternity magazine’s website.)