Part 2: Definitions
In my last post I laid out a brief history of religious thought. The purpose of doing so was to show that religious thought is an ever evolving process. I also wanted to show that there can be seen broad trends in the way that religious thought evolves. More specifically, I wanted to show that the evolution of religious thought is reactionary to the culture at large. I believe it is best to see religion as an aspect of culture rather than transcendent of culture.
In this second post I would like to expound on the argument by giving shape to the definition of religion. Furthermore, I would like to discuss the terms “pluralism” and “exclusivism” in a more detailed and nuanced way. Before, one can move to the discussion of religious pluralism vs. religious exclusivism, there must be a consensus as to what definition of religion will be used. It is a common mistake to assume that ones working definition of religion is universal. There are, however, many different ways from which to approach a definition of religion. Most broadly, religion can be categorized as anything which is a wisdom tradition. In other words, anything which seeks to instruct mankind on how to live while simultaneously attempting to give a purpose to life. By this definition any philosophical perspective can be seen as religious. This, of course, would include anti-religious movements such as atheism and agnosticism.
The Definition of Religion
While there is no doubt that being a wisdom tradition is vital to every religion, there seems to me far more to religion than simply wise instruction. Thus, I believe, it is necessary to define more narrowly what one means when they speak of religion. The definition of religion which I will use for the premise of this discussion is one given by my favorite author Marcus Borg. Borg argues for a six fold definition of religion. Each of the six aspects are broadly accepted by experts in the field of religious studies. In this post I will list each of the six aspects of religion and discuss each briefly.
1. Ancient Wisdom
The first aspect, which I have already mentioned, is wisdom. Every religion seeks to impart wisdom of how to live and why the way we live is important. Each religious tradition has nuanced aspects of wisdom for life. None the less many of them teach very similar things. The often pointed to aspect of moral teaching applies here. While every religion has a somewhat different definition of what exactly it is to be moral, all of them agree that morality is important.
2. The Intersection of Culture and Language
The second aspect of religion that Borg points out is that religions are cultural-linguistic traditions. Put more simply, every religion is a product of a culture and a language. Islam is a shining example of this in the sense that much of the tradition is linked to the Arab culture and language. It is, however, important to point out that any religion which lasts for an extended period of time will eventually become its own cultural-linguistic tradition. This, of course, is prevalent in the culture and language of Christianity which cannot be ascribed to a single ethnic culture or language.
3. A Human Creation
The third aspect of religion is that it is a human product or creation. This self explanatory point is quite controversial. As is seen by the responses to my last post, most religions cannot agree on this. In fact it is also a common trait of religions to deny human authorship and ground their tradition in divine creation. This fact, however, seems to disprove that notion if for no other reason than every religion, at some point, has claimed to be divinely produced. Many see this point as somehow degrading to religion. After all, if religion is a human construction then how can it have authority? The reality, however, is that authority is something which is given by humanity. Also, it is important to understand that accepting the human production of religion does not remove the role of God from the equation.
4. A Response to the Experience of God
The third aspect of human production must also be understood in light of the fourth aspect which is that religion is a response to the experience of God. It is not enough to simply say that religions are human creations. It is obvious that religion is an inherent aspect of humanity. The very fact that the majority of mankind affirms some form of religion means that it must be in response to something. Religious scholar William James put it this way, “religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it”. It is in the response to “the more”, as William James coined it, that the language of religion finds its meaning. Thus it is in the experience of the unfathomable God that humans find the need to create some form of response.
5. Means of Transformation
The fifth aspect of religion is that it is a means of ultimate transformation. There are two aspects to this which must be understood. The first is that religion affirms the need to be transformed. No religion desires for people to remain the way they are. If this were the case there would be no need for religion. Rather, every religion affirms that there is a correct response to the experience of God and that response requires a form of ultimate transformation. The second aspect is that religion is a means not an end. Religion is the tool that is used to bring about the end desired, which is transformation. Interestingly, most religions affirm that compassion is one of the core fruits of transformation.
6. The Mediator between God and man
The sixth and final aspect of religion is that it is a sacrament of God. In other words, religion serves as a mediator between God and man. This again affirms the divine authority which religion holds. God is mediated to man through the sacrament of religion. Again, another interesting comparison is that most religions incorporate the sacraments of prayer and meditation, in some form, as aspects of mediating God.
Using this six fold definition of religion, I now move onto the discussion fo pluralism and exclusivism. Before I do, however, I would like to make one quick point about God that will be expounded upon in my last post. One thing that people often get hung up on, when discussing the comparison of religions, is that there is no universal definition of God. In fact, some religions like Buddhism refuse to even speak of God. I offer that the reason for this ambiguity about God, the transcendent, the sacred, the divine, or whatever you want to call it, is that the experience of this reality is beyond human conception.
The Nuances of Pluralism and Exclusivism
Moving onto the discussion of pluralism, it is important to understand, when speaking of the divide between pluralists and exclusivists, that there are many definitions that can be applied to both. Speaking of pluralism, there are two aspects for which it is vital to understand the distinction. Broadly, pluralism is simply a fact of the modern world. To say that we live in a world in which there are a plurality of religions is not a theory but a fact. More importantly, as the world has become smaller, because of human innovation, these religions have been forced to interact with each other. This interaction has created a multiplicity of responses. However, all of these responses can be divided into two ideologies. Those ideologies are “pluralism” and “exclusivism”. Thus in one sense both “pluralism” and “exclusivism” are ideologies which can be directly attributed to culture, be it modern or post-modern. Broadly, of course, the reality of pluralism and exclusivism have coexisted for much longer. For thousands of years there have been a plurality of religious expressions. Likewise, for much of that time religious ideologies have been seen in an exclusive light.
This distinction is important in moving forward. It must be understood that when one is dealing with the specific ideologies of “pluralism” and “exclusivism” that they are dealing with religious reactions to the circumstances of culture. More importantly it is necessary to understand that neither position argues from a place of normativity. This is a mistake that is often made on both sides of the aisle. While broadly it is obvious that each religion is founded in the heart of one of these ideologies, that is not to say that any religion is inherently “exclusivist” or “pluralist” by modern definition.
The Onset of the Enlightenment
Having clarified the inherent nuances of this debate between “pluralism” and “exclusivism”, it is now possible to move onto an understanding of the value that each of these ideologies has had for religious thought. As was previously expressed, the innovations of modernity removed the distances, both geographically and informationally, between the religions of the world. This removal of barriers caused each religion to evaluate itself in a new light. Previous to the enlightenment, religious diversity was seen as simply an ethnic issue. The Chinese had their religions, and the French had theirs (sort of), and the Germans theirs, etc. While there was still an egocentric aspect to religious life, it was seen very differently. One might affirm that their own religion was better than another, but this was seen as a comparisons of culture.
However, with the enlightenment came the creation of the terms scientific method and empirical data. Suddenly, religion was forced to prove its validity in the arena of empirical proof. This new attack, from culture, created the need for religion to answer to the questions of science. The inherent mythological truth of religion was seen as invalid. Because of this shift in the language of truth, religion began to change its definition of God. God could no longer simply be mystically experienced. Those experiences must be proven to be true. This created the language of absolute truth. If religious experience must be proven to be true, then counter experiences must be proven to be false. This dynamic completely changed the way religions saw each other. They were now competing for one truth and this left no room for variances. A side note, it is no coincidence that during the modern period there was more splintering from within each of the religions than any other time in history.
Under this new attack came the need for religions to defend their exclusive claim to truth. Thus, the modern ideology of exclusivism was born. It was no longer a question of superiority but one of exclusivity. Exclusivism allowed for each religion to remain valid in a time when culture was determined to move them to the periphery. It also allowed them to incorporate some of the critiques of modernism without losing validity. Things like racism and bigotry, which were normative when religion was seen as an ethnic locality, were now seen in a more logical light. Things like black skin were no longer seen in the mythological light of a divine curse, but rather seen in light of the scientific explanation of melatonin. This cleansing, in many ways, allowed each religion to remove the mythological hurdles which had hindered them from expressing their core values such as compassion.
Much the same way that modernism created the ideology of exclusivism, post-modernity has begun to create the ideology of pluralism. Post-modernism has reintroduced the value of mythical truth to the world of religion. With this introduction came the removal of the logical imperative of faith. Religions have begun to be freed from the competition for truth. This has created, yet another way for religions to understand each other. No longer are they hindered by the need for superiority that pre-modern culture required. Nor are they hindered by the need for exclusivity that modern culture required. Instead, they are free to validate the unique experiences of other religions while still holding to the value of their own. Thus;
the debate between pluralism and exclusivism is not one of validity. Rather, the debate is one of relevancy.
I believe that the push for religious dialogue has shown that a pluralistic approach to religion is far more valid in today’s culture than an exclusivistic one.
In my final post, for this series, I will look to better define a way forward. There are many hurdles which modernism has left in its wake. While culture has been moving in a post-modern direction for some time, the religious world is lagging behind in many ways. In fact some of the worlds religions are still dealing with the issues surrounding modernity. I will attempt to show that there remains value in both factual truth and mythological truth. Furthermore, it is only in the merging of both that religion will find its relevant voice in today’s culture.
Continue on to Part III