Tuesday, November 07, 2006


These days I'm constantly finding myself pointing out that as a generic descriptor, 'religion' is an ethnographic trope for a certain kind of anthropological instrumentalism - one that rapidly becomes meaningless to the point of disinformation when you stretch it to include both Theravāda Buddhism and Jerry Falwell, say. (Richard Dawkins, please take note). But as a word denoting a set of impulses towards the world, it begins to acquire meaning. As Dutch missiologist Bert Hoedemaker has suggested - 'religion' can be thought of, in these terms, as our primal response to the contigency and waywardness of life, while its partner 'rationality' is about how we order the world in workable ways. 'Faiths' are thus organised attempts to build bridges between these two, to construct - on the basis of observation and intuition - inhabitable negotiations between our simultaneous senses of displacement and placement. (We have these congruent and contradictory experiences of life whether we care to define ourselves as 'religious' or not, by the way.)

Of course religious impulses, as primal expressions of this kind, can be fearful or hopeful, life-giving or life-substitututing. They are not neutral. Nor are they all 'one type of thing'. Religiosity is plural and complex. Writing out of a radical Christian tradition, here is a positive construal of what it can mean from the late Dorothee Soelle, one of the important theological voices of the second half of the twentieth century. When I read it, it reminds me why I and others feel so 'unaccounted for' in a book as sadly simplistic as The God Delusion:

The religious need is the need for experienced meaning, the yearning for a truth that has been promised and that is becoming increasingly visible. Religion is the attempt to regard nothing in this world as alien, hostile to human beings, a matter of fate, without meaning. Religion is the attempt to change everything that is experienced and encountered in all of life and to integrate it totally into a humane world. Everything should be interpreted in such a way that it becomes something ‘for us’. Everything that is rigid should become flexible; everything that is change, necessary; everything that appears to be meaningless should be regarded and believed to be true and good. Religion is the attempt to tolerate no nihilism and to live an unending and unrefutable affirmation of life.

From Dorothee Soelle, The Inward Road and the Way Back, translated by David L. Scheidt (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1979).

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