Sunday, August 8, 2010

Practical versus spiritual concerns in ritual

There was an interesting discussion in the comments about the differences we find in different religious practices and JD cited the former Joseph Ratzinger to the effect that,
Judaism identifies itself as law, Roman religion was mainly ritualistic with belief not being as important, and Christianity identifies itself strongly with "belief," as in the creed.
I agreed and I still do with the primary point that this contrast shows how confusing it is to lump a lot of things together under a label such as "religion". We might think here of Wittgenstein's remark that while everything in a toolbox might be said to be a tool, there is no simple definition of what a tool does that includes a screwdriver, a ruler and a pencil, all of which could be said to be important tools in carpentry.

What a religion does can vary extremely. Any definition of "religion" will be of limited use and we can only begin to understand a particular religion by asking what it does.

I then compared ancient Roman ritual with modern usage of Wicca, Yoga, Zen Buddhism and Feng Shui. This provoked some resistance. I don't mean to refute anyone here but I would like to draw out what I see as the key similarity.

Suppose someone is building a house in ancient Rome and they pray to the deities involved in the location and in the various practical concerns related to house building. We might say, as JD did say, that this is more of a practical concern than what some modern in search of spiritual meaning does in going to yoga or getting a Feng Shui analysis done of their house.

And yet, there are very practical readings possible of those activities. The yoga instructor will tell her charges that the various positions will help with digestion or relaxation or will make better use of "energy flows". Similarly, Feng Shui makes claims that can be made out to be very practical.

The principal distinction here seems to be only the clichéd  one that Western religion tends to be personal—the Romans are concerned a universe populated by deities with known personalities—and the Eastern ones impersonal—which is to say they focus on impersonal forces flowing through the universe and into our lives. Otherwise, one is as "practical" or as "spiritual" as the other.

We might say at this point, yes that is true but the ancient Romans, Indians and Chinese didn't have our sophistication about science. When a modern does Yoga, all that concerns her when she talks about forces is something "spiritual". She doesn't imagine that the energy flows that she seeks to improve through yoga are anything like the energy that flows out of the wall socket to power her DVD player on which she is watching the yoga instruction.

That argument wouldn't hold up very well. For starters, the ancients were more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They fully understood that there was a difference between appealing to some god or respecting some spiritual force in building a  home and using good construction technique. They knew that it didn't make any difference who you prayed to if you didn't make sure your posts were plumb. And when we moderns talk about "spiritual" matters we import far more of the material metaphors than we might like to admit. (The point of my earlier remarks about stress and perspective.)

The difference that matters here, I think, is the one that Yehezkel Kaufman made in The Religion of Israel. What the modern Wiccan, Yoga practitioner, Zen meditationist and Feng Shui decorator have in common with the ancient Roman is that they see religion as a way to tap into a special kind of power to transform their world. The modern may say that Yoga makes her life spiritually meaningful but what she means by this is a kind of psychological health. As Kaufman argues, I think correctly, we see something very different beginning to form in the religion of ancient Israel. And I think that carries on in Christianity (and yes, I really do believe that the God of Abraham is the same guy as Father Jesus tells us to pray to.)

And I think Kaufman is further correct to say we cannot call the religion of Israel as simple development out of the other religions. It is something radically different. Which is not to say that there aren't examples of other religious practice that influenced the ancient Israelites or that influence modern Christian religious practice.

And that is what I think is behind Peter's saying this
Beloved: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.


  1. You're really touching on so many things here. No, there isn't one definition of Religion any more than there is one definition of Church, which Avery Dulles pointed out in Models of Church. As you correctly say, in order to understand a particular religion or church one has to ask what it does because both religion and church mean different things to different people--even within Christianity itself. However, it seems to me that the examples you cite to show why Christianity is different from ancient Roman spirituality or modern day cults only underscore how similar it has become to all of them. Most modern-day Christians see "religion as a way to tap into a special kind of power to transform their world," in many cases a world they are fearful of, don't understand, or feel they have little control over. You can see this when the priest says "please remember in your prayers Mrs. Jones who is having surgery this week, or Mr. Smith's son who is seving in Iraq." And, unlike the Romans who knew that "it didn't make any difference who you prayed to if you didn't make sure your posts were plumb," I have seen first-hand how some participants in so-called faith-based treatment programs believe that Faith alone will cure drug addiction, alcohol abuse, or sex offending behavior, without doing the work they need to do on themselves to overcome these maladaptive behaviors. I think that Faith can be a powerful tool in overcoming anything, but, as you say, its not going to help you build a house if you have no clue about construction techniques. It might lead you to people who have that knowledge, but I don't think most self-proclaimed Christians today look at it that way. Maybe I'm wrong.

  2. "However, it seems to me that the examples you cite to show why Christianity is different from ancient Roman spirituality or modern day cults only underscore how similar it has become to all of them."

    I wish I could disagree with you but, unfortunately, you are absolutely right.