On Belief

When sitting down to Christmas dinner with my wife’s family, our beloved matriarch declared the ground rules: “No religion and no politics.”

It did seem a bit odd to me, as both a religious believer and an historian, that a celebration of Christmas could take place in which neither religion or politics were granted a place, but I understood it for what it was: a pre-emptive strike to head off at the pass the main subjects of dissension in the family.

I have been using the time since to catch up on a bit of reading – most significantly, to get as much of N.T. Wright’s “Jesus and the Victory of God” read before the end of the holidays. But I have also been reading some of the excellent essays on the ABC Religion and Ethics website, including this one by William Cavanaugh (research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, Chicago): “Why Christopher Hitchens was wrong about religious violence”.

There is a link in all this. Cavanaugh challenges Hitchens’ view of “religion”. His point is quite simply that for Hitchens “Religion poisons everything because everything poisonous gets identified as religion.” This raises the question of the definition of “religion”, which Cavanaugh deals with to some degree in this essay. It is a problem with which I am familiar in my daily work in “inter-religious” dialogue. What counts as “a religion”? You get all sorts of comments such as “Islam mixes religion and politics” and “Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion”. Cavanaugh discusses the “functionalist” and “substantivist” approaches to the definition of religion. Here is a taste:

Such scholarship assumes a “functionalist” definition of religion, where religion is identified not by doctrines, such as belief in God or gods, but by the way it actually functions in a society. Ideologies and institutions that provide an overarching symbol system of the meaning and end of human life are considered religions by functionalists…

Most arguments about religion and violence assume a “substantivist” definition of religion, whereby religion is defined by the substance or content of beliefs. Commonly substantivists start with God or gods, but soon recognize that the category must be broader to include the many forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism that don’t involve gods. More inclusive definitions like belief in “transcendence” or “soteriology” are floated to try to include Buddhism and other beliefs and practices.

I guess I would come down in the “functionalist” camp as well – IF I thought there was any profit in trying to define what a “religion” is.

In fact, here is where my reading of N.T. Wright comes in. He belabours the obvious fact that so often is not obvious to post-Enlightenment Westerners: the modern distinction between “religion” and “politics” (eg. the classic “Separation of Church and State” argument) was completely foreign to the ancient world, especially to 1st Century Judaism. For Jews in Jesus’ time, the religious WAS the political, and vice verse. To argue whether Jesus’ mission and message was religious or political is therefore to miss the point entirely. Thus, in a sense, traditional Islam preserves the natural world view of the ancient world much more faithfully than modern (or post-modern) Christianity. This is more than to say that for ancient Judaism and modern Islam, “religion has a rightful place in the public square”. It is to say that in the whole set of beliefs that make up a persons world view, the distinction between “religious” belief and “political” belief is not only naïve, but in fact utterly fatuous.

So, coming back to the Christmas dinner, what was my honourable mother-in-law in fact saying to us? By eliminating “religion” and “politics” from the table conversation, she was eliminating deeply held BELIEF from the conversation. This is because it is such deeply held BELIEFS that produces conflict of ideas, not “religion” or “politics”. If someone truly deeply believes something to be true, they will attempt to convince others of it. (I have heard the contrary asserted, but I don’t believe it. Even the most ardent post-modernist asserts with fervour those beliefs he believes to be objectively true; those which he is prepared to hold merely as “my truth” as opposed to “your truth” are not, I would say, his most deeply held beliefs!).

Of course, each of us holds many “beliefs” that have no consequence for anyone other than ourselves, but those beliefs we generally characterise as “political” and “religious” are usually the kind of beliefs that are, of their nature, “public square” beliefs. They are about the kind of world we live in and wish to live in. They are consequential for society, and not only for how I individually live my life. If you hold and act upon deeply beliefs in this respect that are contrary to my deeply held beliefs in the same respect, it is impossible for us simply to say “Well, that’s your opinion; I have mine; leave it at that.” An example, in case you misunderstand me, would be the current debate over Climate Change and the appropriate way to respond. I won’t go into that here, but I hope that you can see that what we believe in regard to Climate Change and appropriate response has consequences that are not just personal, but corporate.

Should we, for that reason, adopt the Venerable Matriarch’s dinner table solution – exclude discussion of belief for the sake of peace? No. No, and a thousand times, NO. Unless we wish to be satisfied with the gentility of the superficial, unless we wish to occupy ourselves with the millions of banal minutiae of existence, unless we belief that it is an effective strategy to stave off death by boredom with death by amusement, then we must engage one another at the level of belief. By retreating to the safety of the superficial, we fail truly to hear and to know our conversation partner. We put up a barrier, a limit, to our engagement, and hence limit the value of our dialogue.

More significantly, when we fail to speak out on our most deeply held beliefs, others, holding contrary and less noble beliefs will silently enact their beliefs, determining that the world we live in comply to their beliefs rather than to ours. (Nb. it is a fact that one’s own most deeply held beliefs are always by definition “the most noble” – otherwise one would cease to hold them in favour of some more noble belief).

All this, of course, relates to the subject of evangelisation and the Gospel. I am convinced that two of the reasons we are failing to evangelise – failing to proclaim the Gospel – is because we either fail to know what the Gospel actually is, or, we do not truly believe it ourselves. And this is a subject on which I intend to write a lot more in the near future.

For the moment, I simply lay down this foundation for our conversation: both religion and politics have to do with belief, and beliefs of all kinds have an essential role to play in the Public Square.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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13 Responses to On Belief

  1. matthias says:

    And does said Mother in law read this blog?

  2. matthias says:

    I was not going to say anything at all.

  3. Alexander says:

    Well, although my family’s Christmas dinner was similarly fatuous, the New Year’s Eve dinner, on the other, was rather more eventful, involving an atheist Aunt who pulled out the old Feuerbachian/Freudian schtick in order to try and convince me that belief in God is an oppressive, patriarchal psychological construct, before proceeding, among other things, to compare the Catholic faith to the “faith” of Ancient Astronaut Theorists…

    As a result, I have discovered that trying to explain the whole Thomistic vision of reality in a half hour, when one’s intelocutor is so profoundly hostile and irrational in his unbelief, is a skill that I have yet to learn…

    • Schütz says:

      And it is a skill you will need to learn, Alex. Perhaps a little less of Thomas to start with. You can’t swueeze the whole Summa in between the soup and the fish course! And I take it this was not the “aunt” with whom I am aquainted – who is a good stick, if not a good Catholic!

    • Alexander says:

      Are there two of us now? Tmk, I was here first. But I’ve also used another name at times (viz, Felix the Cassowary), so I will use that in future and I’ll make another post straight after to not forget.

  4. matthias says:

    i have noticed an arrogance with all atheists/secularists/ writing on the ABC drum site. But then we are told that sciffers will increase near the end of the age. (Sorry that ‘s my proddy hangover)

    • Peter says:

      Get ready for more Matthias.
      Melbourne is hosting another atheists conference in April 2012.
      We are pretty much guaranteed that one,holy,catholic and apostolic church will receive yet another uninformed battering.

  5. matthias says:

    that should be scoffers oh is it yuor Aunt or your Uncle as you ended with “one’s intelocutor is so profoundly hostile and irrational in his unbelief,” and like you it is a skill I still need to develop.

    • Alexander says:

      Matthias, I was using the generic personal pronoun “his” to stand in the place of “interlocutor,” since I meant to refer to such situations in general, and not merely this specific one.

  6. Felix the Cassowary says:

    As for one of my Christmas dinners, I was witness (and party) to the most amusing discussion with two of my uncles, who hold very different views about religion and politics (both are devout Christians, but both have quite different views on how to live that out).

    Now, they were often taking about things I didn’t know enough about, and had to explain what they meant. It was often the case that the one would provide an explanation, and then the other would also—I was able to tell the unbiased truth[*] from what whoever spoke first had said, but they both felt it was necessary to put their own spin on it. There was clear disagreement, but without argument (which, to my mind, spoke for themselves: arguments we’ve heard a million times).

    There is a point beyond which you have to agree to disagree, and these two uncles of mine clearly think they’ve reached it!

    Perhaps your mother-in-law simply thinks your family has reached it, even if you don’t all agree.

    I found it quite amusing (and informative!) nonetheless :)

    Now at another Christmas dinner, we did manage to have heated disagreement without ever reaching the outermost bounds of religion or politics. But this, perhaps, merely reinforces your point.

    [*] Unbiased adj. In conformity with the speaker’s own biases—not because objective truth is impossible or even unknowable, but just because no-one is trustworthy enough to disclose it. I, however, am the exception :)

  7. Ephraem says:

    For those who have not read it I highly recommend, Cavanagh’s book “The Myth of Religious Violence” . I found that it made me think again about the definition of religion and why the post-enlightenment definition is useful for those who want to deny religion space in the public arena.

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