Monday, May 10, 2010

So many myths, so little time

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
Perhaps based on the success of the show on the Discovery Channel, I've encountered a raft of books this year that are in the myth-busting business. Early on in January it was Greg Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation (2006), which I got a few chapters into before getting too busy with the spring semester. Boyd also recently published The Myth of a Christian Religion (2009), which sounds fascinating but I haven't looked into it. It sounds like the negative image of Brian McLaren's new book, A New Kind of Christianity (2010), which I also haven't read. Phew! All this newness and debunking of myths makes for a long reading list to a guy who gets excited about both of those endeavors.

So between my spring and summer classes this past week, I quickly read through William T. Cavanaugh's recent The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford, 2009). It was recommended to me by my theology professor, Mark Thiessen Nation, with whom I had a number of conversations last summer while taking a course at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute called "Faith-Based Peacebuilding." Mark wasn't teaching the course but made some great contributions to my learning in it. Among the long list of authors and scholars that Cavanaugh critiques is Scott Appleby, who wrote one of the textbooks used in the course, The Ambivalence of the Sacred (2000).  With such a tight timeframe to read this considerable book of Cavanaugh's, I didn't bring my full capacities to bear, but I'm still grateful for what I was able to pick up. Read on after the break for my reflections...

There's no such thing as "Religion"
The heading above could have been an alternate title of the book, or perhaps another subtitle. Religion as a concept and its use in this society is really where Cavanaugh spends most of his myth-busting time while using a fairly general working definition of the word violence. The whole project of this book, Cavanaugh makes clear, is negative. His intent is to dismantle the notions that 1) there is such a thing as "Religion" that is accurate across all history and across all cultures, and 2) that religion as such has an inherent tendency toward violence. While talking to my dad on the phone last night, I told him about this book and entered into a conversation about Cavanaugh's argument. Luckily, he was intrigued and patient enough to engage in discussion. When I told him the author was arguing against the notion that religions are inherently violent my dad's response was, "But they are." This coming from a committed Christian in a tradition (Church of the Brethren) that at least historically (see "Pacifism?" section of the video in a previous post) had some pacifist/nonresistant beliefs and practices. For Cavanaugh, this would be evidence of the myth's prevalence.

So today, as it's used in broader Western thought and practice, discourse and policymaking both domestic and foreign, religion as such has its origins as a concoction of 18th century Enlightenment thinkers and subsequent 18th century politicians to buttress the power of the emerging reality of the modern liberal-democratic nation-state. As it relates to the use of violence, this came to mean that any violence committed "in the name of religion" was unacceptable, while the use of violence on the part of the nation-state came to be seen as not only necessary but also noble. Killing and potentially dying for the church's or your religious convictions is clearly misguided but doing so for your country is the height of patriotism. So Cavanaugh argues that this power move on the part of secularized nation-states allows dual standards of critique for violence as it relates to things that are "secular" vs. "religious."

Cavanaugh is not trying to say that religious groups are off the hook when it comes to a track record of violence. Indeed there have been and continue to be plenty of groups with theological frameworks that foster and sometimes demand the use of violence, and these frameworks should be open to critique. What he is trying to say is that when it comes to violence, there is no essence to "religion" that can be isolated from political, economic, or other interests in a particular conflict situation. It's never enough to say "this is merely a religious conflict," as if removing any religious motivators from a conflict would magically bring about peace. No, the secular nation-state has just as much to answer for when it comes to its complicity to violence. Likewise, economic ideologies have spotty records when it comes to the welfare of humankind. This is a quick romp through the main weight of Cavanaugh's argument which he does a significant amount of historical digging to make strongly.

The implications of Cavanaugh's work are profound to say the least. If he's right (and his argument is quite strong in my assessment) this operative notion of religion and the myth of religious violence is so deep-seated in the West and in America that it's part of the very air we breathe, regardless of whether you're Christian or atheist, Republican or Democrat or Libertarian. It's no accident that Cavanaugh only hints at implications and lets 99% of the book work as an exercise to uncover the myth. As it relates to my emerging theology+peacebuilding project and my work in the church, it means that I have my work cut out for me. The work of peacebuilding in Church of the Brethren congregations in general is looked upon with suspicion. To what degree have powerful civil religions such as nationalism (which are of course not commonly seen as such) crept into the church's collective unconscious, obscuring the vision for a robust theological framework for peace? Theological in the sense that it's densely biblical and focused on Christ and his peace. The traditional Christocentrism of the Anabaptists who felt a close kinship with the early followers of Jesus and were ennobled to also take that narrow path, in spite of persecution, with others in the Body enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

Cavanaugh's book, like any book worth reading, leaves me with more questions than answers. How does the myth of religious violence cloud the vision of leaders in the church? If you as a church leader agree with what Cavanaugh's arguing, how is it faithfully taught in local expressions of church? What have we lost as a church if we think (implicitly or explicitly) the relatively recent invention of the modern nation-state serves as the dominant framework for our faith practices, and that violence enacted on the part of the state is somehow different than "religious" violence? In the apocalyptic vision of John, isn't it the nations that are pouring into the city of God, the new Jerusalem, to glorify God and the Lamb, not the other way around? (Masculine pronoun used advisedly.)

I've been pondering radical (as in radix/root) ecclesiology recently, and I think this book only serves to strengthen my leanings in that direction. For the next two years I get to keep thinking and reading and writing in this university environment. But after that, the rubber hits the road for me and my family. And the future looks crazy if books like this keep getting me stirred up.

(Thanks to Robb Davis for helping me get after reading this book, and my daughter for cooking dinner tonight while I typed this up.)

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