Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sink deep roots

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
From: Building Peoplehood and Peace
My first encounter with sociologist Robert Bellah came just last week when I read this excellent interview with him: The Roots of Religion, conducted by the folks at Big Questions Online.  The ways in which he describes religion have to be some of the best I've heard from a secular social scientist.

Most appealing to me is that he describes religions as wholly embodied, story-driven traditions that take acts of imagination and practice to understand. In other words, religions aren't primarily sets of rational claims about "absolute truth." As Bellah states, "while understanding the theoretical achievements of the great traditions is important we will not really know what they are about unless we make the imaginative effort to see how the world might seem if we lived in the embodied practices and narratives of these traditions, a difficult but not impossible task." (Emphasis mine, read on for why...)

At times the way Bellah speaks of religions almost begins to resemble my "rubber band model," which I developed while teaching in Ethiopia and have since expanded for my recent capstone presentation for my MA in Conflict Transformation at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The rubber band model can be used as a social analysis tool with which to disentangle the "rubber band ball" of a given tradition (including but not limited to religious traditions).

The six strands I identify in each ball are: Story, Teachings, Practices, Experience, Memory, and Identity. The significance of the green is twofold in that 1) the wholly submerged or partially submerged strands are those elements in a tradition which are harder to see, for both those in and out of the given tradition and 2) traditions are always embodied in real places, in real time, by real people. The figures in the middle represent not persons but a people.

The "secular" rubber band model above is intended to illustrate our secular age in which various traditions are at any given time exerting their forces upon us, often without our conscious awareness, creating what a friend of mine called "fragmented identities," or what I've labeled an "identity matrix" within which our social imaginary is tugged at and contested over.

It should also be said that another benefit of the rubber band ball analogy is that none of these elements are mutually exclusive but are rather all wrapped up together and thus "snap back into place." Even the different traditions overlap at times. You can't, for instance, narrate the existence of the nation-state of America without some reference to the Christian tradition in the West or the rise of capitalism.

Described this way, religions should be seen as being on a more even playing field to other traditions such as the nation-state or economic system, to one's family, clan, or tribal system, one's academic training, or one's profession. All of these, in some sense and to some degree, are "storied traditions." Or as Bellah puts it, "If religions are concerned with the 'general order of existence,' and how we are to relate to it, as Clifford Geertz held, then I do think anyone so concerned will be in some sense religious."

This is perhaps the most striking quote from the interview:
I think one must have one religious home from which one gets one’s most basic orientation, but I see no reason why one can’t also learn a great deal from other traditions that perhaps see some things to which your home tradition has not always attended.
In some ways this statement could be seen as a rebuke to the secularized Western stance of being "spiritual but not religious," Christians practicing Yoga with no real understanding of the deeper meanings and stories which lie behind such a practice, or any number of other phenomena which only become coherent in a consumeristic society which teaches you that, as Stanley Hauerwas obnoxiously puts it, "You should have no story but the story you chose when you had no story."

There's no such thing as "no story" and the choices you have are limited and contingent, casting "freedom" and "choice" in a seriously questionable light. As Bellah suggests, it is better to sink deep roots in a deep tradition and be open and curious to what other traditions can teach you, but also clear about what they can't teach you.

When I taught the model above in Ethiopia, my biblical-theological basis was in Luke 6, where Jesus talks about removing the log from one's own eye in order to see clearly and in turn help one's brother (or sister) remove the speck from their eye. My other term for this process was "disciplined disentangling."

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