A very short piece of mine has just been published over on the Political Theology Today blog, on the question of the relationship between religion and violence.
Here, I believe, we find a helpful place to begin a discussion of the association between religion and violence. Religions directly concern themselves with the sphere of self-transcendence and sacrifice, with all of its elevating and destructive potential. They neither create nor monopolize this realm, but they are peculiarly focused upon it, sensitive to it, and active in the formation and confirmation of people within it.
That is one of the reasons why the task of political theology is such an important one: it unearths the forgotten and dissembled roots of the state in the soil of sacrifice and exposes them to the light of critical examination. As Halbertal remarks, it is in religion that we discover means by which to challenge misguided self-transcendence: ‘idolatry … is the utmost sacrifice to a cause that is not worthy of the corresponding sacrifice.’
Within the very brief scope of the piece, I suggest that we should attend, not only to religion as a cause for which people kill and die and to religion’s explicit support of the state in its wars, but also to the way in which religion shapes human solidarities within which people find self-transcendence and the way they negotiate the differences between their solidarities and those of others. Read it all here.
This is a problem for those who would try to minimize the difference between traditional religious thought and practice and their modern equivalents.
Modern thought and practice are really about avoiding sacrifice as much as possible. Self gratification is the order of the day and renunciation and asceticism are looked on as silly. Even our modern militaries are focused to an often absurd degree on avoiding casualties.
If someone wanted to argue that modern thought and practice do not manage to wholly avoid sacrifice, well I’d agree. But there has been a real shift in focus.
I agree. I suspect that much of the power of secularism arises from the collapse of the power of structures of transcendence in Western society, through such forces as capitalism, the inuring comfort, pleasure, and ease of modern life, and excessive exogamy. In place of collective transcendence of selves through shared sacrifice we now have individualistic self-expression through choice.
The power of entities like the state to command sacrifice is weak when the state is increasingly an abstract economic or ideological entity rather than the human reality of a concrete people who share a particular way of life together and as we are no longer tied and formed into traditional loyalties through marriage and other such structures.
I also suspect that this represents far more of an existential crisis for men as a group than for women. Giving birth still represents a form of natural self-transcendence for women that is less immediate a reality for men.
I couldn’t see how to respond on ref21 to your article on baptism so I jumped over here. I have been Presbyterian for the last 25 years but am in process of converation to the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. One of the larger hurdles has been the very strong language in Luther’s small catchecism regarding baptism. I have decided that I am comfortable with it and I find your article very good. And much stronger regarding efficacy than I would regard Presbyterians in general to be. I assume being on the ref21 site you are more of a Reformed sripe than Lutheran. So you would say that hisorically there is not much light between Reformed and Lutheran on baptism? Has that light increased in recent years? Or have I just had a misconception of the Reformed view (that it brings you into the covenant visibly but not much else)? sorry to highjack this post but curious to your response.
Thanks for the comment, Kyle.
There has been historical divergence between Lutheran and Reformed views on baptism, although they were often much closer at the time of the Reformation. The shift from Calvin to Beza on infant baptism is interesting, for instance.
The Reformed view varies and is often, sadly, very low. The notion that ‘it brings you into the covenant visibly but not much else’ is such a diminishing framing of the matter. A more positive expression of the common Reformed view on efficacy is that baptism is an effective seal of divine promise. The comparison I have used is with the coronation of the king. The coronation isn’t the moment of their accession to the throne, although it is a key part of that process. However, the coronation is never seen as ‘just’ an enacting of the accession visibly: it is far more significant than that. Same with baptism.
This, no doubt, will reveal my theistic bent, but I do think that self transcendence doesn’t make much sense if your worldview denies the reality of that which is beyond the mechanistic nexus of material cause and effect. Some of the more fervent proponents of the new atheism have spoken of the need to resist the selfish inclinations of our genes; but that appears to be a mystical presupposition of an objective morality, which must exist apart from the material world, since it is in fundamental antagonism with our genetic makeup.
Might we say that besides helping us to discern and challenge misguided self transcendence, religion is, in fact, the only worldview in which self transcendence achieves a satisfying coherency?