I have had some trouble in the past few years seeing beliefs affecting action. For example, does belief in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affect daily life that much?
Building off of this, I entertained that beliefs don’t matter so much as one’s actions. This is a very America idea. Maybe even Marxist.
But then I read something interesting this week for class on the American Revolution and on ideas concerning women at the time.
According to Amanda Porterfield, it was common to see women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men.
Aaron Burr (vice president to Thomas Jefferson) took a different approach. He gave his daughter Theodosia the opportunity to learn. Broadly. By age 10, she read French and Latin. At 12 she took up Greek. By 18, she had obtained Italian in addition to competence in the piano, dance, geography, and history.
Theodosia proved what Burr already assumed: women aren’t dumb.¹
This got me to thinking what beliefs can accomplish in the world. In this case, a belief had inhibited the vast potential of women. If people saw women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men, why attempt to change that? It was natural, right?
The beliefs that matter most—in the sense that they have the most impact due to their presumption—are those we attribute to some natural, unchangeable, “real,” stable essence. What goes unquestioned? What is off limits to probe?
Beliefs matter. When left unquestioned and unprovoked, they foster a stupor that can be potentially dangerous.
Consider the relatively recent movement #blacklivesmatter. There has been a conservative backlash to it called #alllivesmatter. What gets lost on #alllivesmatter is that it superficially focuses on the phrase #blacklivesmatter without taking time to attend to the movement’s interests.
#blacklivesmatter already assumes that all lives matter: their point is black lives haven’t mattered historically (while technically it could be #blacklivesmattertoo, that gets too long to be catchy). In this case, black bodies have taken the brunt of the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and increased surveillance.
What’s the point of connecting #blacklivesmatter to women’s education in the late 1700s? Both are responses to naturalized beliefs that inhibit groups.
Women’s education was a response to women’s inferiority. #blacklivesmatter is a response to latent (and sometimes extremely overt) white supremacy that just wants black people to shut up, throw away their identity, stop complaining, and be like white people.
#alllivesmatter promotes inaction to change the killing of black lives by ignoring the actions already happening against black lives.
Beliefs matter. Probe them.
¹Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 42-44.
“You must read literature, for there you find how people live.” That’s not a real quote, but Robert Turnbull said something similar in my “Theological French” class six years ago. I don’t know why they slapped “theological” on it since it was really a whirlwind course in French grammar, but alas…
Seminary was an interesting time for me. I had started considering that maybe I didn’t want to pursue theology. But still, when he said those words, I had an internal reaction. Theology was reality. All I needed to do to be right with God and people was to read theology. This would order my life and life would be grand.
This isn’t to say that I hadn’t enjoyed novels. I had read The Da Vinci Code while in seminary and absolutely enjoyed it. I don’t know how many would call that literature, but then again, what is literature? Is it merely a piece that literary critics have declared part of “the” canon? Is it a piece that has something of timeless, enduring value? Is literature a book people say you should read but never have themselves?
As I was performing a meticulous, mindless task at work, I began listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
What have I been missing all this time? Sure, gritty shows like Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, or The Wire have a similar “realness” to them, but their writers, directors, or producers are somewhat invisible to me. Furthermore, I cannot see and hear the internal workings of the characters. These shows also seem to match a lot of my experience in the following way: white protagonists.
What would happen if I continued to read non-fiction about my research interests, but augmented it with literature, pop- and classic? What sort of things would I come across that I might otherwise miss? As the narrator in Invisible Man speaks of his youth, I wonder how much that voice reflected a generation.
How much did young African-Americans in the 1930s and 40s wish to be successful, but only in a way that didn’t upset white supremacy? How many constantly feared that they had upset whites? How many had tried to be “good blacks” as defined by their white lords? As I listen, I wonder how different a person I would be if I were raised in a different body, time, family, and social setting. The big value that shines through early in the novel is to speak to whites in a humble way or else incur their wrath. Is that assumption still present in the minds of African-American minds today?
Perhaps it’s my Millennial sense of entitlement, my narcissism, my white privilege, or healthy sense of self, but I don’t generally put on airs with people. But to approach an entire class of people as if they don’t use toilets, as if they were gods? It doesn’t compute.
How many voices are absent in my life? Not only do I not have a very diverse group of friends at work or church, but also at school. They’re primarily straight white Protestants. I don’t have anything against straight white Protestants. I am one. But I along with my group are not the only people in my city, state, and country. If I cannot find different voices in my experience, is it at least desirable to hear alternative voices in literature? This is elementary, but I probably have a lot of unconscious opinions that I never become aware of because I don’t have Difference showing me how much my assumptions don’t reflect everyone else’s reality.
If you have any good novels that deal with the following topics, send them my way: gender, sexuality, race, class, age, rites of passage.
Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”
1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms
The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)
Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.
Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?
You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.
2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion
But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):
By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”
In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.
While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”
So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).
A word on “myth”
Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:
Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority
Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.
When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:
When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result
Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.
That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.
I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.
I don’t have to think twice about walking into a gas station with a hoodie and walking out with skittles.
I don’t have to travel two states over to get married because my state doesn’t recognize me.
I don’t have to look for special ways to get into a building without ramps because I can’t walk.
I don’t have to ask people to repeat themselves and eventually give up communicating because I can’t hear.
I don’t get my character questioned because of what I wear to a club.
I don’t have to pull out my green card when I’m pulled over.
I don’t have to ask someone to describe things to me because I can’t see.
I don’t have to have my loyalties questioned because I don’t practice the majority religion.
I don’t have to endure stares when I walk into a bathroom because my clothes don’t seem to match my born gender.
I don’t have to have my decisions questioned because I’m retired.
I don’t have to suffer insults at an intersection because I’m hungry and all I have is a sign.
I don’t have to work three jobs to make ends meet.
I don’t notice suspicious stares when I ask a stranger for help.
I don’t have to defend myself when I kiss my significant other in public.
I don’t have to worry about a clerk watching me when I’m perusing through electronics.
I don’t have to think about employers “losing” my application because of my last name.
I don’t have to keep being passed over for jobs because I did time over 20 years ago.
I don’t have to live in fear or instability because my country is colonized.
I don’t have to defend my body because it doesn’t fit a certain body image.
The fact that I can walk through life relatively easily and that others have to jump through arbitrary hoops isn’t fair. I enjoy most of these advantages by accident of birth and rearing. I didn’t set up these social advantages nor did I work to achieve them. I don’t mind the easy road, but I do mind that others don’t have the same privileges and that access to them is made harder by some. I do mind that some groups of which I’m a part keep other groups from their full potential. Is there a way for me to enjoy these freedoms while not appearing (or being) an utter douche? I think the only way I can is by helping to remove barriers. A friend of mine put it this way: acknowledging privilege, showing empathy to the marginalized (his words were discussing people of color), advocating and participating to remove barriers by many means, and then reading perspectives of the marginalized to hear their voices unfiltered through media outlets and paraphrases by the dominant. Who are the marginalized? LGBT, people of color, those who are poor, those of the working class, those of disability, those of non-majority religions, those who are older, those of radical politics, those who are colonized, those who are prisoners or have been, those of “different” body images, and probably others. What groups have I left out because my privilege affords me ignorance of them?
Want to hear voices different from yours? Here are some. They are not representative of every person in the group because there is ridiculous diversity within each group. Include others I don’t know about.
I’m listening to an interviewee, Toby Ord, on a podcast called “Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot” on choosing between ethical theories. He was talking about consequentialism when I thought of something: how does social justice fit into these theories? This has all been culminating from Micki Pulleyking’s ethics unit (which involved selections from Michael Sandel’s Justice), Phil Snider’s ethics course (Sandel again), and Kathy Pulley’s assignment of James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation and Miguel de la Torre’s Latina/o Social Ethics. It would probably fit under consequentialism/utilitarianism, or “in/action that would cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people” (what usually goes with this is “regardless of means”). I thought whether there is an inverse to that, action that reduces the sum misery of all (but which also goes, as far as possible, through painless means; but then, how much positive change is truly without its pains?). I might term this “negative consequentialism” or just come up with a cool name for it if it doesn’t already exist. I have communitarian concerns in mind when I think about this. As I’ve been wondering about various types of liberation–
here are some I can think of:
Gender- transcending binary stereotypes, and allowing for transgender, women having the freedom to maximize potential
Race- oppressed peoples (regardless of skin color) whose voices have been silenced by the powerful
Class- when the rich few control the social, economic, and political realities and opportunities of the mass, and don’t fairly distribute resources
Animal- they are given as natural of lives as possible; when endangered, helped; domestic animals allowed more freedom in life, freedom from too many unnatural strictures, even those bred to eat
Sexual- where sexual needs and desires are met as far as possible, with dignity for partners involved, protection from disease, protection from relational abuse or mistreatment, non-exploitative, unrestricted, not duty-bound but flows with desire
Psychological- freedom from the pains of mental illness, freedom from the stigma of “crazy,” opportunities for health, education, and career
Queer- ability to flourish without oppression due to one’s sexual orientation, to love whom one loves, to marry the person(s) of your choice (liberation from monogamous hegemony maybe?)
Dogmatic- where religion is used to stifle creativity or maintain a status quo based on uncritical acceptance of (a) charismatic leader’s(‘) influence and thought, where “other” is demonized or cast as “sinful” “heretical” or worthy of any type of this-worldly punishment at the hands of said community
Familial- where family members abuse others based on some form of power (parental, older sibling, size, economic, etc.)
Political- where one is constrained just a bit too much by the government
Etc.- each of these has more to say about it, are not mutually exclusive, and is not exhaustive in what one can be liberated from. Pretty much all of this looks like escape from the definitions, abuses, and clutches of the powerful.
I’ve wondered at what the ideal society would look like. To me it would be where voices aren’t shut out because of marginality. Voices would be heard irrespective of their origins. People would have dignity with no fear of attack on their persons. People wouldn’t be stifled based on constructed otherness. Basic needs would be met and psychological needs would be apt to be met. Communities would think things out critically and for extended periods. The arts and humanities would flourish. With this idea of negative utilitarianism, I would need to think through what I believe misery is, its causes, and then think of ways out. What do you think? Does liberation strike chords with you positively or negatively? Can you think of types of liberation I’ve omitted?