Breaking Free of Failed “Religion” Through a Practical Salvation

Religion as a projection of man (philosophy, psychology), as a sui generis essence (religious studies), or as a sacred canopy (sociology) all partake of a singular mistake.  It is the same mistake found in the various Christian approaches to non-Christian religion (pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism).  The problem with “religion” is with the category itself.  There is the mistaken assumption that religion can be separated out from culture and practice and studied or theologized about as an entity or essence unto itself.  The Bible does not make this mistake in that it does not address religion per se (more on this later).  This raises the question as to whether Christianity is religion? Or should Christianity distinguish itself from religion?

This is a notion that has been broached by both Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer but which has been left largely undeveloped.  Kierkegaard concluded that human thought, as opposed to Christianity, tends to deal in abstractions rather than the concrete reality of the individual.  Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity extrapolated from Kierkegaard to make a similar distinction as to the unchangeable essence of Christianity which needs to be distinguished from the plasticity of religion. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer both faced a situation in which the majority claimed to be Christian; yet both concluded that this religion stood juxtaposed to authentic faith.  They are describing a force which undermines Christianity equated with religion.  Since their time, the study of religion has advanced claims which would seem to substantiate and build upon the distinction they would make.

The father of religious studies, Mircea Eliade, held that religious experience is sui generis – or distinct from historical pressures and influences. He held that religious experiences are their own cause and belong to their own unique category. For religion to be an object of study, and for religious studies to find a place in the university, Eliade’s paradigm must be the case. If there is no unique essence to religion then the psychology, history, or sociology departments can handle religion.  The problem with Eliade’s paradigm is that a sui generis experience cannot really be studied – by definition it is beyond study as it is distinct, it transcends historical, social, and psychological, causality and arises as its own cause.  Religious studies is reduced to studying religion as the reaction and interpretation of an essence which is not itself open to examination.  This theoretical stance predetermines that the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference.  Religion arises from a reality which falls outside of historical factors and cultural values.  Even the psychological phenomena of religion are an after effect of a reality that does not make itself directly available.  It has become clear to a variety of universities that religious studies does not really have any strong claim on funding as there is not likely to be any progress in attaining the object of study (many have discontinued their departments).

Strangely enough the approach of Christians to non-Christian religions makes the mistake of assigning religion a sui generis essence.  Pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism each imagine religion to be something on the order of a monolithic essence.  This, I argue below, is not simply a category mistake in regard to religion but constitutes a failure to understand Christianity.

Theological liberals and religious pluralists have long sought to set Christianity on a common ground with religion in general.  For example, John Hick, most prominent representative of the “pluralist” school, maintains that Christians must accept that their own tradition “is not the center around which all reality resolves; rather we must see the center as being ultimate reality itself, fully perceived by no single tradition, though the traditions revolve around this center.” According to Hick, though God has many Names: “All religious traditions affirm a transcendent and benign reality. That is their common core, but they approach it in very different ways.” All “traditions are more or less ‘true’ to the extent that they help human beings to overcome self-centeredness and to become open to love others.”  Far from developing any distinctive notion within Christianity, the pluralists would reduce key orthodox claims such as the incarnation and the Trinity to myth.  Pluralists are the ultimate abstractionists, willing to put every human moral system and religion (perhaps with the exception of those which offer human sacrifices) on an equal footing. All religion reduces to the same essence which each religion revolves around.

Inclusivists, such as Paul Tillich (God is the “ground of being”), Karl Rahner (anonymous Christians – those who do not recognize they are Christian may exist in every faith), and Ernst Troeltsch (the absolute lies beyond history and is a truth that in many respects remains veiled), seem to feed off an earlier romantic view of the nineteenth century.  Religion as such is a human good as all point to and partake of the same “reality.” Religions are all alternate variations on a theme, complementary paintings of a single landscape. The religions are not to be discarded as false, though they may certainly be ranked in order of value or comprehensiveness or “finality.” Most advocates of the inclusivist view, being Christian, would name Christianity the “final religion.”  According to Hans Kung, there is salvation outside the Catholic and outside every church: all people “of good will” can attain salvation in their own religions and these may be called “anonymous Christians.” According to the light which is available they achieve Christian salvation. The inclusivist position, at least as Tillich and Rahner present it, seems to depend on a particular reading of John’s Logos. They read Logos in terms of a Greek philosophical concept (proto-Gnosticism), rather than in terms of the person of Jesus.  Again, the concrete historicity of Christ is displaced by the broadest of philosophical abstractions and the notion that religion participates in a singular essence (e.g. being, or logos).

Though Peter Berger claims exclusivism is a relatively rare stance, at least in academically respectable circles, he fails to account for the exclusivism of Karl Barth and assigns it all to fundamentalism. In exclusivism, religion is identified with the story of the tower of Babel, a human attempt to climb Godward; it is guilty of arrogant pride. An early Christian version attributed belief in the pagan gods to demonic influence (e.g. Tertullian) and the many religions to Satan’s work.  This understanding, “demythologized,” passed into the outlook of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, which taught that all religions, including Christianity, are rooted in primitive error and confusion.  The problem, which exclusivism shares with pluralism and inclusivism, is to assume that there is some “essence,” which, in this case, makes religion demonic and evil.  Each of these approaches not only seem to misunderstand the nature of religion but the nature of Christianity.

The sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to sui generis notions of Christianity: that the Church somehow exists apart from a particular society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence apart from Christ.  This disembodied, transcendent notion of Christianity reveals itself in an incapacity to imagine a real-world kingdom constituted on earth.  Niehbur’s questions about Christ and Culture (is it Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in paradox with culture or transforming culture?) reflect the fact that in this form of thought the Church cannot itself be a holistic, immanent, reality constituting its own culture.  The body of Christ is too otherworldly and culture is too much the essence of this worlds reality to have the two realms intersect. As Rodney Clapp describes it[1] however, this is a failure to grasp that the original Christians were creating and sustaining a unique culture.  They were determined to be a culture unto themselves.  They did not perceive the body of Christ as an entity that floated free of their world but one which reconstituted everything in their world.

It is not that Christianity floats free of history and culture; rather as John Milbank claims, “The logic of Christianity involves the claim that the ‘interruption’ of history by Christ and his bride, the Church, is the most fundamental of events, interpreting all other events.” Christianity is grounded in history and in remaking history and culture.  It does not simply manifest itself in these realms, as the full essence of God in Christ is made known in these realms. Yet this interruption is itself historical – in the context of history, society and culture. The gospel story does not simply cancel every other story, rather, as James McClendon maintains, “it affirms them where they are true, it corrects them where they are harmfully wrong, and it completes them by showing the relation between these stories and an inclusive story of all the earth.”  There is no “essence”’ of religion; religions are neither all true nor all more or less evil.  Generalizations about religion are generally mistaken, since religions differ in kind, and only concrete, historical and empirical study can tell us about any particular religion.

In turn, both for the study of religion and for the religionists themselves, it is not a question of belief, doctrine, or experience which can be reduced to a sui generis source or essence.  “Religion is a set of powerful practices that embody the life-forming convictions of its practitioners.”  Religion is not to be believed, apart from practice.  It is something which is embodied and practiced so that it is a conviction that shows itself in a form of life.  In this “practical understanding” doctrine or belief discloses its meaning only within the practices and convictions of the culture that embraces it.

A worked example of the practical view employed by McClendon is the Christian doctrine of salvation. What Christians call “salvation” is not simply another word for Hindu deliverance (moksha), or Buddhist release (nirvana).  The contents of religion arise from a particular (peculiar) context and this is evident with Christianity. Christian salvation is not “just any experience of success or religious attainment, but is having a share in the liberation and healing associated with the rule of God Jesus proclaimed.”  The way of the cross and walking as Jesus walked – taking up the cross in resurrection faith –  is unique to a Christian notion of salvation.  “To talk of the salvation of non-Christians (or of misnamed ‘Christians’) apart from taking that cross, apart from living in that presence, apart from acknowledging that divinity is not as some have supposed, to give salvation a wider meaning; it is rather to empty it of its real meaning.”  To speak of Christian salvation apart from Christian practices and convictions “is like talk of a fire that consumes no oxygen and releases no heat, like talk of a society that has no members and remembers no history.”  Talk of salvation apart from the body of Christ, the Church, the culture of Christ, makes no sense.

Salvation is a practical salvation gained upon entering the body of Christ and embodying the disciplines of that particular culture. The presumption of a universal essence connected with religion in general is very much connected to a misdirected Christianity.  Available light by which one might come to God apart from the body of Christ; an anonymous Christianity which does not require encounter with the incarnate body of Christ – the Church; universal grace in which nature herself is graced apart from the historical work of Christ; natural theology in which the revelation of nature is adequate to apprehend the truth of God apart from the life of Christ; all partake of the same fallacy.  It is the notion that God has set up an alternative access to Himself on the basis of a sui generis experience or ground of being.  The practical result of such a notion is to reduce Christianity to religion – and an inadequate notion of religion at that.

Christian salvation speaks of entry into the Church – the body of Christ and knows nothing of who might or might not be condemned in a future judgment.  Practical salvation does not know of a universal access to God apart from Christ.  Practical Christianity is a departure from the abstraction which Kierkegaard assumed characterized human thought.  It fulfills his notion of an ethical Christianity aimed at the individual and it assumes Bonhoeffer’s distinctive focus on the Church – against the world and in the world – as the means of salvation. As Bonhoeffer stated it, “What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for this world—not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” [2]  If religion concerns characteristic forms of human thought than Bonhoeffer is correct, it is now time for a religionless Christianity which puts on the practices and form of life and thought founded in Christ and not in human abstraction.

[1] In A Peculiar People.

[2] Letters and Papers from Prison

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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