Quaker Universalist Conversations

After Religion: Thoughts on Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

On July 28th, we published my review of Brent Nongbri’s 2013 book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Here are some personal reflections.

In 2009, I stumbled onto The Religious Case Against Belief, an amazing book by writer and artist James P. Carse, Professor Emeritus in History and Literature of Religion at New York University. Reading this book gave me a powerful opening, and I’ve cited Carse’s work often on my personal blog, The Empty Path.

James P. CarseCarse analyses the error he sees in most of our arguments over religion. Through compassionate yet incisive examination, he reveals that “what is currently criticized as religion is, in fact, the territory of belief” (book jacket). The distinction, as he defines it, is enlightening.

Belief systems are “comprehensive networks of tenets that reach into every area of thought and action.” (32) They claim to define all that needs to be known, they mark the boundary beyond which orthodox thinking must not go, and they name anything and anyone beyond that boundary as enemy.

Religions may produce belief systems, yet “they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox.” (36) Unlike the Roman civitas, a society ruled by law and structured by clear lines of authority, a religion is a communitas stretching across time and space, a “spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” Unified, Carse writes, by “the desire…to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together.” (84)

What is most important for Carse—and what opened my eyes—is this insight about imposing boundaries versus looking outward beyond the horizon to embrace larger families.

Carse points out that while belief systems are characterized by boundaries, religions are characterized by horizons. However much members of communitas may help each other to extend their “common field of vision,” they always acknowledge that there is more to their mystery than they can possible know beyond the horizon. (107)

Carse does not wholly reject belief systems. He notes that religious vision does “not restrict itself to a belief system but that belief systems always fall within the scope of poetic horizons. For this reason, horizons and belief systems are not opposites. They occur simultaneously…. Visionaries…do not destroy the walls, but show the openings through them. They do not promise what believers will see, only that the walls do not contain the horizon.” (83)

Clearly, in the post-Reformation era we have completely confused ourselves about what human interaction and interrelationship with the Sacred is. It is certainly not about defining boundaries.

The analogous message from Brent Nonbri’s Before Religion is this (quoting from our review of the book):

In the natural way of all humans, we mistake the categories which we have learned or created for actual descriptions of reality, rather than remembering that they are artificial boundaries—redescriptions—marking out the patterns which our cultures and our own beliefs have seduced our brains into “seeing.”

What Nongbri wants us to be able to do is to see the phenomena themselves, to lay aside our categories so that we might recognize how other people, other cultures, organize their own narratives of interaction with the sacred.

The Protestant Reformation began within what Carse calls communitas, that sacred community of seekers which transcends space and time. The early reformers sought freedom from the belief system of institutionalized “religion,” in order to be able to look to that sacredness which calls from beyond the horizon. As is the way of humankind, though, most of them (including Quakers) eventually fell back into arguing over who was inside or outside the “boundaries” of “right belief.”

In our own age, many of us who have been hurt or seen others hurt by institutionalize “religion,” want to equate “religions” with “belief systems” and to declare both to be something strictly private, something to be kept out of the realm of public discourse and the choices which decide public policy.

Others of us want to cling to the seeming comfort and safety of our respective belief systems (evangelical Christianity, humanism, atheism, universalism, etc.). We can too easily slip into “fundamentalisms,” each of us insisting that our belief systems are the ones everyone should live by. We do this even when we call ourselves “universalist” —if we cannot find a way to turn from boundaries to horizons and to embrace, without changing, those by whom we feel excluded.

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