Friday, May 14, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday 2: Religion as Practice

Dr. Vallicella wrote the following in reply to my contention that religions are as they are practiced:

To say that "a religion is as it is practiced" seems to imply that a religion such as Buddhism -- which is what we were discussing --is exhausted by its practices, that it just is the practices in which its practitioners engage. But is this really what BH wants to say? Although practices (prayer, meditation, mindfulness, almsgiving, etc.) are essential to religions, doctrines are also essential. BH seems to admit this himself in his second sentence where he says that it cannot be "totally true" that a religion is independent of its practitioners. This implies that it is partially true that a religion is independent of its practioners, and surely it is: every religion incorporates a doctrinal content which is independent of the religion's adherents and their practices.

I would say that both practice and doctrine are essential to a religion, and that no religion can be reduced to the one or the other. Thus would I oppose both those who attempt to intellectualize religions by turning them into sets of theoretical statements, and those fideists like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein who attempt to 'existentialize' them.

Of course doctrines are essential, but in a real sense, practice and doctrine are not-two. If anything, the formulation of doctrine can itself be seen as a form of religious practice: it is the doing of religion. It requires people in order to exist in any meaningful way.

Both doctrine and practice-- however we parse those terms-- are human phenomena, as is religion itself. This is my point of departure. No people, no religion. No people, no doctrine. No people, no practice. So I disagree with the notion that doctrine exists independent of people. Doctrine exists inside one's head. There need to be human brains and bodies for there to be doctrine. A bunch of scriptures blowing around in the wake of a nuclear holocaust do not a doctrine make.

Please note that my stance says nothing with regard to the referent of doctrine. I'm not addressing any questions about the religious realities doctrines supposedly delineate. There may be a God, but if there are no people, then there's no Christianity, no Christian practice, no Christian doctrine.*

Note, too, that doctrines can exist on paper but remain largely unexpressed in a given religious community. How many modern mainline American Presbyterians take the doctrine of double predestination seriously? If this doctrine isn't expressed in practice, there's only one sense in which it's "there": it's paper and ink in a Bible (and that's open to interpretation) and in the PCUSA Book of Confessions. Doctrine's existence is dependent on things. Since people incarnate doctrine, my original point stands: what a religion is is dependent on how it's practiced. Is Islam a religion of peace? By my reckoning, the answer is complex, because there are peaceful and violent Muslims. The same goes for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.

[*NB: Father Joseph Komonchak of Catholic University, who was a student of Bernard Lonergan, uses the near-heretical formulation, "No people, no Church." This has caused a stir in some of his classes, because many Catholics and Protestants subscribe to a notion of the "invisible Church," i.e., a Church whose reality isn't necessarily dependent on the existence of people. Most theologies of the "invisible Church" will still link this Church to people, but that's not true for everyone: there are those who feel this Church's existence is entirely independent of humanity, almost a Platonic ideal of Church-ness. Whether this is a correct understanding of the term or not, I leave to theologians to discuss.]


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