Religion

Religions are narrative truths affirmed by ritual; they variously assert the existence of many gods, one God, a mystical union of three gods in one, or their myth does not have a concept of God at all.

The narrative truth and the ritual in which it is affirmed have essential functions for a community, for the individuals within it, and for its social capital. They embrace its culture, giving it identity and meaning. And although narrative truth is central to it, religion also inhabits all five forms of truth:

• There is material truth in the historical account, and in at least some of religion’s practical and ethical teaching.

• The narrative truth of religion is the allegory, the parable and myth which provide insights and deep sources for reflection.

• Religion’s implicit truth is the insight derived from deliberation; it is the guidance, comfort, inspiration and prudence derived by a person’s own participation in his or her religion.

• The performative truth of religion lies in its ritual, as in the performance of the Christian Eucharist and other practices of religion which affirm and bring into existence a reality, similar in kind to the reality brought into existence by a contract.

• Religion also involves a self-denying truth, in that the commanding authority of a myth is impaired, or even destroyed, when it is described as a myth. The compiler of this Dictionary, as a critic, affirms the truth of this description of religion—but, as an observant, he denies it and, instead, enters into the performative truth which gives religion real presence.

 

There are paradoxes and shadow-meanings in all of these, especially in narrative truth and self-denying truth. Alfred North Whitehead, with the sureness of touch of a philosopher of science, captures it:

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.R38

Religion, like all other living things, dies if dissected; the dissector kills what he seeks to understand. It exists because it is performed, affirmed and loved. The view that dismisses religion on the grounds that it contains untrue statements is a solecism; a naïve failure to understand the significance of religion, the culture which it expresses, and the many natures of truth. If a common practice celebrates the identifying narrative or myth of the community, if it is expressed in one or more of the arts, especially music, if there is at least a degree of repetition and constancy in that expression, and if it requires some, or many, members of the community to participate, it is, for Lean Logic, an expression of religion.

In the process, religion provides meeting places in which people can come together, building and sustaining the friendships of social capital; it is the hub through which needs are signalled and answered. That can be done in other ways, too, of course: by playing cards, or being a regular at the pub, or being on a committee. But religion can do it in ways which those other meeting places cannot. It enables a lot of people to participate in a collective activity, doing the same thing at the same time, to the same music. Its ritual is, in itself, of no direct practical value, and this makes it especially potent and effective as a statement by participants that they are there as members of the community. In religious observance, friends, neighbours, beloveds and families face the same way; there is shared presence.

Religion delivers tradition to us, a present from the past. It brings core values represented in terms of exceptional beauty. The idea that every community, every village, no matter how small, should have, in the middle of it, a building of the greatest beauty they can manage, reaching up into the sky, a place of wonder and reflection, a seedbed of common purpose, made from gifts of money and labour, coming to terms with the riddles of life and death, and bringing private lives and the setting up of families into the embrace of the community—well, you might think it a ridiculous utopia if it had not happened.

The critic will reach for the Contrarian Fallacy, pointing out that religion can bring strife as well as concord; that there have been many abuses of power; that some expressions of religion misapprehend their own myths—by, for instance, naïvely supposing the Creation Story to be fact. Religion, like every other human enterprise, comes with no guarantee of being done well. It can be more drawn to guilt than to joy, to the personal than the collective, to righteous narcissism than to caritas. Religion can be intolerant, sanctimonious and cruel. But it is hard to think of any political or social order to which those regrettable properties do not apply from time to time. The secular world, too, with chilling good intentions, and at whatever cost in lives and capital in all its forms, sometimes tries to build a new and secular Jerusalem.

But look again at what religion can do. Religion is the community speaking. It is culture in the service of the community. It is a framework for integrating caritas into the community’s life and culture; it takes charitable giving beyond the level of personal conscience and integrates it into the way the community sees itself and expresses itself.R39

Religion uses allegory, opening up the ironic space of questions unsettled, paradoxes unresolved, beauty undescribed. It occupies, with benign myth, the space in the mind which, if vacated, is wide open to takeover by ideology. Akin to carnival, it provides powerfully cohesive rituals that give reality to membership of the community; that invite emotional daring; and that alert the community to time—to the natural cycles of day and season, as well as to its existence as inheritor from previous generations and benefactor of future generations. The ritual itself is a skilled practice built on justice, truthfulness and courage which affirms the identity of the community and builds social capital—it invites reflection, recruiting the deep intellectual power which is available only to the subconscious mind, and locates the community as particular to—and steward of—the place. It bears the gift of encounter. In all these ways, religion underpins the trust and permanence which make it possible to sustain reciprocity—the network of interconnected talent and service which makes the local economy real.

Unfortunately, the religions of the world will not, in general, be in good shape for these creative responsibilities. There are four reasons for this:

The first is that religions have been shattered and depleted by the disintegration of social structure and the loss of social capital which have followed the advance of the market economy. At the same time, the advance of science and the literal-minded, disenchanted thinking that is widely taken to be the only sort of thinking there is has made it harder to recognise and accept the poetic discourse of religion. Challenged by science, its leaders and ministers quickly surrendered to the idea that scientific, material truth is the only kind of truth there is. Argued on science’s own terms, the religions that have been exposed to the debate in any serious way have been routed.

Secondly, and for similar reasons, a large part of (at least) the divided and confused Western Christian church, as it developed in the late twentieth century, has gone to great lengths to present the most plain-speaking of interpretations, abandoning the unchanging text needed if people are to have any chance of holding it in the memory. It has scrapped its liturgies and strained, instead, at spontaneity, and at presenting the simple message of personal salvation in literal terms to be accepted as material truth or rejected as false. When it is presented in those terms, many reasonable people have no choice but to refuse to accept a proposition which they reject as simply nonsense. In this way, the church has thrown out the whole set of implicit functions, narrative and allegorical truths which are integral to the artistic and cultural meaning of the community, and which are the essence of religion. Christian religion in the market economy has found itself drawn into the idolatry of reducing complex meaning and the reflective Imitation of Christ to an iconic Imitation of Marketing, falling for a technique which it can only do with breathless and piteous amateurism, in place of what it used to do with assured and numinous skill.

Thirdly, although at present there is a yearning for an expression of other, non-materialistic, non-scientific, spiritual values, the established churches almost completely fail to benefit from this. They are not on that wavelength and, for much of the spiritual movement in the world of strongly-developed green awareness, the affirmation of a Christian faith stands at the opposite extreme from what they need. It seems cold and absurd, full of confident reassurance about an afterlife which is not only grossly incredible but an offence to people whose concern is focused on how much longer there is going to be a planet for this life. Established religion, especially the Christian church, seems to be the embodiment of urban, and human-centred, alienation from nature, while green values look for ways to establish some real contact with—and come to the defence of—the rural. The childishness of happy-camper services is disempowering; in contrast, the green movement’s central purpose is empowerment—to develop its intelligence and resources, to empower its members to act, having observed for themselves the extent of the ecological betrayal that has taken place at the command of centralised urban civilisation and its centralised religion since the invention of the plough.

It is not impossible that the Christian church, after the shock of realising that it is being sidelined in the biggest spiritual renaissance for centuries, could recover its intelligence and a sureness of emotional touch. In fact, many churches are contributing all they can to the greening of faith; for them, environmental awareness is a central ethic. But turning the churches green is different from getting the Greens to see anything green about them at all, and a benign convergence of the two principles is some distance away. Lean religion, if it happens, will, like lean everything-else, start with the shock of kaikaku. Maybe that shock, from the church’s point of view, is happening now.R40

The fourth handicap which religions have to bear—as they find themselves with their new society-building and life-saving responsibilities—is the mixing up of religions which has taken place over the same period. There is no doubt that they have something to learn from each other, gaining insights through their faiths which may not be accessible in any other way—the focus on the family, for instance, and the idea of God as a huge, complex, often difficult personality, are among the ideas which have been developed a long way by Judaism, and Christianity has inherited Judaism’s gift for recruiting emotions into the whole of its religious expression. Islam has a text of rock solid beauty and, in Sufism, a philosophy of love. Confucianism’s strength lies in the interweaving values of Tao. Every religion has something to teach; they are each best in some way: the Lean Economy, which will inherit pluralism, will have to derive advantages from them.

Nonetheless, pluralism is a self-denying truth. It contradicts itself with multiple claims to authority. If it is spoken too loud, the contradiction is fatal. It has introduced a sense of branding into the matter which, in itself, trivialises religious encounter: it effectively forces people to make an instrumental choice with the conscious mind, rather than a bit-by-bit discovery of meaning and affection at the level of the subconscious, starting in childhood when the foundations for this facility are laid. As Edmund Burke recognised (though writing in a different—political—context), the commitments in which one finds oneself have an ability to endure, and a sense of inevitability, which is not necessarily shared by commitments which are chosen:

Men without their choice derive benefits from that association [with the society in which they find themselves]; without their choice they are subjected to duties in consequence of these benefits; and without their choice they enter into a virtual obligation as binding as any that is actual. Much the strongest moral obligations are such as were never the results of our option.R43

 

CREATIVE BREAKAGE
and its benefits

“To break” is one of the curious words whose meaning, while clear enough, has a shadow which implies its opposite: the shadow-meaning of “to break” is “to make”: the light breaks; to break-in a horse, to break a fast, to have a break, to give me a break, to break through, to break the ice, to break a glass as a symbol of marriage, to break bread: the latter is the symbol both of the Christian idea of sacrifice as the condition for the sublime, and of domestic good humour and hospitality, the making and sustaining of friendship.

In a constructive sense, there is a breaking of the will here, a deference to more powerful circumstance as the starting point for making fresh sense of things. It is often the case that a word or an idea means its opposite, as if deep meaning were not a matter of cracking enough problems but cracking enough jokes. The joker who dreamed up Psalm 84, for example, hinted at a refreshing, thirst-quenching potential in tears—and his metaphor was real enough to drink:

Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well; and the pools are filled with water.R41

It is with a related sense of double meaning—of successfully making a virtue out of vice—that breakage merges also with giving. In the Judaic story, “a broken heart” is the ultimate gift: “Since thou delightest not in burnt offerings”, dreams Psalm 51, I shall have to take the extreme step: “A broken and contrite heart O God shalt thou not despise.”

It is John Donne that says it most directly and intensely:R42

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Our political economy will be broken. It may yet, on that account, rise and stand, but that depends on its resilience.

 

There can be no submission or creative breakage (see sidebar) in the context of a conscious choice between the seductive appeals of competing retailers in the salvation market. Pluralism also means that society itself—and its institutions, such as schools—dare not favour one story over another, so collective expression of any one religion becomes an offence to the rest: many turns into none.

Maybe that leaves the option of inventing its own—the common purpose expressed in the example of the Bromley by Bow Centre (Presence) suggests the possibility of surmounting cultural difference—but any invented hybrid is likely to be raw and literal, lacking the settled subtleties and beauties of religion. Society is thus largely excluded from the benign shared vocabulary of ceremony, celebration, solidarity, spirit and belief provided by religion; the political economy, scrubbed clean of allegory, is filled with secular kitsch.

Of course, it is possible for diverse religions to transcend this pluralism in shared recognition of each other’s faith—“the dignity of difference”, as Dr. Jonathan Sacks terms it—and this is something in which art is particularly skilled. Such connection only works if the starting point is a robust loyalty to one’s own tradition—without that, there is nothing to connect—but when different traditions do develop their artistic differences to the fullest extent, they may derive an intuitive sympathy and respect for each other from the experience of their own faith, and find common ground on which they can meet. In such circumstances, secularism—confronting religion—has nothing to say. You cannot argue with a song.R44

But there are limits to how much of the dignity of difference can be borne. Local identity depends on its culture: a divided culture makes a united community harder to achieve, and at a time of stress it may be impossible. Existing religious loyalties are intense, and this can be expected to fracture some local communities, with others defining their internal cohesion in terms of opposition to the rest. Secular attempts to shift these loyalties tend to be savage, and new ethics which fill the vacuum left by religion are often dangerous. Appropriate responses are discussed in Multiculturalism, but this is the explosive mixture which many nations have been diligently building since the mid twentieth century.

 

None of this is rational from the point of view of the market economy, whose instinct for worship is directed to its technology, but the idea that a society can be held together without either an energy-rich market or a culture-rich religion—that is seriously irrational. A coherent social order in the future will need a religion; a religion will need a rich cultural inheritance: it will give culture a real job to do, something to participate in, and not simply to be watched: something to give your heart to, to give you the moral strength you need to keep going because there is no big Something in the sky who is going to do it for you.

 

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

9 Responses to “Religion

  • Catherine Johnstone
    3 weeks ago

    Is it really seriously irrational?

    To start at the end: DF asserts that it is seriously irrational to think that a society can be held together without either an energy rich market economy or a culture rich religion.

    Why is it seriously irrational? DF tells us what religion is for…place for people to come togther, sustaining friendshps, collective activitity with routines of time and place, core values represented with beauty (art, architecture, music. Can’t these elements be supplied to or created for a community through its culture without the defining religious element of narrative truth?

    “Religion occupies with benign myth the space in the mind which if vacated is wide open to takeover by ideology”

    I don’t think the myths of Christianity are benign. One man came to save us all… from what? Our sins….we are all sinners…pain and a tortured death on our behalf as one of central icons… the birth of the lovely, special baby…three months later (in our calendar and a child’s mind) he’s on the cross…the inherent patriarchy of Christianity…God as ‘he’…..the Lord and Father of Mankind ….it was Eve who took the apple and God gave Adam the job of ruling over her…

    So, despite loving much of the trappings of Christianity (its art, architecture, music etc), and the teachings of Jesus as they are imparted to us, I have a real problem with the idea that all will be well for communities that find themselves in the Christian tradition. Its non-benign and patriarchal narrative myths will always mean that it can readily be interpreted in ways that cause personal, interpersonal and intercultural difficulties.

    What if….we were to have a spirituality grounded in respect for each other, respect for nature, an understanding of its systems and cycles, a deep ecology which sees humanity as just one small but very powerful element of Gaia, and that asserts our obligation and responsibility to do no harm to Earth’s ecology because it has intrinsic value in its own right, not just because we need it.

    What if that spirituality encouraged us to look to and learn from great thinkers, visionaries, leaders, writers, doers, traditions, cultures, religions from ancient societies up to modern times, regardless of the culture they were grounded in and religion the individuals adhered to (or may even have founded, whether deliberately or not)?

    What if that spirituality also borrowed truly benign narratives from religions, cultures and spiritual traditions, past and present, but presented them as stories only, to be understood as such, and to be used to enrich the culture. We would not need to ‘favour one story over another’, or to see them as ‘competing retailers in the salvation market’. That this would constitute a self denying truth wouldn’t matter if we were not looking to religion as our authority.

    What if that spirituality were entwined with art, culture, carnival, celebration, traditions of the place, and from outside of the place, and which could also be borrowed from past or present religions and traditions?

    Would all this be enough to create the sense of cohesion, caring and common ground necessary for a supportive, trusting, community? Would we really need a narrative that too many people take literally and which would be fraught with dangers?

    • Hey Cath, thanks for this fantastic offering, and as editor of Lean Logic I’m pretty sure DF would have wholeheartedly agreed with much, if not all, that you write. I shall endeavour to explain that opinion!

      As I read it, what he is calling “seriously irrational” is the idea that as the energy-rich market breaks down, we can do without taking culture a whole lot more seriously again.

      The word ‘religion’ is obviously a controversial one (they don’t come much more controversial!) but, as he explains, his own unique definition of ‘religion’ is wide enough to encompass all sorts of things that aren’t usually considered religious, but which are about his life’s work – how to hold a society together to avoid the opening up the kind of cultural fault lines that history warns of.

      His starting point is that that aim is going to be a lot harder as the climacteric unfolds – whatever the local traditions – so, given that context, he wants to explore every possible avenue at our disposal towards that end, including the significance of ‘religion’ (so defined).

      He certainly didn’t think that that needed to be Christian, but where you maybe differ is that he did see ‘narrative truth‘ – i.e. storytelling – as being necessarily at the very heart of such culture. Note though that he’s talking about ‘narrative truth’, not about literal narratives or historical claims, both of which he instead places in the category of material truths (i.e. factual claims that are true or false, as opposed to the narrative truth of stories, with all the shadow-meanings, ambiguities and invitations to reflection they can bring).

      I too have longstanding issues with the inherent patriarchy of taking the classic family of father, mother, child and turning it into father, son, ghost, but that’s another story…

      Certainly David himself clearly wasn’t comfortable with many elements of modern Christianity, as he makes abundantly clear, decrying for example its “confident reassurance about an afterlife which is not only grossly incredible but an offence to people whose concern is focused on how much longer there is going to be a planet for this life” and its “embodiment of urban, and human-centred, alienation from nature”.

      Nonetheless he equally clearly derived implicit truth from its parables, teachings, art etc (i.e. its storytelling). As I mentioned in the webinar, I think his entry on Ironic Space offers some clues here, but I won’t presume to speak for him further on such matters, since he doesn’t offer much defence of Christian narratives in his work. Rather he merely acknowledged it as his own cultural background, and the tradition from within which he explored life’s great mysteries.

      Indeed, David shared your apparent sense that “if the spirit is anywhere, it is in the natural ecology“, and highlighted that “small communities, with cultures shaped by a closeness to nature, which is held in respect and awe, could be close to pagan spiritualism—like the lelira of the Inuit and the shamanic religions whose rituals sustain the scripts which in turn sustain their local ecologies”.

      And he reminds us, as you do, that we have things to learn from all traditions, and that “coexistence is not toleration; it is resonance; it is the nature of the human ecology”.

      In keeping with that – as you so beautifully write – in these times spirituality will need to:

      “borrow truly benign narratives from religions, cultures and spiritual traditions, past and present, but presenting them as stories only, to be understood as such, and to be used to enrich the culture. We would not need to ‘favour one story over another’, or to see them as ‘competing retailers in the salvation market’. That this would constitute a self denying truth wouldn’t matter if we were not looking to religion as our authority.”

      To my eyes that was exactly his point, wonderfully stated. That both religious fundamentalism and Richard Dawkins-style atheism have spectacularly missed the point – they have taken opposite ends of an argument over whether the literal narratives of particular religions are materially true or false.

      What he advocates instead is entering into those nuanced narrative truths (not the literal narratives) which hold out the potential to encourage us towards reflection and empowerment, rather than the slavish obedience that he so vehemently opposes in everything he writes.

      As he put it, “some expressions of religion misapprehend their own myths – by, for instance, naively supposing the Creation Story to be fact”. Or as you put it, they should be “presented as stories only, to be understood as such, and to be used to enrich the culture”. That is exactly what he meant by narrative truth, and why he felt it was so important.

      I hope that explains my firm belief that he would wholeheartedly support your beautiful vision Cath! And given the stories you’ve told about your own interactions with him, I suspect you suspect the same.

      Thanks again, so much,
      Shaun

      • Beth Brownfield
        2 weeks ago

        Shaun, Your responses are alway so incredible. You must have David’s work memorized with all the hyper links at your finger tips. It would take me a day to make such an intricate reply. Bravo!

        Catherine, I’ll get back to you soon.

      • Catherine Johnstone
        2 weeks ago

        Hi Shaun

        Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to reply so fully! I have a lot to say in response, but no time right now. Not something I can rattle off! I will get back to you.

        Cath

      • Thanks very much Catherine for your response to the religion reading. I would have said much of what you say and also appreciate Shaun’s response. My sense is that Fleming’s description of religion is more aspirational than actual and, as you and Shaun said, much broader than what we think of as religion. I know that I have a bit of a knee jerk response to the word ‘religion’.

        As a young child I remember being horrified hearing the teaching of the Catholic church that non catholics would go to hell. I knew it wasn’t true. But my husband, who grew up with a much more all encompassing version of Catholicism, believed it. He never had a non Catholic friend growing up. Probably many of us left the religions of our childhoods because of the ways religion created an us and them.

        It feels like one of the aspects of religion that Fleming is pointing to, in addition to the way common culture can support community cohesion, is the more mystical aspect of every religious tradition where there is a great deal of common ground – in his words (not exact quote) religion helps us be with unanswered questions, with paradox, with mystery and beauty. If we go beneath the surface, beneath the dogma to the root teachings and practices of most religions we land in the mystery and in the “truth” of non separation, which is where we land when we are rooted in the natural world as well.

      • Catherine Johnstone
        2 weeks ago

        Hi Shaun

        Thanks again for your reply. I think you are probably right that David would agree with my overall vision, but I still think that both he and I, and you and I, do differ, and not really where you think we differ! My turn to explain.

        You write: As I read it, what he is calling “seriously irrational” is the idea that as the energy-rich market breaks down, we can do without taking culture a whole lot more seriously again.

        Indeed David talks a lot about the need for a rich culture, but if he had written the same sentence and just used the word “culture” it would have a different meaning. I think he differentiates clearly between culture and religion. Here, he’s talking about the need for a “culture-rich religion”, not just a rich culture.

        Religion is “the binding-together of people with stories, music, dance, emotion, death, spirit”, whereas “the culture of a society or community is its art, music, dance, skills, traditions, virtues, humour, conventions, celebrations and conversation.”. It’s a broader definition. Religions “embrace its (a community’s) culture, giving it identity and meaning”. So to me he’s saying that within the rich culture that will be so essential, we will also need a culture-rich religion.

        He certainly didn’t think that that needed to be Christian,

        Yes I completely agree. But he does come across as thinking that we would be very lucky if that were the tradition we were to find ourselves in: “ they will inherit a proven, full-mouthed, full-blooded liturgy of great depth and brilliance…….And they will also inherit the architectural expression of that liturgy—the churches—spectacular assertions that community is a mere prelude to the great fugue of overlapping mysteries, parables, affections and accomplishments that give us Gaia.”. If I ended up with all this but with a fundamentally different narrative, I’d be happy! And I love his metaphor of the prelude and fugue!

        …but where you maybe differ is that he did see ‘narrative truth’ – i.e. storytelling – as being necessarily at the very heart of such culture.

        (To get our definitions: to me narrative is storytelling. “It may or may not report the material truth, but the narrative says something that cannot be said in any other way.” Narrative truth is the meaning and understanding, the truth, that we can reach through the story: “a shadow-meaning that extends beyond metaphor, and can lead to the discovery of material or implicit truths”.)

        I don’t differ with him here at all. I think that narrative is a wonderful vehicle for getting at the truth, and can very often reveal truths that are hard to get to in a more direct manner. And I’m perfectly happy to take his word for it that “it’s nessecarily at the heart of such culture”. I understand the difference between narrative truth and material truth. Where I think David and I part company is that for me there are narratives which impart truths without damaging the listener, and there are those which may aim to impart useful, helpful, meaningful truths, but which have a well-proven ability to damage people on the way. I take objection to the statement “Religion occupies with benign myth the space in the mind which if vacated is wide open to takeover by ideology” for exactly this reason. Many of the stories of Christianity, from which we are supposed to glean wonderful truths (and clearly many do), are not benign, in my view. And also many of the ‘truths’ that we may arrive at from the stories, ie the narrative truths, are also damaging, for example the narrative truth of masculine/male domination. Even if consciously we reject that, it is a strong undercurrent of Christian culture because it is so pervasive in that narrative. In short, in my view both the narrative and the narrative truth of religions can be dangerous.

        What he advocates instead is entering into those nuanced narrative truths (not the literal narratives) which hold out the potential to encourage us towards reflection and empowerment, rather than the slavish obedience that he so vehemently opposes in everything he writes.

        And I would completely agree with him, if the narrative truth, and the narrative itself, were not, in many instances, so unpleasant. It’s hard if you have grown up with all the narratives of a complex religion, to decide which truths you accept and which you don’t. Or, you can decide, consciously, but to remove them as unconscious drivers is not easy. They have become part of your psyche.

        As he put it, “some expressions of religion misapprehend their own myths”

        Yes. But David doesn’t seem to suggest that it’s the wrapping surrounding the (narrative) truth that is the problem. The myths themselves are benign, he says. Of course people misapprehend when many churches present what seem to many to be stories, as fact. Millions of people believe the creation myth, and that they will go to hell if they misbehave, and that they were born sinful. And this causes a lot of pain. And I don’t see how it is avoidable given the nature of some of the stories.

        To go further, I understand there are aspects of the Christian myth that were added later with the deliberate intention to control the population. I read recently that Saint Someone (sorry, memory fails me) added the notion of original sin sometime in the Middles Ages for exactly that purpose. Benign?

        Religions can be, and often are, used to manipulate and control. To me we need spirituality, stories, traditions, culture, celebration. But not religion.

        I hope that explains my firm belief that he would wholeheartedly support your beautiful vision Cath! And given the stories you’ve told about your own interactions with him, I suspect you suspect the same.

        You are right, I do suspect that 🙂 And we would end up in a thrilling discussion about what in religion is benign and what is not, and the conversation would go off at so many wild and such wonderful tangents that I would feel like my mind would fly away!

        Thanks again, Shaun, you have given me something to really get my teeth into. (Sorry it’s so long!)

        Cath

        • Hey Cath,

          Thanks again – this is great!

          So yes indeed his phrase is “a culture-rich religion”, though “religion” as he defines it:

          “If a common practice celebrates the identifying narrative or myth of the community, if it is expressed in one or more of the arts, especially music, if there is at least a degree of repetition and constancy in that expression, and if it requires some, or many, members of the community to participate, it is, for Lean Logic, an expression of religion.”

          and he gets into it more in Liturgy:

          Lean Logic argues that the culture of a society and its communities will be central to its existence; that if a culture is affirmed and expressed collectively and regularly, it will have, to some degree, the properties of ritual; and that the cultural framework within which a ritual is performed can be understood as a form of religion. This is clearly a nuanced understanding of religion: it claims that the nature and intensity of the ritual shapes the nature and intensity of the religion which it affirms, ranging, for instance, from “slightly” religious to “intensely” religious, and indeed the intensity can be expected to vary over time. Binary definitions—this is/is not a religion—have value only at the extremes, at which the identification of the religious is trivial in any case.”

          I think it’s important to remember that when he uses the word he’s talking about a much broader swathe of culture than what is conventionally referred to by the term “religion”, a term which many – entirely understandably – associate exclusively with the negative force that religion has often been, and so react against, as G.M. said.

          As you say, he could have written “without either an energy-rich market or a rich culture”, but remember that this was his closing flourish (and I do so enjoy his closing flourishes!) to his entry on religion – as he defines it – which has explained why he sees it as so intrinsic to culture. I believe you share this understanding of his words, but it’s important to emphasise I think.

          As I understand, you would also agree with him that such practices that ‘celebrate the identifying narrative of the community, expressed together through the arts’ are of critical importance, and would further agree that this can be done well or poorly, and that many expressions of religion today do it particularly poorly.

          So if I understand rightly, the nub of your disagreement is that while he argues:
          “The idea that allegory—or religion, whose grammar is allegory—should be taken for the literal truth is an extraordinary failure of mature judgment. A work of art—especially the work of art called religion—makes the question of whether it is true or not absurd.”

          You would perhaps say that given the widespread nature of that ‘failure of mature judgment’, and the fact that – as he acknowledges – many formal religions even fall into it themselves, some responsibility must be taken in crafting/choosing narratives that do not lend themselves to that, or at least that do not lead to such catastrophic outcomes if that mistake is made. I’d have to agree with you there.

          I’d also highlight that technically David appears to contradict himself by opening the Narrative Truth entry by distinguishing narrative truth from allegory, but then stating in the religion entry that “the narrative truth of religion is the allegory, the parable and myth which provide insights and deep sources for reflection.”

          I’m inclined to cut him some slack here, given both the fact that he died before finalising his work, and the intrinsically slippery nature of such non-material truths, but nonetheless, it cuts straight to the heart of your point. If allegory can be mistaken for narrative truth, and narrative truth “works fine just as a story if you don’t want to look for the meaning beneath it”, then clearly some allegories and narrative truths run the risk of catastrophic misunderstanding, as history clearly confirms.

          There is an open question as to whether the same is true of all narrative truths, but I would agree with you that some are far more open to dangerous interpretations than others.

          So we turn to the particular tradition that he was raised in, and his “far-from-objective starting point of being in love with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.” It is clear to me – and I think to you – that he was able to parse the narratives and Ironic Spaces of that tradition in such a way as to “make a [rather wonderful] person” of himself. As you say, many folk clearly do this. So perhaps it is fair to say that those traditions do not necessarily damage those partaking in them. But do certain traditions run a greater risk of that – and have a worse track record of doing so? I would have to say clearly yes.

          So while David states that “Religion, like every other human enterprise, comes with no guarantee of being done well“, he indeed doesn’t appear to explicitly acknowledge myth-creation in that list of other human enterprises. He focuses more on the possibilities of shortcomings in myth-interpretation more than on the possibilities of shortcoming in myth-creation.

          To me it is clear that – as you say – such possibilities exist there too. Imagine that I try to create the most toxic myth imaginable and share it with the world. I might hope that people would use reflection and sustained engagement to reject most of it, but it would seem inappropriate for me to deny any role should they fail to do so.

          So yes, I take the objection to the statement “Religion occupies with benign myth the space in the mind which if vacated is wide open to takeover by ideology”. Were I writing similar myself I would be happy to say “Religion [as David defines it] can occupy with benign myth the space in the mind which if vacated is wide open to takeover by ideology”. I indeed think that is a critical role for narrative truths that encourage reflection and empowerment. However, I would also acknowledge more strongly that religion (on either definition) can – and often has – degenerate into such ideology itself.

          Clearly David recognised that – indeed, his very entry on ideology tells the story of King Philip the Fair “allow[ing] himself to be persuaded by a Spanish mystic called Ramon Lull that he was destined by God to recapture the Holy Land.” – but I can well understand your objection to that particular line of his.

          And yes, as you say:

          It’s hard if you have grown up with all the narratives of a complex religion, to decide which truths you accept and which you don’t. Or, you can decide, consciously, but to remove them as unconscious drivers is not easy. They have become part of your psyche.

          This is exactly what my mother taught me, since she was raised a Catholic (and on the point of becoming a nun) before coming to believe that it had been a toxic influence on her life, building guilt deep into her psyche. Accordingly, I was raised with a deep anti-religious sentiment (quite common in the secular culture I grew up in), which is probably why I found David’s writings so enlightening – and in particular his reclaiming of the word “religion” – helping me to consciously acknowledge that narrative truths, stories and traditions aren’t necessarily a force for misery. It must be quite a different experience coming to his writings from a religious background.

          Still, it was a relief for me, as I have always felt the very human yearning towards both spirituality and guidance in facing some of the impossible confusions and mysteries of life, love, work and grief

          As such, I am completely convinced by his claim that ‘religion’ [as he defines it] is an essential force that people will always seek out and create, whether they or anyone else calls it “religion” or not.

          So our challenge, I guess, is to harness those intrinsically human and incredibly potent forces of spirituality, story, tradition, culture and celebration while heeding the warnings of history as to how very wrong those can go. How to offer the kind of guidance we all seek in a way that encourages reflection rather than ideology. Which, indeed, I would say brings us back full circle to your wonderful original post 🙂

          And also to David’s work, which I think we both find a most helpful companion in that journey. And accordingly, I feel quite sure he would approve of our finding fault therein! As he wrote:

          Lean Logic finds that, when dealing with great matters, it can, from time to time, be a good thing if there are cracks and faults in the argument, for the repair of which help is invited. It is a reminder that a conversation is a cooperative affair, not just a series of beautifully-manicured statements.”

          Thanks so much Cath for such a fertile and cooperative conversation, hopefully repairing a few cracks and faults!

          With love,
          Shaun

    • Your visions are exactly how I would imagine ‘religion’ to be effective, bringing everyone together into one shared understanding of life and our part in it. The whole afterlife idea, while being fanciful, does at least give people comfort about the one inescapable truth of life, that is death. Many people find death unbearably frightening, so the idea that there could be somewhere you end up after you die, where you can meet again those you have loved and lost, is a belief worth clinging to.

      • Catherine Johnstone
        2 weeks ago

        Hi Cathy

        Thanks for your reply. Yes, I understand that the afterlife idea can really help the many people in our culture who are petrified of death. But I think there is a better solution… if we were to embrace death, as some other cultures do, allowing it to really be part of life, talking about it, not brushing it under the table, seeing it as ecologically essential, not just as unfortunate but inescapable, I don’t think people would be so afraid. We don’t really emotionally accept it in our culture. Some cultures do, and my understanding is that those people don’t have the same fear.

        Having said that, I don’t have a problem with the notion of an afterlife, unless it’s used as an excuse not to make the most of this life. Bring Hell into the conversation though, then it’s another matter!

        I watched one of the short videos from week 6 course material yesterday, about grief. There was a reading from Lean Logic, the entry on death. I must read it properly, it seemed to have really useful insights (of course!)

        All the best

        Cath

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