Religious tradition: it’s everywhere

In a debate on Facebook the other day, one of my political theorist friends argued that “tradition” – by which they meant especially religious tradition – must be considered one value among many, if indeed it is a value at all. In other words when making political judgements we must consider things like individuals freedom, social justice, the rule of law, and also, perhaps, the teachings of religious traditions.   In a debate about gay marriage, for example, we might take seriously Catholic arguments against it, but this cannot be the over-riding concern.

I agree with this conclusion. But I think I disagree with the premise – that religious tradition can properly be considered “one value among many”. Not because I think tradition isn’t valuable, but because I think that way of framing the issue gets things backwards. It makes it seem like religion or tradition belongs to the category of “values” – a category which includes other things like individual rights, and which we use in the present to make ethical decisions. But it seems to me that in fact “values” belong the category of “traditions,” or, one might also say, “religions”. This is part of what I was getting at in an earlier post on popular piety, I see everything as a religion. I don’t think that traditional religious practice can be a standard for judging something because I think pretty much everything can reasonably be called a traditional religious practice. Let me try to flesh that out.

I suppose I shouldn’t say I see everything as a religion – really what I mean is that I find it useful to think about a lot of things in religious terms. When I look at the Tea Party, for example, I find it fruitful to ask: who is their God? What is their vision of salvation? I think it’s fascinating to compare the ethics and aesthetics of the body in contemporary sex-positive feminism and Christian monasticism – because both sides agree that one’s relation to one’s body is essential to achieving a good life. I am struck by the similarity in form between self-improvement literature, advice in the business section, and religious sermons.

Partially, I think this unusual extension of the vocabulary is legitimate for historical reasons. Our western civilization emerged from Christendom, and the categories that we use in a contemporary context to make sense of our lives have deep roots in Christian Culture. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche points out the fascinating similarity between the notion of God and the scientific notion of Truth; both are these abstract, unbelievably pure concepts that hover over everything we do an serve as the ultimate rubric against which our activities can be measured. For Nietzsche, Truth is just God in disguise. And I think you could go further than that and argue that the evolution of our modern understanding of Truth – or verité  or whatever was substantially developed by theologians, in their effort to clarify and understand the concept of God.

More than that, many of our political ideals and ideologies have significant religious roots. Human equality, for example, is a distinctive and powerful message of (some forms of) Christianity and Islam. Contemporary Liberalism, socialism, and feminism, all inherited, in one way or another, this idea.

And on top of that, the history of religion is the history of a sustained and varied reflection on the basic question on how to best organize a human life, at the level of individual. This is popular piety side of religion – the side that produces rituals, rules, and mantras to help people get on with their day. Focus on your breathing to find inner peace. Repeat these words when you are distraught. Cultivate these emotions and resist those ones. To navigate life successfully, you need to have some set of these sort of practices. And the contemporary traditions of self-help and self-improvement recognize this, and devote a great deal of energy into continuing the project of attending to the minute details of human psychological and emotional (and spiritual) well-being. The language of prayer and mediation and penance and “walking with God” usually disappears, but the basic problems are the same.

And so I live in a world where self-help, feminism, lifehacks, and psychotherapy are all parts of what I am perfectly happy to call a religious world-view; what John Rawls would prefer to call a “comprehensive world view”. But Rawls would then make the embodied practices and the rituals that inform these practices disappear in his intellectualizing language. The point is that we all have our pieties, so why not name it.

So this does two things to my friends argument. On the one hand, it gives us grounds for leaving intact the substantive commitment: we should take the Catholic position seriously – because as a tradition it deserves our respect – but not let those being our only values. But on the other hand, it insists on seeing those other important values as expressions of a particular embodied values system – of a religion. Just like the Catholic commitment to a certain version of human flourishing through divinely ordained procreation, the arguments for equal human dignity or for the legitimacy of queer expressions of sexuality are parts of someone’s attempt to live a good and meaningful life. It is for that reason that we must take both seriously – not, as it sometimes seems, because they are both internally coherent or persuasive arguments.

This distinction is important because it reminds us that political arguments are not abstract debates; that we are talking about actual conflicts between actual peoples actual way of life. That is the rhetorical error of liberals, who want to pretend that politics is really all about finding the right principles and then applying them. But that liberal error leads to a corresponding conservative error – to believe that only old traditions count. They look on contemporary liberal society and instead of seeing a wide range of ethical-religious experiments, they see a valueless wasteland. They have missed the ways that ‘religion’ has transformed. They miss the ways that rich, intentional, ethically motivated ways of life continue to flourish, for better or for worse, outside of the bounds of an organized Church.


3 thoughts on “Religious tradition: it’s everywhere

  1. Pingback: Agamben: God was transformed into money | The Abstract

  2. Pingback: The Age of Anxiety | The Abstract

  3. Pingback: The Transcendent (Religious?) Aspects of Feminist Discourse | The Abstract

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