Tag Archives: Christopher Partridge

Religion vs. spirituality revisited

I’m working on this week’s sermon, which will focus on “new religious movements.” As I did some reading to prepare, I found an interesting passage in the book New Religions: A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities, edited by Christopher Partridge (Oxford University Press, 2004), that has helped me to clarify the difference between religion and spirituality.

In his introductory essay, Partridge takes some time to distinguish between religious movements, sects, and alternative spiritualities — and I found his definition of the latter to be particularly helpful:

The term ‘alternative spirituality’ has been included because not all the articles in this volume discuss beliefs and practices that can be described as ‘religious’. Arguably, one of the more significant developments in particularly Western religious adherence is the emergence of private, non-institutional forms of belief and practice. The sacred persists, but increasingly it does so in non-traditional forms. There is, as the sociologist Grace Davie has argued, ‘believing without belonging’. More specifically, it can be argued that much of this believing without belonging should be defined as ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion’. There is in the West, for example, a move away from traditional forms of belief, which have developed within religious institutions, towards forms of belief that focus on the self, on nature, or simply on ‘life’. While there may be particular traditional teachings that are valued by the individual seeker, or particular groups to which the individual belongs, generally speaking there is a suspicion of traditional authorities, sacred texts, churches, and hierarchies of power. There is a move away from a ‘religion’ that focuses on things that are considered external to the self (God, the Bible, the church [and maybe Truth and Goodness?]) to ‘spirituality’ — that which focuses on ‘the self’ and is personal and interior….[pp. 16-17]

Reading this, it struck me that ‘believing without belonging’ is one of the major challenges faced by any institutionalized religious movement today. It also fits in with my observations:– many newcomers to the congregation I serve have little idea of how institutionalized religion works; they are sometimes suspicious of institutionalized religion; and they are often wary of committing themselves to a religious institution.

Christopher Partridge continues his definition of “alternative spiritualities” by saying this:

While the term ‘spirituality’ in this volume often has a particular reference to the ‘turn to the self’, it is also used of religious reflection that, strictly speaking, refers to more than this. For example, much contemporary feminist and eco-feminist spirituality cannot be considered as principally a ‘turn to the self’ and, indeed, is often developed within a particular religious tradition. Hence, when the term ‘spirituality’ is used of such developments it is used in a broader, less precise way, which merges with what might be understood as a ‘soft definition’ of religion. …[Some] Christian spiritualities discussed in this volume seek to overturn the distinction between the spiritual and the non-spiritual and understand spirituality to be a quest for full humanity that embraces the whole of the created order. Perhaps spirituality can be understood as a path that, while focusing on the self, seeks to extend to all life and certainly beyond the bounds of institutional religion. [p. 17]

While I’ve always felt a little queasy about “spirituality” as the term is usually used, I could definitely be an advocate of spirituality as a quest for a full humanity that gets individuals to embrace all humanity, all living beings, indeed all of life. At the same time, I’m all too aware of the pressures of mass culture that don’t allow us time or place to engage in spirituality — and that time/place is exactly what institutionalized religion (especially a local congregation) can provide.

God is in the argument

Today I have been reading in Introduction to World Religions, consulting the sections on African traditional religions for this week’s sermon. But while I was having tea this afternoon, I flipped to the section on Judaism, and read this:

The Talmud is at pains to blur any distinction between holy and profane. Even more striking is that it is not concerned with answers. It is far more concerned with the process of answering them. One of its most celebrated passages captures this tendency and is worth citing at length:

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward all the arguments in the world, but the sages did not accept them. Finally, he said to them, ‘If the halakah is according to me, let that carob-tree prove it.’

He pointed to a nearby carobtree, which then moved from its place a hundred cubits. They said to him, ‘One cannot bring a proof from the moving of a carob-tree.’… [Two more miracles were performed by Rabbi Eliezer in a bid to have his argument accepted.]

Then said Rabbi Eliezer to the sages, ‘If the halakah is according to me, may a proof come from heaven.’ Then a heavenly voice went forth, and said, ‘What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakah is according to him in every place.’

Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, ‘It is not in the heavens….’ [Deuteronomy 30.12. Rabbi Joshua goes on to explain that since the Torah has already been given on Sinai, we do not need to pay attention to a heavenly voice.]

Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, ‘What was the Holy One, blessed be he, doing in that hour?’

Said Elijah, ‘He was laughing, and saying, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” ‘

Talmud, Bava Metsia 59B

In other words, God’s children are grown up enough to argue with him. For the rabbi it is even a responsibility. In this sense, the Talmud captures something essential not just of the historical period, but also of the ongoing life of Judaism: God is in the argument, and he [sic] may well be found in the delight of vigorous human discourse.

pp. 285-286, Introduction to World Religions, Christopher Partridge, general editor (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2005; U.S. edition of The New Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions, 3rd edition).

“God is in the argument.” I can agree with that, although I’d argue with the Talmud about the reason for agreeing: I don’t feel the need to accept that because the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, we can therefore ignore a heavenly voice; I’m happy simply to challenge the notion of God’s omniscience, and to advocate for the possibility that humanity has matured enough to be able to argue with God. Nor is saying “God is in the argument” sufficient; there’s more to religion, and humanity, and divinity, than argument. Nonetheless, I find myself convinced by the idea that God is in the argument.

A guide to “new religions”

Most Unitarian Universalist ministers get four weeks of study leave each year. I’m taking a week of my study leave through Wednesday, March 2, to work on a couple of writing projects. But this also means I have a little time to catch up on my reading list.

At the top of my pile of books right now is New Religions, A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities, edited by Christopher Partridge, and published in 2004 by Oxford University Press. There are entries on some 200 new religious movements, as well as essays on relevant topics like “Contemporary Sufism,” “Fundamentalisms,” and “Astrology.”

I’m especially fond of the overall organization of the book, which groups new religious movements together based on the traditions out of which they have grown. Thus there are sections on new religious movements with roots in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Indian religions, religions of east Asia, indigenous and pagan traditions, western esoteric and New Age traditions — and, best of all, new religious movements which have roots in modern western cultures. In this last section, you’ll find entries on “Thee Church ov Moo,” Scientology, and the aforementioned essay on fundamentalisms.

You’ll find the Swedenborgians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists included in the chapter on new religious movements with roots in Christianity. However, Unitarian Universalism is not considered a new religious movement. No real surprise — from the point of view of sociology or comparative religions, we Unitarian Universalists look very much like mainline Protestant denominations.

This could be a useful book for Unitarian Universalists, especially those of us living in regions where the Christian conservatives dominate. Read this book to get a precise definition of what a “cult” is, so that next time someone tells you your Unitarian Universalist church is a “cult,” you can explain why that is not true — and furthermore, why we are not even a new religious movement.

(By the way, there’s an essay in the book on “Prosperity Theology” as an alternative spirituality — guess Rick Warren isn’t quite as mainstream as some had hoped.)