Tag Archives: spirituality

Review of Nongbri, Before Religion

My thanks to Yale University Press for sending me a copy of Brent Nongbri’s new book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013). My thanks also to Dr. Nongbri, who graciously cleared up a few points of confusion before this review was published.

Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept is a book-length word study of the word “religion” and its classical counterparts, in which he seeks to provide “a (not the) history of that concept [i.e., the concept of religion], drawing together the results of diverse fields of research to show, first and foremost, that religion does indeed have a history: it is not a native category to ancient cultures” (7; emphasis original).

In chapter 1, Nongbri begins his study by defining what he means by “religion.” He surveys different scholars’ attempts to define “religion” and finds the assumptions behind those definitions lacking: “There are certain ‘things’ that people in the modern world are conditioned to regard as ‘religion,’ and attempts at definition are always subject to that impulse to be consistent with everyday speech” (17). Therefore, Nongbri takes a pragmatic approach and defines “religion” to match this modern, Western intuition: “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity” (18)—or, less provocatively, “what most modern people appear to mean by religion is a kind of inner sentiment or personal faith ideally isolated from secular concerns” (8). Nongbri notes that he does not think this sort of definition is a good one, merely that it is the popular one (18, discussing a quote from Karen Armstrong), and it is this popular notion of religion that he wishes to argue against. The remainder of this chapter is a preliminary historical survey of the usage of the terms “religion,” “religions,” and “World Religions,” along with a brief discussion of why Nongbri finds those categories to be problematic.

In chapter 2, Nongbri surveys three classical languages—Latin, Greek, and Arabic—and discusses terms in each of these languages that are frequently translated into English as “religion”: Latin religio, Greek thrēskeia, and Arabic dīn, milla, and umma. Throughout the chapter, Nongbri highlights that these five classical words, though they are often translated as “religion,” do not mean what moderns mean by “religion.” He spends the most time discussing religio, and for obvious reason: it is the source of the English word “religion,” and he covers nearly two millennia of uses. Surveying a multitude of Latin sources, both pagan and Christian, from the second century BCE to the seventeenth century CE, Nongbri traces the development of religio from its original Roman sense of “scruples” (for example, in Plautus and Terence) to its modern definition as an “inward persuasion of the mind” (34, translating Locke), noting the range of meanings the term held in between the two endpoints. Curiously, Nongbri does not incorporate James B. Rives’ Religion in the Roman Empire either in this section or elsewhere in the book. One would imagine that incorporating Rives would only serve to further nuance his argument.

Nongbri spends substantially less time tracking the development of thrēskeia, the Greek word that, like religio, is often translated as “religion.” He tracks the development of the term from classical Greek (namely, Herodotus), where thrēskeia carries the sense of “rituals,” through the heyday of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century (namely, the Greek version of Barlaam and Ioasaph), where it maintains the same sense. Lastly, Nongbri explores the sense of the Arabic words dīn (“custom, usage, judgment, direction, retribution” [41]), milla (“law or sect” [44]), and umma (“customs, traditions, and values” [44, quoting Denny]) in their Quranic context.

In chapter 3, Nongbri explores four historical cases that modern interpreters have seen as the beginning of a religious-secular divide: the Maccabean revolt, as interpreted by scholars like William Cantwell Smith; Cicero’s On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods, as interpreted by Mary Beard; Eusebius’ Preparatio evangelica and Demonstratio evangelica, as interpreted by Daniel Boyarin; and early Islam, as interpreted by Bernard Lewis. With regard to the Maccabees, Nongbri contrasts Smith’s argument—that the Greek term ioudaismos should be translated as “Judaism”—with arguments like those of Shaye J. D. Cohen and Steve Mason, who argue that ioudaismos refers to Judean customs, rather than a religion called “Judaism.” In discussing Cicero, Nongbri agrees with Beard that “something new is going on here with Cicero and his contemporaries” (53), but critiques her description of this new thing as “religion,” since it does not match the modern conception of religion. With Eusebius, Nongbri discusses how Eusebius’ use of christanismos parallels the Maccabean use of ioudaismos, such that christianismos refers to a set of customs practiced by an ethnicity (in this case, the christianoi). Finally, Nongbri critiques Lewis’s idea that early Islam saw itself as a new religion among other religions; instead, he argues, following Fred M. Donner, early Islam saw itself not as a new religion, but as standing in continuity with prior traditions.

Chapter 4 discusses Christianity’s relationship with three “others”—Mani and Manichaeism, early Islam, and the Buddha—which Christians saw as heretical Christian figures or beliefs, rather than as separate religions or religious figures. Mani and his followers, Nongbri argues, did not see themselves as founding a new religion, but rather saw themselves as Christians, and were engaged in polemics with orthodox Christianity: “in some ways, [the Manichaeans] were the mirror image of the orthodox Christians who persecuted them. That is to say, Manichaeans viewed themselves as Christians, and they saw ‘orthodox’ Christians as inferior, or we might even say ‘heretical’” (71). Likewise, John of Damascus, in his Peri haireseōn, lists Muhammad and his followers as heretics; he claims that Muhammad was instructed by an Arian monk, then founded a hairesis, which his people accepted as divine. Finally, Nongbri discusses how the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph is a Christianized version of the Buddha’s biography, and that Christians canonized the Buddha under the name of Ioasaph—implying that the Christians did not see Buddhism as a separate religion, but as an extension of their own.

Chapter 5 skips ahead several hundred years, to the 16th and 17th centuries. Nongbri first surveys the use of christiana religio in early Christian authors (like Augustine and Lactantius), then moves forward to the Renaissance and then the Reformation, where he examines the use of prisca theologia—Ancient Theology; that is, Christian theology found among pre-Christian authors—and christiana religio in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian Neo-Platonists (like Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno). He finds that the Italian Neo-Platonists conceived of the christiana religio as but one religio among many religiones. Nongbri then examines how the English Deists of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (namely, Edward Lord Herbert and John Toland) used religio; he finds that their usage of the term begins to approximate what we today mean by “religion”: different groups of faith and practice that should be seen as equally important. Next, Nongbri looks at Jean Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth, where Bodin argues that if a state cannot achieve uniformity of religion, it should allow different groups to live according to their own beliefs. Finally, Nongbri discusses John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, where Locke argues that one’s beliefs have no place in the public sphere, and are ideally kept private; Nongbri argues that this view, while still somewhat different from the contemporary valences of the word “religion,” reflects a “turning point” (104) in the definition of the term.

Chapter 6 explores the discovery, among Westerners at least, of different religious traditions during the colonial era, namely Hinduism, the practices of the Hottentots in Southern Africa, and Shinto. Nongbri first gives a historical account of the Western discovery of these different religions, then examines how the colonialists tried to classify and systematize them. Basically, Nongbri asserts, the colonialists tried to reconcile their belief that (Protestant) Christianity was the “true religion” (as with Samuel Purchas, 120) with the variety of religions they found around the world; in the end, they claimed that all religions are the same in essence, but have different manifestations, and that religion was a private, not a public, affair. In concluding the chapter, Nongbri argues that the category of World Religions—and, more generally, that religion is “simply there” (129) in all cultures throughout all of history—is an artifact of the colonial age, and should be recognized as such.

Chapter 7 is a historical account of the development of the study of ancient religion, from which Nongbri argues that historians and classicists, although acknowledging that the modern valences of the term “religion” are often ill-suited for describing the practices of the ancient world, nonetheless continue to use the term. Nongbri begins the chapter by surveying the development of studying Greek and Roman religion from the beginning of the modern era, where it was seen as demon-worship, to the present, where it is seen as something totally different from modern understandings of religion. He then traces the “birth and growth of a new ‘ancient religion’” (143), that of ancient Mesopotamia, which, he argues, more or less followed the changes in scholars’ conceptions of religion, ending in defining Mesopotamian religion with reference to “religious experience” or “feelings,” a category Nongbri disputes throughout the book. Nongbri concludes that ascribing religion to an ancient society imposes a concept on ancient societies that those societies did not see in themselves, namely a concept of “religion” as separate from the secular.

In the conclusion, Nongbri proposes a shift in discourse, to replace religious studies’ current mode of analysis: “Religion could be deployed in nonessentialist ways to treat something as a religion for the purposes of analysis. . . . We would no longer ask the question ‘Is phenomenon X a religion?’ Rather we would ask something like ‘Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?’” (155). Or, in relation to the ancient world, “religion can be used as a redescriptive concept for studying the ancient world. The question then becomes: What sort of definition or theory of religion should be used for this redescriptive project?” (157). These, I think, are very healthy ways to reframe the question.

In all, I think Nongbri’s book is a useful contribution to the study of religion, and especially to the study of religion in the ancient world. It brings religion scholars face-to-face with the history of a term that is central to our field of study, and it questions the assumptions about that term that lie hidden within scholarly discourse on the subject. In the end, Nongbri’s proposals are quite helpful, and provide a way for religion scholars to be fair to ancient and/or non-Western sources, while still using the categories of study they have inherited.

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Evolutionary Origins of Non-Belief

Over at This View of Life, Michael Blume summarizes a paper by psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais regarding the origins of religious non-belief. Blume distills Norenzayan and Gervais’ argument quite nicely, showing four possible steps to religious non-belief:

1. “‘Mind-Blind’ Atheism”: the non-belief of those who cannot, for reasons psychological or physiological, imagine the presence of supernatural agents.

2. “Apatheism”: the non-belief of those who live in environments that provide “existential security” in themselves, lessening the perceived need for a supernatural source of security (like eternal life, supernatural prosperity, etc.).

3. “InCREDulous Atheism”: the non-belief of those who live in societies where religious Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs), like public rituals, are not prevalent or are non-existent; these societies are “comparatively devoid of cues that others believe in any gods at all.”

4. “Analytic Atheism”: the non-belief of those who have — like most people on Earth — intuitive leanings toward experiencing the supernatural, but override those intuitions through analytical thought.

“Four Paths to Atheism — The Emergence of Non-Religiosity” | This View of Life

Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17 (2013): 20-25.

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Paul and Antony the Great: Christian Shamans

I’ve become convinced that early Christian mystic practice is, at root, shamanistic. Compare the initiation ritual of Siberian shamans with Paul’s conversion narrative and the story of how Antony the Great became a monk:

The shamanic vocation can be directly conferred on someone by the spirits, or it can be a family inheritance. Yet even when it is inherited, Siberian shamans are still supposed to undergo individual initiation in order to obtain knowledge and acquire supernatural aids. Visited by the spirits, the shaman initially goes through a period of deep psychic depression and illness; these only subside when, having crossed the desert of death, he or she comes back to life and learns to control personal spirits in order to perform ecstatic journeys whose purpose is usually healing through exorcism.

Ioan P. Couliano, Out of This World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), 40.

The initiation experience of the Siberian shamans above closely parallels the sanctification process for early Christian (monastic saints) — a protracted period of struggle against sin, the flesh, and sometimes demons and/or Satan; followed by a complete mastery of his/her own actions and the ability to work miracles and/or have ecstatic experiences.

For example, the New Testament records that Paul, after his conversion experience, fell deathly ill, was healed miraculously, then lived in seclusion in Arabia for three years, before returning to Jerusalem to become a Christian missionary. Paul implies that his years in Arabia were marked by mystical experiences, and even in his later life he had ecstatic, mystical experiences, both during worship services and at other times, and is reported to have been able to heal the sick and resurrect the dead.

Another example is St. Antony the Great, the first of the desert monks of Egypt. After his conversion experience, he lived as a hermit in the Egyptian desert, where he fought the demons, Satan, and against his own temptations to sin; each of these struggles left him deeply wounded, but God would revive him. Eventually, he conquered all of his spiritual adversaries and gained miraculous abilities, like clairvoyance and miraculous healing.

So, both Paul’s and Anthony’s experiences fit the pattern for initiation into shamanic practice: they underwent a serious mental/physical struggle, followed by a full recovery, which was accompanied by spiritual ability and ecstatic adeptness. Their stories provide evidence that shamanism is not limited solely to mimetic or mythic religions, like those of tribal hunter-gatherer societies, but also is a part of theoretic religions like Christianity, where beliefs are usually separated from ritual and mythos.

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Mimetic, Mythic, and Theoretic Religion

Robert Bellah has an interesting and eminently useful way of classifying religions, adapted from Merlin Donald’s description of the evolution of culture. Donald classifies cultures into three stages: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic.

In a mimetic culture, which could possibly go back as far as 2 million years ago, members of the genus Homo acted out events with their bodies; that is, communication was predominantly gestural. However, these cultures were by no means silent, and they likely involved music and even simple, pre-linguistic utterances. Not surprisingly, music, dance, and ritual behavior are also the most basic forms of religious practice. So, religious physical enaction and ritual can be called mimetic religion.

Speech developed later than gestural communication — 250,000-100,000 years ago, as opposed to 2 million years ago. With speech came complex narratives, which, in some forms, were cultural and religious myths; hence, mythic culture. In the religious sphere, these complex narratives are religious myths, and they serve to augment — not replace — ritual practice. Myths allow ritual to enact more complex subjects than were previously possible. So, ritual religious enaction accompanied by a complex narrative can be called mythic religion.

Finally, in the 1st millennium BCE, theoretic cultures emerged. They subject the old controlling narratives to rational scrutiny, changing them into new forms, reorganizing them, and/or replacing them. These cultures argued in favor of ethical and spiritual universalism, rather than tribal parochialism. Their religions followed suit, calling the old myths and rituals into questions and changing them into, or replacing them with, something more acceptable. These religions did not abandon ritual or myth altogether, though; instead, they created new rituals and myths, based on their scrutiny of the old forms. These religions can be called theoretic religions.

I find this framework both concise and fair, and I think it’s worth adopting, as a way to study diverse religions without casting value judgments on them.

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Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2011), xviii-xix.

Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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“It would seem that the Lord God is gently nudging man toward taking the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.” (Gen 3)

One of the textbooks for my “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” class has this quote on the moral of the Garden story in Genesis 3. It’s long, but it’s good, and I thought it was worth sharing.

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Who or what is responsible for man’s expulsion from Eden? In order for man and woman to be responsible for their behavior they would have to be free both to abstain from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and to understand the consequences of eating from it. Man surely was not without all knowledge before he partook of the Tree of the Knowledge. He knew enough, for instance, to name the beasts which the Lord God paraded before him. He certainly knew that the woman was “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” But did the man (and woman) understand what was entailed in taking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? The logic of the story dictates that man and woman both had a choice and understood the consequences of their choice. The Lord God holds them responsible and presumably He was in a position to know whether and to what extent the first human couple was responsible. And Adam and Eve do not deny responsibility so much as they indicate that the Lord God Himself wanted them to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

If one looks at some of the details provided by the narrator it seems that man and woman make a valid point. Consider the following:

  • The Lord God placed the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the garden and within man’s reach;
  • the Tree of Knowledge “. . . was good for eating and a delight to the eyes . . . and the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom.”;
  • moreover, it is the Lord God who decides that it is not good for man to be alone, and who extracts the woman from the man. It is, of course, the woman whom the snake approaches. And the snake’s shrewdness is traced by the narrator to God. [Gen 3:1: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.”]

It would seem that the Lord God is gently nudging man toward taking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. However that may be, one should not refer simply to what happens to man and woman as a result of their acquisition of the Tree of Knowledge as a “fall.” For according to the Lord God (Who, be it noted, thereby corroborates part of what the serpent had told Eve), man has become in some sense divine by virtue of having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This godlike capacity, as we have seen, will enable man to create his destiny outside of Eden.

We can conclude that the first man and first woman, with a little help from God, found the lack of meaningful choices in Eden unendurable. Adam and Eve willingly chose the dynamism of life outside of Eden even though that choice carried with it not only the ability to create but also pain, suffering, and death.

[Jay A Holstein, The Jewish Experience (4th ed.; Boston: Pearson Custom, 2002),  88-90.]

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An Apology

From of old faith has not been every man’s affair. At all times but few have discerned religion itself, while millions, in various ways, have been satisfied to juggle with its trappings. Now especially the life of cultivated people is far from anything that might have even a resemblance to religion. Just as little, I know, do you worship the Deity in sacred retirement, as you visit the forsaken temples. In your ornamented dwellings, the only sacred things to be met with are the sage maxims of our wise men, and the splendid compositions of our poets. Suavity and sociability, art and science have so fully taken possession of your minds, that no room remains for the eternal and holy Being that lies beyond the world. . . .

You must transport yourselves into the interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration. In the very act, you must understand the production of light and heat in a soul surrendered to the Universe. Otherwise you learn nothing of religion, and it goes with you as with one who should too late bring fuel to the fire which the steel has struck from the flint, who finds only a cold, insignificant speck of coarse metal with which he can kindle nothing any more.

[Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 1, 18.]

I have an apology to make. Over the past several months, for various reasons, I have allowed myself to become, to borrow Schleiermacher’s words, one of religion’s “cultured despisers.” More specifically, I’ve let myself lapse into anger against evangelicalism, allowing my own crisis of faith to color my vision of too many genuine believers. For that, I am deeply sorry.

I am no longer an evangelical; however, I am still a Christian — and that means that, though I no longer camp under evangelicalism’s broad tent, evangelicals are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve forgotten the mutual love and humility I so recently called for, and have allowed myself to speak arrogantly against my fellow Christians. For this, as well, I am deeply sorry.

From now on, I will be limiting myself mostly to academic posts on this blog for the foreseeable future — a public forum isn’t the place to hash out personal struggles, especially when those struggles cause you to act angrily toward those who don’t deserve it. If I ever should find reason to write about evangelicals in any sort of way, I will work to make sure my tone is even and fair, the same way I would when talking about Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or any other Christians to whose denomination I don’t belong.

Again, to anyone I have belittled, I am deeply sorry. I will try my hardest not to enter that territory again, and I hope you can forgive me.

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