Friday, March 21, 2008


A word like "metareligion" is a red flag that the one who utters it is a charlatan and a sophist, another pseudo-mystic who is convinced he/she has made (for the first time!) the earth-shaking discovery that "OMG, like, all the religions should get together!"--another agnostic in priest's clothing.

Or if not that, then the word should serve as a warning that the speaker is at least pretentious. Guilty as charged.

But if I use the word and suggest that there is such a thing, I don't meant to imply anything really earth-shattering, and certainly not anything like the old modernist ideal of a "natural religion" or an "essential religious experience"--religion qua religion, beyond the trappings of dogma or particularity. No. Christianity is the triumph of the particular, the sanctification of history as particular. A religion of mere generalities is a fundamentally anti-Christian religion.

Now, as I teach about world religions (to myself as much as to others), I see in the great human traditions all of the similarities and differences that reflect the mixture of order and chaos that is everywhere in nature (per the dictum of an old professor of mine, "There are always similarities, and there are always differences.").

Yet along with that basic insight, we are also dealing with ideas; religion, revealed or no, is bound up with ideas; and as long as a religion makes use of any words at all, it shares with all human traditions a partaking in human thought. Postmodernism will never be as successful as it pretends to be in deconstructing the unity of thought, even while it explodes traditional of logic. Destroying models does not destroy the unity of being which serves as the ineffable substrata which allows anything to be intelligible at all.

And so even the remedial student of comparative religions is bound recognize recurring patterns and archetypes. Here, people jump to hasty conclusions. From recurring patterns in religions, we cannot deduce therefore that...
  • "most religions are the same in the most important ways" (and its variants). The most common tendency that I see is for people to be so impressed by the similarities that they imagine that the differences must be of relatively minor importance. There is, of course, an inherently non-religious prejudice in this notion, since non-religious people are less likely to regard any of the concrete details of religions as important. Pluralists are terrible question-beggars.
  • "the formal elements that religions have in common are the only important ones". Here we return to the Greek prejudice against the particular in favor of the universal. I once met a man who was so far-gone in this direction that he practically plagiarized Plato without ever having heard of him. It is a testimony to the human experience of alienation that societies again and again fail to reconcile the universal and the particular, and philosophers are always collapsing one into the other, embracing one and rejecting the other, and so on.
  • "religion is of merely natural origin because these patterns are rooted in the human organism." I haven't read Carl Jung, so I don't know if this line of thinking comes from him or from his atheistically-inclined disciples. Yes, archetypes repeat; sometimes a religion will borrow from the literature of another; sometimes the repetitions are spontaneous. How this has led some people to believe that, therefore, religion is bunk, I do not completely understand. One would think that it would be a testament to the truth of a religion that it promiscuously embraced and upheld the truths and patterns everywhere outside of it. Only if God were profoundly alien to nature, almost contrary to it (a common enough human prejudice) would the true religion then be marked by absolute uniqueness. Moreover, William James exposes the question-begging of claiming that "because God does not interact with or through nature, therefore what can be shown to have natural causes cannot be of divine origin". This will only be persuasive if you were already at least a deist.
Keeping these in mind, how do I understand the word, "metareligion"? Revealed faiths--in particular, Christianity--cannot be separated from their source without becoming incoherent. Thus I am not suggesting that a metareligion is more primary, more essential, or in any way a practicable substitute for any religion.

What I mean by metareligion is this: it is the declension of a religion. I mean that in almost precisely the mathematical sense of the word. Now, I failed calculus in college, but I was still fascinated by the process of taking derivatives. A declension preserves something of the form of a function, while losing some of the information in the original. Derivatives are vital for comparing functions. What I discover as a new student of religions is that comparative religion is essentially an exercise in comparing declensions.

Suppose that there was another religion that resembled Christianity in almost every way, except that they believed that somebody else was the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father, who died for our sins? What would interreligious dialogue between the Catholic Church and this other religion look like? From purely a standpoint of doctrine (which, of course, is only a model) the two faiths would have identical "metareligions".

So far in class, we have looked at the major Judeo-Christian traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (we wrapped up by watching the PBS documentary on the Mormons). One thing that has always struck me is how much formal similarity obtains between Mormonism and Islam, at least in terms of their story of origin. One might say that they have very similar metareligions--however, the comparison falls apart when we look into other features.

I don't pretend to have discovered anything new here. I only think that thinking in terms of "metareligions", or declensions of religions, helps to underscore not only where religions are similar but also where they are most profoundly different.

An example: if you were to interview side-by-side traditional exemplars of Catholicism, classical Protestantism, and Mormonism, and you asked each one what the height of religious action was in their lives, you may get three profoundly different answers. One might guess that the Catholic would say it was the Eucharist; the Protestant would say it was Baptism or else being born again--coming to personal faith. The Mormon would more likely say that it was being married or "sealed" to someone for all eternity. Each of these answers represent profound formal dissimilarities that not only speak to different doctrines, but have profound concrete effects on the daily lives of these people. Investigating the consequences of these differences for belief and life would be an exercise in comparing, not so much religions, but metareligions.

Speaking of metareligion is really nothing more than the methodical presupposition that life-determining human traditions (of which religion is one kind) are, in fact, comparable.

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