As many of my readers know, I spend a LOT of time reading and writing about religion. I have some favored authors: Philip Davies, Giovanni Garbini, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas Thompson, John Van Seters, Keith Whitelam (the Copenhagen school), certainly Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Georges Dumezil, and – the subject of today’s post – Burton Mack.
Like others who have read it, when I finished reading Mack’s “The Lost Gospel,” something broke inside me and, in my opinion, it was a good thing. Finally I saw: Duuuuuh! I had been examining religion – everything, for that matter – from inside the Western cultural mindset conditioned by my Christian upbringing.
Just so you know, “The Lost Gospel” is a very matter-of-fact book with some boring patches, so I wasn’t prepared for the effect it had on me, the sudden eye-opening, the jarring awake, the realization that even atheists in Western culture are atheists in the context of Judao-Christianity! It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen when my eyes opened to this contextual problem of our perception. There was a killer passage in “The Lost Gospel” that finally cut the umbilicus:
“Christians seldom assess their world by making a direct comparison with the gospel story. Instead, as with all cultures and their myths, coded formulations reduce the mythic mode to attitudes, gestures, and cliches for negotiating the everyday world. A partial list of adjectives that express Christian mentality can illustrate the point. Christians grant privilege to personal performances and events that are unique, dramatic, original, charismatic, miraculous, radical, transformational, and apocalyptic. All else is considered banal by comparison. […] With the gospels in place, one might note, the symbols for solving critical problems are a vicarious crucifixion at the beginning and an apocalyptic destruction at the end. Both coalesce in a meditation on destructive violence and creative transformation. The Jesus of Q hardly stands a chance of being recognized within this symbolic world.” [Mack, The Lost Gospel, p. 250]
All our lives we are dominated by a sense of what is “right and true” based on the Bible. That is true even for those who claim they have rejected the Bible as the foundation of religion. Most of them are still crypto-Christians. So, in a world of Fanatical Christians and crypto-Christians where we can’t even accurately analyze where we have been and how we got there, what hope do we have of coming to any sort of objective assessment of where we are and where we need to go?
So, today, I want to try to jump-start your thinking by presenting some excerpts from Burton Mack’s recent book: “Myth and the Christian Nation” in hopes that it will stimulate you to pick up a copy and read it. I also hope that you will read all of the works of the authors I have listed above; your life may depend on it in the coming months and years.
From the Preface to Myth and the Christian Nation by Burton L. Mack
When conservative Christians entered the political arena in the United States in the last half century and then won access to power, there was very little public criticism, much less discussion of the principle of the separation of church and state. Then the event of 9/11 surfaced the languages of righteousness, power, apocalypse, and divine mandate to go to war. It was apparently not the time to quibble about the religious language used to interpret our social situation. Firming up the suspected links to al Qaeda, Islam, and the “axis of evil,” the rhetoric of evil enemies was enough to justify massive military action. There were no cautionary counsels. There was little deliberation about alternative responses. Flags, patriotism, and agitation for a holy war against terrorists won the day. Politicians and the American public said in effect to “Go get them.”
I was stunned by the way in which our administration construed the situation in terms of good and evil, and then used the language of Christianity to justify our response. And I was dismayed by the inability of our deliberative processes to question that justification. The language of righteousness and revenge had smothered all discussion. Where is the public forum, I asked myself? Why do Christians think it is time to get into politics? Why has the language of good and evil squelched other ways of thinking about the reasons for the state of the world? Why do we in America have such a difficult time talking about religion? We needed some plain talk about religion and society, our society.
I had always known that public discourse about religion in America was shallow. I understood this to be an unfortunate result of the popular conception of religion as a matter of personal religious experience and private opinion, and also because of the taboos against its analysis and discussion. This meant that religion was thought to be of no importance for matters of social and political consequence. And the doctrine of the separation of church and state meant that religion and society had not become a subject of instruction in our public schools. Yet here were Christians writing textbooks, talking politics, reminding us that we were supposed to be a Christian nation, and using Christian language to justify a military mission. So something was unspoken. Something was wrong.
We needed to hear from our historians of religion about the ways religions worked in other societies, how and why peoples have thought their myths and rituals were so important, under what circumstances myths surfaced to rationalize public policies, and whether myths might be challenged and changed when they get out of sync with social situations. If that learning could be applied to the history of Christianity, it might then be possible to understand how it could be that a president of a democracy gets to say what the Christian’s God wants us to do. It might even be possible to criticize such an authorization on academic grounds.
The history of scholarship on religion is a fascinating story of a quest to define and understand it. It is a story of learning by stages, and the enormous collection of ethnographic data produced can be arranged as selected case studies and illustrations dotting the history of that learning. It is what scholars have learned about religions that could help us think more deeply and clearly about religion and society in our current social situation at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The scholarly study of religion started with Columbus’s discovery that the natives of Guanahani (christened “San Salvador”) “had no religion.” And it was true that they had no religion of the kind familiar to fifteenth-century Europeans. This means that the quest began with curiosity about other peoples and their religions, but with a notion of religion given by our own Western tradition. This concept, derived from familiarity with Christianity, was taken for granted and appeared to be self-evident.
The quest soon ran into the myths and rituals of other peoples where the Christian notion did not fit or help to explain anything. Scholars have therefore worked hard to revise their concept of religion in order to understand the myths and rituals of tribal and other peoples.
Finally it became possible to use what had been learned about the religions of other peoples to analyze the religion from which the original conception was taken, namely Christianity. To let the reader see what scholars have had to work through on their way to a social theory of religion will highlight the reasons for entertaining a social theory of religion as well as provide an explanation for the reasons we are having such a difficult time thinking critically about Christianity in our recent and current situation.
What can be learned about religion and society from the history of the study of religion may certainly exercise and entertain the reader’s imagination with such concepts as “social interests,” “social formation,” “mythmaking,” “imagined world,” “myth and rituals systems,” “mythic grammars,” and “cultural mentalities.” These concepts will need to be described, then looked at from various angles in order to settle into place as important components of a coherent scholarly theory. Finally, they will have to be applied in some way to questions about the Christian mentality in America raised by the Christian Right and its discourse about the Christian nation. It will not be possible or necessary to answer all the questions that might come to mind about religions in America and in the global world in our time, but a platform for the forum of public discussion about such questions certainly can be constructed.
Excerpts from the Introduction to Myth and the Christian Nation by Burton L. Mack
Thinking about religion in the United States soon runs into the problem of its definition. The popular conception, taken for granted by most people, is that religion is a private matter, a special kind of personal experience. This is sometimes said to be contact with a spiritual realm of reality, sometimes expressed as an encounter with the spirit or power of God, and sometimes experienced as a personal transformation. Studies of religion defined in this way tend toward psychologies of religion, and there are many self-help guides to spiritual wholeness that regard religion mainly as a matter of personal experience. This way of thinking about religion accords with our focus on persons as individuals. It is this concept of religion as a private and personal matter that has made it possible to think of the United States as a “Christian nation” even while concurring with the doctrine of the separation of church and state.
A second definition of religion regards it as an institution devoted to the representation of the spiritual realm in the human world. This has often been called “organized religion,” referring to churches, temples, mosques, and their programs. Religious institutions are usually distinguished in terms of their belief systems, tenets, and ritual practices. Most Americans have no trouble thinking of religion both as a personal experience and as an organization, for the purpose of the organization is understood to enable and enhance the religious experiences of its members. The result has been that belonging to a particular religion has been regarded as a matter of personal preference, the ritual context within which one’s personal belief system can be fostered. This definition usually includes the notion that the tenets of a religious institution should not determine the ways in which other persons, society as a whole, or the government of the United States need to think or behave.
Yet a third understanding of religion sees it as a culture, a system of symbols, beliefs, and values that a people have in common. This definition is social. It is not the customary way of thinking about religion in the United States. Scholars who study the religions and cultures of other peoples do think of religion as integral to a society and its culture. It has been difficult, however, to study religions in the United States with this concept in mind, because we are a nation of many religions and understand ourselves as a society of free and independent persons who do not share a common religion or culture.
A remarkable change in thinking about Christianity occurred during the last half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first that challenged these traditional notions of religion and society. Christians started talking about the United States as a “Christian nation,” saying that our society was in danger of losing its grounding in Christianity and that Christians should enter the political arena and work to make sure we all behaved as Christians. This violated the long-standing tradition of the separation of church and state, and it did not mesh readily with the American Christian emphasis upon religion as a matter of personal experience and piety. Christian churches (organized religion) were encouraging their members (“born-again” Christians) to take control of America (society) in the interest of Christian values (culture). This strange combination oi all three concepts of religion in the notion of the Christian nation brought to the surface an unexpected manifestation of Christian mentality that is well worth exploring. It will therefore be helpful to document this recent chapter of thinking about religion in contrast to earlier statements that took the doctrine of separation for granted.
When John F. Kennedy was running for president, the question of his religious affiliation became a major issue. The Greater Houston Ministerial Association invited him to address this issue on September 12, 1960. Kennedy opened with the statement that “we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election…|that| are not religious issues—for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.” As for his being a Catholic, the question should not be “What kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me—but what kind of America I believe in.” He then went on to deliver a speech on “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
At the time this sounded good to Protestant Democrats, whether they all breathed a sigh of relief or not, for it conformed so clearly to the prevailing views on religion and politics. Religion was a personal and private matter that should not influence public policy-making. And the separation of church and state should not allow for a public policy to privilege a given religion. That was all that had to be said at that time. It cleared the air for the ringing of the bells and the gavel’s call to order in a land where the state guarantees religious freedom, and where “no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials” (Kennedy). In effect, since religion is a personal and private matter, one’s religion should not matter in the realm of public service.
Since that time, however, Christians increasingly came to speech on public issues. Christian leaders talked about the “Christian Right,” a “Moral Majority,” and a “Christian Coalition.” These terms intentionally eroded the older notions of the separation of religion from politics and purposely positioned Christians in decidedly political postures. The problem, as these Christians saw it, was that our society was in danger of losing its footing in traditional Christian values. The answer proposed was that Christians should work to make sure that public policy and laws agree with moral laws. It seems that shifts in civil rights and social practices from the period of the cold war, the effects of the civil rights movement on legislation, and the student demonstrations against the Vietnam War came to expression in ways that were frightening and offensive to traditional Christian sensibility. It was as if the unexamined notion of the Christian nation was sufficient and comfortable as long as general patterns of social practices allowed for the thought that Christianity remained the moral conscience of the people. When pockets of people emerged whose social views were critical of national policies and traditional patterns of social and political practice, and whose call for changes in the application of the traditional values of freedom, equality, justice, and the pursuit of happiness resulted in life-style practices that offended Christian sensibilities, Christians found themselves increasingly engaged in political action. This has had its effect at all levels of our society, from school boards through city and state bureaucracies to national party politics and the recent administrations.
Then there was the “terrorist attack” of September 11, 2001.
Suddenly the public discourse was awash in the religious language of “evil enemies,” “terrorists,” “holy war,” and “Islamic extremists” on the one hand, and the marshalling of patriotism and the military for a “crusade” against an “evil axis” of governments thought to threaten the USA and spawn terrorists on the other.
The surge of this religious language was so sudden and automatic that its irony was hardly noticed even by Americans who were troubled by it. The irony was that the same labels were being used by both parties in their description of the other.
As things developed, the term “Islamic extremists” turned into “Islamofascists,” with one of their hallmarks being their rejection of secular governments in favor of Islamic states governed by their “church.”
The similarity of the two rhetorics, that of the Islamists and that of the US administration, did not register.
There would be a Department of Homeland Security to protect the United States at home, the “city set on a hill,” the “light to the nations.” There would also be a “preemptive war” abroad to destroy our enemies before they destroyed us. Now there were two reasons for fear: one was sin and immorality from within our own society; the second was evil and terrorists threatening us from without.
The cultivation of fear trumped deliberation, and patriotism flourished by calling for loyalty to the righteous cause of replacing “tyrannies” with “democracies.” A series of books with an Armageddon theme, describing the “rapture” of the righteous and the destruction of sinners in the apocalyptic holocaust at hand, went off the charts (Frykholm, Rapture Culture). The fear of impending disaster, whether from God or the terrorists, apparently touched the nerve of concern for personal salvation.
However, on the national front, where religion now mattered as a reason for going to war, the response was not only fear but bravado because God was on our side. As President Bush said, we were “the greatest force for good in history.” A lieutenant general gave speeches on the Christian nation going to war against infidels and winning because our “God was bigger than their gods.” Attorney General Ashcroft said, in effect, not to worry because Jesus is our king and “We have no king but Jesus.” And our radio preachers and television evangelists said that God had allowed the terrorists to attack us because, as a nation, we had sinned and deserved the punishment.
Some Americans were shocked at this religious rhetoric for generating fear and going to war, but only a few complained, and their complaint was not heard in the halls of Congress or taken up seriously in the pages of the media. Liberals, who had already been put in their place by the opprobrium of the Christian Right as weak on moral issues in public policy, were tongue-tied. And the so-called mainline Christian churches apparently did not know what to say.
So religion may matter in more ways than one.
It has always been thought to matter for individuals, of course, molding character and grounding moral behavior. But now it seems that it may matter as a factor in the mentality of a people and the ways in which a society works as well.
Now that we have seen violence in the names of both Christianity and Islam, we are not so sure about all the ways personal religious belief and experience work in the larger social arenas. We have little understanding of the part played by religion in a society, especially at the level of a society’s shifts in rationale for political purposes.
At the level of national politics religion has always been taken for granted as one of the “unalienable rights” to which the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle Americans, as the preamble to the Declaration of Independence states. That worked as long as religion was seen as one of the personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and as long as Christianity could be thought of as the caretaker of personal morality. But the recent chapters of our history let us see that religion is not merely a private affair. It is no wonder that we are having trouble comprehending the social situation in which we find ourselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
What might we have said to ourselves about our nation under duress without the language of religion?
It was used to understand what was happening, construe motivations, and devise policies in response to new situations. Christians and politicians did that by taking positions and attitudes that purportedly kept us in touch with traditional “values,” standards of “Rightness,” and marks of personal and national “righteousness.” It is not that the Christian language of good and evil was the only way we had to talk about ourselves. But that is the language that came to the surface when debating social issues, political policy, and national interests. The power of that language was such that, when used in support of political propositions, nothing more needed to or could be said.
How can it be, one might ask, that a modern democracy finds itself stymied by the use of a language that resists deliberation?
And how could the Islamic “extremists” and “terrorists” have explained themselves without appealing to the religion and tenets of Islam?
It is true that they also pointed to many other reasons for their anger against the United States and other Western nations, such as colonial domination, exploitation of their natural resources, and military occupation of their lands, as well as the intrusion of lifestyles offensive to their cultures. We may not recognize these reasons as grounded in a people’s religion and culture. But the conflicts created by these interventions readily took the form of questions about the tenets and warrants of Islam both in the Western nations and in the Near East.
Islamic scholars were quick to assure us that the religion of Islam was misinterpreted by the terrorists who spoke of jihad against satanic America in the name of Allah. So let us not turn the conflicts in the Near East into religious wars. Our president learned his lesson and made it clear that we were not going to war against Islam, just against terrorists and bad governments that threatened our national interests. And yet our global interests continued to be justified because we were a Christian nation. As David Rieff put it,
“For the Bush Administration, American leadership is a self-evident moral right…[with] the conviction that America has a special mission based on the universality of its values” (“We Are the World,” 34).
Many Americans would point out that neither the Islamic extremists nor the Christian Right are adequate definitions of their respective religions. So let us not target religion for critique. They might go on to say that there are many ways other than conservative Christianity to define personal and social well-being. So maybe religion does not matter even at the personal level any longer. They could also go on to remind us that the so-called culture wars on the front between conservative Christians and liberals of political and social persuasion revolved around a rather small list of issues that threatened conservative taboos, having mainly to do with sexual practices and a few symbols of the Christian nation, not with a comprehensive political agenda.
So the argument is that, although the Christian Right has become a national embarrassment, it has not touched upon the really important social issues facing us, such as creating a just and sustainable society. And many Americans might go on to make the point that the conservative commitments of Christians, though expressed in matters of morals at the popular level, were taken advantage of by politicians to marshal support for causes quite different from those espoused by the majority of Christian Americans.
So, with the big picture in mind, is it religion that matters, or power politics?
Not every intellectual would be satisfied with this kind of reasoning. The influence of the Christian Right in US politics might be discounted because we are essentially a secular, scientific, and rational society, or so the argument might run. But the influence of Islam in Near Eastern nation-states and others around the world has also to be explained.
On October 7, 2001, Neal Cabler wrote an article with the title “An Eternal War of Mind-Sets” for the Los Angeles Times. Drawing upon the distinction between “mythos” and “logos” suggested by Karen Armstrong (The Battle for God), where “mythos” relies on “intuition, superstition, land]…non-rational ways of knowing,” while “logos relies on reason and logic, on what we call rational ways of knowing,” Cabler went on to say that
Our new war is a battle between mythos and logos. Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and their Muslim fundamenlalist allies live within mythos and have subordinated themselves to it. They see themselves not as individuals with wants and needs, which is a relatively modern notion, but as operatives of Allah. For them, everything is religion, everything faith. In fact, they don’t acknowledge any other legitimate way to look at the world. They are essentially premodern and ahistorical.
In contrast, “Born of reason, America, through its economic, intellectual and military might, is the logos capital of the world, which presumably is why it is the primary target for the Islamic fundamentalists.” Thus, as Gabler sees the conflict, “This may be the very first war to be fought over epistemology. As such, it may be tcrrifyingly intractable.”
This article was apparently written in anger and consternation as a response to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, but it tells us nevertheless about the difficulties we have when trying to identify the significance of religion and culture in the functions and structures of a society.
One might account for Gabler’s views by seeing them as an intellectual’s celebration of America’s heritage of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of scientific achievements in the Western world. But especially in retrospect, his positive assessment of America’s rationality and designs upon the rest of the world has to be seen as uncritical. And his appeal to the terms logos and mythos is particularly unfortunate. Many will see this as an awkward attempt to borrow credibility from the Greek philosophical tradition, whence the terms originate, and historians of that tradition will know that the terms were not used by the Greeks to contrast opposing epistemologies. Logos was used to name any message, report, or speech, and mythos was used to refer to stories of all kinds as well as historical accounts. Gabler’s use of the terms is a recent construction and a modernist’s anachronistic view of history.
Note that, for Gabler, religion plays no role in American society, and reason plays no role in Islamic societies. It is as if the Christian notion of being the superior religion of the world has been secularized to support the American claim to being the superior power and society in the world.
But none of that helps us understand the persistence of what Gabler calls the “mind¬sets” that are now locked in “an eternal war.” He draws upon the long tradition of debate in Western civilizations between reason and “faith,” and he is right about the apparent resistance of Christian religious mentality to rational critique and the difficulty Western logic has had in making sense of religion. But the impasse keeps him from suggesting that critical thinking may actually help us explore the logic of myths and religious mentalities if only we were to focus upon the question.
We don’t know what Gabler would say about the role Christianity has come to play in American society and government. Would he recognize the authority of the Bible as myth for the Christian Right, as he has the authority of the Quran as myth among Islamic peoples? Would he grant the use of the term mythos for the Christian gospels, or call them histories, or deny their social logics? And we don’t know how Gabler can be so sure of the “rationality” of the American “mind-set” when its self-confidence about being “scientific” hinders reflexive self-criticism.
The best we can do is to read the article as a reflection of the way many Americans think about religion, culture, and society. We can thank him for that straightforward description. We are, apparently, comfortable with the idea that American culture and society are superior in every way to other cultures and societies.
And yet, there it is, an American “mind-set” embroiled in approximately fifty years of culture wars within, all with persistent appeals to Christian values as arguments, and its result in a national politics and an administration that uses the rhetoric of righteousness to justify the use of absolute power abroad.
In the course of our history we have encountered many other cultures and religions, but we have still to learn how to engage them constructively. Our encounters have invariably been marred by exploitations, various forms of domination, and missions (o convert them to our ways. We have seldom been interested in or able to plumb their different social logics, or to use the comparison of ourselves with them to ask about the social reasons for or intellectual investments in the construction and practice of their myths, rituals, and societies.
In the case of Christianity, we have not even dared the kind of questions our scholars have asked about other religions. That should tell us something about the problems we have in coming to terms with the role of religion in a democracy.
We do not think critically about religion in public forum. We do not have a tradition of education in the human sciences that includes religion from grammar school through college. Religious studies are pursued mainly in graduate schools of the academy, and the knowledge produced by these studies has not easily found its way into public discourse.
This sets the agenda for our study. We need to develop a social theory of religion in conversation with the history of the study of religions. … We also need to trace the history of Christianity as a religion in order to analyze the social logics of its myth and ritual systems. …
This book will share with the reader what I have learned in the study of religion. I have taken examples of religions and cultures from ethnography, Asian studies, Ancient Near Eastern studies, the Greco-Roman religions, and Northern European peoples, as well as the histories of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and the encounters of Western civilization with other peoples since the Age of Discovery. These examples will be used to illustrate how religions work in order to develop a social theory of religion. …
[I]t may be helpful to mention some characteristic features of religions that begin to surface when they are studied in social contexts. I would like to think that the reader will have already noticed these characteristics and that in some sense they are observations of features merely taken for granted. By mentioning them as items of importance for the study at hand, I hope to tease the reader into thinking about religion with me in ways that are not customary for its popular conceptions. The following items are … observations of a kind that may prepare the reader for this study. All are generalizations taken mainly from the archives of the history of religions, frequently with the ethnographic model of a single society in view. Thus they may not appear adequate for a description of the Christian religion in its many variants, much less as applicable to the modern situation of religions in a multicultural nation-state. The strategy, however, is to move away from current concepts and definitions of religion in order to address the current situation as a conceptual problem amenable to critical analysis. I mention these features here in the hope that a fresh set of observations might generate a new set of questions that begin to call for a social theory of religion.
The first observation is that the markers of a people’s religion are public knowledge.
The myths, symbols, rituals, dances, feasts, festivals, and rules of conduct that we have traditionally taken together as a set of markers for a people’s religion are all linked to social moments and occasions. As such, everyone within a people knows about them, and guests from without can usually find ways to observe them. Each has its part to play in what we might call the patterns of daily social activity, the seasonal cycle, the modes of tuition, the rotation of production, the life-cycle of individuals, and the history of the people. This means that the practice of religion is integral to the patterns of practices that structure living together in a society.
A second observation is that individuals may participate in the religious markers of a society in a wide variety of ways.
In Christian congregations, participation has usually been thought of as predicated upon belief. However, belief is a peculiarly Christian notion deriving from the odd combination of myth and history in the New Testament gospels. The terms “belief,” “faith,” and “piety” are not at all adequate to describe the ways in which most people actually learn, accept, and participate in their religious markers. Some individuals may think deeply about their myths, others not at all. Some may take special delight in performing at their festivals, while others prefer looking on. No one stays away because of little faith. In a stable society, one not undergoing major change, religious markers are simply accepted as part of the pattern of social activities and become occasions for celebrating participation in the life of the people.
A third observation concerns the function of myths and rituals.
What these add to the mix of systems that structure a society is a magnification of horizon and detail. Myths expand the view of the world beyond the horizon of the local natural environment. Rituals provide a lens to concentrate on the details of significant actions and watch them performed in deliberate perfection, as if set in a different world and time. The times and spaces beyond the contemporary environments and histories of a people, beyond those environments that are available for investigation by means of living memories and empirical contact, become the imagined world where agents and events can be located to reconfigure and gain some distance from social interests and issues as well as the mysteries of the natural world.
Such images are often imagined as combinations of features taken from flora, fauna, and humans. We are accustomed to calling these images gods, but if thought of in terms of the Christian concept of Cod the term “gods” hardly suffices for the vast majority of creatures imagined to populate the unseen imaginary worlds. As a matter of fact, the superhuman beings of primarily anthropological stature, those we have recognized as gods like ours, seem to rise to the top of pantheons where societies have developed hierarchies in which powers become invested in chiefs, kings, and emperors.
Of much greater incidence seem to be the ways in which most peoples have imagined their ancestors. Ancestors are often referred to as a collective, but can also be imagined as a single progenitor of the people. The stories of ancestors and heroes mark past events of precedence that are still felt to be effective or influential for the way the world is working in the present. The expanded horizon of the imaginary world is seldom filled with beings and events that form a complete and comprehensive system to account for the real world. And most of the knowledge basic to the workings of the society settles into techniques and rules of practice that are named, learned, and applied with¬out reference to the imaginary world. Nevertheless, the imaginary world frequently becomes a kind of environment that encompasses and centers the society in its history and natural setting. It adds scope, mythic images, and mystery to a society’s world. It is also frequently the case that stories set in the imaginary world tell of events in which the morals of the stories can become lessons about the right and wrong ways to act.
A fourth observation is that a combination of the mythic world, the religious markers, and the regular practices of a people create what might be called a mentality characteristic of a people.
Because the combination is accepted as the way the world works, and because it is taken for granted, such a mentality is largely unconscious. Looking on from outside a given society, however, and comparing one society with another, it is obvious that a people can share a rather long list of characteristics that distinguish them from other peoples. Such characteristics can include particular attitudes, ways of thinking, values, humor, social practices, habits, and the automatic defense of a people’s identity and integrity in the face of comparisons with others and challenges from without.
We know about this by encounters with other cultures, and we know how easy it is to point out a few of the distinctive characteristics of another people.
What we have not done is ask about the mentality that makes possible such collective characteristics. We have not asked about the social practices, religious markers, and collective investments in a people’s identity that may play a role in its pervasive persistence.
A fifth observation is that, when change takes place within a society and its territory, it is frequently the case that its religious markers also change.
Changes to the religious markers are often slight, occurring by increments and in subtle ways, in order to accommodate new social situations and configurations. Such change can occur in a variety of ways.
The introduction of innovative technologies and the resultant change in patterns of labor and production are one way.
Rivalries within the society that result in the rearrangement of hierarchies and the divisions of labor are another.
Environmental change, whether caused by human or natural means, can force changes in patterns of production and social practice that bring pressure to bear upon customary myths and rituals.
Finally, demographic changes, ranging from internecine conflicts to epidemics, displacements, and population growth and congestion, also become occasions for rethinking and revising myths, religious markers, and cultural symbols.
In all of these cases of social change, the chances are that the religious markers will provide a sense of continuity even while both they and the social patterns are undergoing change.
Myths are especially amenable to changing. That is because they and their occasions for rehearsal can be set at a slight distance from the performance of rituals or the schedule of festivals in which standards of replication tend to prevail. It is also because myths are stories requiring the imagination and embellishment of the storyteller on some occasion called for by the special circumstances of the people gathered to listen. Thus, in any given rehearsal, an assessment of the current situation of a people can make a difference to the way the storyteller paints the picture of the mythic world, depicts its characters, and relates the things that happen there.
A sixth observation is that, in situations of major social change, religious markers tend to become enhanced as identity markers.
When people move or are moved into another people’s territory and find themselves living within another culture, changes usually take place in both cultural traditions in order to accommodate differences and fashion skills in negotiation.
Religious markers are often the only features of the culture as practiced in its original territory that can be transported. Not all of them can easily be transferred to new locations, but those that can be frequently become the mechanisms for links to the past and symbols of a persistent investment in the identity of a people in terms of its culture.
If a people and its territory become the object of another people’s conquest and occupation, however, accommodation may take the form of sullenness, resistance, or even hostility. That is because dominant cultures usually treat the other as subordinate, expecting acceptance, obedience, or conversion to the dominant culture’s ways. It is then that resistance to the dominant culture can take the form of ideological conflict based on appeal to the authorization of traditional religious markers.
In our time a very complex mix and merger of cultures and social formations make the analysis of the roles of religions very difficult. The Western nations are heirs to their own histories of enlightenment, industrial revolution, imperial expansion and collapse, urbanization, and the development of nation-states with structures of governance in separation from the religious markers, institutions, and authorities of the cultures and societies of the past.
Religions and religious institutions from the past have continued, however, now in curious and tensive relations to the nation-states within which they continue their separate existence both at home and abroad. Ideologies of democracy seek justification in humanistic values apart from anchorage in a religion even while the term “multicultural” is used to recognize the persistence of the religions and cultures of the several peoples that are now challenged to find ways to live together in peace.
Despite the Western rhetoric of tolerance for other religions, and the notion that all religions are parallel ways to find the one God, the religions and cultures of the many peoples now living together in nation-states do not overlap. Older mentalities persist and the governments of modern nation-states are finding it difficult to treat all the same.
Where there is a dominant religion within a nation-state, its beliefs, values, and religious symbols can be taken up by the so-called secular governors to authorize interests and policies that have little to do with the function of those symbols among the peoples who first created them, and especially within the institutions of their religions as people of a culture as well as citizens of a state.
And yet, despite the complexity of the situation and the difficulty of analysis, lessons from the history of religions can provide us with comparisons that will help us spot features of the current situation we can understand. Should it be possible to answer the question of why religions matter by developing a theory about religion as a human construction in the interest of the human enterprise of social formation, we might be able to imagine taking some next steps in the construction of the social democracies we are currently trying to create.
This book makes a proposal for just such a theory. Chapter 1 will summarize the ways religion has been explained in the past one hundred and fifty years. I will work with the major theories that scholars have proposed, but also with popular notions and cliches that have settled into place in common parlance.
One point will be that the need to account for religion arose in the “discovery” of other peoples in the world and their strange myths and rituals.
Another will be that an implicit comparison with Christianity has provided the unexamined model of religion for the definition of terms when describing the religions of other peoples.
A third is that it has apparently not been thought necessary to question and analyze the social logics of either Judaism or Christianity in the same way as we have the religions of all other peoples. A summary of the ways in which scholars have studied and thought about religions can help us see why we need a social theory of religion.
Chapter 2 will explore the relation of myths and rituals to social life and describe the concept of social interests. This will be a first step in developing a social theory of religion, the aim of Part I of the book. The concept of social formation will also be mentioned and related to social theories in general. There are many studies of religion as an important factor in the social and cultural formations of the human enterprise of living together. I will summarize some of them as a way to get the reader to think about the social logics of myths and rituals.
Chapter 3 will introduce a theory of mythmaking. This will build on the concept of social interests developed in Chapter 2, but then add reasons for the imaginary environment of a society within which deities can be located. The deities can be seen as imaginary agents of forces that impinge upon intersections of social interests and activities within these environments. Then it will be possible to notice the variety of deities humans have imagined, and to relate certain types to certain social configurations. The chapter will come to focus on the deities familiar to us from the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman era of Late Antiquity, those we have learned to call gods.
The world of memory and imagination made possible by myth and ritual expands the horizons of a people beyond their current borders in both space and time. The resulting environment thus imagined becomes the place for anchoring precedent events and defining histories, genealogies, credentials, symbols, and the ways in which habitual patterns of thinking and practice fit into the rhyme and reason of the larger world as a whole. The effect is that collective identities, characteristics, and affinities of a people can be imagined apart from any given moment, experience, or event. Thus they can be recalled, thought about, and used to put familiar constructions upon new situations.
Chapter 4 will introduce the notions of situation and mythmaking in order to explore the reasons for shifts in mythic imagery during times of social change. It will be possible to illustrate both notions and show how each is related to the other. One point will be that, although myths are resistant to change at the levels of collective imagination and cultural mentality, they are a medium available for manipulation and rearrangement when (social-historical) situations call for rethinking. Another point will be to understand how religion influences debate and the marshalling of support for views to be taken and policies implemented in a time of deliberation. A third point will be that both social formations and religious myths and rituals are thoroughly human constructions. It is therefore not surprising that myths are appealed to in times of social change for arguments concerning national attitudes and policies.
Chapter 5 will describe Christian beginnings from the first to the early fourth centuries. It is important to do this as a redescription of the dominant paradigm of Christian origins. The paradigm is based on the New Testament gospels about the dramatic events of the appearance of Jesus as messiah and son of Cod. Critical scholars now understand the gospels to be the products of early Christian mythmaking in the interest of social experiments among schools of Jesus’ followers. It was the concept of the kingdom of God that focused and energized these mythmaking projects and prepared the way for the so-called Constantinian revolution. We must take the time to review this history because the gospel is the Christian myth, and only by redescribing its production can we analyze its structure and its social logic which are still at work in the contemporary Christian imagination.
Chapter 6 will analyze the myth and ritual system of Christendom as a grammar that supports Christian mentality. The importance of the church as a religious institution will be described, and its structure as an institution of empire will be emphasized. That the concept of the church includes a universalizing mission in league with notions of empire will prepare us for a consideration of the “Christian nation” in Chapter 7.
Chapter 7 explores the social logic of the Christian myth and mentality as a legacy that is still at work among us, not only in the institutions of Christianity, but also in the concept of the righteous nation, as well as in the unexamined assumptions that determine the way in which we as a people automatically view the world and make our assessments about the way it works.
The Christian myth and mythic world have functioned as the lens or frame of reference for viewing and interpreting other peoples and their cultures in ways that fail both to understand the other and to be reflexive in regard to ourselves. Many Americans now regard the worldviews of traditional Christianities as passe and of little consequence for our modern scientific and rational ways of viewing the world. And yet, features of these mythic worldviews continue to haunt our mentalities even as a so-called secular society. A summary and study of these features can help us frame the questions we might want to ask about religions in our time.
Chapter 8 presents an analysis of our social situation in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It will be a meditation on the problems we are having with Christianity and other religions in our efforts to construct a social democracy. In spite of the problems a hopeful outlook can be managed. That is because our study will have demonstrated the capacity of a people to transform their myths and religious traditions in response to changing social situations.
The Conclusion invites the reader to think with me about our future as an experiment in the construction of a polycultural social democracy that need not be a Christian nation.
Burton Mack is not the only one who thinks it is necessary to transform our myths and religious traditions in order to construct a polycultural social democracy that minsters to all people. The only thing I would add to the mix is: why do we have to create a religion of myths? Why can’t we construct one that is based on reality? Truth? And by Truth, I mean Truth as the ideal to be sought, the Platonic Logos? And so, I introduce to you: The Fellowship of the Cosmic Mind, The Church of Revived PaleoChristianity.
Originally Published 2009_12_05