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Popular Religion and “Elite” Religion

July 16th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 16 Comments

I much enjoy the Evolving Thoughts blog. One reason is John Wilkins’, um, what would you call it, let’s go with “philosophical sophistication”. See for example his thoughts on the whole Wafergate issue. Or my growing collection of Evolving Thoughts bookmarks.

Relevant to the discussions on my blog, Wilkins’ “random thoughts” from a recent post of his:

One of the commentators thought that I was wrong to say that it’s hard to find a religion that lacks supernatural beings, and instanced Buddhism, Confucianism and Jainism. A quick trip to the Encyclopedia of Religion sorted that mistake out: there’s a common distinction between popular and elite religious forms, and just like you can find Catholicism without the saints, you can find Buddhism without the devas, Brahmin, or various family gods, etc., but it isn’t the popular religion. And that got me thinking…

I have criticised PZ Mangle and others for attacking the popular forms of religion and not dealing with the intellectual (read: elite) forms. Here I am being criticised in the same manner. Poetic justice, perhaps? It raises an important point about my project: in order to understand religion, you absolutely must not deal with the “pure” philosophical forms alone. In fact, they are very often the province of the “clergy”: those whose lives are devoted to the religion, and who are supported by the popular religious. It’s hard to envisage a church of Tillichs, for example.

The little I know of Tillich‘s views so far, I like very much. I became acquainted with the name when I heard Spong is very much influenced by Tillich’s theology. Wikipedia mentions, about Tillich’s theology:

God is called the “ground of being” because God is the answer to the ontological threat of non-being, and this characterization of the theological answer in philosophical terms means that the answer has been conditioned (insofar as its form is considered) by the question.

Back to the divide between the “elite” and “popular” forms. Wilkins mentions the “elite” form being that practised by the “clergy”, and the “popular” form that by the congregation: this is something I’ve heard from various sources. One of my recent sources was a pastor of a Dutch-Reformed church (not in Stellenbosch, btw — it was through gtalk). He mentioned something that was discussed in the Synod: the greatest portion of the Dutch-Reformed congregation considers the Bible the literal, word-for-word word of God, while the preachers/pastors don’t see it that way. There is a chasm… He also mentioned how hard it is to get a congregation to think. They’re often there for some words of wisdom that they can easily go and apply in their lives, rather than to have their own thoughts challenged.

This chasm is indeed a problem, and how to get it “fixed” is very far from easy. Rocking the boat too much (e.g. writing this blog post?) gets the “Bible Believers” (propaganda term) running from the “theologically/scholarly informed” Dutch-Reformed church to fundamentalist “Bible Believing” churches. In fact, I suspect this may be what Angus Buchan (of Faith Like Potatoes fame) may have been alluding to when he endorsed Shofar with the words “It’s a church that’s transparent with no hidden agendas. […] I’ll tell you one thing about them: what you see is what you get.” (That was in Shofar’s marketing pamphlet at the beginning of the year.)

So that’s one way of getting your congregation and your leadership to be on the same page: get the leadership on the same level as the congregation. Another solution: get the congregation onto the level of the leadership instead. This is much of what I see happening on the more radical branches of the emerging church movement, which can also be considered a “publishing movement”. Ditto for the books of the liberal theologians. (And that is the angle of this blog as well: I want to share what I’ve come across with regards to Bible scholarship, and play my own part in the evolution of religion.)

Back to Wilkins, these “random thoughts” of his are about a recent grant application of his, for a project on the evolution of religion:

So I must consider (not critique, this is not that project) all forms of religions, and not fall into the philosopher’s trap of dealing solely with the philosophical. Nor shall I do the reverse, and reject the elite forms as irrelevant. We want to know how the whole kit and kaboodle evolved (always wanted to use that phrase here).

The interaction between the two must indeed be quite interesting. I wish Wilkins the best for his research, and look forward to any interesting blog posts that may come of it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Next post should be on “The God of Philosophy and the God of Faith”, stealing Peter Rollins’ material, who has another particularly interesting and somewhat contrasting take on the role, or lack thereof, of the “philosophers’ God” — an “intellectually informed” form of Christianity, but focusing on the faith experience/life and de-emphasizing the philosophers’ God.

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16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 16, 2008 at 2:20 am

    Somebody pointed me at some Tillich a while ago…let me see if I can dig up my post giving my thoughts as I read it…

    Found it! The conversation continued for a bit, too:

  • 2 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 3:20 am

    I would stand by many of stumpjumper’s responses. Bear with me for a second while I offend you… ๐Ÿ˜‰ and then try to recover with an explanation of how that isn’t offensive:

    With reference to the terminology I chose in the post, “philosophical sophistication”, and what I like about what I see in Wilkins’ blog, I’d say you’re a decent example of someone “without philosophical sophistication”.

    And that sounds rather negatively expressed, maybe… but I thought I’d run with it, suspecting it might not even offend you. Philosophical sophistication isn’t necessarily a “good thing”, which is what makes the “sophisticated” word a bad one, it has too many value-judgement connotations that comes with it.

    One of my atheistic friends, great guy, we have deep discussions every now and then, is of the opinion that many theologians and philosophers are simply “too smart for their own good”. I’d suspect he might apply it to Tillich and existentialists and all the rest as well (though he mostly aims it at theologians that are scratching their heads coming up with reasons for why there is suffering in the world).

    One of stumpjumper’s sentiments I would agree with, what it basically boils down to, is the opinion (stumpjumper’s and mine) that you’re approaching Tillich from the wrong angle. The courtier’s reply is all good and well, I’d say Tillich didn’t expect of you to go by his view of the world. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you (and PZ?) would apply that in response to most philosophy and philosophers (theistic or not). Hundreds and hundreds of pages of Kant’s* work [*insert a better name, I don’t know what I’m talking about], and you’d say “what’s the fuss? Can’t we just get on with our lives? Why all this hullabaloo?” And you’d be right, in the sense that many of us could. Many of us do.

    But some of us simply think too much.

    Which brings me back to the conversation I had with a formerly-agnostic friend, who’s exploring the religion thingy with an open but skeptical mind… I wish I could just have recorded the conversation, as an example of what the philosophically-minded people grapple with, an example of where Tillich starts to make much sense… but no-one is going to listen to four hours of that anyway. ๐Ÿ˜‰ To those that think simply too darn much, you sometimes dig your way into nihilism. When you’ve thought yourself to that place, understand what that feels like, you start looking for a new place to find meaning in life. To me, the things talked about there, about “threats of non-existence” and bravery in “choosing life”, the purposeful and moral life, rather than succumbing to “I might as well just end it now… I mean, why not commit suicide? There’s no reason not to…” With utter lack of meaning, it is also utterly bizarre and inexplicable why this universe even exists, it might as well not exist. And that’s much a part of the “threat of non-existence” to me, the realisation that it might simply not exist, I might just as well end it for myself. As much a part as the fear of it ending outside of my control, at the end of my life, etc. And then, accepting existence, becomes a kind of leap of faith, an acceptance of the “ground of being”.

    From nihilism, the mission becomes finding something worth living for, about picking a purpose and picking morality. That is the existentialist’s “leap of faith”. My personal philosophical/existential position unifies in some way the “atheistic existentialist” and “theistic existentialist” positions, at least my limited understanding of these positions (and I suspect a “theistic-existentialist” philosopher might want to argue I’m therefore not a “theistic existentialist”, dunno, I don’t know what I’m talking about) — but that is also where it becomes so hard to communicate, because it is about pointing out how the difference is basically the language we use to describe the ideas. Philosophical “too much thinking” ideas.

    I think in the case of Tillich, you approach it with the “theistic” understanding of “God”, and in the context of your disagreement with Christianity. Tillich is not approaching it from that angle, and also does not use words in that traditional sense. You’d argue he might be as “guilty” of redefining words as I am — I suspect the “definitions/explanations” I’ve been trying to hack at, with regards to what “God” means: if you could use those, Tillich might make more sense?

    I’ve not pondered the “absurdist” stance as much, definitely not enough to “encourage” it. “For Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide is not a worthwhile solution because if life is veritably absurd, then it is even more absurd to counteract it; instead, we should engage in living and reconcile the fact that we live in a world without purpose.” (For friends stuck in the throes of nihilism, I think I’m able to encourage any sort of existentialism, theistic or atheistic, whatever leap they’d be prepared to take. If they find nihilism an untenable position and need a solution, due to their philosophical mindset, either is a definite improvement.)

    Reading Paul Kurtz (secular humanist), I feel he’s also responding to those with “highly philosophical minds” (read: too much thinking for their own good). I really wonder what you’d make of that, wondering at his unnecessary hammering on certain points, maybe?

    So on my like of Wilkins’ “philosophical sophistication”, that’s just because my mind works that way, and some of my friends’ minds work that way. There are other people that really do want it KISS… I’m sure those are the people that might find Dawkins’ book appealing, or love the courtier’s reply, etc etc.

    To each his (or her of course*) own. (To each their own?)

  • 3 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 3:24 am

    And I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

    (I bet it shows… in my floundering to find words. If I really knew what I was talking about, however, fewer words would probably not suffice, and I’d embark on another many-hundred-pages of trying to explain all the context for the philosophy… because “knowing what I’m talking about” means knowing, and being able to explain, all the context necessary for my position/thoughts, rather than having something of an intuitive/abstract-feeling of the context. Enough of a feeling to know it could be expressed in philosophical terms, and “does make sense”, but not enough to be able to actually express/explain it well.)

    Does any of this seem to make any kind of sense? (Um, beyond the “I don’t know what I’m talking about” part?) Maybe just the “some people just think too darn much, and end up playing philosophers’ games in an attempt to find peace with their thoughts”?

  • 4 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 3:32 am

    Heh, here you go, your words:

    Granted that I consider most philosophy intellectual noodling and can’t stand to read it,

    There’s a good expression for “philosophical sophistication” then, removing the value judgement: “intellectual noodling”. Can’t agree more. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Existentialism is a philosophical movement in which individual human beings are understood as having full responsibility for creating the meanings of their own lives.

    The source of my meaning or my positive outlook is myself. I have full responsibility for creating them. It’s really, really, really, simple.

    That is indeed atheistic existentialism. And it is indeed really simple. And in cringe-worthy terms, that means you’re your own god. Your own meaning assigner. In your terminology then, and from my limited understanding/knowledge, the theistic existentialist does not “own” his own meaning as explicitly, and prefers to leave it somewhat “out there”. In a sense, a shared-meaning, i.e. meaning that is found in relation to the other humans around you, is in a way a little more “theistic” than yours. Not referring to “theism” here, in the traditional sense, just referring to that “external source of meaning”.

    Have you looked at this table yet? :

    I think the biggest fundamental disagreement between your perspectives and mine, would be your KISS approach, and my intellectual noodling approach. ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s the way my brain is wired… or ended up being wired due to the cultural situations / cultural changes I grew up in / went through. (I can full-well picture me being much more of a KISS-based scientist-type if I grew up in NL and didn’t come back to South Africa at age 13. The noodling is very much fun, but so is exploring Lah! Noodling is very Meh-ish.)

  • 5 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 3:52 am

    Another afterthought (I’ve been labelled the king of afterthoughts in the past):

    Is the loss of meaning-assigner such a big deal? Yes, it is! It is absolutely remarkable how much grief and anguish it can cause to simply come to terms that you must assign your own meaning in life. It flies in the face of what “meaning” is, to someone coming from a background with “externalised” and culturally shared meaning/purpose.

    Another friend of mine says he has come full circle. He was happy, with all the uncertainty about the universe, about how little we know, at age 5. And then the culture threw him into conventional religion. It ended up with much anguish and soul searching and battling and mental pain, until he finally came full circle, just over two decades later, back to what his views were at age 5. His process of letting it all go and accepting his age 5 worldview again, caused him so much anguish, that he’s all too happy to leave other adults with their world-view, no matter how conservative or silly or young-earthish they might be… to save them that anguish. No need for them to go through it.

    Not the same with the children though…

    And we are also talking about what books he could use to open up discussions about the age of the earth, with people close to him. He does care enough to strategise about that kind of thing, but he also knows how tough it is to find a “respectful” non-confrontational way to do so that would not shut down communication altogether.

    Do you think it might be valuable to formally interview some of these friends of mine, and write about it? Interesting views to blog about, with regards to how they experienced the whole “religious process” and how they now feel about it, about respect, about “bad solutions” etc? (About their opinions on how Dawkins expresses himself? Naah, not this last bit, that’s been written about and complained about enough times.)

    The thing being explored by some thinkers (those that I like quite a lot), involve a different path with meaning. To these people, meaning found in “living like Jesus” is not an authoritative morality, but an elective one. A decision to find meaning in living like that, where “like that” is one of compassion and caring… And you can argue for “KISS humanism”, and sure, that works, but there are other paths towards compassion that may work better from different points of departure.

    Too verbose… and again pre-echoing posts I still want to write. (I feel less pressure in comments, words flow more easily and are less scrutinized by myself.)

  • 6 John S. Wilkins // Jul 16, 2008 at 4:12 am

    Thanks for the link and commentary. I’m glad at least one reader found that point significant.

    On the title of this blog, consider that self-reflection is, like any other biological disposition, going to be distributed over a curve. Assuming a normal distribution, that means that only a small percentage (~5% if 3SDs) will think deeply about issues. Consequently, most members of any tradition or group will tend to be unreflective. That means that Pastor Tillich cannot bring the bulk of his congregation with him. By definition, they must have a popular religion.

    But if I am right about elite forms being parasitical on popular forms, elite forms cannot exist without the popular; likewise if popular is driven or drawn by elite forms (as seems to be the case in Buddhism) what counts as the modal form of religion will be dependent on how far to the tail elite religion has gone.

    In short, if the leaders have moved out, the popular form must to some extent follow (although it may be that the entire tradition simply goes extinct).

    On terminology, most of a professional style of argumentation is learning the terms and the standard moves (like reductio or modus ponens). Philosophy is a Wittgensteinian game. But you can play if you don’t know the words (and originally, that’s how the philosophical tradition got started).

  • 7 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 4:23 am

    @Wilkins, thanks!

    … for the rest, I’m at a loss for words, because asking advice with regards to sweet reading material for filling in the gaps in my education ( ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), I’d rather say nothing: I’ve enough on my plate for now. I’ll take more steps on the path of an “eternal student” when I’ve settled into a new routine/rhythm, and have my current projects “finished” to a satisfactory degree.

    [Meh, it seems I’m a Wilkins fanboy.]

  • 8 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 4:38 am

    if I am right about elite forms being parasitical on popular forms / if popular is driven or drawn by elite forms

    …then “evangelical” atheists will feel they have all the reason in the world to target either, in order to “take down” the whole kaboodle. Hmm…

    It would be interesting to see the interplay of little upstart “house-church” type traditions, where everyone can be at the same level, and how they grow into the elite&long-tail kind. Also, keeping an eye on innovative and small “emerging church” communities might be interesting, to see where they end up going.

    And then the “elite” in scientology… [snipped my ramblings, I was digressing into excessive verbosity].

  • 9 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 5:15 am

    Just read Ludwig Wittgenstein / Philosophical Investigations on Wikipedia. Kinda sounds like it is talking about (in my terminology from an earlier post) “meh” that is disconnected from “lah”, and how useless that then becomes. (Philosophical “problems” are “all meh”…)

    Ben/gerhard (if gerhard is reading): we’ll get back to useful goal-driven discussions soon enough. For now, we’re investigating language and meaning in preparation for that. I’m hoping I’m developing some “tools” that will serve a useful purpose in the context of the upcoming goals. And hopefully developing tolerance and understanding of my use of language, of my ideas, as I’m not going to “have time to” explain them later. Now it’s 5am. Eish. I seriously need to develop some sort of routine.

  • 10 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 16, 2008 at 5:15 am

    I think in the case of Tillich, you approach it with the โ€œtheisticโ€ understanding of โ€œGodโ€, and in the context of your disagreement with Christianity.

    Oh, sure, prompt me to again attempt to read that piece…evil, you are ๐Ÿ˜‰

    …I could only read the first 15-20%. Ugh.

    True, in the absence of any understanding of what ‘ground of being’ or ‘Ground of Being’ means (capitalizing stuff apparently changes the meaning somehow) I did use the theistic understanding of the word ‘God.’ I will never understand why ‘elite religionists’ or whatever you want to call them even want to use the term if they want to mean something entirely different.

    From the piece: “Paul Tillich, a theologian who influenced so many others, most importantly those theologians today who perceive God apart from theism” – ugh.

    Is the loss of meaning-assigner such a big deal? Yes, it is! It is absolutely remarkable how much grief and anguish it can cause to simply come to terms that you must assign your own meaning in life.

    I don’t know if my teenage angst was better or worse than the average or how much my worldview affected it, but I’ve definitely avoided some deconversion angst – a topic we discussed in that other blog post.

    Iโ€™ve been labelled the king of afterthoughts in the past


    Have you looked at this table yet?

    I did. It seems very subjective to me.

    Larry Moran (Sandwalk blog) seems to fall in my camp of KISS. He and James McGrath tried to converse for a while. No matter what noodling McGrath tried to do, Moran tried to pin him down into saying something. It didn’t go very well.

    I really lost interest when McGrath made a post about Not Getting Through and then later made a comment that suggested he hadn’t even gotten through to himself yet:

    It would seem to me you would have to get it through to yourself before you could think you could get it through to others.

    As a scholar of religion, I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t even know what “religion” means, and the same applies to “God”. If one tries to define either, what one finds is that there are a range of beliefs, practices and systems of thought that seem to intuitively fit what we mean by “religion” or “God”, and yet are very different. And so my tendency has been to treat as religion anything that people consider a religion, and to accept that God has a similar plurality of uses and meanings in the context of different viewpoints and traditions.

    (emphasis mine). head>desk. head>desk.

  • 11 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 16, 2008 at 6:28 am

    Another McGrath quote from the same comment that blew my mind:

    Larry, if I understood him correctly, basically said that anything that doesn’t take mythology as a statement of literal fact and treat God or gods as personal beings is a form of atheism. One could argue for that, I suppose: atheism means anything that denies the truthfulness of “theism” as traditionally defined. But then you end up in the strange situation of having atheists who continue to talk of God!

    Under McGrath’s beliefs, you already have theists who reject theism. Somehow he finds that not a strange situation. Sheesh.

    Bunch of pedophiles*.

    * For the purposes of this post and this post only, a pedophile is defined as ‘one who re-defines words unnecessarily.’

  • 12 Kenneth Oberlander // Jul 16, 2008 at 11:02 am

    So god=meaning assigner?

    If so, I finally have a soundbyte definition from you!

  • 13 Negate // Jul 16, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Hugo it looks like you seem to think that a person has to have a meaning or else, as you say we could just as kill ourself. Buddha said, i am what I’m Becoming. How can you understand meaning in anything if you have only seen part of the scheme? It is fair to assume that a person would have different “god’s or meaning assigners through his lifetime correct? allot of philosophers see concepts of moral actions like Aristotle as either habitual or instinct.

    Finding meaning in your life should not be a conscious search for answers. It should be a way of life.

  • 14 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    @Ben: lol! I’m appreciating being called names, given the context. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Early Christians were called atheists by the Romans. And some contemporary Christians are happy in calling themselves atheists about certain gods.

    @Kenneth: enjoy it while it last, you know I might not stick with it for more than a week. ๐Ÿ˜› (But yes, when that sound-byte “definition” emerged in my conversation with my friend, I actually did think “ooh, Kenneth’s going to be happy about this one”. And this sound-byte definition does work quite well in most of the contexts I’ve been pondering.)

    @Negate: hmmm, well, I think nihilism isn’t a good place to be. There is, by definition, no right and wrong, no guidelines. You could say “well, I shouldn’t kill someone, because the law will get me” — but the nihilistic response is “so? that doesn’t matter…” I don’t think there are many people that maintain the nihilistic position for very long. Or my definition of nihilism is simply too “strong”.

    A Buddhist is on a journey. That journey is a “source of meaning”. (Pondering the sound-byte, is that journey a “meaning assigner”? Well, it’s kinda similar to the searcher “walking a path with God”, in a sense, which is why the sound-byte definition needs to keep a kinda vagueish quality to it.)

    However, “nirvana” is an interesting thing, with relation to nihilism. I wish I could remember where I saw this, but the state of “nirvana” is kinda the flip-side of nihilism. Both put you at a crossroads where all paths are equal and the decision between them somewhat meaningless. (In one, all paths are attractive, in the other none, so in some ways it is opposite, in others, identical. Oh, and I don’t know which is which.) But the journey in getting there, is meaningful to the Buddhist.

  • 15 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 16, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Hugo, I think one of my comments with multiple links got swallowed. Could you check?

  • 16 Hugo // Jul 16, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Ben, fixed. Akismet had swallowed it… grrr…

    I will never understand why โ€˜elite religionistsโ€™ or whatever you want to call them even want to use the term if they want to mean something entirely different.

    To communicate to the long tail, to the “popularists”, to “pull them forward” … or if you want to take a more cynical view, to get their support? That question of how best to influence people comes to mind… and it is not at all a case of intended deception, it is a case of a continuum, a developed understanding of what the concept is. An understanding of the concept that the tradition called “God”, that develops/evolves from an old henotheistic understanding, via a monotheistic understanding, to a post-Nietzsche post-theistic understanding… maintaining the same word is sensible when it evolves gradually.

    I think the American situation differs from other countries, where the notion is much further removed from the old “old man with grey beard”. Have you seen the survey:

    The “impersonal force” idea rather than “personal god” is much more common in some traditions than in others.


    Understood and appreciated. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m happy leaving some things murky though, for being pragmatic about other “more important” things, where importance is measured according to “MyPlan(TM)”. (Kinda like the re-election speech of whatsitsname, claiming to have a SecretPlan for getting out of Vietnam, eh?)

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