Is Karen Armstrong Right? Was Religion Always About Belief or Not?

There is a fine but important line to be drawn between reasonable disagreement and irresponsible name-calling. It is thus surprising when a commenter baber begins with name-calling in response to a claim by Karen Armstrong with which he might simply have chosen to disagree.

Here, then, is Armstrong’s claim, via Brian McGrath Davis’ review here on RD:

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong explains that until the modern period, the major Western monotheisms all concerned themselves primarily with practice, the doing of religion, rather than doctrine.

And here is commenter baber’s response, entitled “Armstrong is a Liar”:

This is utterly false. Christianity was, from the outset, all about belief—about metaphysical claims concerning the existence and nature of God. Theologians and councils wrangled about fine points of theology and, as Gregory of Nyssa reports, theological argument was a popular passtime [sic]: used clothes sellers and bath house attendants argued about doctrinal minutae in the streets for sport.

Armstrong, like most religious studies scholars, is an atheist. There’s nothing wrong with being an atheist but the suggestion that religion is really not about belief is just disingenuous.

I don’t believe that God, if there is a God, cares in the least whether we believe he exists or not much less whether we get the theological details right or whether we are, in any sense, religious. But it’s quite another thing to suggest, falsely, that religion is not really about belief, or that the idea that it is is [sic] some newfangled Western notion. That is just plain false.

Let me tackle the essential problems of assertion in the first and third paragraphs (I simply do not know how to respond to an ungrounded assertion about Armstrong’s “atheism,” when her public discussion of her own spiritual journey seems to contradict this description pretty clearly).

The main problem here is the disavowal of history. Religious Studies is not so much a discipline as it is an interdiscipline (and one that, when done well, poaches freely and creatively and unapologetically from other fields). Central to the practice of comparative religion are History, Anthropology and Sociology. The failure to attend to history and to an anthropology of religious practices tends to reduce Religious Studies to a sub-field in Philosophy (and normally carries with it the false premise that Religion is essentially “Philosophy Lite”).

baber asserts that Christianity was “from the outset, all about belief.” He then quotes a late fourth/early fifth century theologian to ground an assertion, I take it, about the first century practices of Jesus-followers. There is a problem here, and it is more than merely historical.

Followers of Jesus in the first several centuries attended closely to practices, their own and others.’ They worried about who was able to worship, and they worried about how they worshiped. Catechumens were dismissed after their instruction because they were not yet deemed capable of authentic worship. Baptism was the central initiation ceremony, after which the initiate could participate in the sacred meal and the kiss of peace. The initiate could not eat meat sacrificed to idols, could not engage in porneia (there are debates about what this meant), and could not eat an animal cooked in its own blood. Christian martyrs were invited to sacrifice to the Roman imperial genius and if they refused, they were often jailed or killed.

Note that I have not yet made a single theological claim that is separable from a practice. I haven’t really made any theological claims, in the modern sense, at all.

And now I turn to Saint Gregory. baber’s suggestion actually falsifies what Gregory of Nyssa said. He did observe that, by the early-to-mid fourth century, Christological controversies had become so entrenched that everybody weighed in on them, whether you asked them to or not. You couldn’t buy a loaf of bread, Gregory complained, without the baker telling you that the Son was consubstantial with the Father….

Gregory’s point, and his concern, was that the debate had spiraled out of control and reached the point where people wanted to fight about Christology; they didn’t want to resolve it.

That gives the lie to baber’s final claim that “[t]heologians and councils wrangled about fine points of theology.” This assertion operates on the false impression that church councils were “all about theology” (I am referring to the so-called Ecumenical Councils, seven in number and spanning 325-787 CE, meetings in which bishops from throughout the emerging Christian world gathered to sort out matters of church governance). That is the main point: the bishops’ concerns were for governance, first and foremost. They did indeed hammer out points of doctrine in such councils—either as a pastoral attempt to defuse a theological conflict, or else as a political means to marginalize their episcopal rivals as “heretics.” But they spent equal time at such councils hammering out matters of ecclesial governance, administrative organization and, yes, fundamental questions of orthodox Christian practice.

Their religion was not all about theology. Nor was it all about practices. It was many things at once. The commenter has set up a false contrast, and then invited us to take sides. He’s a lot like the baker who worried Gregory so.

baber concludes by suggesting that he does not really have a dog in the fights waged by theology, but that he does have a dog in the battle over truth and veracity. Fair enough; so do I. But the mischaracterization of Armstrong’s views—her alleged assertion that the conception of religion as belief is “some newfangled Western notion”—misses once again the historical argument that Armstrong, among many others, have made for many years.

It is, in short, the idea that the Protestant Reformation is the real prelude to the Modern age, and that central to Luther’s revisioning of the Christian religion was his renewed emphasis on scripture and belief… to the exclusion of practices.

Sola scriptura, sola fide is indeed “all about belief.” Which is why in contemporary English one may speak of “practicing Catholics” or “practicing Jews,” but to speak of “practicing Protestants” just sounds funny. They don’t practice. Not the old way.

If one ponders what the Protestants endeavored to take away, then they are almost all matters of materiality and attendant practices: holy water and incense, statues and frescoes, saints and pilgrimages, monasteries and celibacy, Maryology, “real presence” in the Eucharist. At the conclusion of the Reformation’s fundamental re-imagining of what religion is at its core, faith had been foregrounded in an entirely new way, and practices had receded into the background of suspicion that they were little more than “pagan” holdovers.

What remained was an empty worship space, a cross (if there were a cross) emptied of the bleeding body of the Lord, and the Book held up by the preacher in precisely the same way the priest had once elevated the Host at the culminating moment of the mystery of the Mass.

Armstrong’s historical point is that the Reformation culminated in a very Modern way of imagining religion, much as the commenter does, as “all about belief.”

I well recognize that the question of whether and how history should matter in the contemporary practice of Philosophy is a question that has riven departments, schools, even close friendships. We do not suffer that disciplinary fault-line in the academic study of religion. History matters to our practice, always and everywhere. The results of ignoring history in the public discussion of religion are well evidenced by this regrettable accusation.