Theology the Old Fashioned Way

I've been off of blog walking for a year now, so I suppose it's officially time to move on to a new blog discipline.

One of the things I do in my free time (other than walking around) is curate a Theology Pub on alternating Thursdays - that is, I get together with a few people at a place called the Blue Star Cafe, toss out an idea about religion or theology, and let the conversation go where it may.

For a while now I've been thinking that it would be interesting to jot out some Seattle local theology based on the conversations we have over food and drinks, and that's what I'm going to do. For at least the Summer, I'm going to do my best to put some thoughts on (internet) paper following each of the T-Pub's to distill some of the group wisdom from our gatherings. I'm hoping that other from the group (and elsewhere) will correct me if I misrepresent or leave important things out. Now's a good time to start - we had a good crowd last night, and our topic was suitably foundational: the topic starter was the question, "Why is everyone so freaking religious?"

Our group was comprised mostly of progressives/emergents, with a large 'post-evangelical/fundamentalist' representation, several leaning agnostic (some calling themselves Christian, some not), a priest, a Christian convert, and a Mainline lifer. Also, all were in the 25 - 45 age range, and several of us had graduate-level training in theology. Thoughts that developed:

What is religion anyway?
1) A set of ideas or values that one organizes their life around.
2) A set of practices or activities that one participates in personally, and within a community.

It's probably a both/and kind of thing, but these two options were identified as an aspect of an East/West divide, where the West focuses on ideas/reason and the East focuses on knowledge-in-practice. In either case, there is also a tension here between 1) religion as individual spirituality and 2) religion as practice lived in community. Again, probably the answer is both/and.

Why are people religious?

Defined as a set of practices in community, we're hardwired for it. It's an animal instinct. It feels good, and people like it. It establishes a sense of community and meaning and belonging. It reinforces our values, gives us a community that can help share those values with our children, etc. (I have to admit that I've been harping on that idea for awhile and probably influenced conversation in that direction.)

Defined as a set of beliefs: because they don't know any better. Peer pressure. Not everyone is 'religious' or theistic. Culture and tradition dictate it. Brainwashing and indoctrination. Sometimes our religious ideas even make honest sense of our experienced reality.

Questions left open: Is religion universal? Is atheism a kind of religion? Is it possible to not be religious? What is the relationship between local/contextual belief and universal truth claims?

We talked about the dynamics of fundamentalism quite a bit, and a proposed topic for next time is "What is more important: what you believe, or how you believe it?"

For a few concluding personal comments, I think the question is a really interesting and important one, and it doesn't get talked about enough. We argue all the time about which beliefs, practices, songs, etc. are the best, but we don't often consider why any of that stuff matters - or more accurately, why we care. My thought is that we are indeed better off practicing religion - meaning, belonging, competence, community, purpose, and mission are all established and reinforced in religious contexts. That doesn't mean that religion doesn't have drawbacks - it just means that it is deeply human.

You might say that our discussion last night was a sort of 'local sociology', and I think that's actually an important theological observation about our understanding of who and what God is. Or, at least my understanding, since I'm the one who came up with the question.

Comments

What role, if any, can divine revelation play in this discussion of theology and religion? Is it at all possible for God's self-disclosure to enter into this conversation? I'm curious to know if, in this discussion, we humans are left on our own to figure this business out or if God can break into the situation. I suppose the conversation is simply beginning. Anyhow, I appreciate the your thoughts, Tim.
Tim Mathis said…
Hey B.J., this is a really interesting question that didn't come up in our conversation, but I'm sure would have had our regular Evangelical conversation partner been present. Good topic for another T-Pub.

I'm sure the conversation would start w/someone asking how revelation is being defined - personally I would define it as the experience of God, or testimony to others' historical experience of God (or 'religious experience', for the non-monotheists in the room).

And my initial commentary would be that religion is at least partly a response to the experience of God and an attempt to (re)produce it, regardless of how one views the biology/reality of it all.

But that's a very broad commentary. Thanks for the fuel for future conversations :)

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