Studying (Human) Religion

I had trouble figuring where to put this article: it’s another one from that book of essays on religion and video games. I’ve decided to put it here, because it’s the definition of religion that I take issue with – but it’s a close call! This particular essay is by Rachel Wagner, who seems to be one of the main figures in the sub-field of religion and video games. The thrust of her argument is that games are like religion in that you ought to play them ‘in earnest’ – so if you don’t take them seriously, you’re being naughty. It seems like Wagner’s coming from an anthropology background, which means she’s approaching religion primarily in terms of human activity. That’s what I wanted to talk about today.

So one of Wagner’s main reasons for the comparison between games and religion in the first place is that from an anthropological point of view, religion’s all about patterns of human behaviour – so rituals, particular social rules, etc. It makes sense – the (alleged) spiritual realm has, to date, proven impervious to scientific testing, so there’s not much to say about the supernatural aspects except from a human-centric position. However, I have reservations about that as a method. It feels kind of like trying to understand a cry of grief by noting that it’s in A-flat – like, I understand that you want to be scientific about things, but when you’re studying religion it kind of feels like it misses the point.

I’m probably feeling particularly uppity because a rules-based approach to Christianity is something I find abhorrent. Well, perhaps not a rules-based approach to Christianity, but a rules-based approach to God (ie the Christian God). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus spends his time wailing on the Pharisees for their legalistic bullshit. We could argue that the Pharisees are only bad because their belief is inauthentic, but I think also there’s a point where they’re more wrapped up in their human-based rules and regulations than in relationship with the divine. It’s that personal relationship with God that seems to characterise the New Testament – you’ve got the Paraclete (Holy Spirit), who is God with us – the key point being that God dwells within us in an unprecedented way. Similarly, Paul describes the bodies of Christians as temples – of course, a temple in Jewish culture is designed to house God.

The consequences of this indwelling for the Christian are profound. The Epistles hold a repeated motif of the erasure of Self: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” This should shatter our sense of self – to be open to God is to be open to the infinite, the uncontained and boundless. Writers like Aquinas argue that there is no concept of God, which is to say that the meanings we can make as humans are insufficient as containers of infinity. Words like ‘good’ and ‘kind, or even ‘perfect’ don’t do God justice. We’ll cover this in more detail once we hit Pseudo-Dionysus, but the basic idea is that words are insufficient. Nobody has ever ‘thought’ God, because God is infinite – our thoughts are insufficient. Insofar as they are insufficient, then, the process of being open to God and allowing Him to guide our actions is by no means a process of rules. The only ‘rule’ as such is to throw yourself into the abyss – to say, as Jesus in Gethsemane, not my will but Yours. It is to abandon the human constructs of rules and regulations, and to be guided by the will of the infinite thought-shattering divine Other.

Of course, in practical terms, the issue is that some wacko can run around shooting people and call it the will of God. Assuming that it’s not (because we have to allow for the possibility that it might be), that’s when we start talking about divine accomodation. The basic idea is that even though we can’t fully comprehend God, we can go part of the way thanks to His self-revelation. Christians hold that He has told us certain things about Himself in a way that’s useful – in a way that we can make meaning out of. It’s not technically correct, because infinity, but think of it as transcendent training wheels. This is where Jesus becomes important: Christians hold that we can understand something about God through His divine self-revelation in the historical person of Christ, who was/is God in human flesh. Jesus does other things, of course, but this is one of the important ones.

You could argue that we derive ‘rules’ from the life of Christ, but again, most of those rules only make sense in the context of a relationship with the divine. This is a pattern which arguably already existed in Jewish culture: you’ve got the Ten Commandments, right, basically the Ten Big Rules. That might suggest a rules-based approach to the whole ‘God’ thing. However, at the same time, the first of those commandments is actually a statement of relationship: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee of out the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” It prefaces the First Commandment, structuring rules and relationship in a hierarchy. In that sense, studying the ‘rules’ of religion will tell you something, but those rules don’t make sense when they’re divorced from the living relationship with God.

To some extent this all hinges on the question of whether or not God actually exists (and was/is actually Jesus). If God doesn’t exist, then it actually makes sense to only talk about religion in this anthropocentric kind of way. There’s a feminist argument in sociology which basically says only women can accurately study and understand women. It seems to go against more contemporary feminist orthodoxy, but we’ll borrow it for now. The problem, briefly, is that talking about The Female Experience is a no-no – it implies any woman who hasn’t had this mystical Female Experience isn’t a ‘real’ woman. That potential issue notwithstanding, we can appropriate the argument for our nefarious Christian ends.

Because I’m a Christian, I’m going to assert that God exists, that He is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and that I have a personal relationship with Him, as do all other Christians. Given those claims, it seems unconscionable that non-Christians could attempt to study Christians, given that they (as non-Christians) have no experience of this relationship with God that defines the heart of the faith. For the anthropologist, I would argue that the best response is to say that there’s no such thing as God and the experience I refer to is best understood in humanistic terms. That seems to be the implicit suggestion made by anthropology anyway.

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