Once a month, I re-send a previously well-received newsletter to those who haven't yet had a chance to read it. I'll be back next week with something new!

Dear Friends,

My favorite Dutch word is 'gezellig.'

Dictionaries suggest its English translation as 'cozy' or 'convivial', but this is one of those words that just doesn't translate fully from its home language. 

I was lucky to grow up bilingual, and so learned early that the language we speak influences our perception of self and of the world around us. Even today, who I am when speaking Dutch feels different to who I am in English. 

George A. Lindbeck argues that the same thing happens with religion. Namely, that we shouldn't think of religion as an outer expression of an inner experience, but that religious outer forms shape our inner experience.

To set the stage for this idea, he opens his book, The Nature of Doctrine, by documenting the two dominant paradigms of religion that his theory challenges:

1) Cognitive Propositional. This approach centers the cognitive aspects of doctrine and the truth claims religious teaching makes on us. (i.e. For the Bible tells me so.) Religion is akin to science or philosophy in that it has informative propositions about objective realities, and the conversations that follow are about proving that one set of truth claims is true/superior to others. 

2) Experiential Expressive. This paradigm centers on how one feels on the inside (i.e. a core religious experience.) Here, "religions are seen as multiple suppliers of different forms of a single commodity needed for transcendent self-expression and self-realization." Religion's core activity is to give outer form to the rich, inner experience. This allows for the meaning of practices to change over time, even if the rituals/structures stay the same. To ask someone in this frame about religious difference usually leads to an answer close to 'Well, there are many paths up the mountain.' It assumes a common core experience to which different religions offer diverse expressions. 

But Lindbeck disagrees, offering his third frame:

3) Cultural Linguistic. In this model, religion acts like a language or culture - a comprehensive interpretive scheme. Lindbeck explains that, "It is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities."

So, "Buddhist compassion, Christian love and – if I may cite a quasi-religious phenomenon – French Revolutionary fraternité are not diverse modifications of a single fundamental human awareness, emotion, attitude, or sentiment, but are radically (ie from the root) distinct ways of experiencing and being oriented toward self, neighbor, and cosmos...Different religions seem in many cases to produce fundamentally divergent depth experiences of what it is to be human."

This is a head-shift, because it makes questions like 'Are you religious?' as absurd as asking someone 'Do you use language?'

Learning to be religious is the process of interiorizing a set of skills by practicing and training. "One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with a religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways." 

What is particularly powerful about this model is that religion therefore continues to exercise immense influence on the way people experience themselves and their world even when it is no longer explicitly adhered to. This explains why echoes of previous religious living among our families or geographic communities continue to shape our spiritual life.  

No doubt, there are shortcomings in Lindbeck's ideas. Languages and cultures do not make truth claims as many religions do and are difficult to think of as having transcendent rather than this-worldly origins.

But I love Lindbeck's model because it explains what is happening in this very moment amidst the shifting sands of religious identity. 

For instance, one-in-five American adults have been raised in a multi-faith home. Most religious institutions struggle to know how to welcome mixed families - let alone mixed individuals. And yet, Lindbeck's model offers a beautiful reframe: Being multi-religious is just like being multi-lingual. Speaking both Spanish and Hindi doesn't make you any less good at either. In fact, it can be a benefit to both. 

This phenomenon of multi-religious identity and practice is one site of profound contemporary religious change, which Lindbeck sees not as proceeding from new personal experiences. For him, it results "from the interactions of a cultural-linguistic system with changing situations. Religious traditions are not transformed, abandoned, or replaced because of an upwelling of new or different ways of feeling about the self, world, or God, but because a religious interpretive scheme (embodied as it always is in religious practice and belief) develops anomalies in its application in new contexts." 

Let's keep our eyes open to these anomalies. That's where the transformation is happening.

Have a wonderful weekend. Shabbat Shalom,

PS. A useful report from the 
National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices documents how congregations raise and spend their money. A couple of highlights:
  • Median amount of money congregations bring in is $169,000
  • 84% of congregations provide a social service
  • Median number of adults that regularly participate in a congregation is 65
Most importantly, for any membership organization, congregations ask for financial support much more often than they teach about giving. Which makes asking for money all the more difficult...

"You Should Avoid Young Children"

Because they fill their diapers
with reliable ease, sitting on your lap
or spread out on your best mattress.
Guilt is as foreign to them as vichyssoise.

Because they spread sticky fingers
over the piano keys, looking for you
to hoist them onto your lap. They slam
the ivories for the racket they can make.
Re-think your nap.

Because they are blank slates
on which so much waits to be written,
their eyes opened wide to take everything in,
including the lines around your eyes,
the pouches under your chin.

Because they manipulate the controls
on the TV, finger the holes in the electric socket,
stomp the cat’s switching tail only to smile
and gaze at you as if you held the keys to joy.

Because you can embrace them, but
you can’t bind them. Because they have nothing
to give you-and everything. Because
something loosens when they come around.
Something opens you didn’t know was shut.

Claire Keyes

Copyright © 2018 Casper ter Kuile, All rights reserved.

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