Scripture, theology, practice
This Sunday meandering results from a Facebook conversation I had recently.
Me: There is a kind of article that is not uncommon from the American right, that tries to prove how evil Islam is by quoting various verses from the Quran. It is a kind of foolishness that relies upon many of the factual errors of fundamentalist thinking, in particular, that religious practice is derived from theology, and that theology is derived from scripture. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether the authors of such articles wrongly think that is the way things also work for Christianity, or just have some cartoon notion of how things work with Islam.
Respondent: The practice is derived from theology, and the theology from scripture. How is it foolish to point out the obvious?
Me: Because religion has never worked that way, and it is silly to think it ever would. Because that is nothing but a story that fundamentalists like to tell themselves. And there is zero reason for anyone else to believe it.
Respondent: Wtf are you talking about?
Well, this seems pretty obvious to me. Perhaps it isn’t.
Successful religions are propagated from generation to generation through family practice. That is why ritual is so important to religion. It is the social mechanism of propagation. Prayers at meals, weekly meetings, and annual holidays teach children what their religion is and how it is performed. Religious weddings remind young couples to raise their children in the same fashion. Religious funerals bind the generations together. Special dress and speech reminds the religious community that they are bound together and separate from others.
Along with ritual, each religious community propagates a set of customs and notions around their practice of religion. That includes the role religion plays in their lives outside of religious ritual, how it relates to other cultural features, what due is given to religious officials, and how to view the range of practices and beliefs within their own religious community. Those notions determine the role of doctrine. For some, it is nothing more than words given rote assent in specific rituals. Perhaps even in a language they don’t understand. For others, it is the center not just of their religion, but of their life. There are all sorts of admixtures in between, and all can exist within the same larger religion. The Catholic Church in the US includes both Joe Biden and arch-conservatives for whom the current Pope is inadequately Catholic. Note it is practice that determines the role of doctrine, regardless of what doctrine itself says. Not thousands of conservative priests giving sermons and writing epistolic letters will much push Catholic Americans to become more spiritual or more committed to doctrine. When the Catholic hierarchy butts its head against cultural Catholocism, what it is fighting is its very success. Catholics are made by rituals they learn from childhood, literally at their mother’s knee. Not by first becoming theologians. So the priests can inveigh against contraception. And many Catholics will keep using contraception. Or even having abortions. The priests can preach against various policies and politicians. And many Catholics still will vote how they want. The priests can call those who behave in this fashion “cultural” Catholics who aren’t truly part of the faith. But here’s the thing. It is culture that propagates the religion from generation to generation. Calling someone a cultural Catholic is also to label them as the kind of person who keeps Catholicism alive. Almost every Catholic acquired their religion by being raised in a Catholic household. Those who think about it more and question it, may become more ardent in their religion. Or may become protestant. Or atheist. Getting assent to theology is a very chancy way of propagating religion. In contrast, what works is the very kind of practice that gets so derided by those with more ardent and theological bent.
That’s true for most religions, not just Catholicism. Cultural propagation is the way religions survive. Of course, religious leaders want to ride on that to inject into the body of adherents what they consider the true message. Including their preferred theology. It’s not easy. Not even for a religion with a well-defined priestly hierarchy, armies of seminarians, and a history of burning heretics.
That’s not to say that religion can escape theology. There have been attempts at that. The Unitarians are an example of people trying to retain Christian religion in practice, while escaping its various theologies. That works to an extent, but remains a pretty small sect among larger and more energetic ones. I don’t know if there is a similar example within Islam.
To push on the Catholic example, the study of Catholic theology as an attempt to understand American Catholic practice is factually misguided. Yes, it will tell you that Catholics baptize infants and attend Easter mass. Catholics cannot escape their catechism. But neither does theology determine the role of religion in their lives, or how they think about it. It won’t tell you how many American Catholics are divorced and remarried, how many use contraception, how many have sex prior to marriage, how many are openly gay, how many daily say prayers, now many are active in progressive causes or how many support conservative organizations, how many attend confession, how many enter a church only for weddings, funerals, and Easter. Catholic theology is the same in the US and in Poland, but American Catholics and Polish Catholics are different. The way to understand American Catholicism is to study American Catholics and their history, not to study Catholic theology.
That theology doesn’t determine practice for Catholics, despite its considerable institutional advantage, makes the connection even more difficult for the variety of protestant and Mormon sects. It’s hardly surprising that these are characterized by constant branch and offshoot over the decades. Some of the smaller and newer sects likely get a high affinity of doctrinal adherence, because they are formed for that purpose and select their members on that basis. Those who dissent never join. Or leave. That lasts for a while. That sometimes is how sects die. There are any number of small protestant sects whose members are all gray, certain they hold the One True Theology, who are puzzled they cannot attract young folks to it. Belief uniformity is more difficult to sustain as a sect grows, and is propagated generation by generation, then acquiring an identity more based on continued community than on theology. It’s as a sect ages that old teachings start to seem a bit creaky or uncomfortable or irrelevant or weird.
Theology as often gets bent to practice as the other way around. The Southern Baptists started with the theology that slavery was sanctioned by the literal and clear Word of God, and that preaching otherwise was sacrilege. It now preaches otherwise. Given how the rest of their theology, their scripture, and their demographics have remained much the same, the one explanation is that their practice has changed. Losing a war does that. Similarly, a variety of protestant sects have changed their theology around homosexuality, as a consequence of the cultural changes of recent decades.
If the notion that theology determines practice falls on examination of how religion actually works, the notion that scripture determines theology is just plain silly. Scripture is written and selected by the religiously inspired to weave a story, to motivate adherents, to prescribe ritual, to unite and to justify. If there is scripture written in the mode of a math or logic text, or even of rigorous philosophy, I have never seen it. Nor, as far as I can tell, was the production of scripture ever born from a cultural discipline with the logical rigor to enable that.
Which means that religious scripture — all, as far as I know — is like most writing. It is open to a broad variety of interpretation. Interpretation is far more than just the definition of words. A new English speaker may know well every word in the phrase, “I asked a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news.” But without knowing it is part of a song and knowing how that song is used, will have no idea how other people read it. Each interpretation brings to the text a large swathe of assumptions that are external to it. Fundamentalists who think they derive their theology by working from the text alone are mistaken. Mistaken about what they themselves are doing. Mistaken about the nature of their scripture. Mistaken about how language works. Mistaken about what it means to read. Often mistaken about the history of their own sect and its particular interpretations of scripture.
There’s no reason for their critics to make those errors.