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Download all figures. Sign in. Human beings rise up above the flux of nonrational beings. They judge their inner meaning and worth, as well as their ultimate causes. To which the right response is: no, actually.
In fact, our human capacity to study our universe scientifically, including our neurological system and its evolution, is the product of our uniquely abstractive, spiritual capacity. And what is more, we alone among the animals can not only understand that history but also pass back behind it, as it were, to the deeper question of why the cosmos exists at all.
We can look as Aquinas does in the five ways at the universe as a web of interconnected finite forms and interdependent causes and see that it is an inherently question-raising cosmos. Whence does all this come, and upon what or whom does it actually depend? As the only rational animal, we enjoy the privilege of asking the question of the existence of God.
Sociology as Theology
Bellah rightly underscores the animality that undergirds all our intellectual, moral, and religious activities. But he does not engage the philosophical arguments that reflect on these same activities and that lead us to think about the immaterial soul, with its powers of intelligence and free will.
There is a principle in the core of our being that comes from God directly and that is called to return to God. Consequently, it is the spiritual person as both body and soul who remains religiously restless and active in the material world. Each human being is a precarious bridge that runs between the visible world of matter and the invisible world of God.
Of course, Bellah will say that such thoughts outrun the limits of science and the disciplines of biology and sociology. That is quite true. But the excitement of reading Religion in Human Evolution stems in large part from the sheer ambition of the project—a genealogy of human culture that reaches toward universality. This quality leads Bellah to press beyond the narrow range of modern science. He is an academic pluralist who transgresses disciplinary boundaries.
It is an indication of the deep taboos of our contemporary academic culture that the classical questions of metaphysics have no role to play in this book about the origins and purposes of all our religious beliefs, actions, and rituals. Pluralism: What are we to make of the fact that there are many religions? Is there one true religion toward which all the others tend? Is there some one truth that gathers in all the other partial truths? Bonaventure, the medieval Franciscan theologian, seems to think so. Drawing on St. Augustine, he claims that the essence of religion consists in right worship: radical devotion of the heart offered to the true and living God.
The prayer of Christ is such devotion offered perfectly, and Christ stands over history as the model of all religious and ethical endeavors. Other religions need not be rejected, then, as entirely false. Rather, the partial truths we find in them take on their ultimate value when they are purified by the illuminating light of Christ. Christianity, for Hegel, is a religious precursor to the age of philosophical Enlightenment. Myth gives way to dogma and dogma to reason.
Christianity itself eventually leads to secularization, and the perfection of secular reason is found not in Christ but in modern, democratic liberalism. In shorthand: The history of human culture begins in cave painting and finds its perfection in a globalized market economy, governed by the political principles of John Rawls. Moreover, unlike Hegel and many other modern theorists, he insists that religious doctrines and rituals have enduring importance in sustaining culture.
They are not merely a prehistoric skin that modern reason needs eventually to shed. Bellah spends almost three hundred and fifty pages on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India. In each case, he seeks to show that the archaic religions of the past established a framework from which universal, critical thinking emerged.
Seminar IV – Social science and theology – Centrum Myśli Jana Pawła II
For example, ancient Greek religious rituals and Homeric legends provided a cradle for the development of civic democracy. The religious practice of ancient theater—Aeschylus and Euripides were originally performed in a liturgical context—created a symbolic form of reflection on human existence, which prepared the way for ancient philosophy particularly that of Plato and Aristotle.
Similarly, the ancient ethical reflections of the Hebrew prophets gave rise to normative legal theories about the meaning of the state and its obligations and its limitations in the face of human dignity. Confucian and Daoist theorists debated the relative importance of the political community with respect to the larger natural order and the environment. In India, as Bellah notes, the criticisms of Brahman culture made by the Buddha led to egalitarian ethical reforms within Brahmanism itself.
This commitment to pluralism distinguishes Bellah from his liberal Protestant forebears. Their theologies were organized around philosophical anthropology, a general theory of man as a religious animal. But in substantive and sometimes covert ways, they retained a christological center or end point. The fully religious and human way of living invariably ended up taking a Christian form, however remotely. Unlike Schleiermacher and Hegel, Bellah wants to avoid the promotion of a uniquely Christian vision of the religious essence of man.
He is weary of a cheap religious syncretism that ignores the real differences of belief and practice among the ancient religions. In the end, then, he decides for the multicultural option: The essence of human religion is not identified comprehensively by any one tradition but is refracted to us through a multiplicity of traditions.
Each offers partially convergent, partially incompatible visions of the meaning of reality. The search for a universal ethics characterizes them all. Each of the axial religious traditions narrates after its own fashion a social life governed by moral norms. But we cannot distill an essence. The universality of the Axial Age cannot be separated from the particularity of its religious embodiments. The diversity among religions should not lead us to despair, his analysis suggests, but to study and conversation. Our public culture should provide space for respectful religious inquiry and discussion.
Here again this seemingly untheological book is theologically resonant. Flanagan is driven to be a kind of prophet in sociological clothing, a Jeremiah warning of dangers in the culture's unacknowledged blindness. It has its own role, limited yet creative, certainly more than repetition of established doctrine, although it has no pretension to bring forth anything radically new.
And then, not only is new sight achieved but new cultural landscapes come into view under the light of the gospel. Theology or, more fundamentally, faith itself engages with culture but also transforms it, and in the process new religious landmarks are constructed.
The path is not without its pitfalls, as experience with new liturgical and catechetical ways has shown; but who, for example, would now wish to disavow today's enhanced place of the Scriptures in Catholic culture, even if it has disturbed an identity marker over against Protestantism? In any case, what defeats us is not any theological myopia but the strangeness of our religiously blind culture.
This adventurous enquiry shows the potential of a reflexive sociology for a deep engagement with theology. If in the process, however, sociology is opened up to a more than sociological perspective so that it ceases to be simply sociology, then the sociologist who harbours such ambitions has to rely on theology to structure the task. Theologians need a full appreciation of what sociology provides and sociologists a realistic understanding of how theology works. Volume 50 , Issue 3. The full text of this article hosted at iucr.
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