Doubt, Sacred Objects, & Religious Orientation

by jdavidcharles

Over the past few days I have been having what for me is a fruitful discussion on what ‘religion’ is (although it seems to be mostly geared towards Judeo-Christianity and religions of ‘the book’) over on my Google+. I’ve had a few insights into my own thinking by having to articulate them so I thought it would be worthwhile to share a few excerpts here and get other people’s thoughts and advice.

It begins with the question of orthodoxy, religious certainty, and ‘sacred’ objects:

I personally consider myself a Christian and think the Bible is not inerrant. I attend mass. I consider myself religious. I am certainly not alone in this conviction as many of my friends and acquaintances are in the same boat. I am a Christian in so far as the Bible is a sacred object of study for me, as is Christ, the Eucharist, blah blah. However, these objects are consistently called into question, doubted, and critiqued–this almost seems a precondition to religious belief to me. Of course I doubt god’s existence, question what that existence is. This is my religious belief.

In other words, I agree that there is a difference between an examined/questioned belief and an unexamined one–it is unexamined beliefs, the ones that reveal themselves to us in events and catastrophes (the person who considers hirself fair and charitable until in a context with another that reveals racism, sexism, transphobia, etc), that are rightly fundamentalist convictions. Beliefs deep in us, in others we trust, and in our systems of thought, culture, and politic are “fundamentals”–not the convictions of people who consistently examine, question, deconstruct, scrap, re-construct, etc, these beliefs.

This moved into a discussion over how religion and philosophy are similar and differ, me arguing that philosophy too has historically had ‘sacred’ objects and revered ‘saints’ as well as its host of ‘heretics’ and philosophic ‘profanity,’ i.e. an ‘orthodoxy.’ Which lead to clarifying that,

not all religions preserve such a[n eternal, sure, and certain] sense of orthodoxy, and the ones that think they do (which aren’t terribly many–certain Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox strands of Christianity jump first to mind, but not all RC or EO persons would affirm this at that) fall into countless and obvious contradictions for thinking this way. It seems silly to lump all other religious convictions and expressions in the same boat. Tradition, even in an RC context means precisely that, traditio, to hand down, which is to say to take something from another place and time into another place and time. Even the staunchest of religious dogmatics think that these principles take different forms and are to be questioned and applied differently according to context. Sometimes they are outright done away with.

But as the history of say Christianity shows, even this dogmatism is a minority. Just look at the Reformation. Or the Anglican church. Or the Quakers. Or the Mennonites and on down the line. These are constant perpetual revisions, contradictions, of one particular instantiations of one particular religion–all throwing out heaps of dogmatisms, even what dogmatics fundamentally is, along the way. This isn’t identical to the history of philosophy, of course, but it is to say these things are pretty related and interconnected both in a structural sense and a historic sense.

And lastly then expounding on what doubt of orthodoxy looks like and what this implies about say a theology of god:

As regards doubt, using the language of orientation again, one can pray to a god one doubts exist–this is what a religious orientation is to me. It’s called a risk. I suppose, given how you use the term then, I am agnostic in that gnosis (some sort of ‘special’ revelation) is suspended–but I am oriented towards some*thing*–it may be a fiction, but fictions are certainly things. So what is in question is not whether or not this thing I pray to called god exists or not but what kind of existence it has and the implications of this. I am oriented towards it as an object. It’s almost like a sexual orientation. I am ‘oriented’ towards an ‘orient’ (an other, something unknown, something withdrawn, something in-reserve) by an insatiable erotic attraction . This involves the risk of the thing possibly being revealed to be substantive, a fraud, dead, horrific (Bergman’s spider-god), childish, feminine, masculine, etc. It involves the risk of realizing my desire exceeds me. That I don’t really want what I think I want. Just because this risk exists doesn’t mean I’m suddenly not a theist–just because I do not know with 100% certainty what way or shape a god would look or sound or act like doesn’t mean I can’t orient, pray, revere, and worship one.

Any thoughts?