Reading through Principles of Christian Theology part 5: Chapter 7

Series Index

Principles of Christian Theology, Second Edition

Macquarrie, having dealt with some of the linguistic concerns that arise when one speaks and writes about God, now turns to the constellation of phenomena called “religion” and “religions.”  Oddly enough, after a long meditation on the history and systems that allow languages to make sense, this section largely ignores the fact that the concept “religions” does not arise until after the Reformation and decidedly accompanies a period of European military, economic, and cultural domination of six continents.  But I’m sure I’ll return to those concerns later: right now I should turn to his own project.

What Is a Religion?

Once again Macquarrie does not want to lay down axioms and demonstrate syllogistically what religions are; instead, he wants to describe the different ways that human beings live in the wake of a other-than-human initiative to disclose Being (149).  He wants to be careful not to fall into the old saw that “religion is man searching for God and Christianity is God seeking out man” by noting that his discussion of all religions will assume that both the initiative of Being and humanity’s response to that initiative are parts of the reality he calls “religion” (150).  In that vein he does respond to some critiques, among them Barth’s, that Christianity is not properly a “religion,” and his position, eventually, is that such a definition rules out every kind of Christianity that anyone actually lives.

He assumes that every religion, assuming that it survives past the founder’s generation, is going to be some sort of liturgical, embodied way of life (151), and his concern, as with before, is not to demonstrate one religion’s superiority to the others (though he does slide that way) but to elucidate the conditions that make religious life and religious difference possible (152).  Because real religious knowledge always happens from “within,” Macquarrie does not attempt to articulate some universal philosophical theology that lies beyond the particulars; such would be impossible (153).  Instead, this chapter attempts to describe the experiences that accompany the various religions and their common structure.

To return to the historical point above, I won’t say that the ahistorical character of this investigation makes the project worthless, but I certainly would have approached things differently.  Macquarrie seems to assume as he rolls along that “religions” does in fact name an intelligible category that encompasses not only Christianity and Islam but also Buddhism and Deism and even atheism (if I read his footnotes properly).  For someone who obviously stands familiar with Nietzsche and–more specifically–Nietzsche’s criticisms of overly-tidy scientific taxonomies that Wittgenstein later picks up, Macquarrie treats the category “religion” as something simply discovered in the world, not imposed in the course of any people-groups’ impositions of ideology on the world.

But again, I should get back to the text.

Religion’s Various Despisers and its Varieties

Macquarrie spends much of the chapter’s middle section dealing with critics of religion as a concept.  On one hand, positivists and materialists want to make religion merely one evolutionary survival device among others (155).  Macquarrie hopes that, as he describes the phenomena that surround the self-disclosure of Being, such reductionist accounts will become inadequate in the face of more comopex alternatives.  Christian critiques of religion are more troubling: Macquarrie notes that, especially among twentieth-century theologians responding to National Socialism, the disruptive character of revelation must stand over against religion (159) and that the church, as a corporate resistance against ideology, cannot be a “religious” organization (157).  Ultimately he rejects that definition as ignoring the religious character of any such community that persists beyond the immediate moment, but he grants the validity of the concern.  On the other hand, Macquarrie rejects out of hand the radical theology of the post-war twentieth century as non-theology right out of the gate (158).  If you reject the notion of God as a starting point, you’re doing some sort of thinking, but it’s likely not Christian.  Macquarrie ultimately points to a “subtle pride” at the heart of attempts to have faith without religion (161), a belief that one stands, perhaps with some extraordinarily dedicated comrades, as a generation that does not need what centuries before have.

Having addressed those objections, Macquarrie turns to the variations in symbolic systems across Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and an array of other religions (162).  His first concern is not to treat an abstraction like “Islam” as a monolith: because of historical variation, there are several theologies to be found in any of these categories, and one does well to pay attention to close description rather than treating something like “Buddhism” as a singularity (163).  Nonetheless, he does say that typical expressions of these traditions follow a predictable pattern, some emphasizing the Immanence of Being and ignoring Transcendence, others doing vice versa, and both streams–the one moving from atheism through Zoroastrianism and eventually into Islam and Calvinism, and the other moving from fetishism through animism and eventually to Buddhism–culminating in a tradition that holds Being to transcend the realm of beings and to wait immanent within beings, namely Christianity (165), at least the sort that interests Macquarrie.

Further cautions are coming: Macquarrie wants to take full account of historical changes within traditions (166) as well as to note that, for the sorts of Christians that stand in the stream of the universal Church rather than over against it, other religions share in the knowledge of God rather than standing as a stark binary of true-faith and idolatry (171).  Moreover, Maquarrie wants to acknowledge that all traditions, especially Christianity, stand to expand their base of knowledge and to update, in light of recent changes in knowledge, the ways in which they relate to the world (172).  Overall his picture of religions, though it never nods to the history that Edward Said duly notes, does provide a systematic framework in which other religions relate to Christianity and share in Christianity’s capacity to disclose truth about Being but do not stand in any simplistic identity.  So I guess it’s got that going for it.

Of the segments of the book we’ve gotten into so far, this one has left me most uneasy.  Perhaps my problem is that Macquarrie treats a basically liberal-Protestant position as the “catholic” way to be Christian, as opposed to the fringe groups like Barthians and Calvinists and me on some days.  Or perhaps it’s the fact that Macquarrie positions Christianity as the culmination of two streams of religion, with the possible exception of Calvinism, which is basically like Islam, as Macquarrie tells the story.  But once again I’ll reserve judgment until Michial gets into the next section of the book, when Macquarrie starts on the specifically Christian ways of doing theology, or as he calls it, Symbolic Theology.

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