Tag Archives: Irreligion

Every Page is Spiritual Warfare (part 2)

10 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s discussion, which started with an annotated selection from Francis Frangipane’s The Three Battlegrounds.

In my work, I tend to focus on the construction of cosmic-level strongholds as the basis for confrontation between public/secular imaginaries and private/religious ones. They are fundamentally world founding because they structure perceptions of truth and reality. They are orientating, and this jives with a diverse selection of classic definitions of religions including those provided by Durkheim, Feuerbach, Frazer, Otto, Marx, and Geertz. How far do the rabbit hole of definitions do we want to go? Depends on how fractured you’re willing to be in applying definitions to a part of what spiritual warriors are up to.

Religion Stencil

Religion Stencil (Photo credit: murdelta)

One of the reasons I continue to study spiritual warfare texts is that I believe they suggest an inadequacy of most definitions. While I have a lot to say on this issue (I hope I’ll have room for it in my first book), let me give a quick run-through here. My religious subjects appear to be defining not just one but two worlds–the secular and the religious. For them, only one world has a legitimate Truth claim. The secular world’s claim to be reality (or a more objective version of a reality that we all share) is not merely fraudulent. Nor is it some kind of objective container for competing religious perspectives. For my subjects, the religious world is the only world and the secular world’s view of things is utter heresy or apostasy.

Analytically, the crutch of the issue lays with J. Z. Smith, however. While I see my subjects claiming that the religious world has not just primacy but exclusivity, do I affirm their beliefs? I can confirm they feel that way most of the time. But like Smith’s ritual agents reenacting the bear-killing ritual in “Bare Facts of Ritual,” we can’t be sure spiritual warriors aren’t simply performing the world the way they wish it would be.

As they say to young scholars, fake it till you make it! If that is the case, then how are my subjects behaving differently than their “secular” counterparts? If, as a scholar, I deny their ontological claims, then I will likely struggle to convey not only the conviction of their beliefs, but also the consequences of those beliefs. In religious studies, we’re pretty cautious about these. At the very least we want to give our subjects the benefit of the doubt. More often, we give them full range of expression without direct judgment.

In anthropology, which more religionists should study, this is the perennial problem of emic/etic or insider/outsider perspectives. Anthropologists carefully delineate the boundary between the local perspective of subjects and the global perspective of scholars. (I should note that some excellent work on this has been done by Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.) In ethnographic studies, this makes a lot of sense (and is all the more fascinating when it breaks down, as in Mama Lola).

Though I may include more ethnographic elements in future iterations of my project, my present work is historical and rooted in published texts. There’s much less room to separate emic and etic when you rely on 20 year old spiritual warfare manuals. The format of my sources discourages this division. I can only take my sources seriously if I see them as documents that attempt to be coherent, serious participants in the worlds they describe. They could be winking, but if they are, I don’t have the resources to say so.

Could I just take a side and say what I think? Sure. I’m not categorically unwilling to do this. I’m just unconvinced it is appropriate or helpful. If I have to step outside of my subjects’ perspective and in so doing dispute the very core of their beliefs, then what have I gained? Shouldn’t my theory tolerate equally my potential dissent and my subjects’ affirmations? In short, shouldn’t religious theories explain how religion actively produces and shapes its secular counterpart?

I suppose this means I’m saying that religion is not just about religion. That’s probably a good thing. Our discipline routinely gets criticized for its failure to define its object of study sufficiently without self-reference. (Woe unto you if you begin by saying that religious studies is the study of religion!)

Part of the challenge of existing definitions is that they often self-exclude religion’s products as pieces of the equation. That’s surely our field’s history of Protestant belief-bias. Only recently have we been able to fully marshal our energies to acknowledge and study material products. Even Durkheim dissed the totems and churingas in the end. But today we still haven’t fully wrestled with the production of non-belief, non-material things. The secular world is one of these types of products. And as unlikely as it may seem to some, it’s a dynamic, shifting product that spiritual warriors are working actively to change in their favor. (I suppose saying that the secular world exists beyond belief is fairly positivist of me, but remember that I’m describing the religious world created by my religious subjects’ projection of secular worlds from their religious one.)

You can think of it as a world-view if you like, but I tend to avoid that world because of its strongly negative connotations in my source material. Instead I call it an imaginary, a way of imagining the world that shapes our ability to act. (And yes, I borrow this from Charles Taylor, the scourge of contemporary high theory.) It is the basis for believing an action is appropriate and likely to succeed, and it includes the whole body of elements that exist to support those actions. For spiritual warriors, it means not simply the theological arguments for the validity of warfare, but also the spiritual gifts used in battle, the paradigm to interpret secular foes, and, paradoxically, the secular society that legally supports their rights to fight for their supremacy of their version of reality.

If you think that fits an existing definition of religion, then be sure to post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you! Agree or disagree, just let me know you made it this far with me.