Stephen Chan: We’re look­ing at reli­gion as an orga­nized and above all insti­tu­tion­al­ized sys­tem of beliefs. The orga­ni­za­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly of tex­tu­al or oth­er record­ed teach­ings that form the basic faith frame­work of the reli­gion, and the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion which polices those teach­ings, polices the extent, the lim­its, and above all the inter­pre­ta­tion of what those texts might mean.

The inter­nal pol­i­tics of a reli­gion in this process of polic­ing become very impor­tant. But the whole ques­tion of belief is one that we wish to start with. If you go to Christian the­ol­o­gy school, almost on the first day the first ques­tion that the pro­fes­sor will ask is Can God believe in him­self?” And this sparks a lot of debate. And of course the answer is very straight­for­ward. God can­not believe in him­self. God knows him­self. God knows—no one else knows. Everyone else only believes. Perhaps they believe they know, but basi­cal­ly the province of human­i­ty is the province of belief.

The appro­pri­a­tion of some kind of clos­er effort to the knowl­edge of God always starts with the basis of God as the nec­es­sary first prin­ci­ple. And all oth­er forms of belief deriv­ing from that first prin­ci­ple are forms of log­ic, forms of ratio­nal­i­ty, forms of argu­ment, which are essen­tial­ly sec­ond prin­ci­ple.

This can be orga­nized accord­ing to dif­fer­ent ways of approach­ing thought. You can take the whole idea of belief as based on com­mand. But what kind of com­mand is this? Is it a vision? Is it the uncov­er­ing, the dic­ta­tion, of holy books—an entire text that is sent from Heaven? What is the dif­fer­ence between a vision that occurs in one light­ning moment like Saint Paul’s con­ver­sion on the road to Damascus, and the com­ing down from Heaven of a whole set of scrip­ture, as was meant to have hap­pened with Muhammad, as was meant to have hap­pened with Joseph Smith when he found­ed the Mormon Church?

And in the deliv­ery of the text, what are the con­di­tions of the receipt of that text? So, you have dif­fer­ent schools of thought that try to inves­ti­gate this. You have the­ol­o­gy, which is a philo­soph­i­cal rea­son­ing with the first prin­ci­ple. And what you’re look­ing at in the­ol­o­gy is the orga­ni­za­tion of all con­tin­gent and sec­ond prin­ci­ples that derive from that first prin­ci­ple. The first prin­ci­ple is the receipt of a cer­tain form of belief which acknowl­edges the cen­tral­i­ty of God. There is a spir­i­tu­al uni­verse, there is a cre­ator at the head of that spir­i­tu­al uni­verse.

When the­ol­o­gy is allied to texts, the whole ques­tion of a geneal­o­gy of texts comes into play. If there are texts that com­ment on the orig­i­nal text—for instance if you have a hadith, if you have sharia, that com­men­tates on the orig­i­nal Koran; if you have the Talmud that com­men­tates on the region­al Judaic scriptures—what is the stand­ing of those sec­ondary bod­ies of lit­er­a­ture that often assume the pri­or­i­ty of first gen­er­a­tions of scrip­ture and text?

And the pol­i­tics of polic­ing that rela­tion­ship are things which inter­est us in the­o­log­i­cal knowl­edge, or more right­ly the orga­ni­za­tion of belief accord­ing to the­o­log­i­cal pre­cepts. And of course very very vex­a­tious emo­tion­al issues like eschatology—the end of the world—which might be pro­tect­ed in scrip­ture. Soteriology, the sal­va­tion of the faith­ful. And the vex­a­tious nature of all of this is that nec­es­sar­i­ly sote­ri­ol­o­gy depends on a selec­tiv­i­ty. Who are the peo­ple God has cho­sen to save in the final cat­a­stro­phe?

And this kind of selec­tiv­i­ty becomes in itself a polit­i­cal exer­cise which extends beyond the orga­ni­za­tion of the church and extends to the rela­tion­ship of the church and the faith to all oth­er peo­ples in the region, per­haps in the wider world. An ide­ol­o­gy is dif­fer­ent again from a the­ol­o­gy. There you have in par­tic­u­lar the orga­ni­za­tion of belief in a sys­tem of thought and pre­dic­tive­ness which all the same allows not only the so-called laws of his­to­ry, which func­tion in an almost the­o­log­i­cal fash­ion, but allow the role of the agent, the class, the rebel­lious indi­vid­ual, the rebel­lious group, to play a role in chang­ing and direct­ing his­to­ry.

Modern the­ol­o­gy almost always con­tains a mar­riage with ide­ol­o­gy. The war­riors of the faith­ful are not only ser­vants, they are agen­tial. They have some kind of sense of indi­vid­ual direc­tion for the future of the faith and its place in the world among the dif­fer­ent peo­ples in the world. All this again is dif­fer­ent from a the­o­ry, which tries to look objec­tive­ly at soci­ety, social move­ments in soci­ety. Different again from a phi­los­o­phy, which tries, objec­tiv­i­ty, to pon­der upon—to spec­u­late, often—about the nature of things and the nature of thought.

We’ll be look­ing at all of these things as applied to the world reli­gions, and in par­tic­u­lar at world reli­gions, how they devel­oped and how they inter­sect­ed with the sec­u­lar pol­i­tics of their day, and how those sec­u­lar pol­i­tics tried to appro­pri­ate belief for their own polit­i­cal pur­pos­es. The king­dom of God was appro­pri­at­ed so there could be king­dom of men and women, direct­ed by kings, by princes, by regents, lat­ter day direct­ed by orga­nized and democratically-elected states, to try to ben­e­fi­ci­ate their claims to pri­or­i­ty and to sov­er­eign­ty.

We’ll be look­ing at the old­est orga­nized reli­gions. You’re look­ing there the Hindu and Vedic reli­gion, start­ing about 2000 BC. A pro­to­type of Judaic beliefs also began around about that time. Buddhist belief start­ing about 600 BC. We’ll also be look­ing at the not often com­men­tat­ed upon Zoroastrian belief start­ing about 1,000 BC, and which had a major impact upon Christianity, which came much lat­er.

We’ll be look­ing at the scrip­tures and the books of these reli­gions inso­far as they had any, almost in every sin­gle case writ­ten long after the foun­da­tion of the reli­gion. So text was con­ceived, cre­at­ed, dis­tilled, and then appro­pri­at­ed for pur­pos­es that were not nec­es­sar­i­ly the same pur­pos­es at the time that the reli­gion was said to have begun. You can see that in Christianity. You’re look­ing at the con­struc­tion of the New Testament, about 100 years after Christ. You’re look­ing at var­i­ous Christian coun­cils as doc­trine was dis­tilled, as doc­trine became offi­cial. And the elim­i­na­tion or the expul­sion of those who had dif­fer­ent views of doc­trine.

And of course you have the appro­pri­a­tion of Christianity as a form of state reli­gion by Constantine, heav­i­ly influ­enced by Zoroastrianism. The birth of Christ by vir­gin, the flight into the wilder­ness, all of these things are appro­pri­at­ed from Persian Zoroastrian belief.

And of course the lat­ter day com­ing of Islam. Muhammad lived about 570 to 632. He was at the very very start also a polit­i­cal fig­ure. He was a prince. He ruled over cities. He con­quered oth­er cities. He used reli­gion (as well as prob­a­bly believ­ing in reli­gion) as a polit­i­cal tool to unite Arab tribes. And in the wake of their uni­ty, they swept all over Arabia, and their suc­cess­es swept into the out­er world. The extent of the Islamic empire at one point in time was so vast it became a pri­ma­ry polit­i­cal force in the inter­na­tion­al rela­tions of its day.

We’ll be look­ing in the first lec­ture at how all of these things began, and how all of these ear­ly move­ments and ear­ly uses of text and sys­tems of belief imprint­ed them­selves on a geneal­o­gy which leads us to our present day. This course will con­cern most­ly the 20th and 21st cen­tu­ry, but with­out his­tor­i­cal pre­descrip­tions, with­out the his­tor­i­cal pre­con­di­tions of today’s belief, world reli­gion and pol­i­tics today would be impos­si­ble.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


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