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.
Religion and World Politics course information