Two (Possible) Roles of Religion In A Global World

I’m currently writing a methods paper, laying out how I will conduct my field research among Quaker congregations. In the section where I’m dealing with culture and the role of the church I found Slavoj Žižek’s quote below to be insightful and to the point.

The social order in which religion is no longer fully integrated into and identified with a particular cultural life-form, but acquires autonomy, so that it can survive as the same religion in different cultures. This extraction enables religion to globalize itself (there are Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists everywhere today); on the other hand, the price to be paid is that religion is reduced to a secondary epiphenomenon with regard to the secular functioning of the social totality. In this new global order, religion has two possible roles: therapeutic or critical. It either helps individuals to function better in the existing order [Yoder’s Constantinianism], or it tries to asset itself as a critical agency articulating what is wrong with this order as such, a space for the voices of discontent [Sectarian Withdrawal?] – in this second case, religion as such tends toward assuming the role of a heresy.

Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, 3

6 responses to “Two (Possible) Roles of Religion In A Global World”

  1. That is a fascinating quote and I can’t help but wonder if the distinction between therapeutic and critical is mutually exclusive. I think there is some essence whereby they can both be engaged upon: we critique in order to fix the order… Thus I wonder if Yoder couldn’t be a part of both camps. He is very critical of culture/government/etc., but one of his main points is that we cannot disengage. We need to enter into a broken world.

  2. Great quote. The two approaches need not be mutually exclusive…but I do think that they are very different impulses…most attempts at trying to weave them together aren’t very well thought out.

    Eric, I’m not sure we simply critique in order to fix the order. That sort of logic reinforces Zizek’s assertion that in a global society religion is a “secondary epiphenomenon…” I’m not sure the Church should understand itself as serving larger society in such a way that it becomes more just. This may certainly be a desirable outcome, but it seems secondary to the Church understanding itself as Kingdom society which embodies the life of the Spirit. In this shift of understanding, the Church doesn’t serve society by fixing it, but instead calls society to enter into this new, Kingdom, society.

  3. You lost me at “epiphenomenon” (that’s why I’m not in grad school) but it seems that it’s not just that religion has been abstracted to fit into various cultural settings but that the settings have been demolished to make way for the abstractions.

    I’m too abstract here. What I’m thinking of is my wife Julie’s involvement to save an rural Italian American Catholic church that’s one of 60-some churches in South Jersey that are slated to be closed over the next few years. This is a church with a very specific history and a very deep and rich context (it’s a microcosm of the rural Italian American experience). The bishop plans to replaced all these little rural churches with centralized megachurches. They’re sure to be ugly monstrosities which no one will love–no connection to old family histories, no context, more impersonal WalMart than the mom-and-pop places where everyone knows your name. The personal attachment will be much less.

    So what’s happening here? Nominally there’s no religious change though I can guarantee you that the new megachurches will have a very different theology. The problem with modernism is that it’s goal is to erase the past (or failing that, archive it away into nostalgia). Globalism demands first allegience and relegates religion to a consumer choice, a flavor of the week or a tie that can be changed to match today’s suit.

  4. Hey guys, all great comments – Thanks.

    Eric and Mark – Zizek’s main dig is always against Liberals and Fundamentalists — so you can kind of see that in this binary. Liberals on the one hand, maintaining establishment religion; fundamentalists on the other side protecting their culture at all costs. Interestingly, Zizek prefers the Fundamentalists to the Liberals in this respect, though he doesn’t really prefer that position at all. But he sees their attempts at not giving in at least valiant.

    But Zizek’s not really the person I turn to for the answer on this, it’s Yoder (as Eric brought up). First, it would be to our advantage to not accept the terms of the debate. That while Zizek is generally right about religion’s role in our global world, we don’t have to leave it at that. Any bi-furcation for Yoder is something of a modern dualism. So there’s a sense in which we have to move behind these categories. Yoder argues, in his book “The Original Revolution,” that Jesus was given four basic options: two are sub-sets of the therapeutic (realism and the “proper religion” of the Pharisees) and two are sub-sets of the critical (Zealots and Essenes). Yoder argues that Jesus rejected each of the four in favor of something completely different.

    Yoder’s answer to the problem is to return to Hebraic history through the lens of Jesus. Working out of an understanding of the Hebrew people as a community in exile Jesus followed this pattern by creating a “distinct community with its own deviant set of values and its coherent way of incarnating them. Today it might be called an underground movement, or a political party, or an infiltration team, or a cell movement. (Yoder, 1971:28).??? Jesus’ society was gathered around his word and will and had at least three distinct characteristics. First, this society was completely voluntary (against Christendom). Second, It was a truly mixed composition of people: racially, religiously, economically (against fundamentalism). And finally, it had a new way of life that was counter to these other options. Offenders are dealt with by forgiveness, the acceptance suffering was how violence was handled, their economics was rooted in sharing, leadership was based on everyone giving of their gifts, and showed that the way to deal with a corrupt society was to build a new one, not destroy the old one. He also reordered the way men and women, slaves and masters, parents and children related that embodied a new vision for humanity (29).

    So the above types of religion accept the terms of the debate, that religion is separate from the rest of life, and then build from there. Yoder, through Jesus, argues for something different, deeper and more holistic – something that does bifurcate or prioritize one over the other because it rejects those, as Martin said, cultural settings that make the categories possible.

    Martin – great story about the church – I think you’re right this is a good example of this happening in real life. And globalism is a leveling of all particularities in order to create a one-size fits all approach to faith, consumerism,etc.

  5. What is Yoder’s response, though? I agree that consumer religion doesn’t work; for one thing, it doesn’t allow for true devotion, because it’s always hindered by a “what do I get?” mentality. It seems like it’s very post-modern to critique everything without offering a solution (something I’m frustrated with about our generation right now). So what is this holistic approach? That we create a Christendom of voluntary membership? How long does that hold up, and what function does it serve in the long run? How do we prevent it from breaking down into inherited religion (as it inevitably always does)?

  6. Ben – Thanks for the comment. Yoder is definitely against any kind of Christendom, that’s partially why he stresses the voluntary aspect of the ‘peoplehood of God,’ and this peoplehood is also concerned for the “peace of the city of which you were sent” (jeremiah 29). I agree that there is much critique with out any possibilities or ideas about how to change things, but I would say that Yoder’s stuff is almost always more practical in this way. His book “Body Politics” lays out some very wonderful and practical responses. You can read about them here —

    Also – the post I wrote most recently for Barclay Press gets at one particular Quaker response that Yoder loved. You can see that here —

    Thanks for reading.