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Pentecostalism makes evolutionary sense

Here’s an interview with the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah about his magisterial new book “Religion in Human Evolution.” Excerpt:

TR: Considering the story you tell about the evolution of religion, it’s interesting to consider how the now highly abstracted and propositional forms of Western religion, especially within Protestantism, have lost felt contact with the unitive, primitive aspects of religions experience, especially as they have downplayed or abandoned ritual and symbol. Thus it seems that modern Christianity — in the West, I mean — is at the elite level more philosophy than religion, and at the popular level primarily a form of lightly-spiritualized therapy. Does this account for the surprising upsurge in Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, even within Catholicism?

RB: I think you are right that Protestants have been particularly prone to think of their religion propositionally or, at least, verbally. Early on they condemned much of what we would think of as sacramental practice as being forms of magic and idolatry, worshipping worldly things rather than God. But in so doing they came close to driving God out of the world and preparing the way for modern atheism. Paul Tillich said the Protestants started by speaking of Word and Sacrament, then went on to speak of Sacrament thought the Word, and ended up only with the Word. There is no question but that the Word is central in Christianity, identified in the Fourth Gospel with Christ himself, but the idea that God is not in the Sacrament as most Protestants other than Lutherans believed, turned the Eucharist, Communion, the most central sacrament in Christianity, into a mere verbal remembrance of something that happened long ago and far away. Even the Word has become simply words. The idea that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine of the sacrament is basic to Catholic, but also Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and for the most part Anglican piety. Yet a recent study of young American Catholics found that only 40 percent of them knew what “the real presence” means. If religion becomes purely verbal and the sacramental dimension is largely missing then people will turn to any kind of religion that seems to have more vitality than sheer talk. [Emphasis mine. — RD]

So, the rise of Pentecostal and charismatic forms of Christianity makes evolutionary sense. People cannot live by a religion that is nothing but arid doctrine and philosophy. Didn’t I say that life is not just about libraries, but parades too?

Earlier in the interview, Bellah says that religion is more a way of living than of knowing. He means that if you really want to know what a religion teaches, look not to its doctrinal propositions, but to the way people who claim it live it out. He says that the “proof” of a religion’s teachings are the kind of believers it produces. The addition of “theoretical inquiry” — that is, formalized doctrine and theology — to the ritualistic and mythic qualities of a religion does not mean the religion rejects ritual and myth, but only perfects them. It is an error, though, to assume that a religion can be understood in terms of its doctrine and theology. Here’s Bellah:

This has led some religious people and many secular people to think that religion is only another form of theory alongside philosophy and science. But while understanding the theoretical achievements of the great traditions is important we will not really know what they are about unless we make the imaginative effort to see how the world might seem if we lived in the embodied practices and narratives of these traditions, a difficult but not impossible task. Indeed it is the joy of the study or religion to undertake this imaginative task.

In other words, if you want to understand what a particular religion says about the world, don’t just read its books, but do your best to enter into the imagination of its believers.

UPDATE: I’m glad this entry is getting a decent discussion thread going. These sort of philosophy of religion posts were always my favorite at the old blog. I strongly encourage readers to buy Bellah’s book. It’s heavy going in the sense that he gets into really profound things, but he’s such a clear writer that I, a non-specialist, had no trouble following any of it. Bellah is himself a religious believer, and does not “explain” the religious sense as merely a function of brain chemistry. But he does give a pretty good idea of how God may have drawn consciousness of Him out of his creatures as we evolved over time.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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