Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Dreaming of Life in Babel: Toward an Anabaptist Philosophy of Religion

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Dreaming of Life in Babel: Toward an Anabaptist Philosophy of Religion

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper advocates rejecting the modern conception of religion and adopting a "practical" conception of religion. If we do that, then we are also free to reject a driving aim of philosophy of religion (to solve the problem of religious diversity by evaluating their truth claims) and of secularism (to quarantine the problem of religious diversity by assigning religion to the realm of private opinion). Adopting a practical conception of religion does not spell an end to philosophy of religion; it is still possible to talk about religious experience and knowledge, even if not in the modern way. Rather, philosophy of religion undergoes a shift of purpose: to offer traction on the rough ground for living in a world in which no stance can assume to occupy the authoritative center--a world not unlike Babel. An Anabaptist philosophy of religion would help Christians to navigate, perhaps by inventing new practices or repurposing older ones, the dense and conflictual terrain of a religiously diverse world without resorting to coercion, yet remaining faithful to the conviction that the new in Christ has come.


The modern conception of "religion"--the conception that religion has one essence, which can be defined, and that this essence has many expressions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on--has resulted in a philosophical conversation that has lost traction. The effect has been a growing sense that adherence to a religion is a matter of choice based on a mixture of personal taste, upbringing, and chance. There are good reasons to be suspicious of the modern conception of religion. It was produced under particular historical conditions in Europe--in particular, colonialism and the theological and political fallout of the so-called "wars of religion"--that can and should be questioned. (1)

This paper proposes instead a "practical" theory of religion, which places attention on what James McClendon calls powerful practices. In this view, practices and habits are significant not primarily because of what they mean or express propositionally but because of what they do: they laminate inner and outer worlds, cement convictions, open spaces for bodily life (personal and communal), and create storied identities. In short, practices make us who we are; they shape us and the world we inhabit.

Adopting a practical theory of religion may help us regain traction in our philosophical conversation. But regain traction for what, exactly? A significant part of the loss of traction has been that the ultimate goal of the conversation concerning religion was to find or distill the best, purest expression of religion--to rank or evaluate religions according to particular criteria, most often with respect to propositional content--in order then to be in a position to pronounce a particular religion true or false. Or, perhaps, to pronounce all religions false. But the traction gained by a practical view will not help us if what we want is finally to arrive at a place from which we can declare the one religion to rule them all. Rather, the traction gained is for living in a religiously diverse world. To put it differently, the practical view of religion invites us to give up on the "problem of religious diversity."

Powerful practices make us who we are. Since the mode of participation in our practices--the way in which we use, leverage, and inflect the powerful practices we inhabit--is underdetermined, a particular way of life cannot be investigated merely propositionally from afar; it has to be investigated locally and up close. Consequently, no sweeping theoretical generalizations about Christianity or Hinduism or any other "world religion"--all of which have rich internal diversity with long histories of traditions and countertraditions--is possible and the project of comparing those general terms in order to produce once-and-for-all rankings or true/false schemas is even more impossible. …

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