Purpose of Religion

Nathan at Young Anabaptist Radicals blogs about Gil Bailie’s take on Rene Girard’s ideas. Specifically, he focuses on the idea that the gospel of Christ comes to destroy religion, not to simply create another religion.

As he state it, the purpose of religion is to contain violence, in a way: religion “makes a system out of [violence]. It blesses certain kinds of violence, condemns others as profane, and creates rituals and myths that help tell the story of that society from the perspective of those who created the given religion.” Into this way of being comes Christ, who “did not simply seek to re-regulate society, control violence, and form new political and ethnic myths. [He] taught emphatically that that time is over, and the followers of this new faith are to reject the old system that is based on domination.”

This reminded me of Paul Nuechterlein’s comments on the origins of religion, and why religion has been a communal phenomenon that is now (perhaps) becoming ever more individualised:

The origins of religion are rooted in the need to not have community collapse under the chaos of escalating mimetic violence. Religion was born to save human communities from disintegrating. The scapegoating mechanism which underlies all religion and culture substitutes lower doses of sacred violence in the face of the threat of all-consuming profane violence ….

Yet the religious use of violence is still violence. In former ages religion has been reasonably successful in veiling its violence qua violence. Sacred rituals of sacrificial violence were seen as simply that, i.e., sacred rituals of sacrifice. They were not perceived as violence in the fashion that we now do today. So why the change? Why has the sacredness of this violence been unveiled such that we simply see it now as violence? That’s what this evangelical anthropology is all about … to help us understand this vital question. The Cross of Christ, beginning with the tearing of the Temple curtain at the moment of death, has let loose its unveiling power. And the Paraclete … has continued the work of this unveiling over the next two millennia to the point that the average person now clearly sees and experiences the violent aspect of religion as violence. With the violence unveiled, what alternative does the modern person have to find peace in community? They turn inward, trying desperately to settle for an internal, individual peace. Especially in light of the continuing violence between the great monotheistic religions and cultures, many are returning to polytheistic ‘spiritualities,’ to various forms of neo-paganism.

“The question I continued to pose to my students, though, is this: can we ever ultimately attain peace if it is only an inward, individual peace? Doesn’t social/community peace end up being essential to one’s inner peace? That’s what’s at stake in going to church: peace. We can’t have it without finding how to live with one another in love. I believe that, at the same time that mimetic scapegoating theory (a latter-day work of the Paraclete) helps to continue the Cross’s work of unveiling religious violence, it can also help to resharpen for us the gospel’s alternative that took hold in this world on Pentecost.”

So Nuechterlein, it seems, recommends the corporate faith community (i.e., church) as a place — maybe as the place — to practice learning how to live in love and peace, rejecting a ‘system that is built on domination’ in favour of one built on non-rivalrous mimesis (peace and love). Is this aspect of religion — communal worship, community life within the local church — salvageable on its own, or is it always part and parcel with the need of religion to bless so-called good violence and condemn so-called bad violence?

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