Friday, August 12, 2016

Notes on Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Nongbri 2013)

Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept

Main Premise: The concept of religion as a universal, timeless, personal, and private belief system that can be abstracted from public life resulted from the Enlightenment. Our common understanding of religion did not exist in cultures before the Protestant Reformation (including the Old Testament Israelite community, the early Christian movement, and Islam). These cultures had no way to express an abstract/universal/timeless truth that we consider “religious” belief today. We cannot project our ideas of religion on the Bible the Qur’an, because we distort the messages of those books.

About the Book: This is not a new premise. Many scholars have said the same things before. Yet Nongbri brings everything together in a sustained historical argument in a brief 150 pages. There are about 70 pages of endnotes- very extensive.

Thoughts: The ideas are so counter-intuitive and tied up with semantics that it is quite difficult (for me) to comprehend. If Islam and Christianity did not emerge as religions (in the modern sense of the term), then what were they? I feel quite disoriented from reading, yet I feel there is something significant for missiology IF these ideas are true.

Greek thrēskeía: Acts 26:5, James 1:26-27, is better translated as godly zeal, or piety, or worship, not as religion.

Arabic deen (دين): Better translated as law, not as religion. Islam was more of a civic movement than anything else- see also The Emergence of Islam: Classical Tradition in Contemporary Perspective (only 2.99 right now on Kindle!!!!). Early Christians saw Muhammad as a heretic, not a founder of a new religion.

To see these concepts expressed missiologically, see Religious Syncretism as a Syncretistic Concept: The Inadequacy of the “World Religions” Paradigm in Cross-Cultural Encounter by H. L. Richard.

In another recent article, New paradigms for religion, multiple religious belonging, and insider movements (Missiology July 2015), Richard argues (fn 17):

Particularly those who claim to support contextualization but oppose insider movements need to wrestle with how far their own modern Western context in relation to the meaning of religion is controlling their paradigm. I have written on this in an article on “Religious Syncretism as a Syncretistic Concept: The Inadequacy of the ‘World Religions’ Paradigm in Inter-Cultural Encounter”, suggesting that the true syncretists are the proponents of the “change of religion” paradigm.

Take away: As missiologists and missionaries, we need to rethink what religion is and what joining the Jesus movement was/is all about. Most scholars say religion is practically undefinable.

[Postnote: I still get annoyed when people refer to “IM” as if it were well-defined.]


CameroonGuy said...

It seems that the author of the book assumes that the "modern" definition of Christianity is fairly uniform, and primarily western in its flavor. As one coming from a less-western perspective, I have never thought of Christianity as being "a universal, timeless, personal, and private belief system that can be abstracted from public life". This might be the definition that many European and American Christians have in mind, but those churches comprise a minority of Christians today.
While I would not dare to define Christianity for my brothers and sisters in the third world, I can say that I perceive it as being a "a membership and participation in a family with a common trust in the person of Christ, guided by His word, the Bible." It is more public than private, and more of a way of life than a mere belief system. It is not timeless. Christianity started at a specific time in history, and will no longer have any use after Christ's return. It is active, not passive.

Warrick Farah said...

My summary probably wasn't clear. I think the Richard article in this post articulates this better than I have.