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before religion

12 august 2019

Brent Nongbri is a scholar of the ancient Middle East. I therefore thought that his book Before Religion might be about some time in distant antiquity before "religion" had developed into a concept we'd now recognize. I was, of course, wrong. "Before religion," for Nongbri, is actually before the Protestant Reformation.

Nongbri's contention, in this historiographical study, is that what we now see as a human universal – "Religion" – is an imposition of very modern, very Western ideas onto practices that obtain in the rest of the world, and obtained in the millennia before the 1500s CE.

Because of the pervasive use of the word "religion" in the cultures of the modern Western world (the "we" here), we already intuitively know what "religion" is before we even try to define it: religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. (18)
Nongbri acknowledges that this thesis may seem "crass," even "flippant," but he puts it so provocatively that he's wonderfully persuasive. The more one learns about non-Western, non-modern "religions," the less they seem to have in common with religion as "we" know it, and the more actively one has to massage them into recognizable form. Why not stop massaging? Nongbri asks.

Nongbri did not develop this insight out of the blue. As I said, his study is historiographical, and deeply engaged with other current scholarship. Only 159 of its 261 pages are text proper; the rest are extensive notes and bibliography. Other scholars, notably William T. Cavanaugh and Timothy Z. Smith, have come at the problem Nongbri addresses from other angles; Nongbri's contribution is to synthesize their work and add key examples from his field of expertise. And to put things so provocatively that even a layman like myself can have a eureka moment while reading.

At the heart of Nongbri's analysis is an apparent paradox. The Reformation shattered Christianity into hundreds of competing sects; modern (liberal) religious studies sees the world as populated by thousands of coequal religions. Yet even as the religious landscape of the early modern world diversified beyond measure, the Western concept of religion itself became radically simplified. A few hundred years ago, people thought of the religious world as consisting of a few radically different traditions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, occasionally a couple of others. Now, we think of the religious world consisting of myriad belief systems: all of which amount to the same thing.

Personal excursus: at this point in Nongbri's argument, I remembered moving from New York City to Texas, thirty years ago. New York is a religiously multifarious place, to say the least. The full range of Christians; heck, the full range of Catholics from hip cosmopolitan Jesuits to ethnic conservatives. The full range of Jews from ethical-culture types to Lubavitchers. Every known cult exists in New York, practiced in every known language. You cannot live in New York and not be aware of a wee bit of devotional diversity.

In North Dallas, though, every religious establishment seemed to be a couple-thousand-"member" "congregation" with a "pastor," its grounds consisting of a large "sanctuary" with attendant buildings for potlucks and Sunday (or Saturday, or whateverday) schools. Everybody was nicely dressed, belonged to identical family units, and showed up in minivans to hear sermons with the same basic vanilla message. Most distressingly, everybody from Buddhists to Jews seemed to be blond.

Everybody in Texas, it seemed, whatever their "faith," sought "salvation" in the same way, as Nongbri notices (and he may know whereof I speak, since he's spent time at the University of Texas). Everybody in Texas participates in one of William James' "varieties of religious experience," which all reduce to the same thing, refracted through different superficial lenses. In Texas, you're basically a Protestant even if you would be outraged to think of yourself as a Protestant. Nongbri simply extends this observation to the entire world, as conceived of by modern Western scholars.

At the heart of the modern, Western concept of religion is the sense that all humans grapple with questions of "faith": that each of us faces a radically individual confrontation between conscience and existential questions. But what if a great number of people didn't use to face those issues – what if they still don't?

I've noted before here, starting with Greg Woolf's book Rome, how alien classical "religions" seem to our modern conceptions. Nongbri confirms this impression. The religions of antiquity, he says, showed three big contrasts to modern Protestant-assimilated faiths. One was an emphasis on ritual practices, as opposed to inner convictions. Another is the relative absence of inspired, revealed texts as the ultimate basis for "religious" activities. Yet another is the inseparability of ritual life from the political sphere. Or, in effect, the meaninglessness of thinking about "political" and "religious" spheres in the ancient world.

If we now think almost instinctively that politics and religion are separate spheres, it is because of thinkers like John Locke, says Nongbri. Locke and other early-modern social philosophers argued that the only surefire method for avoiding sectarian conflict in the post-Reformation age was to confine religion into a private sphere, making faith a matter between an individual and the God of his understanding. This is a familiar enough historical development: the separation of church and state. What's new in the arguments that Nongbri discusses is the assertion that "religion" was not so much a pre-existing thing that needed separation from the state, as a new concept that was generated in the process of separating it from the state.

Clearly, some pre-modern individuals had spiritual lives that we might recognize as precursors of modern personal faith. They'd almost have had to, or Protestantism would have had nothing to develop from. Dante's early-14th-century Purgatorio, centering on Marco Lombardo's description of the soul driven by love both towards and away from its maker, is at times a very modern-seeming spiritual text. Julian of Norwich, a century later, grappled with questions of the direct relation of her soul to God in ways any modern Protestant could identify with (if not, perhaps, reach the same conclusions).

But for many pre-modern Christians, let alone participants in many other traditions that Christians still know far less about, personal faith may be beside the point. Physical ritual, social custom, and political adherence seem inseparable from those traditions we now assimilate to "religion" in the modern Protestant sense. Nongbri cites a debate between two old-school Assyriologists of the 20th century, Thorkild Jacobsen and Leo Oppenheim. Jacobsen wrote copiously about ancient Assyrian religion, defining it as "the forms of approach to 'the Numinous' generally available" to ancient Assyrians (147). Such a definition would seem standard to many of us – surely Assyrians had Julian-of-Norwich-like questions about divine love that they sought to formulate in their choice of religious practices? Oppenheim agreed, but argued that since we have zero evidence that any Assyrian thought for a moment about The Numinous, we should refrain from speculating about "Assyrian religion" at all. Importantly, Nongbri notes, Oppenheim did not take the extra step and speculate that the Assyrians may have had no religion, on our sense, at all. He was sure they did; he just thought that extant evidence did not record it.

But perhaps Assyrians participated in "religion" the way we participate in various pragmatic aspects of life: getting our cars inspected, paying our utility bills, following (or not) our doctors' instructions on diet and exercise. Not many of the rituals that people follow involve a prayer life or communion with the ethereal. Even the concept of the supernatural (here I'm extrapolating from Nongbri's arguments a bit) may not be relevant to many cultures. Gods self-evidently existed for many societies; you could visit them in their temples. Worship was (and may still be) a matter of maintenance and scrupule, not of the spirit.

But speaking of "cultures," Nongbri concludes with a sharp self-reflection:

I have interrogated the word "religion," and in doing so, I have been somewhat cavalier in my use of other words such as "culture," "society," and "ethnicity" … All these terms could (and should) be subjected to the kind of scrutiny that I have applied to "religion." (157)
You gotta start somewhere, Nongbri admits, and the words to start with are the words at hand. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that the words at hand are eternal universals.

Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A history of a modern concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. BL 430 .N57