Monday, January 11, 2010

Religion and Power

Today I had my fist day of classes in the new semester, and I got my first assignments. In one of my classes, Interpretation and Argument, we focus on the topic “religion and power.” And the first assignment in this class was to reflect on that topic. What does religion mean to me? What does religion have to do with power? So, I figured I might as well use the opportunity to write a blog post.

But before I give my thoughts on that, let me tell you about the class and about me. We are twenty-something students in the class, and we have very different religions and beliefs. There were some Christians, a few Hindus, one Muslim, some atheists, a half-Jew and a bunch of agnostics. Fewer than I expected seemed to have strong feelings about the topic, but I am at least one of them. I write from the perspective of a sincere follower of Jesus Christ who has experienced various Christian fellowships, including a fellowship following the Lutheran tradition, a Pentecostal church, a military church, non-denominational contemporary churches and a Presbyterian church. I have even participated in a few Roman Catholic masses during the international military pilgrimage to Lourdes. This was one of our priests:

Many of those churches I listed are afraid of the word religion. Religion is a word that has so much shit on it that Christians do not want to use it about themselves. Greg Boyd, pastor in the non-denominational Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote the book “Repenting of Religion,” whose title pretty much capture the notion that Christianity and religion are two different things. This does of course not make much sense to an outsider, and it neither does to me. Is not a religion simply a set of beliefs one is holding? And do not Christians hold a certain set of beliefs? So, then, why are Christians so afraid of religion?

One plausible answer is that Christians accept the premise that religion is a significant reason why there is, has been and will be war and conflict. Yet, they do not in any way see how their own faith and life could have such implications, and thus they conclude the two must be different things. Subsequently, they redefine religion not to be the holding of certain beliefs, but to rather to be about confining blindly to the more or less political institutions that sometimes surround these beliefs.

From the movie about the temple knight ArnWe are left, then, with two questions – does a certain set of beliefs, let us call it a religion, always or in some cases affiliate with power? Power, that is political power, is power granted through means of violence, such as police and military. And if beliefs themselves do not imply use of political power, does the institutions that surround such beliefs, like churches and denominations (let’s call that for religion too), still make this affiliation inevitable?

My intuition is, not necessarily. However, it is always a possibility that someone with intentions of political power can use such institutions for their purposes if they are given prominent positions in the fellowship. These intentions of power can appear to be good in the eyes of churchgoers, such as an intention to pass laws against abortion and gay marriage. However, the intention of law-passing itself may not be a part of the original beliefs. In those cases, it clearly must be the institutions that cause the affiliation to power. That form of religious practice is what Greg Boyd and others are repulsed by so much that they want to escape the term completely.

But, if the church is careful not to let such intentions of power render in their fellowship, then they are still holding a certain set of beliefs, yes of course, but they are not affiliating with political power. In fact, they may even do the opposite, searching to serve people rather than to control them. Or, and this may sound like a way too stereochristian cliché, but it is kind of beautiful: Lifting people up rather than pushing them down.

If that is still religion, then I cannot think religion and power are always affiliated.

Amazon: Repenting of Religion by Greg Boyd
Woodland Hills Church: The Bridge (online community)
My instructor Kari Lundgren's site: Religious Rhetorics


  1. This is really interesting. I look forward to hearing more about this class, Torstein!

  2. Dette var slett ikke verst! Du kan dine saker. :) Angående den relegionsdefinisjonen: Er det ikke slik at religion defineres som en måte å nå frem til Gud på? Muslimer må f.eks leve etter Allahs vilje dersom de skal klare å nå frem til frelsen, eller hva man nå enn vil kalle det. Det samme gjelder for hinduer, buddister og alle andre relegiøse mennesker. Det som gjør at kristne ikke ønsker å omtale troen sin som en relegion, er ikke at ordet fremkaller dårlige assosiasjoner, men derimot at man ikke føler at troen på Jesus passer inn i definisjonen av en religion som en måte å nå frem til Gud. Hele poenget i Bibelen er jo nettopp det at Gud skal nå frem til oss, ikke at vi skal nå frem til ham. :)

  3. @Alow: I hope to write more about it, too

    @Maria: Det du sier høres rett ut. Samtidig er det jo litt teologisk flisespikkeri som i så fall pågår, siden de fleste kristne ledere gjerne oppfordrer om å vende seg til Gud. Ikke sagt at kristendommen og (andre) religioner er like i så måte, for kristne kan leve med en helt annen trygghet om frelse.

    Men jeg tror fremdeles at selv årsaken til at man ønsker å kvitte seg med begrepet "religion" ikke henger sammen med en slik smal forståelse av begrepet, men med begrepets dårlige omdømme. Det er forsåvidt en begrunnelse man kan forstå; hvis ordet blir oppfattet å bety mer eller noe annet enn hva man egentlig mener, vil man jo helst ikke bruke det.