Kyoto Cosmos Club: Sub-Page One
RELIGION—LIKE EVERY OTHER LIVING THING—EVOLVES
Robert Bellah, as young undergraduate at Harvard was a devout Christian believer,
but soon became an atheist and then an affiliate of the U.S. Communist Party. He was brought back to his original Presbetarian-Episcopalian roots by hearing the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. This great man had fled the Nazis in his native Germany and began teaching at first at Union Theological Seminary in New York, then at Harvard and finally at the University of Chicago. Tillich himself was, during this period of the fifties and the sixties, undergoing a radical transformation in his own theology. At the end of his life came to Kyoto for dialogues with leading Buddhist thinkers. He returned to Chicago and declared that his whole monumental Systematic Theology had to be totally revised, to allow for the fact of the truth of other religious systems.
During the first part of this period Bellah was hard at work on doctoral studies in the area of Sociology of Religion at Harvard. He worked together with his friend Clifford Geertz, a student in the field of the cultural anthropology of religions. His key ideas will be described below in the next sub-page. After a nasty encounter with Senator McCarthy’s committee busily witch-hunting Communists, Bellah reeived his Ph.D. was hired at Harvard in due time received his tenure. One of his most famous essays from this early period is “Religious Evolution.” In this pioneer piece Bellah presumes that religion is only one of a whole bundle of “cultural systems,” both action systems like agriculture and the military and symbol systems from literature, art and religion. He sees the evolution of human religious systems to have proceeded in lock-step with other human cultural systems. Religion, like these other systems tended toward more differentiation, ever more comprehensiveness and ever more rationalization. He divides religious evolution into five periods: Primitive Religion, Archaic, Historical, Early Modern and Modern Religion.
1. Primitive Religion : Primitive Religion is a world of the Powers, and these powers are closely associated with the world of everyday life activities like the weather, the heavens, hunting, neighboring tribes, and natural things of power like waterfalls, the sea and the like. Mythical stories are woven to express the feeling connected with each of these elements, and these stories are told from memory in these pre-literate societies.
“(T)he mythical world is related to the detailed features of the actual world. Not only is every clan and local group defined in terms of the ancestral progenitors and the mythical events of settlement, but virtually every impressive mountain, rock, and tree is explained in terms of the actions of mythical beings.” Religious action is not in the form of worship or sacrifice but more participatory, as in dance, trance, chanting and drumming.
2. Archaic Religion: Archaic Religion ceases to be focused on natural objects and powers and raises its focus to gods and goddesses and other preternatural beings. We see them still in the religions of Africa, Polynesia the Native Americans. Now, priests, sacrifices and divine kingship are central elements, as was seen in ancient Greece and Rome. Everything is far more organized, more controlled and more controlling. Religious action in archaic religions, unlike those of the primitive religions, takes the form of cults. Human beings worship the gods and goddesses, fear the demons and live in a world where the divine and the human form a single cosmos full of interaction between the two parts.
3. Historic Religion: These religions are specially characterized by the emergence of a clearly separated transcendental world. The single earthly-divine cosmos of the archaic religions gives way to a dualism between the spiritual-divine and the material-natural worlds. Religious action takes the form of doing all the ritual, sacrificial and ascetical acts necessary to stay in touch with the divine and to be saved. The natural world is devalued. Most important of all, when the gods and goddess left this world they ceased to be many and became a single divinity, Buddha, Tao, or Brahman.
The need for separation from this natural, sinful world brings about the rise of monastic orders and lifestyles. The political and the religious hierarchies become separate. Kings and Emperors are no longer divine but still receive their authority from the transcendent realm. “Church and State” or their equivalent in other religions become the rule—though they are not separate nor are they equal; they work together for the good of the whole society, but in fact they are often in fierce conflict for power. The Confucian scholar, the pope, and the Islamic Ulama are separate but related to the Emperor, king or sultan.
This marvelous movement of the gods to the transcendent spiritual realm of God, Buddha, the Tao, the Confucian Heavens, the Hindu Brahman and, later, the Islamic Allah happened—for no clearly understood reason—all over the East and the West at approximately the same time: during the first millennium before the Christian Era. But there is a broadly cultural and intellectual reason for this. Both in East and the West human knowledge had, with the aid of written language, become vastly more sophisticated and even to some degree integrated, so the old world of many divinities and devils became less credible.
Later, Bellah, along with very many if not most religious scholars came to describe this greatest paradigm change in the world’s religions the “Axial Age.” Perhaps the most remarkable element of this new paradigm is that traditional cultures ceased being laws unto themselves and tended to be governed by transcendentally rooted moral laws and ethical principles handed down or revealed by the one transcendent deity or principle. This was true of the Confucian ethic in China, the Jewish and Christian laws given to Moses and by Jesus, and the Buddhist world had equally well-defined moral codes of conduct.
4. Early Modern Religion: Early Modern Religions were characterized by a collapsing of the hierarchical structure of the sacred or transcendental worlds. In the Protestant Reformation, priests and monks ceased to be the sole mediators of the sacred with special powers to forgive sins and celebrate Mass. Believers gained a direct relation with the divine. This happened in Buddhism too, as Pure Land Buddhism relied on direct faith in Amida or Amitaba Buddha. There is less evidence of this happening in other of the major world religions, but one sees it in Hinduism and its slow rejection of the caste system.
5. Modern Religion: The stage of Modern Religion, says Bellah, is characterized by the slow realization of the inner structure and nature of religious symbolism and so of religious truth itself—at least truth as can be known by the human mind. Kant was the first to realize that the whole nature of a metaphysical world—the invisible, transcendent realm—was deeply uncertain and troubling. He did not thereby cease to believe in God, however. Since Kant, though, people seem to have moved further and further away from bodies of defined dogma or teachings of traditional religions. Many of the most educated believers in all of the traditional religions have tended to ground their faith in the structure of the human-cosmic situation itself.
This latest stage in religious evolution is still very much a thing in progress. Churches, synagogues, and temples have slowly lost much of their absolutely necessary and authoritative aura. People tend to see them more as aids and bridges to community rather than the final source for finding the real nature of the Transcendent source or Inward Ultimate dimension of the cosmos.
It is not enough, however, to merely outline these five stages of religious evolution. Such an outline, by itself, will be relatively meaningless. It is necessary to go deeper. What do we mean by “religion”? We need to ask how and why religions are all very much only one element in the complex reality that is human and social consciousness. What role should religions play in the democratic societies of the world, standing together rather than in opposition according to the new religious paradigm.
These centrally important issues can be uncovered by taking a closer look at the work of Bellah’s cultural anthropologist friend, Clifford Geertz of the Princeton Institute of Higher Studies. But before we do that, however, we must take a look at another, even more basic, philosophical and sociological presupposition that lies behind the ideas of both Bellah and Geertz. This more basic matter is the fact that social human knowledge and truth of all kinds are actually constructed by social interaction inside of societies. Without at least a rudimentary idea of this matter we cannot hope to really appreciate why and how Bellah is correct in saying “religion is true,” or fully appreciate Geertz’s definition of “Religion as a Cultural System.”
The best source for the basics of phenomenology and linguistic philosophy of knowledge and truth—including the religious variety of truth—can be found in, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. There are, of course, many schools and sub-schools of thought on the philosophy of how humankind did, in the slow course of evolution of a brain sufficiently complex to create speech and use it, to create an idea of the world, the earth and the universe. Berger and Luckmann’s well-known account is uniquely suited to our purposes. It can serve as a bridge between the main ideas of Bellah and Geertz and the larger field of linguistic philosophy as a whole.
All four of these thinkers shared a common philosophical grounding in the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and his philosopher-sociologist doctoral student, Alfred Schutz, who taught all four of these scholars at the New School for Social Studies in New York. Berger and Luckmann’s ideas are specially suitable also because, like those of Bellah and Geertz, they share with the whole tradition of linguistic philosophy a basic agreement as to how it only when humans learned the art of highly complex communication by means of vocal sounds and grammar—by means of language—that any society came to be able to create notions, first of “things” and then of a “world. So let’s take a brief look at how, according to Berger and Luckmann, this happened.
To begin with, all of really human action is “intentional” in its nature: it tends deliberately towards food, fighting, sex, family and everything else. But as long as there is no speech the “things” one tends towards are not objectively true. Like a dog or a cat going about their actions, these “things’ do not exist as concepts in their minds. Only when we have a name for a “thing,” and when a group of human beings (a single person cannot create either a language or an objective world) agreeing that this is a “tree” and this “fire” can “burn” that “tree” can there be any objective human world. And of course, once there is this objectified world, there is “knowledge” of that world. Contrary to Plato and even Aristotle, “truth” is not something that is created in the mind of God, or just “is”. Human truth is a human creation, and it depends on the words and the concepts that the brain stores with the help of these symbolic vocal sounds.
But the verbal sounds of any language are signs; that is, they are verbal symbols which a community of people agree have definite meanings. And thus—and only thus—is human knowledge born. The human world is by its very nature an inter-subjective world—a child reared from infancy by a wolf cannot invent its own language.
Further, slowly linguistic philosophers have learned that we human beings all live in multiple realities: the world of play, the world of dream; the world of music. But among these multiple realities there is a Paramount Reality: the world-of-everyday. It is a world that Heidegger says in characterized by zuhandigkeit, a world among things that are “ready to hand”—or at least “ready-to the other of our senses. Our paramount reality or world-of-everyday is made up of things and acts that we see, feel, hear, taste and smell—and to each of these sensed mysteries, we and our fellows assign a name or word, and thus it is no longer a mystery; it is a “thing,” or an act. Once we have added gender, number, syntax, and other grammatical rules and communally agreed on them we have an objective world, and simultaneously we have human knowledge and truth. Contrary to Plato who thought that truth come inborn in us, now that we have a fairly clear idea of how we evolved the necessary brain complexity to create language we now know that without a whole group of human minds there can be no truth or knowledge—and since our knowledge of God comes only through faith and not directly through our senses we cannot count God among the objective truths of our everyday world, but this in no way argues against his/her existence. An atheist has no more grounds for his/her belief than a believer does. The cosmos exists and it appears to have order that blind chance could not explain. Both the atheist and the theist depend on faith.
Since our human world is always a social world, our knowledge comes about by our acts being “routinized”: our knowledge of food gathering or production, our knowledge of sexual and family matters come only after these activities have become routine in a given society and given names, meanings and values. Even our knowledge of our multiple realities becomes routinized. Even our dreams, our play, our dance, and our music can have full meaning only when a community agrees on a name for each and thus objectivizes it and gives it meaning and value.
One of these multiple realities is the religious reality. When we come to understand Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as a cultural system—and Bellah’s declaration that religious reality is true—will we see this more clearly. For now it is enough to realize that every society has one or more religions and that—for those people who agree on a given religion’s teachings—those beliefs are “true,” in Bellah’s symbolic understanding of the nature of all human truth.
So, language is our most basic “symbol system.” But completely outside it there exists other symbol systems: dance, music, and certain kinds of play and sign language. These produce their own kind of separate reality or truth. Children agree on the rules of a play or game; and audience agrees to the rules of entering into the world of drama or music. Walking is not a symbol system but an action system. The same is true of fighting or making love. But all of these are brought together into a single universe via language and the meaning assigned to each. Philosophy on the other hand, government, monetary-financial entities and the like are all symbol systems because they rely on assigning given meanings to an idea of the world, a mode of government or what a certain coin, bill or metal is worth.
When a given society agrees on worlds, meanings and modes of governance, fighting, payment, and marriage these things are “institutionalized”; they become objective reality for that society. Each can and will slowly change, but always only with the agreement of the community as to how. The community legitimizes the way marriage, government and religions operate and what they mean. This is the way an objective world and knowledge comes into being. How about the subjective world of the individual? There is a final and very important element necessary before the subjective world can also become a part of knowledge and truth.
Only when a society has, via language, created a world of many action-systems and symbol-systems is it possible to hand on to the children of the next generation —once again by teaching them a language—an objective world. It enters into their subjective consciousness as the world: the only world.
Most important for the Kyoto Cosmos Club, this objectivized subjective world traditionally includes an ultimate dimension. What is the ultimate nature of the earth, of living things, of the world, of the cosmos? Traditionally religions furnished this final, outermost symbol system. A traditional tribe or society was rounded out when all these other everyday “things” and systems came to be given ultimate meaning. From of old this happened when creation myths and stories were added to the whole worldview of everyday reality and generally accepted in faith by the majority of the people. Thus all of the other truths, values and ethical principles were brought together into a single, meaningful whole. This whole world was “sedimented” into the subjective consciousness members of society or subgroup of a society, from their earliest years.
Nowadays, of course, many can and do opt for meaninglessness, nihilism, or a non-religious humanism. This option is of relatively recent origin, even though there has always been a fringe in every traditional society who did not or could not believe the prevailing religion. But once a minimal agreement necessary for social cohesion is accomplished—in either a religious or non-religious manner—the biggest problem of all arises. How is the society going to maintain itself? How is going to keep both meanings and values strongly enough in place to keep it from disintegrating into chaos? We all know that this sort of social disintegration has happened often in the past—either by means of a revolution or by simply loosing the strong ties that give a people sufficient cohesion. Religion is unquestionably one of the chief factors that give meaning, value and social cohesion to a society. We believe that this is still true today, even though religion is only one of the glues that help keep any society healthy and strong.
Since the time when Bellah wrote his epoch-making article on Religious Evolution the idea has itself evolved at great deal. One recent contribution is Karen Armstrong’s The Great Awakening. Armstrong goes into great detail to paint an historical picture of how “The Axial Age” arose across the whole of the East and the West. In addition to Bellah’s own treatment of the Axial Age she notes how the great insights into the need for love of the other, justice, and the like, she shows in great detail how each of these great insights were subsequently lost, forgotten, or submerged into subsequent unbelief. Bellah himself is still hard at work with his own multi-volume investigation of how the Axial Age rose and was often obscured across the globe and across the ages.
2. Cf. Robert N. Bellah, Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and it Modern Interpretation (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2003), pp 6 ff. Bellah borrowed the phrase already popularized by Karl Jaspers in The Origin and Goal of History , trans. Michael bullock (London, 1953) pp. 1-70.