Friday, 17 October 2014

Religion as Problem and Solution or Obsession and Epiphany

A Taxonomies for Religions Post


Have you heard the metaphor figuring the world’s religions as different trails up the same mountain? It’s reportedly a Hindu concept, but I know it through Huston Smith’s The World Religions, and if you’ve heard it I have little doubt that it came to you through Smith indirectly. It was a controversial claim when Smith made it (though one many people were ready to hear), but it might not be an entirely accurate one. For instance, Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One is almost wholly devoted to showing that religions have very different senses of the world and therefore very different goals. They do not converge upon the same peak, he claims.

Prothero’s way of understanding religions is an interesting one: he says all religions observe that there is a problem in the world, but they offer different diagnoses and therefore make different prescriptions. Religions also have a set of techniques for achieving the solution and a set of exemplars for guidance and encouragement. For Judaism, the problem is exile and the solution, therefore, is return, while for Islam the problem is pride and the solution submission; for Confucianism the problem is chaos and the solution propriety, but for Daoism the problem is artificiality and the solution flourishing. Prothero’s framework is a useful way of conceptualizing a religion. At the least, the framework forces you to ask particular questions about a religion which you may not have otherwise thought to ask. (Geez, I should make an index for all the posts in which I write that.)

Prothero runs into trouble when he deals with Christianity, however. He writes that Christianity’s diagnosis is sin while the prescription is salvation. But sin means so many different things to so many different Christians, and salvation means so many different things to so many different Christians, that its almost meaningless to define Christianity in this way. (Indeed, I’m fairly sure there are Christians who understand sin/salvation in something like each of the terms Prothero uses to describe the other religions: Islam’s pride/submission, Confucianism’s chaos/propriety, Hinduism’s samsara/devotion*, Buddhism’s suffering/awakening, Yoruba’s forgetting/connection, Judaism’s exile/return, Daoism’s artificiality/flourishing.) I wonder, therefore, whether a Muslim might have the same response reading Prothero’s book: “But what does pride mean? Aren't there many ways of submitting? Of course you could think of pride as a kind of forgetting or a kind of exile, and submission as a kind of connection or a kind of return.”

Which leads me to suspect that these four categories might be more useful not as a description of religions writ large but as a description of a particular person’s own religion. The question is not, “What problem does Christianity see in the world?,” but, “What problem does Christian see in the world?”**


Prothero’s framework, when phrased on the level of the individual, sounds much like W. Paul Jones’s obsession and epiphania. I know of Jones’s work through Richard Beck, who gives a summary: every Christian lives in a “theological world” (Jones gives five of them?) defined by an obssessio—a defining conundrum, quandary, wound, or question—and an epiphania—the experience or hope of an answer to that question. For many Christians, the obsessio might be the threat of God’s judgement, and the epiphania would thus be the promise of God’s forgiveness; for others, the obsessio might be the way we harm others, and the epiphania the promise that one day we will no longer do so. I hope you can see by now the similarity this has with Prothero’s framework: Prothero uses different terms and add techniques and exemplars, but the obsessio/epiphania distinction is at the heart of his description.

Moreover, these seem to be useful questions for anyone’s worldview, whether religious or not. But I’d caution that, of course, these might not be beliefs, exactly. You may not be able to simply ask, “What do you believe is the one big problem with the world?” After all, I think lots of people would say there are a few different problems with the world and these don’t necessarily have the same source. Rather, it seems to be about attitude. You should maybe ask, “What problem with the world, or with yourself, takes up the most of your time and your headspace?” That’s probably more accurate. And then, “What do you do to address it?”

It’s worth observing, I think, that Prothero’s formulation is a bit more bloodless than Jones’s. Problem and solution are very technical or matter of fact. Diagnosis and prescription are maybe even worse: there’s a disease, yes, but diagnoses and prescriptions are what make diseases manageable and knowable. Obsessio and epiphania, though, have a bit more emotional kick: rendered into English, obsession and epiphany suggest the urgency of the problem and the overwhelming nature of the solution.  If the problem is your obsession than it’s not something you’re going to be able to deal with in a detached manner; if the experience of solution is an epiphany, than you’ll never be done trying to figure it out. The same idea, maybe, but there’s a different sense of stakes. Jones, of course, is writing as an insider, and Prothero an outsider, and it shows.


All this, I think, is a helpful way to conceptualize world religions on the one hand and individual expressions of those religions on the other. You could make a chart:

Religions as problems and solutions
All nice. All good. But this seems incomplete, doesn’t it? As I said, you can imagine a Christian who conceives of sin mostly as pride, and salvation mostly as submission. And yet they would not be the same, really, as a Muslim who thinks in much the same terms. The techniques and exemplars might account for a bit of the difference, but…surely there’s more difference, isn’t there?

I love taxonomies. I sometimes think that I have a taxonomic imagination. But I recognize their limitations, and one of those limitations is that there are usually many different ways of organizing objects and you have a very different sense of a set of objects depending on how you organize them. So one way of handling this is to use several taxonomies, layered atop one another, to create a bit more texture. You don’t have a set of nested classes, like in biological taxonomies, but rather a set of fields for each entry. In which case, you need a bunch of useful taxonomies, and you need them all in one place for ease of use.

That’s what I plan to do. In the next… however long… I will try to collect taxonomies meant to organize either the world’s religions or individuals’ expressions of those religions, and present them here for my own use, and for anyone who might find them useful. (One use I can imagine is worldbuilding. I’m fascinated my fictional religions, but so many of them seem flat and uncompelling. I feel like using frameworks like those in this post, and those I plan to post, might help make more fully-fleshed religions and religious characters in novels and RPGs.)


Samsara means “wandering,” literally, but in Hinduism it refers to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth which characterizes reality.
** I am the only person allowed to make this pun.
*** Prothero includes a coda on atheism in God is Not One. He characterizes the problem/solution as religion/atheism, nothing that even though the stated problem is religion, the solution is itself religious in nature (by definition). I’ve added my own take in brackets for the problem/solution and then filled out the rest.
 Bokononism is a fictional religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.
 Not a religion, but I want to suggest that there are other kinds of “theological world” than nominally religious ones.

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