Feb 14, 2011

Describing religion

America's religious plethora is basically baffling if you're not in the thick of it. Sometimes even if you are. Even without including groups like the Summum, even if you just restrict the plethora to just Christianity in America and, further, to historic Christian deonimnations in America, it's confusing and complicated.

A fellow master's student told me, after we'd taken History of American Evangelicals together, that while she knew a lot about the history and developments, the denominations still baffled her. What, she said, is the difference, really, between a Methodist and a Baptist?

Though that distinction is easier than some, there are three almost completely seperate ways of making it. This, I think, is the really interesting problem. You could say how they're different doctrinally. You could say how they're different historically. You could say how they're different experientially.

There's a common inclination, I think, to take the first two spheres as solid and real and the third one as more ephemeral. It's true the experiential difference between one denomination and another is hardest to articulate and describe. It might be the more important one, though, in understanding the way the religion or faith is actually lived in the world. Understanding the differences in doctrine or history can actually give you a false sense of knowing what the religion is, in that you have this idea or articulation of the religion as an independant, free-floating thing, instead of as something at people are a part of, involved in, and influenced by.

Understanding the Catholic doctrine of Mary's immaculate conception, for example, and how that's different from the doctrine of Jesus' virgin birth, and different from the Marian beliefs of Baptists or Mormons or Lutherans, may not actually really give you an understanding of how those beliefs are held. Given that believers have varying and incomplete understandings of the theologies they believe, that they affiliate with those doctrines more than they ascribe to them, understanding the doctrines like they're "out there" somewhere may be too limiting. Understanding the technical differences in the doctrines doesn't really give you the understanding I find most interesting, which is how Mary feels in different denominations.

The way Mary is experienced at Our Lady of the Sea, in Jackson, Mich., and at the Chruch of Christ in Blyn, Wash., is not unrelated to the respective doctrines of those denominations, but it's not the same, either.

The difficulty and, I think, importance of trying to describe the experience of religion is more pointed the more I realize that, for most, religion in America is syncretic. That plethora is not just out there in the world, it's in their spiritual practices and in their daily lives. It becomse more pointed, too, when I realize that, even within Christianity, one of the largest groups of Protestant churches -- and the fastest growing -- is non-denominational.

Describing the historic conditions of non-denominalism is a tricky business. Describing the dogma is probably impossible, at least how we normally do it. It's also really likely that people in those non-denominal churches don't find those descriptions particularly relevant or ultimately very important. While they certainly have creedal beliefs, for example, the whole point is to play those down.

How do you describe that lived faith experience, though?