Sunday, 28 September 2008

What It Is

Bronislow Malinoswki's view is that religion is derived from reacting to the trauma of a state of loss of human continuation, that is culturally developed collective humanity is ruptured by death and people seek to explain this away through religion offering immortality. The rupture is felt by individuals but the developed sense of loss comes collectively and culturally (not individually and psychologically), which is also the level of explanation that qualifies and limits the reality of death. The explanation of religion, a salvation scheme (soteriology) is sufficient in itself but gives rise to magical practices within its explanation. The salvation scheme involving heaven and hell is religious, but praying that the dead go to heaven is magical.

I find this a rather unconvincing view of religion, simply because some religion offers not continuation but end as part of the effort required in the salvation scheme. Hindu and Buddhist religion accepts continuation as normal, whereas salvation is to bring matters to a purer, deeper, point of ending the suffering that existence brings. There is no attachment to continuation, but a trapping by continuation, from which there is a desire (if desire is the right word) for something that opens out far better than this existence.

Other views have been offered by Robert Redfield and Weber, which (especially in Weber's case) takes more account of theological variation between different religions. In essence, there is magic, magical religion, and religion. Redfield called the latter the Great Tradition, which is cosmopolitan and international, whilst magical religion is the Little Tradition, that is magically understood and practised, localised versions of the religion.

The problem with Redfield's account is that the driver of religion is often the Little Tradition. The cosmopolitan intelligentsia, including those in monasteries, or upper caste Brahmins, or Christian bishops, and seminaries of all kinds, might philosophise and write, but the underpinning of religion and its core impetus - its engine - comes from below. Weber's system is similar, except that his dynamic model of development from the charismatic to the traditional and then finally to the rational, secular and disenchanted bureaucratic, takes into account the way that the charismatic local feeds into the hierarchy of tradition. So Mary is the object of popular devotion, and the hierarchy turn Mary into this symbol of patriarchy and impossible woman. Going back to origins, there was a highly local Jewish eschatological healer and preacher, and broadened out culturally into Christianity by Paul and company, and ended up via battles about spirit and material into a central tradition incorporating ritual open to magical practice but given more general explanation. Therefore, which is Great and which is Little?

There is also an evolutionary view of religion here, that it starts with magic, becomes magical religion and then develops into full blown philosophical intelligent forms. Yet, arguably, the philosophical represents a loss of the vitality that is in magic and in religion. Europeans and Americans might see this pattern as evolving, but that is because from the Victorians onwards we have looked down on Paganism and village Hinduism, and less so on village Roman Catholicism, but looked up to refined Protestantism - especially liberal Protestantism as fully evolved. Well what of secularisation, which is the privatising of religion back towards the magical, and secularism which is against religion?

Rather, it's about horses for courses, that's to say expect villagers to have religion that has a high magical element depending on inheritance of traditions, climate, and tribal grouping (we all have our tribes), and expect the urban city dweller and those of similar culture to have something different, depending again on inheritances, change, climate, activity. Surprise suprise if religious professionals and academics have different approaches to religion from other folk.

The question is to what extent is the supernatural a sophisticate's explanation for magic? Not entirely, because the supernatural is more purposive, given and linked to means to salvation. It is steadier. Magic is immediate, problem solving and intervening, an exercise of power held in the individual to impact on the supernature, whereas for the supernatural the person with responsibility draws on a divine power held by the divine sphere.

Would it be so easy, however, for then comes the problem of the bishop and priest and the laying on of hands that delivers to this double-caste ontological difference from the rest of us and power (should this be believed in, of course). The priest is a unique bridghead to the supernatural, and conduit. Yet the matter is unclear, because in saying the right litugical words the wine and bread become, for Catholics, the actual body and blood, with an actual participation (if not repeating) of the crucifixion. It is a fine line, but the priest has a power, they say, and holds this under the authority of the already priested bishop.

So now we come to my opinion here, regarding the liturgical, the Free Catholic, the Liberal Catholic and the Catholic.

The Free Catholic was a development of people like Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas and others who, coming out of an Oxford Movement affected non-conformity, of some or much liberalism, developed the idea of non-dogmatic sacramentalism. They understood the religiosity of the form, that is (to push metaphors) the importance of the wrapping paper whatever the goodies inside. This must be so if it was truly non-dogmatic sacramentalism. It is arts and crafts. This is postmodernism before its time, non-realism even before its time, though most of the practioners pushed the content they believed in along with the sacramentalism - it's just that they did not insist on any particular belief. It is Christian orthopraxy that allows for Christian heterodoxy. It allows you to be religious, even if you don't think religious.

I think I want it to be a bit cooler than this, that these people did get wrapped up in layers of wrapping paper and did bring on all sorts of beliefs that simply destroyed their own short lived movement (though I'm sure Brither Douglas kept things simple). W. E. Orchard went off to Rome, J. M. Lloyd Thomas went back into education. I take a more Buddhist view, and apply it to liturgical practice, and my view of content is something along the lines of water off a duck's back. It is an unanchored, symbolic language, inherited and said for the sake of saying it, for its spirituality of either the cool quiet, spoken word or the artistic musical spectacle.

Now the Liberal Catholics were different from the Free Catholics in that they did connect with Theosophy and supernatural issues of Messiahship with Krishnamurti and all of that: however, more centrally here is the esoteric or magical element, and the way that James I. Wedwood and Charles W. Leadbeater ac quired a magical, interventionist, power view of ministry and Eucharist. Leadbeater was a clairvoyant and mystic, so he was bound to have this impact. Also the Liberal Catholics, many now regarded as Episcopi Vagantes (and independent bishops have consecrated other independent bishops), put a great deal of stress on their legitimacy and therefore give the laying on of hands an almost magical significance. Another important name was Ulric Vernon Herford, a Unitarian who became liberal Catholic in form and ecumenical and acquired bishop's orders and so stands in the same sort of line as Leadbeater, but despite the lines of bishops coming from Herford he himself is probably more Free Catholic theologically. He was not magical in explanation and had a tendency (in Oxford, at least) towards simplicity and modesty. In that the legitimacy of ministry is important, and given Leadbeater's legacy, and also the titles and ministries so named, the form of liberal Catholic worship can be very elaborate and full, and makes me think of the Anglo-Catholic who becomes more Roman than Rome in Catholicism.

So I am a little distant from that and I don't think I could perform to this elaborate extent, but I remain attracted to the Free Catholic evolution.

For me, religion is like art, and it is postmodern. It should be an arena for free, critical thinking, but obviously should do religion. Maybe one day I'll return to some form of Buddhism; the fact remains that Unitarianism has a weak spirituality (for me) and whilst infected by it I don't like the shadow of its Puritanism and really wish it would get away from the Protestant hymn sandwich form.

I suppose in the two plus intensive Christian years (I attend three or four services a week regularly, two or three Eucharists) I have become more of a thinking Christian doctrinally and now less. These are all issues and questions, and I am not a 'follower' in the sense that most people involved are. I'm not theistic (a possibility) or Christocentric in hard, realist senses. Rather the Christian tradition is a set of challenges throughout the liturgical year, almost confrontations about how to orientate your own life delivered via a religion about Jesus. So the liturgical effort delivers this, but that is all.

[By the way, can anyone guess where that image, that struck me as Mary-like, has come from? The answer shows what a sad character I am.]

Arbuthnot, Michael A. (1999), Article Review and Critique: Malinowski, Bronislaw, 'The Role of Magic and Religion' (1931), November 17th, 1999, Online, World Wide Web: URL:, last accessed, 27 September 2008.
Redfield, R. (1955),
The Little Community, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Redfield, R. (1956), Peasant Society and Culture, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Weber, M. (1951), Gerth, H. (ed.), The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press.
Weber, M. (1958), Gerth, H., Martindale, E. (eds.), The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press.


greg said...

Thank you so much for such a full answer, I have some new reading to do! I find your conceptualisation of the liturgical year resonates clearly with my own experience, but increasingly I find the outward forms (which I used to value so highly) a distraction, much like the institution and it's politics, rather than a pathway.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It is the usual liberal thing (not saying you are, I don't know) to have problems with the wrapping paper presentation, usually with some sort of attempt at translation and attempt to find the kernel of truth behind the clutter. I tried this once and it ended up nowhere for me. I'm about to make another entry on this subject based on today's experiences.

I've added a Malinowski reference that does seem reliable and which I did look at.