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 is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, primarily historical in focus, and will occasionally be controversial. Finally, we hope that the selections will resonate beyond the subject of the book from which they were excerpted. Sign up and join 99,000 other subscribers who receive Delanceyplace every weekday morning.


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politics and religion -- 12/19/14

Today's selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. The idea that religion is separate from politics is a modern and radical innovation:

"Our modern Western conception of 'religion' is idiosyncratic and eccentric. No other cultural tradition has anything like it, and even premodern European Christians would have found it reductive and alien. ...

"For about fifty years now it has been clear [in academia] that there is no universal way to define religion. In the West we see 'religion' as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions, and rituals, centering on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all 'secular' activities. But words in other languages that we translate as 'religion' almost invariably refer to something larger, vaguer, and more encompassing. The Arabic din signifies an entire way of life. The Sanskrit dharma is also 'a "total"concept, untranslatable, which covers law, justice, morals, and social life.' The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: 'No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English "religion" or "religious." ' The idea of religion as an essentially personal and systematic pursuit was entirely absent from classical Greece, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, China, and India. Nor does the Hebrew Bible have any abstract concept of religion; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to express what they meant by faith in a single word or even in a formula, since the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred.

Charles I, crowned by a hand from a cloud,
possibly by God

"The origins of the Latin religio are obscure. It was not 'a great objective something' but had imprecise connotations of obligation and taboo; to say that a cultic observance, a family propriety, or keeping an oath was religio for you meant that it was incumbent on you to do it. The word acquired an important new meaning among early Christian theologians: an attitude of reverence toward God and the universe as a whole. For Saint Augustine (c. 354-430 CE), religio was neither a system of rituals and doctrines nor a historical institutionalized tradition but a personal encounter with the transcendence that we call God as well as the bond that unites us to the divine and to one another. In medieval Europe, religio came to refer to the monastic life and distinguished the monk from the 'secular' priest, someone who lived and worked in the world (saeculum).

"The only faith tradition that does fit the modern Western notion of religion as something codified and private is Protestant Christianity, which, like religion in this sense of the word, is also a product of the early modern period. At this time Europeans and Americans had begun to separate religion and politics, because they assumed, not altogether accurately, that the theological squabbles of the Reformation had been entirely responsible for the Thirty Years' War. The conviction that religion must be rigorously excluded from political life has been called the charter myth of the sovereign nation-state. The philosophers and statesmen who pioneered this dogma believed that they were returning to a more satisfactory state of affairs that had existed before ambitious Catholic clerics had confused two utterly distinct realms. But in fact their secular ideology was as radical an innovation as the modern market economy that the West was concurrently devising. To non-Westerners, who had not been through this particular modernizing process, both these innovations would seem unnatural and even incomprehensible. The habit of separating religion and politics is now so routine in the West that it is difficult for us to appreciate how thoroughly the two co-inhered in the past. It was never simply a question of the state 'using' religion; the two were indivisible. Dissociating them would have seemed like trying to extract the gin from a cocktail."

author: Karen Armstrong
title: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
date: Copyright 2014 Karen Armstrong
pages: 4-5
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