Wednesday, December 19, 2007

UPDATE: Three traditions

If you'll recall our earlier discussion on religion for a moment, there is another comment that's bubbled up that I wanted to post and discuss. And -- hooray! -- this presents a chance for me to introduce another tag for posts: semantics. I have conflicted feelings about semantics: as the commenter (that I quote below) somewhat alludes to, semantics can be an academic exercise in splitting hairs, and might be a pejorative in that context. But at the same time, semantics are also important. SCOTUS (The Supreme Court, another group I expect to blog about at some point) is currently trying to figure out what the Second Amendment to the Constitution means (that would be the one about guns). How? They're dealing with commas. God save the queen.

But at any rate, back to Yahweh. First, you may remember that I wrote:

When I write about faith on this blog, and I don't expound upon which particular faith I'm writing about, I'm speaking in general about the Islamic/Christian/Jewish tradition that dominates Western culture. I'm not an expert in any of the three, but I know a thing or two. (Please comment when I incorrectly generalize across the traditions, or otherwise make a muck of things.)
Well, Casandra did comment, and took me to task for too closely associating these three religions. (Disclosure: Casandra is my former girlfriend and we remain close. Caveat: she's also a religious studies undergraduate alumnus, working on getting into grad school for religious anthropology. What do I know?) To avoid too much rehashing, here's what I figure to be her main point:
You see, the common link between these three religions is the prophet Abraham, but the three religions cannot even agree on the story of this man let alone his importance. You could say that Judaism and Christianity have much more in common with each other than either does with Islam, and that would be correct. However, it would still be incorrect to lump them into one tradition.

Like I said, Judaism is largely based on Mosaic Law. Well, many Christians believe that when Jesus came, he created a new covenant in place of the Mosaic covenant. With this belief, there is no reason to follow the Mosaic covenant and therefore, Mosaic Law.

My point here is that each of these religions have distinct beliefs with distinct traditions based on these beliefs.
And then, an anonymous poster throws in. He or she (I detest the gender/plurality indefinite pronoun "they") makes several cogent points, available for your full consideration under that posts' "Items for discussion." Here is the specific point that I think I was trying to make in that original post (quoted at top):
I think you're all arguing over semantics, in all honesty the 3 religions claim belief in the same 'God'. Perhaps the word tradition was innapropriate ...

...

The point being, there is an indeterminable amount of ways to divide religion, and on the whole most religious leaders point out that their are more things in common between the big 3 than their are different.
I think that very nicely rephrases what I was trying to say: these three particular religions do share some ancestry and have more in common with one another than other religions. (Right?) Well, not so fast, perhaps: the anonymous commenter also writes, "Hell right now their are probably protestants arguing against the fact their being lumped in with catholics." While Protestants do have issues with Catholics -- see, for example, the euphemistically labeled "troubles" of Northern Ireland -- an additional discussion is going on right now in politics: Is Mormonism a Christian faith? (I wonder whether the Southern Baptist Convention would be more injured by that claim, made by Gov. Mitt Romney, that he is indeed a Christian -- or by my lumping the SBC in with Jews and Muslims?)

The bottom line, for me, is this: Religion is a terribly difficult thing to define and discuss. We frequently are forced to limit ourselves to provisional judgments and rules of thumb in order that we might be able to even begin a discussion. Otherwise, we'd spend all day every day arguing over what religion was, before we might discuss it. Just as Mormons might practice a particular brand of faith that many (other?) Christians might find heretical or at least non-Christian, there is a similar diversity of religion or faith -- or lack of it -- in agnostic and atheist circles.

The point? We all self-identify in terms of religious. If we go to mass at Roman Catholic basilicas, well, we might self-identify as Roman Catholic. The same with those who attend Friday prayers at a Mosque -- most of these folks would self-identify as Muslim. But attendance is an outward action that signifies very little of our internal belief. Witness the friend at a godchild's baptism, or the in-laws at your Protestant wedding. Everyones' faith, religion, or lack of either, is fundamentally internal. And so we're -- at best -- throwing darts at the board blindfolded, not knowing what exactly we're trying to discuss, and certainly not knowing where to vault our prognostications.

I know that we've spent a good bit of ink on the (seemingly) rather simple question of whether or not it is a good idea to throw Christianity, Islam, and Judaism together into one grand label. But as the continuing debate illustrates, the question may not be answered so simply as it is posed.

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