Friday, August 8, 2008

The Function of Religion

Recently I came across an article on a Christian blog critical of Pentecostal Christian churches that makes for interesting reading. While I am no fan of the Pentecostal movement and agree with some of the author's criticisms, what stood out for me was this:

Secondly, Pentecostals really have no love for doctrine. I will admit that the church I grew up in, as a whole denomination, had a firm handle on doctrine. However, my local church was obsessed with the extreme elements of Pentecostalism, like slaying in the Spirit, excessive use of tongues, “deliverances” and stuff like that. I can recite whole sermons where Baptists, Presbyterians, John Piper, John MacArthur and anyone who actually “taught more than actually do something”. And it is not isolated. My father visited hundreds of Pentecostal churches where doctrine is disparaged, nicknamed “religion” and ignored in favour of “experience”.

Essentially, the author contends that a serious problem in Pentecostal Christianity is the possibility of experience trumping doctrine.

But shouldn't it?

The function of a religion is not to lay down a bunch of rules for people to follow in a group. That's the job of society and culture. The function of a religion is not to impart intellectual truths. That's the job of science and philosophy. So what does religion actually do?

The function of a religion is to produce spiritual experiences.

I'm not going to go so far as to defend some of the ridiculous practices found in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. "Speaking in tongues" as practiced in those churches is nonsense and many "faith healers" are total fakes. Here's a hint - in order to heal somebody using a spiritual practice you need to be able to actually direct spiritual energy, not just say "Lord, heal this person in Jesus' name!" and then hit them on the forehead.

On the other hand, the "conversion" or "born again" experience described by a lot of Christians sounds like a genuine spiritual awakening of some sort, which was described as metanoia in the Gospels. One of the things that the Gnostic Christians got right was that metanoia is the key function of the Christian religious system, just like enlightenment is the key function of Buddhism. Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence in neuroscience suggesting that at least at the physical level they are essentially the same experiences.

In Christian doctrine, metanoia (Greek) is translated into paenitentia (Latin) and from there into repentence (English). But the word metanoia literally means a change in one's consciousness or state of mind (meta = change, noia from nous = mind), not some sort of "atonement" as the Latin and English connotations suggest. When Gnosticism was wiped out by the institutional Christian church the real meaning of metanoia was obscured.

For example, I'm of the opinion that that the idea of original sin comes not from the Gospels or even the Bible, but from confusion arising from metanoia's translation into paenitentia. Notably, Saint Augustine spoke Latin, and there is no concept of original sin in Judaism. The idea didn't appear anywhere until the Gospels were translated into Latin.

If doctrine is supposed to trump experience, the doctrine had better be unassailable and frankly the above example strikes me as a rather amateurish mistake by a poor translator - or perhaps one with a specific agenda. It's very useful for an intercessionary organization to convince its followers that they are somehow flawed and desperately need the organization's help to "repent."

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