Religion as Societal Parasite?

Religion has an important role in society. Emile DurkheimImage result for parasite among others have recognized that one of the roles of religion in a society is to safeguard it. It provides the support and underpinnings of a culture’s worldview. As such, it provides the norms for behavior as well as interpretation of experience. In a sense then it is true that religion does provide a conservative force preventing change. However, hopefully, it does not simply prevent change or idealize the past or present, but identifies principles that center our behavior. Religion commonly takes on the role of arbiter of change and conflict.

Therefore, at its best, religion is a benefactor to society. This role as benefactor may change in a multi-cultural, multi-religious setting… but the role doesn’t disappear.

Consider, however, another scenario. This was referred to by Alan Tippett in his book, “Missiology” (in Chapter 14).

“In passing, however, I may suggest that even in our modern society, if religion today seems to have become dispensable, it is probably because the Church has come dangerously near to forgetting its responsibility to society and has concerned itself too much with its own survival. It is just as this corresponding point of time, when the witchdoctors turn from being social “benefeactors” to being social “parasites” that the populace of animist societies turn to Christianity.”  (Tippet, 161)

Consider the story of the Longhouse Religion of the Iroquois. It has been suggested that part of the growth of this religion, based on the revelations of their prophet Handsome Lake, came as a revitalization movement. The former religion was polytheistic and led by shamans, and supported the worldview and values of the people. However, around the time of Handsome Lake, the people were inundated by vices from European settlers and pushed back economically, and militarily. As such, they were under great cultural stress. However, the political and religious leaders of the Iroquois, the supposed benefactors of their society had become corrupt, given into the vices that were destroying the people, and now had a parasitic role in the society. The Longhouse Religion came as a revitalization movement but also as a conversion movement. It was a monotheistic movement and supported a strongly ethical standard for the people. Despite the differences from the previous faith, it in many ways better supported the Iroquois’ self-understanding and values than the previous faith. It took on the role of being a benefactor to the people rather than a parasite.

Ezekiel 34 speaks of a similar thing where the “shepherds” of Israel, both political and religious had taken on a parasitic role in society.   I would recommend reading the whole passage, but I will put here the first 10 verses:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and say to them: This is what the Lord God says to the shepherds: Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed their flock? You eat the fat, wear the wool, and butcher the fattened animals, but you do not tend the flock. You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost. Instead, you have ruled them with violence and cruelty. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd; they became food for all the wild animals when they were scattered. My flock went astray on all the mountains and every high hill. They were scattered over the whole face of the earth, and there was no one searching or seeking for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. As I live”—the declaration of the Lord God—“because My flock has become prey and food for every wild animal since they lack a shepherd, for My shepherds do not search for My flock, and because the shepherds feed themselves rather than My flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord!

10 “This is what the Lord God says: Look, I am against the shepherds. I will demand My flock from them and prevent them from shepherding the flock. The shepherds will no longer feed themselves, for I will rescue My flock from their mouths so that they will not be food for them.

Today, we see religion in many forms. We see it providing group identity and supporting high values that are to be attained to. As such we see religion still being a benefactor. But we also see religion corrupted by power, coercive, and self-serving. Rather than step on toes and point out places and ways religion (very much including Christianity among the other faiths) has often moved from being a benefactor to being a parasite, I would just suggest the following question:

If the church is worried about losing influence in society, it is better to ask the question of whether it is being seen as a hoarder of human blessings (wealth, power, etc.) or a channel of God’s blessings.

 

Fulfilling Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book that has become a seminary classic: “Christ and Culture.” Actually, it was a series of lectures that were compiled into a book. Niebuhr suggested five major philosophies or categories as to how Christ can interact with human Culture. The five are:

  1. Christ Against Culture
  2. Christ Of Culture
  3. Christ Above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ the Transformer of Culture.

<If you want to read a VERY BRIEF description of each category one can go to an article in Focus on the Family HERE. The first half of the article is beneficial. The second half was a waste of time as the article writer feels the need to demean Niebuhr as a “liberal.” Apparently, because he is liberal, he should not be trusted, while D. A. Carson (who is less liberal) is more trustworthy. I have trouble with this. First, trusting a person because of how closely he conforms to your preconceived opinions is a dangerous road to go down. As a second point, Niebuhr’s categories are a framework. As such, they are useful or not useful, rather than true or false. Judging a framework on who established it is kind of foolish if you get right down to it.>

I find the categories rather useful. I think that the first two categories (Christ Against Culture, and Christ Of Culture) are simply wrong. However, the remaining three have potential value. So I am adding another expression here with a bit of caution. But here it is:

Christ Fulfilling Culture

This one is not distinctly different from one or more of the latter three categories. Rather, I like this expression because it gives a better image of what I think Christ’s role is in terms of culture. To me Christ Transforming Culture is a good descriptor of Christ as one who takes what exists and makes it better, but does tend to focus more on the role of changing what is bad over the role of preserving what is good. Christ and Culture in Paradox is good and I think it fits well as a term with Bevan’s description of countercultural theological contextualization. However, the expression focuses on conflict… and that is a bit too simplistic. Christ Above Culture is good in that it makes clear that Christ and Culture are not equal— Christ has priority. However, in every other way, the term is unclear.

I prefer the expression “Christ Fulfilling Culture.” It suggests the idea that in Christ the work started in culture is completed in Christ… or that in Christ culture can become what it was meant to be, rather than what it is. Culture is generally (but not universally) understood to develop organically to meet the needs of a group as well as the individual members of that group. Culture guides behaviors and interpretations so that people can meet their holistic needs (physical, psycho-emotional, social, and spiritual) within a society as well as to attain human potential/flourishing. As such, culture IS because culture seeks to be good. However, culture always falls short of its lofty goals. Culture always ultimately fails to satisfy completely the felt and real needs of the group— because it is a construct of flawed humans in a flawed world. Christ, then, fulfills or satisfies what was dissatisfying in a culture.

Consider a couple of stories that point me in this direction.

Story #1. I was talking to one of my students who is of the Kachin people. The Kachin people are a group of tribes in Northern Myanmar, and parts of China and India. He was describing the beliefs of his forefathers. He noted that the Kachin people believed in one supreme creator god. They believed in the fallenness of man. They believed that God had given a message to the people but that message was lost. They believed in the need for sacrifice for reconciliation with God. When Christian evangelists came from the Karen tribe to their people, large numbers responded. However, many of them did not see themselves as leaving the religion of their ancestors. Rather they saw the Christian faith as fulfilling or completing the religion they already had. They now had the message they lost, and the completion of the sacrifices, through Christ.

Story #2. Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, was a major event where an important issue was decided. Do Greeks have to become Jews to become Christians? The end result of the council was “NO.” Christ’s message is relevant to Greeks in the same way it is relevant to Jews. Christ fulfills the Jewish Religion and Culture, and Christ fulfills the Greek Religion and Culture. As such, Christians may behave considerably different in many key ways and still be understood as living according to the will of God. In the end, I feel that fulfill best expresses this.