Who speaks for religion?

Usually we know where to look for answers. You know where to go for the weather forecast, and who to call when your car won’t start. If you need to find something more esoteric–who fought the War of the Spanish Succession, or what is the main export of Bangladesh–there’s always Wikipedia.

What about religion? How do we get answers?

I am not talking about the unknowables–like where we go when we die. I mean more straightforward matters of doctrine or interpretation. There is no shortage of important questions about religion: what exactly is jihad, is yoga a Hindu practice, does Jesus really hate liberals, and so on. Lots of people will weigh in on these questions–but who should we actually believe?

Holy men and women: most religion is organized in hierarchies of authority. The world’s religions are populated by a constellation of priests, patriarchs, monks, imams, wise women and gurus. These would seem like the first and last stop in our quest for answers. But not all leaders are the same. For one thing, there is the question of who gives religious leaders their authority. Even within Christianity, there are many ways of understanding the authority of church leaders, ranging from the often-misunderstood concept of papal infalibility to the idea that the Holy Spirit speaks through the community of believers. Religious leaders are often expected act as custodians of the faith–as leaders of a community, and keepers of its traditions. However, this is not always the case, because learning and knowledge are not the only paths to spiritual achievement. If the path to holiness takes you through mysticism or meditation, it may not necessarily prepare you to answer questions of doctrine.

Holy books: argue any point of Christian doctrine, and sooner or later someone is likely to ask “where in the Bible does it say that?” This sort of question makes sense for the big three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam–known together as “religions of the book.” Each of these three faiths views their holy text as the word of God, which is why they treat even the physical book as a holy object. Some other religions also attribute divine authorship to their texts, but don’t necessarily take the divinity of the text as a point of doctrine: some in the Hindu tradition treat the Vedas as sacred, others do not. Some religions treat their texts as a definitive code of teaching and history–rather like the American Constitution–but stop short of saying that the text is divinely inspired. And scriptural authority can be trumped, especially when “new” ancient texts are discovered. Mormons believe that their holy book continues and completes the story of the Bible, and that it was purposely left by an angel to be physically uncovered by Joseph Smith centuries later. Tibetan Buddhism has a similar tradition of “found scriptures,” including the expectation that texts will continue to be revealed as mankind advances in wisdom.

Government: among much else, religion is a legal category. A group that is legally recognized as a religion gains unique rights and responsibilities. In the US, religions don’t pay taxes, religious confession cannot be compelled as evidence, and certain acts of religious custom are protected by law. Of course, this all means that governments will have to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate religion. This isn’t always a straightforward decision, and governments may see things very differently from each other. The US recognizes Scientology as a religion, whereas France considers it a cult.

Governments sometimes even have to rule on matters of doctrine. During the late 1990s, a public cemetery in Boca Raton, Florida tried to stop people from placing statues, fences and mementos around the graves of family members. The families said that the ornaments were religious expression, which the cemetery was required to respect. The cemetery countered that decorating graves was merely a custom, and not compulsory to the exercise of religion. Who settled the issue? The US District Court of Southern Florida. Each side called its own list of experts, but in the end, it was up to a secular judge to decide. Other countries face these problems on more weighty issues–such as the brewing debate in Egypt over whether female circumcision, an act which is formally outlawed, is actually required of Muslim women.

Scholars: A very different kind of authority comes from scholarship. Professional scholars gain their expertise as outsiders. Even if they are believers, scholars gain their credentials from universities, rather than churches. As outsiders, scholars are supposed to see things that may not be of interest to the faithful themselves: they read texts that are no longer used, learn languages that are no longer spoken, and view religion from an informed but dispassionate perspective.

Sometimes religious and scholarly perspectives clash. Some within the Hindu community have been deeply critical of scholars such as Wendy Doniger, an Indologist at the University of Chicago, who used modern psychoanalytic theory to examine Sanskritic religious texts. But the two perspectives do not have to be antagonistic. Many of those who teach in Departments of Religion are dual credentialed–ordained priests (for instance) with academic doctorates. In the best cases, these scholars can bring both perspectives to bear. The Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki was both a Buddhist practitioner and an academic in Buddhist studies–he combined the personal experience of Zen with formal training in classical Buddhist languages such as Sanskrit and Pali. Not everyone will agree with Suzuki’s interpretation of Zen, but we are richer for having had such an eloquent spokesman.

The faithful: But what if you don’t believe any of these people? You can always trust yourself–or more precisely, the ability of the divine to speak directly to your heart. Historically, many people have done just that–relied on personal experience and inspiration as the most true and pure form of religious authority. Often times these movements are motivated by mistrust of the clergy. The Protestant Reformation was a response to the venality of the medieval Catholic Church, which had grown wealthy and deeply corrupt. Protestant faithful elected to skip the Church entirely, and focus on a simple spiritualism, in which God would reveal Himself directly to sincere, prayerful communities of believers. Chinese Mahayana Buddhists embraced a similar idea a few centuries earlier, and for similar reasons. Japanese folk Buddhists even came up with the idea that the monks understood an inferior truth. The true teaching of the Buddha was communicated only to the faithful. In a way, this rejection of organized churches is not so very different from those people today who insist that they are spiritual, but not religious. What they mean is that they are open to the unmediated beauty and mystery of spirituality, but reject the ability of any religious institution to open that door.

So the answer is that there are many types of religious authority, and that no single authority trumps all others. This may be disappointing, but should not be surprising, since religion is itself such a remarkably diverse phenomenon. Even within the Western traditions, we can find all forms of religious community, knowledge, belief and authority. Look outside these traditions, and the complexity increases a hundredfold. The sheer immensity and diversity of religion is why I can’t take seriously blanket statements about religion always being good or bad, liberating or oppressive, delusional or logical. As a historian, I do see a great deal to dislike about religion. We don’t have to look far to see self-appointed spokesmen showing religion in its most hateful, ignorant and bigoted forms. But whatever authority these people claim for themselves, they should not blind us to the beauty, meaning and joy that religion has brought to countless lives. You don’t have to believe, but if you look at religion and only see one thing, I’m afraid that you’re missing most of the picture.