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22 April 2011

Reinventing the Wheel and Unfolding Maps

David Brooks came dangerously close to becoming a sociologist of religion this week!
Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.
I'm not so sure his term "theologically rigorous" accurately defines what he means. I think he actually means sectarian or strict which is rarely about systematic theology. Mainline Protestantism is in decline because it doesn't demand much of anything from its adherents, but it is the height of theological rigor; Evangelical Protestantism is in ascendancy because it does make serious demands, but it largely lacks an organized theology.
Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.
I really like this analogy of maps. Maps are by definition a dumbing-down of the real world. We cannot contemplate the complexity of the actual terrain so we need a simple tool to help us navigate it. Religion serves a similar purpose. Religious texts do an especially good job in this regard. They are a way to make the transcendent and complex immediate and comprehensible--which makes literalist interpretation all the more angering.

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