Our general efforts of bridging the gap between our own socio-cultural parameters in research of other faith traditions no doubt has developed its own tradition and its own ethics of interdisciplinarity. It might then be necessary to reflect on the fact that aside from phenomena such as New Age or so-called sectarian fringe groups in society, it is also important to take stock of the course taken by once dominant and normative traditions, notably the Christian churches. In many ways their practices continue to be pervasive to many formative choices in constructing a symbolic imaginary – be that consciously in affirmation or rejection, subconsciously in modi of repression, or pre-consciously, i.e. without a prior awareness that elements adopted within a socio-cultural or political symbolic have had Christian “religious” origins. This is in part what the Critical Religion project is seeking to address.
The bold declaration of a “post-Christian secular” West, as has been elaborated across various fields and disciplines, has changed the influence and public emphasis ascribed to the institution of the Church (I mean this at a conceptual level, where denominational differences merely amount to a diverging implementation of its institutional character). Heralded almost as a revolutionary struggle to destabilise the institution(s) and its (their) insidious hierarchies, secularisation ushered in an era of research in alternative forms of spirituality (itself a crucial buzz-word), that was to displace the institutional, traditional religiosity of a former age. The phrase “I’m not religious, but…”, to my mind, stems from this particular antagonism between a view of traditional Christianity as naive and ritualistic, and the emergence of a popular, deregulated “spiritual search” which aims to find a relationship to “something sacred” in life, free-from disciplinary boundaries, a peculiar form of religious diet. Our postmodern sensibilities thrive on this kind of absolved freedom that does not need to submit to the regulation of the norm, does not have to answer to the need of the many. “I’m not religious, but…” is an idiom that identifies the wish for spiritual liberation without the risk of material relationship. In other words, each to their own!, even if that means rendering personal spirituality in splendid isolation, both from society and the demands of the public, as well as ultimately from an encounter with oneself as another. ‘I positively feel, in my hideous modern way that I can’t get into touch with my mind’ (as Katherine Mansfield wrote in her Journal (ed John Middleton Murray, NY: McGraw-Hill 1964 repr., p82). There is no encounter with an o/Other, only a reflection of one’s own urge of spiritual transcendence into nothingness.
What does and what can a critical view on the Christian tradition reveal standing outside of its institutional hierarchy, if not altogether outside its disciplinary conceptions? The history connecting the two institutions, academy and church, is long, and fraught with its own struggles of independence from theology and divinity faculties. The disciplinary differentiation between, for example, theology and (what has become known as) “religious studies”, was seen to follow the trend implicit in the secularisation of the academy that would posit critical rigour and scientific validation of varying research perspectives into competition with each other. The plurality of methods in the field of religious studies amplifies the problematic (and capitalist) ideological assumptions that become apparent when researching questions of institutional power, so tangible in matters ecclesial. Whereas the former is free to identify its self-interest in the hermeneutical horizon that focalises on the church and aspects of Christian living, faith and doctrine, religious studies, in an attempt to question not only the very assumptions of what constitutes any of these elements in interaction with other socio-political and geo-economic concerns, it also has to reflect on its own validatory methods drawn from a range of fields outwith the parameters of classical theology. Thus, its perspectives often drive at a philosophy, psychology, sociology or anthropology in deconstruction of “religion”, instead of organising and constructing frameworks by which to orientate a religious ethics in view of a Christian conception of divinity.
The emphasis I put onto the ethical dimension of disciplinarity here is crucial to the way I rationalise the critical capacity and impact for research into Christian institutional life in the West at present. Ethics, with its emphasis on right relations, on the means of such relationship and the modalities of their interactions offers a sufficient model for conceptualising interdisciplinary inquiry at the level of the text and its metanarrative discourse. Not by chance did discussions on “secular theology” popularised in the works of, for example, John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God, 1963), Paul Tillich (Theology of Culture, 1964) and Dorothee Sölle (Christ the Representative, 1967) tie themselves to a discussion of the ethics of incarnation, establishing theological enquiry at the intersection between anthropology and sociology on the one hand and the political and ideological impact of the institution of doctrine on the other. Whereas philosophy of religion has paved a way for the inquiry into the role of doctrine, and much has been written within and outside of the theological faculty to consider the psychology of worship, I want to suggest that the route to situating the current state of the churches, as institutions and as instituting bodies to the life of participating believers, can be helpfully illuminated by a focus on liturgy, conceptually and practically. In its multidimensional engagement, liturgy can be understood to intersect with every aspect of Christian living, inside and outside strictly ecclesial spaces (Peter Cornehl offers an argument to this effect in Die Welt ist voll von Liturgie, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005). To be reading liturgy outside of a strictly theological concern, I suggest, not only allows investigation of crossing points between spiritual concern and physical embodiment, between individual participation and collective identity, and between a faithful repetition and innovative response to tradition, conceptualising liturgy also allows for a critical assessment from outside the institution that it perpetuates, and invigorates. Liturgy is an invitation to shift disciplinary emphases.