Friday, June 08, 2007

Reflections on orthodoxy 2

wear the same hat, and half the battle's over

As I’ve written, the guild mentality was a product of literacy. Though literacy was first confined largely to practical documentation, its spread to the development of abstract texts had a huge impact on religion in those regions in which the spread occurred. Literacy being confined to a small elite, it follows that its use in religious contexts would’ve been jealously guarded by the religious elements of that elite. These elements, Boyer claims, naturally began to claim the status of specialists, forming guild-like associations to maintain control over rituals, festivities and moral prescriptions and prohibitions. Guilds are formed to standardize goods and services, usually for mercantile reasons, to protect themselves against rogue trading. Not too difficult to see where this is going in terms of religion, in which the ‘rogue traders’ are the dealers in the ‘falsely’ supernatural’. Heretics, in other words. Once a strictly defined orthodoxy is established for the religious guild, heresy also can be more precisely defined, and punishments standardized.

Boyer notes that there is one significant difference between religious associations and guilds of craftspeople or other specialists, and that is that the religious specialist is in a much more vulnerable position than, say, the physician. Not everyone can develop the skill or expertise to become a physician. It requires years of study or training. However, to be an expert in the spiritual realm is a bit different, especially as the spiritual realm is by its nature vague and difficult to circumscribe and codify. In a sense, priests, shamans and the like are competing in a market to provide spiritual comfort. One marketing strategy is to manufacture a branded product, like Coca-Cola or the Catholic Church, more or less the same world-wide, with slight alterations of colour and flavour here and there to suit regional tastes. The major difference, of course, between Catholicism and Coke is that, although Coca-Cola perhaps sincerely believes its drink to be superior to others, it doesn’t seriously believe that every other drink is a form of poison.

One of the ways that a literate religious guild will try to debar forms of spiritual enlightenment other than those processed by the guild is though the sacred text. A sacred text can be promoted as ‘the first and final word of god’ and can be used to integrate various rites and practices into a [superficially] coherent belief system. The greater storage and retrieval systems of literate societies can also make religious ritual more complicated and thus apparently authentic, a bit like being blinded by science.

All this isn’t to say that the more abstract, general and codified religious observances that go with the literacy which emerges from complex societies simply supersede localized religious praxis. The picture is always more complex; old faiths and their attached rituals die hard, and are often incorporated into new faiths, creating hybrids and distortions, much to the annoyance of the purveyors of orthodoxy. The problem is one of relevance. The adoption of Christianity might be politic for various reasons but local spirits and ancestors are more familiar, reliable and relevant in regions connected by local and ancestral ties.

There also appears to be an oscillation between different modes of religious acquisition and practice, which meet different needs. The anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has distinguished between the imagistic mode and the doctrinal mode, with the former being high on drama and impact, with incoherent elements which often serve only to heighten the attention. Institutionalised religions naturally tend to promote doctrinal modes and to discourage too much of the imagistic, but such containment is never entirely successful, as the purveyors of orthodox doctrine have to deal not with objects to be programmed, but people with vivid imaginations and a need to express their faith in their own way.

The frustration of the purveyors of orthodoxy is perhaps understandable, but why must they go to such lengths to keep people in line, and why the need to maintain the faith against infidels, to such a murderous degree? I’ll look at Boyer’s take on that next time.

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