Nothing Has Nothing to Do With Religion

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

-Romans 12:2

When is it appropriate for our minds to start processing a tragedy, even as our hearts still grieve it? I’m sad for those who love those killed in Orlando last month, for those wounded and traumatized, for a city terrified, for the LGBT community feeling targeted, for the Muslim community receiving threats.

I’m also thinking about how we got here, and whether anything in our national mindset leaves us particularly vulnerable to reading these headlines over and over again. It is beyond us to exterminate evil; yet, we can actually change ourselves, our communities, and our larger society.Hours after the Orlando attack, a news story carried a quote from someone close to Omar Mateen that I believe we should reconsider: “This had nothing to do with religion.” That morning, I didn’t know whether Mateen was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Atheist, but I worry that the well-intentioned, well-worn sentiment (often meant to keep hate from begetting hate) is leading us astray.

Mateen could have killed those 49 victims from a “Christian” religious framework–I would quickly add, “not my Christian framework,” but some sort of Christian understanding or misunderstanding. As it turns out, he wanted to be associated with the so-called Islamic State–many Muslims would quickly add, “not my Islam,” and rightly so. Nonetheless, Mateen still made decisions in the inescapable (if confused) context of a religious framework: An understanding of what life is, why we live it, where we go, who can judge us, how to succeed, what matters, etc. This would be true even if Mateen were the only adherent to an idiosyncratic religious understanding, though I suspect he’s found a group of kindred spirits in ISIS.

Is there really anything that has nothing to do with religion? I think George Lindbeck, an influential Yale theologian, would say “no.” His book The Nature of Doctrine deeply influenced my understanding of how religion works in society; it convinced me that religion–“worldview,” perhaps, because we’re talking about atheism and agnosticism too–is as much unconscious as conscious. Religion effects us on every level, and different religious understandings effect us differently. As Lindbeck says,

Adherents of different religions do not diversely thematize the same experience; rather they have different experiences. Buddhist compassion, Christian love and—if I may cite a quasi-religious phenomenon—French Revolutionary fraternité are not diverse modifications of a single fundamental human awareness, emotion, attitude, or sentiment, but are radically (i.e., from the root) distinct ways of experiencing and being oriented toward self, neighbor, and cosmos.

-George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, p.40

Nothing has nothing to do with religion. You might think bacon has nothing to do with religion, but only if your religion is not Islam or Judaism. You might think surgery has nothing to do with religion, but only if your religion is not Christian Science of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Go to Mumbai and try denying that lunch (veg vs. non-veg), makeup (bindi vs no bindi), and walking down the street (dodging countless parades and processions) have to do with religion. Go to Kyoto and try denying that parks (that is, temples and shrines), foodie destinations (shojin ryori), and visiting relatives (bringing oranges for the butsadan?) have to do with religion. If you think something has nothing to do with religion, it’s because your religion considers it insignificant. Even in this way, nothing has nothing to do with religion.

Here, I think I should clarify: I’m not saying, “This is why people should follow Christ and not Muhammad.” I’m well aware the consequentialist argument could be turned against Christians or Atheists. What Lindbeck shows us is that not only do Hindus and Atheists (for example) understand the world in fundamentally different ways, so do Sunnis and Shiites, so might the members of First Baptist Church and Second Baptist Church of Mayberry, USA. What I’m saying is, “This is why what we believe matters.”

Rest assured, we can maintain a commitment to embrace those with whom we disagree and by whom we are troubled, even while differentiating between beliefs and judging between actions. That’s the central argument of Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace:

I want to address this question now by making a distinction between differentiation and exclusion, which in turn will lead to a distinction between exclusion and judgment, and then suggesting a profile of a self capable of making non exclusionary judgments. Such non exclusionary judgments passed by persons willing to embrace the other are what is needed to fight exclusion successfully.

-Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embracep.65

In fact, we must differentiate between better and worse beliefs, judge between better and worse actions, if we are to commit ourselves to what is good. Only by understanding what is loving and unloving can we love. We need to maintain the right–the responsibility!–of non exclusionary judgment. Volf continues:

I do not reject exclusion because of a contingent preference for a certain kind of society, say the one in which people are ‘able to work out their private salvations, create their private self-images, reweave their webs of belief and desire in the light of whatever new people and books they happen to encounter” (Rorty 1989, 85). I reject exclusion because the prophets, evangelists, and apostles tell me that this is a wrong way to treat human beings, any human being, anywhere, and I am persuaded to have good reasons to believe them.

-Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embracep.68

I believe that this is why Romans 12 (long before Lindbeck, Volf, or yours truly) calls us to “be transformed by the renewal of our minds.” If what the prophets, evangelists, and apostles really teach really renewed our minds, we would not shoot people, not hate people, not exclude people, not nurse a grudge, not take revenge. We would try to discern and live by the will of God, “what is good and acceptable and perfect,” and we would lovingly tell others about the truths that have transformed us.


My point is not that Atheism or Islam is “the problem.” My point is that our mistaken beliefs–including our mistaken religious beliefs, including our mistaken “Christian” beliefs–keep us from living as we were meant to live. We are all in desperate need of change: Not a change from commitments to relativism but rather a change from who we are to who Christ would have us be, who Christ Himself is, in deed, word, and thought. Beliefs matter, ours and others’. This we must not forget.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

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