The Rejoicing and the Torment of Religion

All-too-often these days we hear about the rise of doubt and the loss of certainty with regard to religious faith; the rise of angst and the loss of confidence; the rise of sorrow and the loss of joy; the rise of suffering and the loss of innocence; the rise of the ‘nones’—or the ‘nons,’ whichever you prefer—and the loss of believers. The trend in America has (relatively recently) finally begun to align itself with that which has characterized Europe for nearly a century—i.e., the pews are less and less full, and religious communities are doing better and better at failing to hold sway in the hearts, minds, and souls of their saints and sinners. With virtually every report comes some speculation or explanation for the decline, but what becomes quickly apparent is that almost no one really knows what’s going on or how to bring about a stable long-term course correction.

But, what if these developments are indicative of a fundamental confusion about religion itself? What if religion isn’t about what so many have so often presumed it to be? What if, for example, religion is not about belief? What if religion isn’t about truth-claims? What if religion isn’t about the sort of truth-telling that provides information about actual/factual/historical states of affairs? What if religion isn’t about the existence of an all-powerful creator, the creation of a universe, or the control of a planet? What if religion isn’t about the existence of a supreme being? What if religion isn’t about the absolute origin of things—the primordial beginnings of the universe that took place in some remote corner of the cosmos? What if religion isn’t about the final destination of things—the absolute end game that will take place in some far away, transcendent, unseen place? What if, instead, religion is about this time, this place, this people . . . here, now, together? What if religion is about renewing, recovering, reviving, and reforming? What if religion is about the making of persons, and not of worlds? What religion is about intimate loving relationships, bringing persons in close proximity to one another? What if religion is ultimately dependent on me, us, human beings and not other-worldly demonic or heavenly beings? What if what matters most in religion is right here, right now, this world, the present, that which is entirely imminent?

In his extremely provocative essay, Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Bruno Latour invites his readers to risk a radical reconsideration of religion with him. For those familiar with Latour’s work, they will immediately recognize that Rejoicing weaves together themes addressed in several essays written previously, but this isn’t a mere rehash of old arguments or a thoughtless cutting and pasting together of old ideas. To be sure, he heavily draws upon his previous work, but he weaves it together in an original and masterful way. The result is a reflection that is both ingenious and infuriating at once—ingenious because it illuminates something highly intriguing about religion; infuriating because it illuminates something enormously disappointing about religion. It is thus a polarizing work that, if taken seriously (and I think it should be), is sure to simultaneously satisfy and scandalize the reader.

Latour is entirely self-aware that there’s no good way to say what he wants to say. Over and over again he expresses his discomfort with his approach to thinking and speaking about religion, and acknowledges that he doesn’t know how to avoid shocking, offending, or wounding both insiders and outsiders, both believers and non-believers. He says that “he doesn’t want to scandalize either those who hold on to belief in belief in ‘God’ as their most precious good, or those who preserve believe in non-belief in ‘God’ as their most sacred right,” but he knows that this is ultimately an impossible, since the two sides “are at loggerheads: what satisfies one camp will necessarily shock the other.”[4]

First difficulty: a lack of credibility. Latour explains that he is neither a believer nor a non-believer, and in fact a significant part of his little project is exploring the possibility that religion is not about belief at all. He thinks religion typically goes off the rails before it even gets out of the station because of its belief in belief. It’s not about “believing in something, in someone, in the unnameable, the unprofferable G.”[3] When talking about these things, he asserts that “belief in G. makes no difference,” and that starting with belief “actually entails mixing up categories, misdirecting ideas, committing an error of syntax, a blurring of genres.”[3] In matters of religion, he continues, “belief in G. is absolutely not involved and, so, cannot define any kind of boundary between believers and non-believers, the faithful and the infidels.”[3] More on this in a moment, but surely this will cause the majority of his readers to hop off the train even before the first whistle blows.

Second difficulty: an aversion to God-talk. Whereas in ancient times ‘God’ was viewed as the “indisputable framework of ordinary existence,” inasmuch as ‘God’ provided the primal foundation of ultimate meaning, value, and worth, today the “common fabric of our lives, our primary material, our ordinary fare, is the non-existence of gods sensitive to prayer and ruling over destinies.”[5] So far as Latour is concerned though, one won’t do any better in dealing with the topic of religion by “starting from the existence of G. than starting from the non-existence of G. It makes no difference, since that’s not what it’s about—at least, not in that way, not within that tonal range, not in that spirit.”[5] Let there be no doubt, he is filled with religious faith, indeed he cannot escape it and wants to see it thrive again, but he isn’t able to utter the invocation, “Thou, O ‘my God’, hear my prayer.” “What a lie that would be, what a piece of fraud, for I would then lose those who haven’t followed me into the nave, those who’d laugh at me, those who believe I believe, that I invoke and pray.”[11] God-talk is thus neither the first nor the last order of business in religious discourse. How many readers has he lost now?

Third difficulty: a confusion of grammars. Here we come to one of the central insights of the text. For many, science has provided the paradigm for what it means to know and understand anything in the world. Scientific inquiry, it is often assumed, provides the surest (and some have argued only) source of truth about how the world works—from planets to particles. “Computer-assisted design, movie special effects, taxi GPS screens offering computerized map-reading have familiarized us all with” how relationships remain intact through a long chain of intermediary transformations that take place along the route from point A to point B. “The form is always different, but something—constants—survives all such distortions.”[19] From Curiosity’s reach into the soil of Mars all the way to the computer screens at NASA, there are countless intermediary steps that carry information from one end to the other. Or, from the satellite images to the production of the map imagery to the projection of any place on the planet on the screens of millions of smart phones, once again there are innumerable chains of reference that enable one to find their way in the world without the worry of getting lost. “Thanks to this kind of series of [images], it becomes possible to know, to master; we dominate by sight, we embrace by eye; we begin to articulate verifiable utterances about the world since we can say whether a sentence is true or false.”[20] Through the traversal of these steps or chains or mediations, scientific information—i.e., truth—is produced.

Is this how religion works? No, and this is where the confusion comes from. It’s also the primary source of the so-called conflict between science and religion. “We might as well admit it straight away,” asserts Latour, “there is no information in matters of religion, no maintenance of constants, no transfers of relationships intact through the stream of transformations. And sadly, no knowledge of the kind the humblest map provides, no science, no reference, no access, no mastery, no control, nothing we can dominate by sight.” In other words, “the connection between a religious text and the things it talks about is not the same as the connection between a map and its territory.”[20] Sacred texts don’t “provide access to anything whatever; they do not form the first link in a chain of reference that would, in the end, if all the links hold firm, allows us to find ourselves on familiar turf, to have seen in advance what we were dealing with.”[20-1] The remarkable success of science has led many to reach beyond its boundaries and attempt to use the resources of religious thinking to perform the same sorts of tasks—namely provide logically valid or empirically verifiable information about, e.g., the existence of ‘God,’ the reality of the resurrection, the historical authenticity of this or that miracle, etc. The problem, of course, is that it isn’t designed to do that sort of work, so such efforts have failed time and time again, and Latour maintains that this endeavor is entirely misguided because it fundamentally misunderstands what religion is about.

If you want to know what religious speech is about, rather than looking to science, it would be much better to look to the phenomenon of love-talk. Imagine two lovers deeply enjoying themselves in a romantic setting, holding one another, and one turns to the other and asks, “Do you love me?” What if the reply was, “Yes, but you already know that, I told you so last year.” Although an affirmative answer was given, it is immediately apparent that the answer is in fact a negative one. Part of the problem is that the respondent took “the request for love as a request for information, as though he’d decide to carve out a path through space-time and, through the intermediary of a document, a map, to return to the distant territory of the day he officially declared his love.”’[25] The request, however, was not for some sort of empirical/experimental evidence for his state of mind, or information about how he felt once upon a time, but whether he loves her at this particular moment.

Conversely, what if the reply was, “I love you now more than I ever have.”? Few statements could be more mundane and commonplace, and yet so enormously transformative and impactful. ‘I love you.’ “Those words, heard a thousand times, which we’d become accustomed to, and which distanced us from each other, suddenly ring out afresh as though for the first time, to the point of feeling new to us, even though all they do is repeat the same never-ending refrain.”[48] What sort of information has been imparted? Absolutely none. What chains of mediation transferred data from point A to point B? None. “No information is conveyed by the sentence,” says Latour, “and yet she, the woman who loves, feels transported, transformed, slightly shaken up, changed, rearranged, or not, or the opposite, alienated, flattened, forgotten, mothballed, humiliated.”[26] Love-talk is thus about the production and transformation of relationships—closeness and distance, presence and absence, unity and disharmony, not veridical truth-claims.

Latour’s basic claim is that religious speech is a whole lot like love-talk and not at all like scientific inquiry. Religious speech “does not distil information through a chain of graduated documents, each of which serves as material for formatting the next one.”[28] It doesn’t provide any special access to that which is far away, distant, or transcendent. “You don’t go anywhere with them you don’t travel anywhere by taking the vehicle, the intermediary, of religious utterances, words, texts, rituals.”[28] Religion doesn’t transport you anywhere, because there simply is no other where to go. All-too-often it has been assumed that science is about the immediately present, the directly visible, the basely material, while religion is about that which is cannot be seen, the far away, the distant, the transcendent, the spiritual, the other-worldly, etc. Latour, however, thinks this is exactly backwards, so he turns the common conceptions right on their heads. For example, what could be less directly visible than the sub-atomic particle? What could be any more distant than the remote star billions of light years away? Perhaps it’s science that is about the hidden and the far away.

One the other hand, what could be any more present and visible than the transformation that takes place in the moment of conversion. When angels show up, “they do not convey messages; they change those they address. What they transfer is not an information content, but a new container. They don’t bring maps offering some hold to beings starved of knowledge—they transform their interlocutors. What they convey are not telegrams but persons.”[32] Religious speech is thus about changing human beings at a soul-deep level, not revealing “secrets superior to the secrets of the sciences, to loftier mysteries, more exalted spiritualities, less indecipherable gnoses.”[32] The terrible disappointment of Latour’s view, then, is that it says, “Religion leads nowhere.” It stands in stark contrast the various sociological “explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill the world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full.”[33] Religion thus leaves you right where you stand, here, now, in the present . . . in-formed, re-formed, and trans-formed by its message, its word, the way that the love of lovers renews, deepens, and widens with each tender expression.

Part of what it means to be tormented by religion is to want it to give what it cannot give, to desire that it do what it cannot do, to hope that it will be something it cannot be. How is one to continue to participate after it has become a profound disappointment, after it has elicited frustration and anger, after it has caused deep doubt and sadness, after it has scandalized one’s soul? One response is to try and spruce it up as much as possible, “to tidy the whole mess up, clean out the Augean stables, get rid of the most offensive rags, the most compromising anecdotes, the most kitsch hymns, in short, like rag-and-bone merchants in a garbage dump, sort out what can still be salvaged.”[60] When one is experiencing extreme exasperation the temptation is thus to purify one’s religion, whereby the whole set of religious rituals and beliefs are “reduced to a restrained body of solid and truthful, clean and certified elements, and let the rest be tossed onto the purifying fire!”[61] The difficulty, of course, is figuring out precisely what’s pure, what should be kept and what ought to be discarded, because almost everything can be deemed expendable if scrutinized closely enough.

Perhaps, on the other hand, a purification through standardization or correlation might make it possible “to define a common core, the lowest common denominator of religions, something so bland and so versatile that it could be spread throughout the world without shocking anyone.”[62] Here the Divine might be conceived in terms of a ‘moral ideal’, a ‘feeling of absolute dependence’, or a ‘richer inner life’. No, says Latour, “What a lot of poppycock that ‘God’ is!”[62] Such a cleansing process would leave nothing “that would allow us to address ourselves in words that bring life to someone who, on hearing them, would find themselves transformed.”[62] Such a reduction to a lowest common denominator, “ripped from the specificity of time and place, is no longer address to me, right here, right now, but to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Yes, this is indeed the anti-Pentecost.”[62] In the effort to preserve something of the purest elements of religious understanding and experience, everything has been lost. “As always, ‘purity is indeed the vitriol of the soul’, the supreme temptation that must be resisted.”[63]

What then is the solution? Latour reviews several common responses—e.g., rationalizing, mysteryizing, demythologizing, symbolizing, and aestheticizing—and concludes that they are all deeply deficient. Instead, he wants an approach that leaves everything intact, but allows for a radical revival and renewal. “If we have to revive the word once more, that means reviving everything, saving everything, clarifying everything, renewing everything, without abandoning a single sheep along the way; not a single bit of piety will be lost, not one vapid remark, religious trinket, holy souvenir, churchy knick-knack. I want to salvage all the treasure I was promised as my inheritance, for it to be mine for keeps—and for me to be proud of it.”[63] Like the lovers whose relationship is shaped and marked by its unexpected twists and turns, including its joys and sorrows, this means that the language of religion can be spoken truthfully only by fully confronting “the rough bits, the deformations, the stitches, the dissimilarities . . . all that makes them inappropriate for normal information consumption, unfit for any literal reading, dangerous for any form of aesthetic digestion, incomprehensible for any ‘communicator’”[106] Religion renews and revives not by avoiding its rough edges, cracks, weaknesses, dissonances, and complexities, but precisely by facing, accepting, and revealing them in faithful ways.

Finally, once one has recognized that religion is about transformation, renewal, and revival, what does this mean for thinking constructively or positively—e.g., trying to make sense of how a certain “class of beings change according to how they are addressed.”[120] How does one properly go about engaging in what is typically referred to as theological reflection? He doesn’t think there is one right way of speaking, but any attempt to do so will be extremely delicate and fragile. “The smallest thing, the slightest puff of air, the tiniest time lag, and suddenly it means nothing anymore. Which is only natural, since it seeks to save definitively—temporarily—the person it addresses through words that do what they say.”[121] Latour hovers in the interstices between belief and non-belief, and is “terrified of proffering the name of the unpronounceable G.,”[120] precisely because the vocabulary of his religious speech—‘God’, ‘Word’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Church’, ‘Gospel—ultimately represents a way of talking, and not independently existing realities. In other words, “G. is just a manner of speaking; Jesus is just the word of G.; the Spirit is just a way of restating.”[133] He admits that such a claim verges on blaspheme, and yet he wants to affirm something profoundly significant about them by radically relativizing them, by bringing them fully into the present, by rendering them entirely imminent.

In order to do this, he is completely convinced that a crucial choice must be made:

This is where we have to choose the type of reality, realism, objectivity, historicity that we want to revive: either the realistic but absent presence of a substance remote from us in time and space, rendered forever incomprehensible to our ears, insensitive to passing time, to the exactingness of the ego . . . ; or the real presence of a word restated in these times and this place, and which depends entirely on current conditions of utterance. In the one case, time passes in vain, in vain do human beings speak; in the other . . . everything depends on human beings, time makes and breaks, proves and falsifies, presents and ruins. In the one case, there is no more relationship, no contemplation, or care; in the other there are scruples, revival, and attachment.[134-35]

Latour opts for that which produces the deepest transformations and most lasting relations in the present and the presence of the divine.

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