Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Back in June, I wrote two pieces ( and ) that suggested the reason why religious adherence in the West has declined in recent decades was because Christianity has functioned as an imperial religion for the West and the decline in the West's imperial fortunes in the past eighty years has led to a decline in affiliation with, belief in, and practice of Christianity as an imperial religion.
I think this argument is worth revisiting, and in this post I'd like to do so by trying to define more precisely what counts as an "imperial religion" and what that definition can suggest about why imperial religions decline along with their empires.
To do so, I'll draw on Clifford Geertz's definition of religion. In his essay, "Religion as a Cultural System," Geertz said that a religion is "(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."
Two pieces of this definition are especially relevant: that religion is connected to conceptions of order, and that religion makes those conceptions seem factual or realistic. It is also important to note the broad sense of "symbol" with which Geertz worked. For Geertz, symbols included not only visual symbols (such as a cross or star and crescent), but also language, rituals, stories, pictures, etc.--anything that served to embody and convey meaning.
Empire is critically about a political, social, and economic order, and while empires exercise force to maintain their orders, for the most part, empires operate because people accept that ordering of the world as fact, whether or not they like the ordering. Force is used to keep people in line, but empires do not run on force alone; they are ultimately commonly accepted ideas.
Thus, one might define an imperial religion as one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit. Put another way, imperial religions are those which accept and promote the power structures of empire. Under this definition, part of the meaning of the symbols of an imperial religion is derived from conceptions of the empire. That may not be the entirety of the meaning of those religious symbols, which may also convey other meanings divine and human, but it is nonetheless an important part.
It is this connection between the conceptions of an empire and the meanings of the symbols of an imperial religion that explains why that religion declines as a result of imperial decline.
When an empire goes into decline, the conceptions associated with it become less commonly accepted. People stop believing in the empire and in the way in which it has ordered the world. Again, military defeats, political infighting, economic troubles, cultural change, and the like are important factors in the decline of an empire, but ultimately empires fall because the idea of the empire becomes implausible.
When the idea of an empire becomes implausible, that drains meaning from the symbols of an imperial religion. Because the symbols of that religion derive part of their meaning from ideas about the empire, when those ideas are rejected, those religious symbols lose meaning. And when those symbols lose meaning, then people stop using that religious language, stop participating in those religious rituals, stop telling those stories, etc. In other words, practice, belief, and adherence to the imperial religion declines.
It is possible that an imperial religion may survive the collapse of its empire, but only if the religion contains (or can adopt) enough meaning beyond that which it derived from the imperial order. If there are enough other sources of meaning within a religious tradition, then some people will continue that tradition because of the meaning they find in it independent of empire, even if others lose faith because of the loss of meaning derived from empire.
Religions are likely to contain more forms of meaning if they have been adopted by multiple groups of people with varying relationships to the empire. When new groups of people adopt a religion, they always infuse it with new meanings. Thus, cross-cultural religious traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have continued despite the fall of many empires (even if certain sects or sub-traditions have died out), because they are large enough traditions to contain a variety of meanings appreciated by a variety of groups of people.
Other traditions, such as post-exilic Judaism or post-Persian Zoroastrianism, have been reworked sufficiently after an imperial collapse so that their meaning was no longer centered on a particular socio-political order and could thus continue independent of whatever socio-political order reigned.
This post has looked in very broad terms at imperial religion. Next week, I will look more closely at what this discussion of imperial religion means for 21st century Christianity.