Religions, Cultures and Powers

Abbie and Jerry at the Denver TWW Meetings
Photo by: John Thatamanil, Professor of Theology and World Religions, Union Theological Seminary

As Jerry and I recover from our everything-that-could-go-wrong-did-go-wrong air travel experience, I’ve been taking this week to assimilate the intensely interesting experiences at the Theology Without Walls meetings in Denver.

My reflections nestled around three questions: What did the TWW meetings (which explored a subfield within the American Academy of Religion) have to do with religion? What did they have to do with culture? Lastly (and here would be the most fashionable question), what did any of it have to do with power?

First, about religion: people who deal with religion professionally (people trained to concern themselves with the divine and what human beings should do about it) are to be found in religion departments of colleges and universities or in divinity schools. They are students, graduates or teachers. Some of them are also clergy. In public universities in the U.S, such people are legally obligated to bracket the question of which religion is true or even truer. They describe. They don’t defend or oppose. In private institutions with a home tradition, religionists might study other perspectives for comparative purposes or to get insights that could conceivably enrich but not contest their home tradition.

By contrast, TWW is about the divine and our relation to it, but not necessarily or exclusively about religions. So it’s not constrained to be neutral or partisan with regard to any particular religion. As a project, it would find itself “at home” wherever the most compelling findings and comprehensive arguments on the topic of ultimacy take it. As a seeker in that project, a person would try to make sense of the evidence and follow out the line of thought that has made sense, even if it carried one beyond one’s preconceived, original thought-boundaries.

If we can admit that the divine – or ultimate – can also be glimpsed or encountered outside the settled boundaries of “religion,” then one’s religious place of origin would be no bar to taking in extra-religious evidence. Accordingly, the fields from which data can relevantly be drawn get vastly expanded. From the natural sciences, such as physics, biology and neuroscience to the “softer” disciplines like psychology, anthropology and history, biography and memoir, literature and the arts – cultures past and present, near and far – the investigative door is now flung wide open. What, if anything, do these lines of inquiry have to show us about ultimate reality? Is pertinent information to be found here? How do we evaluate it? Religions clearly have much to contribute to the open-ended inquiry. In TWW, they are not authorized to prevent it.

Second question: In what ways does culture come into TWW? People will offer different approaches on that one, but to me G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) has a good approach. For that philosopher of history, a culture can be defined, and is shaped, by whatever it takes to be ultimate truth — its absolute. So the background assumptions, the repertoire of gestures, the permissions and prohibitions, the erotic pathways, the grooves dug by admiration and contempt – all these get authorized by whatever the culture takes to be true and unsurpassable. That would function as keystone for the culture’s arch, its ultimate belief on which the subsidiary beliefs depend. History’s story tells of challenges to cultures’ senses of what for each of them is absolute, how they meet their competitors, and whether they surmount challenges (sometimes by incorporating them) or else go under, in those inescapable testing confrontations.

Our present world-wide phenomenon of disparate cultures gaining awareness of each other seems to me quite new — without any precedent in the human story up till now. TWW certainly did not initiate that encircling global awareness. What it can offer is a peaceable way of dealing with these unsettling boundary encounters – its way disciplined by a shared concern for the truth about whatever looks to be divine and/or ultimate. What could be more intellectually and humanly exciting? It’s the great adventure.

Now for our third question: Where does power come into it?  

That’s currently the heavy, heavy one, but I’m gonna give it short shrift, okay? Long ago, in his dialogue on political justice (The Republic), Plato drew a distinction between two kinds of power that still seems to me spot on. It’s the difference between brute power (as when you grab a cudgel and bash my head in if I haven’t bashed yours in first) – and functional power (as when you or I skillfully apply a healing compress to fix the bruises on our heads).

TWW offers the possibility of

one such healing compress.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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