What Pre-Modern Religion Actually Looks Like

When I read about Christian thinkers talking about how we have go back on modernity and return to some kind of more medieval religion I think about how totally unprepared most Western Christians – especially evangelicals – would be for this kind of shift. A friend of mine related a story about how an evangelist in the Middle East was conversing with a Muslim man. The man expressed a desire to convert but told the evangelist he would have to go home and tell his family first. “What if you get hit by a bus?!” or something to that effect was the evangelist’s reply. The man was baffled because, as he saw it, he was the head of his household and he knew he was not making a personal choice but one that would affect his entire family – his religious identity was not personal but familial/communal.

Taylor_Secular_compThis reminded me of my current favourite book, A Secular Age in which Charles Taylor lays out the development of, well, today’s secular age out of medieval Latin Christianity. The portrait of medieval Christianity that Taylor creates is one where religion is experienced – as with virtually all other aspects of identity as part of a community. No one is primarily an individual, rather everyone lives in relationship, everyone is a son or a father or a member of so-and-so parish or working the land of this noble granted by that duke. In this world, everyone’s destiny is seen as linked, failure by all members of the community to partake of this or that religious practice was seen as harming the entire community. 

The mutation and disintegration of many of these forms in what we imagine as the West has, in some cases, been transfered (either by colonialism or Western economic and cultural hegemony) to many parts of the rest of the world. In the case of the Muslim-majority parts of the Middle East though (outside of Turkey possibly) religion is still experienced as part of a community/family and not often individually. Now I suppose that one could press a member of one of these communities to see religion as a purely personal/individual matter and not one of family and community, but this would mean accomplishing a sort of dual conversion. The evangelist (and for these purposes, this could be an evangelist for any religious view) converting someone to the idea of religion-as-personal choice and then converting them to whatever religion was being promoted.

So what we end up with here is a group of Christians in the West pining for the good old pre-modern days of medieval religion while another group of Western Christians abroad try to get people to buy into more modern modes of belief in order to convert them.