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Religion as a Social System

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By:Jacob Neusner | May 15, 2019
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From the December 1992 issue of Chronicles.

To study any vital religion is to address, as a matter of hypothesis, a striking example of how people explain to themselves who they are as a social entity. Religion as a powerful force in human culture is realized in society, not only or even mainly in theology. Religions form social entities—churches, peoples, "holy nations," monasteries, or communities—that, in the concrete, constitute the "us," as against the "nations" or the "them"; and they carefully explain, in deeds and in words, who that "us" is—every day. To see religion in this way is to take religion seriously as a means of realizing a specific conception of the world.

But how do we describe, analyze, and interpret a religion, and how do we relate the contents of a religion to its context? These issues of method are worked out through the reading of texts and, I maintain, through the serious analysis of the particularity and specificity of texts.

Religion may represent itself as tradition, meaning the increment of the ages. It may also come forth as a cogent statement, as a well-crafted set of compelling answers to urgent questions. A religious tradition comprises whatever the received sedimentary process has handed on, whereas a religious system addresses in orderly fashion a world view, a way of life, and a defined social entity. Each process of thought obeys its own rules.

For example, the pentateuchal system starts fresh, defines first principles, and augments and elaborates them in balance, proportion, and, above all, logical order. True, the Pentateuch draws upon much older materials in its reformulation by Ezra in 450 B.C., but the reformation of these materials into a system imparts to all details the message of the system as a whole. In a traditional process, by contrast, we never start fresh but only add—to an ongoing increment of knowledge, doctrine, and mode of making judgment—our own deposit. To take one striking example of such a traditional process, the formulation of the traditions surrounding Jesus into the Gospels exhibits traits of agglutination and conglomeration; nothing is lost, but new materials find a place. This accounts for the complexity of the Gospels' accounts of Jesus. (Yet we need not call into question a single detail; each account can be right, so far as the traits of a tradition are concerned.) Tradition is, therefore, by its nature exegesis, not fresh composition.

The opposite process we may call systematic, in that the intellect, starting as if from the very beginning and unbound by received perspectives and propositions, constructs a freestanding and well-proportioned system. It is like the difference between a city that grows naturally and a city that is planned; an old scrapbook and an original composition; a composite commentary and a work of philosophical exposition.

What sort of indicator tells us that we have a system, not a tradition? A systematic and, by nature, philosophical statement or document presents its ideas as though they emanate from its authorship, rather than by alluding to—let alone citing—a prior writing, such as the Scriptures. The form of a systematic statement will ordinarily be autonomous. The discourse will begin with first principles and build upon them. The presentation of a system may, to be sure, absorb within itself a given document, citing materials here and there, but the authorship in such a case imposes its own program and its own problem upon received materials. An example of a systematic statement's use of received materials is Matthew, chapters two and three, which argue that events in the early years of Jesus' life fulfilled the promises of prophecy.

Matthew appeals for his explanation of the life and authority of Jesus to genealogy, beginning with Abraham, running through David, proceeding onward to Christ; this explanation is part of Matthew's larger thesis that the things Jesus said and did fulfilled what the Hebrew Scriptures ("the Old Testament") had predicted. Christianity, then, is the completion of the Old Testament. This conclusion requires the citation of various verses; these are, of course, chosen by the authorship for the occasion, and there is no pretense of reading whole passages in their "own" terms according to their "own" momentum of meaning. Matthew, rather, makes his point—which is part of his larger program and polemic—through an incidental, if important, allusion to prophecy.

How do we know that a statement, a sizable composition for instance, is meant to be systematic? In a well-composed system, every detail will bear the burden of the message of the system as a whole. Each component will make, in its own terms, the statement that the system intends to deliver. In order to understand this, we must first appreciate an important distinction in the analysis of systems: that between a fact that is systemically vital and a fact that is inert.

In a well-composed system, every systemically generative fact will bear in its detail the entire message of the system, while inert facts will not. This is simply illustrated. It is clear to any reader of Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Politics, the Mishnah, or Matthew's Gospel that these writers propose to set forth a complete account of the principle or basic truth governing their subject—beginning, middle, and end. Accordingly, they so frame the details that the main point is repeated throughout. At each point in the composition the message as a whole, in general terms, will be framed in all due particularity. The choice of topics will be dictated by the requirements of the prevailing attitude and statement. According to this scheme, we can even account, ideally, for the topical components of the program, explaining (in theory at least) why one topic is included and another not. A topic will find its place in the system when only through what is said about that particular topic can the system make the statement it wishes to make.

I do not wish to enter into counterpart classification of Christian writings (e.g., Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine) as to their traditional or systemic identification. But I do maintain that the Bible (Old and New Testaments together) forms a system and indeed was meant to make a systemic statement, and I rest my argument on the function and purpose of the Bible as described in scholarship on the canon.

Some systems say precisely what they want on exactly those topics essential to their full statement. These are what we may call "closed systems," in that the authors tell us—by definition—everything they want us to know and—again, by definition—nothing they do not think we need to know. An open system, by contrast, requires the reader to refer not only to what an authorship states, but also to what an authorship invokes. The program is partial, the statement truncated, the system incomplete and lacking correct composition and proportion—if indeed there is a system at all. These traits will then mark a traditional, not a systemic, statement.

A traditional document (and therefore the mind and the religious system that it represents) recapitulates inherited texts, thus defining the traditionality of such a writing. A systematic writing may allude to or draw upon received texts, but does not recapitulate them, except for its own purposes and within its own idiom of thought; it not only does not recapitulate texts, it selects and orders them, imputes to them a whole cogency (which their original authorships have not expressed in and through the parts), and expresses through them its deepest logic. While the tradition is ongoing, the system begins exactly where and when it ends. From the Pentateuch to the Bavli, Judaic authorships presented not stages or chapters in an unfolding tradition but closed systems, each one of them constituting a statement that followed upon a sustained process of rigorous thought and inquiry, applied logic and practical reason.

I maintain that tradition and system cannot share a single throne and that a crown cannot set on two heads. Diverse statements of Judaisms constitute not traditional but systemic religious documents, with a particular hermeneutics of order and proportion—a reasoned context—to tell us how to read each document. Because we cannot read these writings in accordance with two incompatible hermeneutical programs, I argue in favor of the philosophical and systemic, rather than the agglutinative and traditional hermeneutics.

The whole, then, works its way out through exegesis, and the history of any religious system—that is to say, the history of religion writ small—is the exegesis of its exegesis. And the first rule of the exegesis of systems is the simplest: the system does not recapitulate the canon; the canon recapitulates the system. The system forms a statement of a social entity, specifying its world view and way of life in such a way that, to participants in the system, the whole makes sound sense and is beyond argument. So from the beginning words are not of inner and intrinsic affinity, but (as Philo would have us say) the Word—the Word awaiting only that labor of exposition and articulation that the faithful, for centuries to come, will lavish at the altar of the faith. A religious system presents a fact not of history but of immediacy, of the social present.

The phrase "the history of a system" is an oxymoron. Systems endure—and their classic texts with them—in that eternal present they create. They evoke precedent; they do not have a history. A system relates to context, but exists in an enduring moment (which, to be sure, changes all the time). We capture the system in a moment; the worm consumes it an hour later. That is the way of mortality, whether for us one by one or for the works of humanity in society.

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