Beyonding with Robert Bellah

In describing the heights we can reach when we study, acclaimed sociologist Robert Bellah gives an example by commenting on what it can be like reading a piece of philosophy: “for the person who understands it, reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics can set off a subliminal dance”.  Bellah continues this thought by quoting from Bertrand Russell: “the true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry”.

This description of what it can feel like while we study is precisely how I feel every time I open up Religion in Human Evolution (2011), a 600 page book written by Bellah shortly prior to his death in 2013.  

The range of disciplines Bellah draws from to lay forth the insights that make up this project is astounding.  Tapping into such an unusually vast range of scholarship is suited for his task, because this work has an unusually grand aim for a scholarly work. In Bellah’s own words: this book “asks what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living….it is an effort to live again those moments that belong to us in the depths of our present, to draw living water from the well of the past, to find friends in history who can help us understand where we are”.  Bellah also sets himself for the difficult task of trying to conjure up a sense of humanity’s broad solidarity and brotherhood.  For the variety of conflicts and divisions that exist in our world, like the culture wars between atheists and the religious, Bellah’s book stands as a proclamation to put our weapons down and consider how we share so much in common.  In a part of the book when he describes Mesopotamian civilization he says “in an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us”.    

Scholars like Jonathan Haidt and Samuel Huntington have been good at showing why the idea that “all culture is one” hardly resonates with human beings, a species that has a proclivity to emphasize their differences rather than their similarities. Though at times some of Bellah’s overarching remarks on the human condition strike me as naïve and overly apocalyptic, his work definitely deepens our appreciation and understanding about, as the title of the book states, religion in human evolution.

As the inspiration strikes I’ll be posting snippets and commentary from this book, categorized by topics that I find Bellah has offered us some of his most insightful thought.

I’d like to start with what Bellah says about the drudgery that can overwhelm us in our daily lives, like when we drag our feet to work.  According to Bellah, a defining feature of this part of life, what he calls ordinary reality, is that no one can stand to live in it all the time.  This has nothing to do with religion at this early point in his book, though Bellah does say that religions are good making a frontal assault on the world of working, and call it into question.  A whole host of activities prove how ordinary reality, when we are swept by various pragmatic motives, is only just a part of our day.  Indeed, a third of our lives is essentially spent asleep often in the land of dreams.  Other than that, Bellah makes the case that everything from watching TV to going to a musical concert is an example of non-ordinary reality, which for him is an important concept, because religions view this kind of reality as sacred.  A saving grace for humanity, the possibility for relief from the drudgery of our lives, is that we are a species making full use of symbols and symbolism. An extract from the book illustrates this point well:    

Without the capacity for symbolic transcendence, for seeing the realm of daily life in terms of a realm beyond it, one would be trapped in a world of what has been called dreadful immanence. For the world of daily life seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need is a world of mechanical necessity, not radical autonomy. It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.


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