By David Armstrong
There are certain ideas that, once you have them, it is excessively difficult to un-have them. Here are two. The first is that religions–treated as self-sufficient, insulated systems of belief, behavior, and belonging that are discrete from other such systems and that can be identified through zoning in on some sort of essential criteria–do not really exist. They are conventions of language, based more on traceable developments of tradition that, when one experiences them without intervening categories and concepts, are diachronically and synchronically joined to the surrounding world by a thousand invisible tethers and passageways. In theory, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are doctrinally incommensurate with one another; yet for much of their history in the Near East, Mediterranean, and Africa, they have shared holy days, texts, shrines, saints, and cultic practices, often in community rather than in isolation. Across South, Southeast, and East Asia, temples to brahmanic deities–patterned originally after the designs of Buddhist stupas, though the gods themselves predated the Buddha in the Asian religious imagination–regularly double and sometimes even triple function as sites of various combinations of local indigenous cult, Hindu, Jain, and/or Buddhist practice, and the same is true of Shinto temples in Japan. And where “Western,” “Abrahamic,” and/or “Adonaistic” religions have filtered Eastward, similar kinds of cultural sharing and overlap happen all the time. Drawing a line where one religion ends and another begins is often impossible in the real people and places where religions are practiced; religion is a spiritual technology in the places of the world where it is really flourishing, judged by the utility of specific religious lifeways than by cold, abstract comparisons of intellectual content.
The first idea is a useful principle for understanding the past and the present as a scholar of religion; the second idea is more useful for thinking about the future and can also be useful for the theologian, someone whose task is to talk about God. It follows from the one I describe above that because religions cannot be essentialized, there is no necessary, ideal, guaranteed form of their future, either.
For the record, I used to be the sort of person who believed both in religious essentialism and in a certain kind of traditionalism about the religious past and future, and for a time paired this with some (but not all, thank God!) of the problematic political and social views that one can find well-represented in the Orthodox Churches I belonged to in college. Experience, education, marriage, and the realities of contemporary life on-the-ground as an adult helped to cure me of those ideas, and to replace them with the twin recognition of religion’s fluidity and indeterminacy. Where once I felt very confident that there was a particular form to my own religion (and its relationship to society) which was ideal, harmed by a long decline, at threat of total eclipse, and in need of future restoration, I slowly came to realize not only that this was a kind of illusion which caused unnecessary suffering and discomfort for me and some of the people around me, but also that it did not match at all with what I knew from my training in secular Religious Studies and Classics about Christian Origins and early history.
I also realized that the narrative of decline-and-restoration did less and less until, finally, it did nothing for me as a theologian. To be clear, I still identify as ecumenically, eclectically Christian, and I still draw on the texts, meanings, and significance of Christian Tradition and its lifeways to construct what I mean by that. But I no longer depend on these because I think of them as immutable, abstract sources of faith or as replacements for thinking, nor because I buy into a narrative of Christian decline and hope for some kind of restoration of past Christian circumstances. Instead, I make use of these sources because I think they give me useful access to the origins of Christ-faith and because I find it engaging to think with them, the people who produced them, and the people who received them, as one of their heirs, keeping what is useful in their experience and reasoning that has been handed down and improving on what can be improved. That is to say, I have no pretense about the inner meaning or final shape of Christian Tradition from some kind of absolute, transcendent viewpoint; even believing that Christ is God enfleshed, raised from the dead, I acknowledge gleefully that everything I think I know about that is conditioned by my own time, place, and circumstance in a way that will inevitably prove quite relative to the matter in itself, in the final analysis.
There are some members of any religious tradition that will never find that kind of fluid, dynamic approach to Tradition acceptable, but a key corollary of the second big idea I outline above is that religion that fails to think and act this way will inevitably die. Religion of any, every, or whatever specific kind may well be divine; I believe my religion is. But religion is also, of necessity, human, and therefore ensconced in all the complexity, mutability, and finitude endemic to the human condition, and therefore to the same pedagogical ignorance and intellectual poverty that afflicts everything human. Religion, like other nexus points of the human experience, is also subject to the same laws of evolutionary and technological change as they are: what is useful, adaptable, skillful, best suited to its environment, and able to collaborate with comparable systems endures; what fails on these metrics does not. This is why decline-and-restoration myths, even if they are half-true, are pipe dreams. Even if religion, any religion, is experiencing decline, the presumption that this can be reversed through simply returning to the past circumstances where it was flourishing is as duncical as it is doomed. Every traditionalism depends on a kind of arbitrary abstraction of a particular religious moment from its spatiotemporal ecosystem, and for that reason always codes as a kind of fetish in the face of real life, a refusal to deal with the changing rules of the intellectual, moral, communal, and cultural survival game on their own terms.
Anyway, Cobra Kai got me thinking about all of this. Season 4 sees Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso struggle to keep the alliance they achieved at the end of Season 3 afloat, to the mutual detriment of both men and of their respective dojos. Crudely, Johnny’s Cobra Kai–er, Eagle Fang–style karate is all about offense, attack, and incapacitating an opponent before they become a serious threat. Despite Johnny’s realization in Season 3 that the philosophy behind Cobra Kai will ruin one’s life when accurately followed, as demonstrated both in his own life as well as in that of his former mentor, John Kreese, his fighting remains hampered by his offensive, attack-based training, which goes hand-in-hand with the gruff, 80s-guy, low-level toxic masculinity which he exudes in daily life. Daniel, by contrast, insists on the antiquity, authenticity, and purity of Miyagi-Do’s utterly defensive and nonviolent ideals in karate. In his defense, his karate is rooted in the original Okinawan tradition, while Johnny’s comes from a strip-mall in California; but like Johnny, Daniel is blind to the limits of his passive style. The students of neither sensei are, however: the Eagle Fangs, especially Johnny’s protege and surrogate son Miguel, benefit immensely from learning the wisdom and clarity that Daniel’s training offers by way of balance to the lightly controlled chaos of Johnny’s teaching; at the same time, Daniel’s daughter, Sam, feeling increasingly out of control in light of the threat posed by her archrival Cobra, Tory, is empowered by Johnny’s teachings on the use of passion, offense, and initiative.
For the second half of the season, Johnny and Daniel find themselves unable to reconcile their distinct philosophies and methods, or even to acknowledge the appropriateness of one another’s styles in different situations. It is only during the final round of the tournament that Daniel comes to realize his error, and to reconcile with Johnny as equals, colleagues, and potentially as friends for the sake of their students’ improvement as martial artists and people. “Look,” says Daniel, “you and I may be set in our ways. But these kids, they’re still growing. They can learn from both of us, and use what we teach them to create their own way.” Cue flashback, to Miyagi and Daniel planting a bonsai from The Karate Kid Part III:
Miyagi: “Just like bonsai choose own way grow because root strong, you choose own way do karate, same reason.”
Daniel: “Yeah, but I do it your way.”
Miyagi: “Hai. One day, you do own way.”
While the union is fruitful for Sam, “Miyagi-Fang” style comes too little, too late to make the substantial change it might have made had it been allowed to flourish earlier in the season. The lesson here is one that seems to be ubiquitous in a fair bit of popular franchises of the last decade, from The Legend of Korra to the Star Wars sequel trilogy: without change, traditions–even religious, spiritual traditions, even venerable institutions–die, and attachment to received forms at the expense of living transmission is a recipe for stagnation. Season 4’s Daniel, for instance, strikes a very Last Jedi’s Luke Skywalker kind of figure, with his sterile devotion to the legacy of his late, beloved mentor and the bitter ossification of his resentment for his own failed decline-and-restoration project; Sam, like Rey or like Korra, has to be the one to show what Alan Watts would have called “the wisdom of insecurity” in embracing change.
Just as in martial schools and styles, which adapt constantly with each new student, teacher, and generation, one cannot get so caught up in the mystique that they fail to learn, well, how to fight, so too religious practitioners must learn how to respond to immediate stimuli without discursive attachment to preconceived notions of reality, especially the insularity of religions. Concepts, including concepts about religion, invariably get in the way of living. Sen no Rikyu, the famous ceremonial teamaster under the samurai warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is remembered to have reformed the chanoyu, or tea ceremony, around a principle of simplicity: “the tea ceremony is nothing more than boiling water, steeping tea, and drinking it.” The late, great Bruce Lee, likewise, is remembered for centering the principle in his martial arts that the goal of technique is to transcend the need for it. We might find similar use in learning to treat religion, especially as theology, with the same kind of fluidity: talking about God and knowing God are different, and the point of the first is to help with the second, not the other way around. And whether we want to admit it or not, it certainly seems true that traditional forms of religion, at least in the West, are coming to exactly those kinds of crisis-points where adaptation and change will ensure our survival but stale repetition will fail to meet present intellectual, moral, and social challenges.