Analysing Religious Public Discourses: Categories of Thought and Value Differences
The religious field, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu (1991a), is not uniform, static or monolithic. Although there are common dogmatic doctrines and ritual practices, their perception and interpretation may differ even within the same community at the same period, especially as religious and lay actors, who occupy different positions within the field, engage in a struggle in order to implement their own visions about the place and role of the church in the world.
That cannot be done without legitimizing their own meanings and values while at the same time devaluing antagonistic ones. As a result, a plurality of contrasting discourses emerges. But this is certainly not to say that all discourses have the same possibility to be accepted as valid by the faithful, for a number of reasons, some of which are the power relations among the producers of the discourses, the overall attitude towards tradition and the past (e.g., sacralization or critical reflection), the adoption of new values, and of course the broader social and historical context with its secular ideologies.
Can we find some stable criteria for comparing discourses that will enable us to identify subtle differences concealed by the usage of a common religious vocabulary (e.g., church, god, salvation)? I wish to argue that the so-called fundamental categories of thought (e.g., time, space, personality), which the French school of sociology investigated as a product of social factors, provide a firm ground for systematic comparison and knowledge. Since these principal categories are the “skeleton of thought”, to use Émile Durkheim’s (1995, p. 9) phrase, they can be found in every coherent discourse, system of belief and ideology in general. We should keep in mind that the content of these categories can vary in different social and historical contexts. Intellectuals play here a decisive role, as they are the experts who reformulate the content of the categories so as to serve the needs, aspirations, and interests of the groups to which they also belong to or at least are associated with. Thus a sociological analysis should also take into consideration the characteristics of the different contingents of the religious field, to which these discourses are addressed.
In my recently published article with Religions (see Kessareas 2022), I demonstrated how different interpretations and evaluations of the fundamental category of the person support contrasting visions about the place and role of the Orthodox Church in Greek society and in the modern world in general. Put in a quasi-Weberian ideal-typical manner, the dominant constituent ecclesiastical groups and certainly those who conflate religious and national identity place great value on the charismatic figures of “Neomartyrs” (i.e. those executed for their faith by the Ottomans) and “Ethnomartyrs” (i.e. martyrs for the nation), promoting them as exemplars of sacrifice towards the faith and the fatherland, which are perceived as an organic unity. It goes without saying that the advocates of what Karpov, Lisovskaya, and Barry (2012) refer to as “ethnodoxy” understand the Church as “ark of the nation” and for this reason they support its privileged position both in state and society.
In contrast, religious and lay actors, mostly of a younger generation, who have studied abroad and support the basic tenets of modern Western society (e.g., pluralism, institutional differentiation), shift the emphasis from the charismatic qualities of the saint and the national hero towards ordinary people, particularly those in need (e.g., refugees, immigrants). To that aim, they employ the (post)modernist concept of the ‘Other’, which they link to the traditional religious value of the neighbor. It should not come as a surprise that these actors wish to weaken the national orientation of the Church, placing the latter to the area of civil society. Adopting an epistemological stance of critical reflection on the past, they become vocal in condemning idealized perceptions of Byzantium, nationalism and ethnocentrism.
Although the agents of both currents share the core theological (Trinitarian) understanding of divine and human beings as persons, namely as relational entities and not as individuals, they nevertheless choose to highlight in their public discourses either the charismatic or the ordinary aspects of the category of the human person. In this way they construct and promote different conceptual images (‘Ethnomartyr’, the ‘Other’), which in turn produce contrasting orientations to the modern world, for instance an open attitude to the latter or a call for returning to traditional values. Although further sociological research is needed, it seems reasonable to assume that those who share the same ideological preferences and have common social background with the producers of the above discourses are the principal recipients of them.
To avoid misunderstandings, with the exception of religious fundamentalists, who understand the categories of the ‘ethnomartyr’ and the ‘Other’ in dualistic terms, namely as two totally heterogeneous attitudes that are in inherent conflict with each other, for the other actors these two understandings of the person do not stand in Manichean, but in hierarchical opposition to each other, as hierarchy is defined by Louis Dumont (1980). Let me be more explicit in what I mean: For the promoters of the ‘Other’ discourse, an attitude of love, acceptance and respect for all people regardless of their various differences (e.g., national origin, gender, sexual preference, religion, culture, political ideology) is constitutive of the divine essence. Now, since the latter represents the category of totality, it also encompasses the ‘ethnomartyr’ category, namely attitudes motivated by the national identity feeling, on the presupposition that these do not reverse the hierarchy of values, for instance by confusing nationality and culture with religion. This is because such an inversion would produce a totally different hierarchical relationship between these categories, a relationship in which the Greek Orthodox nation is clearly prioritized: the nation and Orthodoxy as an organic, sacred whole destined by God to play a saving role in human history. In that case, the extrovert attitude for acceptance and love is replaced by sentiments of superiority that normally go together with practices of enemy construction and exclusionism.
To recap, my argument is that the categories of thought provide a firm ground for a fruitful comparative discourse analysis and that they can shed light on value differences, which, concealed by the usage of the common religious vocabulary, might otherwise have gone unnoticed. We should always keep in mind that these categories neither emerge from a vacuum nor are politically neutral. They carry a long history and are constantly reinterpreted by different actors, who employ them as ‘weapons’ in their symbolic struggles, to use Bourdieu’s (1991b, p. 225) phrase.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991a. “Genesis and Structure of the Religious Field.” Comparative Social Research 13: 1–44.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991b. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Dumont, Louis. 1980. “Postface: Toward a Theory of Hierarchy”. In Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. Chicago: University of Chicago, pp. 239-245.
Durkheim, Émile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.
Karpov, Vyacheslav, Elena Lisovskaya, and David Barry. 2012. “Ethnodoxy: How Popular Ideologies Fuse Religious and Ethnic Identities.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51: 638–55.
Kessareas, Efstathios. 2022. “Saints, Heroes, and the ‘Other’: Value Orientations of Contemporary Greek Orthodoxy.” Religions, 13 (4): no. 360 (pp. 1-17).
Efstathios Kessareas is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Religious Studies (Chair of Orthodox Christianity) of the University of Erfurt, Germany. He is working on the research project: ‘The Challenge of Worldliness to Contemporary Christianity: Orthodox Christian Perspectives in Dialogue with Western Christianity’. He previously conducted postdoctoral research at the Center for Social Theory of the Department of Sociology of Ghent University in Belgium. He holds a PhD in sociology and a MA in religious studies. He is author of the book Church, Ideology, and Politics in Post-Dictatorial Greece: A Sociological Approach (Athens: Papazisi, 2022, in Greek). His articles on sociology of religion, Orthodox Christianity, and modern Greek ideology have been published in peer-reviewed journals such as The Sociological Review, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Religions, as well as on international blogs such as LSE Religion and Global Society, Public Orthodoxy, and Political Theology Network.