At the start of the last decade of last century, as part of my church history studies, we engaged in patristics. That is the history of the early church up to the early Middle Ages. One of our textbooks was Creeds, Councils and Controversies covering all the disputes, arguments, claims, and counterclaims over the years 337 CE to 461 CE as to what was true, what was deemed false or heretical, who had authority, who did not, who’s interpretation or understanding was correct and who was wrong or misguided. The book contained source documents that we worked our way through, trying to make sense of what was said and why, attempting to understand why some at the time – and afterward – a text said this and not that, while also attempting to understand why others said a text said that and not this – usually about the same text and usually both claiming authority and normative, revelatory authority.
As the title of the book suggested, the thinking and practice of the early church was fought out – sometimes literally – in Councils debating what the creeds and other texts and statements meant and engaging in long-standing, contested, and often bitter controversies. At times the doors of the meetings were locked while supporters of various sides partook in taunts, name-calling, and acts of physical violence, while at the same time, those in the Councils attempted to come to some agreement as to what was meant and why in the choice of certain words – not only literally but also by intention and inference.
Patristics teaches us that texts that are claimed to have authority and binding meaning always undergo an ongoing debate and discussion, contestation, interpretation, and reinterpretation as to their meaning. We could go so far as to say that such a text that is not contested actually lacks – and will continue to lack – authority.
The aim of the Councils was for the Church to end up with agreement both as to orthodoxy (correct belief) and to orthopraxis (correct action). To do so took time, debate, argumentation, dispute, power politics – and the recognition of authority and authoritative decision-making. There were always those who dissented and those who ended up labeled heretical in both belief and practice.
The Church was actually – and still is – a hermeneutical or interpretive community that takes texts, beliefs, and actions and decides what is normative and binding in order to belong or to be allowed to belong. We can see this also expressed in two of the root words for religion: ‘religare’ (to bind together) and ‘relegere’ (to re-read). The centrality of religious texts is that they enable and enforce a ‘religare’ at the same time as demanding a ‘relegere’ so as to be understood, rethought, and re-engaged within the current life and context of what we can term ‘the interpretative community’.
So why this patristic background? It’s because we are experiencing, at both a societal and political level in this country, a new form of disputatious ‘interpretative community’ in response to a text. Perhaps, by thinking about the past, we can begin to understand the present.
It was the American sociologist of religion and culture Robert Bellah (1927-2013) who in 1967 coined the term ‘civil religion’. He was strongly influenced by sociologist Emile Durkheim who had identified the interplay between religion, society, and politics. Durkheim focused on the central role played by the totem. This was traditionally an animal or plant that a group identified itself with versus the totems and groups of others. As we entered modernity Durkheim observed that a totem, that often came to be accorded the role and identity of a god or sacred ‘thing’, could be the symbol of a society without them even realising it. What this meant, argued Durkheim, is that God and society are one: that a society is its god and its god is its society. In other words, worshipping your god or sacred totems is worshipping your society, and so society is the real object of religious veneration. This means the symbol or totem chosen becomes the expression of the collective consciousness of that society. The role of religion is to act as the social glue: it joins us together to worship society and helps us share common values and morals which form the collective consciousness that gives social order and the society we find ourselves in.
Durkheim understood that with modernity religion would disappear, especially as a collective community-wide social glue. However, because of the central role and function of religion in society, we see a new form of religion derived from the nation state. This is what we call nationalism, but it usually has no link to a supernatural world. However, this new religion of the nation uses rituals, symbols, and language to promote a new social glue and common identity. In this new religion of the state, acting collectively with intensity creates a sense of social order that transcends the individual and gives rise to the new collective of the nation state.
In drawing upon Durkheim, Bellah situated Progressive secularism (that is, the secular push/demand for societal change for progressive causes and values) as itself a type of Enlightenment myth (that is, the societal narrative of origin/s, meanings, and values that the Enlightenment supports and gives rise to) that creates a particular picture of reality. Yet the essential social function of religion means it will always return to the centre of cultural preoccupations. In other words, religion will continue because – via Durkheim – religion is central to society. Of course, religion is always far more than institutional religions – that is the central claim of Durkheim that Bellah was in agreement with – and so in each society, religion takes a myriad of forms, and as institutional religion declines other forms take its place and its function.
Bellah became widely known for his essay “Civil Religion in America” (1967) that was a response in part to J.F. Kennedy’s inauguration address and its famous line “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Drawing on Durkheim to read the American experience – its history, its politics, and the interplay between religion and politics – Bellah argued the Political realm has a religious dimension that is expressed in beliefs, symbols, and rituals. This civil religion is both a grounding for human rights but also expresses a transcendent goal for political processes.
Civil religion is taken from Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762). In this Rousseau outlined the simple dogmas of the civil religion (that is, beliefs he considered to be universal, and as such, the state had the right to uphold and maintain as the state needs an agreement on common values): the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance. For Rousseau, Christianity was not and could not be this civil religion as it was too divided –and divisive – in its beliefs. The civil religion of the state is the base-level collective belief and identity that provides social cohesion and meaning that all can and should participate in. Therefore, civil religion becomes a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collective of the state.
As Bellah noted, civil religion is not a closed system or set of beliefs; rather, due to its social function, it can be remade and expanded. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols.
I want to argue that Te Tiriti o Waitangi/ the Treaty of Waitangi has, over the past 50 years, become a central element of a new civil religion of an emerging nation we can term Aotearoa New Zealand. For many, Te Tiriti o Waitangi/ the Treaty of Waitangi is the totemic centre and symbol of this new society and nation, enforced by the civil religion rituals of Waitangi Day, the commemoration of Ratana’s birthday on January 25 and most recently Matariki as a public holiday. What makes this new civil religion so interesting and so potentially divisive at present is that there are two versions of the totemic central text: the te reo Māori Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the English language Treaty of Waitangi. Therefore we are experiencing the political religious debates and disputes as to who constitutes the authoritative interpretative community of the sacred text. The concerns are focussed not only on what is in the text and what version we should use but also on what we believe or don’t believe the sacred text intends and infers – or what we can call its principles.
Just as the creeds of the early church resulted in hundreds of years of Councils and controversies, it is wholly unsurprising that the new sacred text of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/ the Treaty of Waitangi is undergoing its own series of debates by the various interpretive communities seeking a new orthodoxy and orthopraxis for the emerging civil religion of Aotearoa New Zealand.