Religion shapes society by providing a system in which a community is held together. According to the Sacred Quest, we can see examples of how religion can give society its “glue” by looking at the Navajo religion and how their origin story tells them where they came from and how they “fit” into the world”. However, similar to how it unifies communities, religion can also tear them apart. Protest in the Islamic and Christian traditions have not only historically led to divisions, they have also served the purpose of institutionalizing beliefs into creeds, statements of belief, and clarifying the Church’s stance on certain theological issues, especially regarding heresies. The emergence of Christianity from Judaism could be understood as a result of protest against the larger religion of Judaism and the authority of the established Roman Empire. According to the Sacred Quest, there are three types of divisions, and the one referenced here is a “division in which new religious movements end up as a completely new religions”.
Jesus of Nazareth was the religious founder of Christianity and the new revelation he preached was that the kingdom of God was near and that everyone should spread this good news These ideas seemed harmless enough, and Jesus quickly gained many followers as he allegedly performed miracles like bringing men back to life and curing those with leprosy and other physical disabilities such as blindness. However, he also proclaimed himself as the Son of God and made himself known as the rightful king of the new kingdom of God on Earth. Christianity was viewed as a protest by the Roman Empire since claims about Jesus being the rightful king threatened their authority. Christianity also posed a threat to the Jewish religious leaders as well because he labeled himself as divine. Although it did take about 400 years after his death for Christianity to become an institutionalized religion and completely separate itself from Judaism, Christianity is an example of how protest can lead to division in the form of new religious traditions.
The death of a religious founder inevitably leads to diversity and different opinions on what the religious leader would have wanted in terms of authority, doctrine, and orthodoxy, the right way to worship. What followed the death of Jesus was the Church’s slow, difficult process of defining its doctrine and theological beliefs. While the church’s normative beliefs were being formulated, disputes over orthodoxy led to a series of councils to clarify the Church’s stance on particular views. This led to a pattern of the Church hearing controversy, holding a Council and declaring the movement a heresy, and then defining its position in relation to the controversy. Heresies are another form of division and are “beliefs or practices contrary to the accepted doctrinal teachings of the Church”. The Council of Nicaea in 325 settled a dispute over the true nature of Jesus. Arianism was a “theological movement” which argued that Jesus was not of the same substance of God but rather, since he was made by God the Father, a separate divine entity.
Arianism was problematic because it no longer upheld the monotheistic belief that defined Christianity by making Jesus and God both divine, separate beings. The Council ruled that Jesus was made of the same substance as God and the Nicene Creed was developed as a result, clarifying the Church’s “theological normative position” on the nature of Jesus’ divinity. In the context of the young, developing Christian Church, protests and controversies allowed the Church to formulate its doctrine by labeling these beliefs as heretical and reacting to them by offering its stance on the controversy. The creation of the Nicene Creed serves as an example of how protest contributed to the Church establishing its normative theological position. Schisms, another form of a division, as reactions to protest allow a community to be “separate from its parent, yet not distinct enough to constitute a new religious tradition” and are usually “divisions related to authority”.
Examples of reform movements leading to schisms can be seen within the Christian and Islamic traditions. Martin Luther and his 95 theses sparked the Protestant Reformation, leading to the schism between Catholic Church and the Protestant tradition. Martin Luther reportedly struggled with the idea that through works alone, his salvation would be justified, so he began to contemplate and one day came to a new revelation: salvation cannot be earned through works but rather through faith in God. The underlying issue his 95 Theses addressed was the corrupt character of the Catholic Church, especially in regard to its system of indulgences, which granted the sinner salvation. The Protestant Reformation was a protest against the corrupt authority of the Catholic Church, which led to the schism between Catholics and Protestants. Schisms can also be studied within the religion of Islam. Similar to Christianity, Prophet Muhammad’s death led to controversy over the question of succession and authority.
The Sunni believed that the community should be able to choose the successor, whereas the Shi’a minority believed that the leader should be kept within the family and recognized Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali as the rightful, appointed successor to Muhammad. What began as a political division over authority, overtime created substantial theological differences between the Sunni and the Sh’ia, particularly concerning the role of the Imamate in the Shi’a community and how it differs from the Sunni. The Shi’a believe that the Imams have a special, close relationship to God, since he, although not possessing divinity, is immaculately sinless and divinely appointed and inspired by God. Imams also have the authority in interpreting the Quran and its hidden, esoteric meanings, whereas the Sunni view this power of the Imam with deep suspicion, preferring a more literal interpretation of the Quran and also seeing the Imam as blasphemous since they believe the Imam is acting as a prophet, going against to what Muhammad said when he declared himself the last prophet.
The schism between Shi’a and Sunni is another example indicative of the role discord and protest have relating to schisms. There may be limitations in defining religious divisions: since divisions result over disagreements relating to orthodoxy, there may be difficulty classifying schisms within religions which do not contain orthodoxy or doctrine. Many of these religions fall under the Eastern religions such as Hinduism where there is much more flexibility within the tradition due to the lack of an established orthodoxy. According to the Sacred Quest, Hinduism can accommodate a large range of religious beliefs from worshiping a larger divine entity to groups “whose members search for enlightenment through asceticism and meditation”. Orthodoxy is more of an idea relating to the Western religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, so using these classifications of divisions are problematic because they may be exclusive to certain religions.
Protest and discord in the histories of Islam and Christianity can lead to divisions in the forms of schisms, heresies, and the formations of completely separate new religions. In Christianity, especially in the early Christian church, controversy and discord also contributed to the establishment of theological doctrine and orthodoxy. Schisms within Islam such as the one between the Sunni and the Sh’ia also demonstrate the role of dissent in creating sects and denominations within religions. However, there are limitations in relating diversity in a religion to divisions such as schisms, heresies, and separation since larger religions, particularly those of the East may not contain orthodoxy or standards of beliefs.
- Cunningham, Lawrence and John Kelsay. The Sacred Quest: An Invitation to the Study of Religion. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013.
- Print. George, Andrew, eds. Oxtoby, Willard G. World Religions: Western Traditions. Fourth ed., Oxford University Press, 2014.