Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Currently I am re-reading Thomas Merton's Ways of the Christian Mystics. For those unfamiliar with Thomas Merton, he was in the last part of his life a Trappist monk, who became a modernized eremitic. I say modernized because he remained connected to the world through extensive correspondence and writing, while living a solitary life on the grounds of his abbey. He died, in fact, on a trip to Thailand for an ecumenical  conference on the spiritual life. One of his main interests and focuses of correspondence were with Buddhist monks.

In this little (and it is little: truly pocket sized) book he surveys English (Catholic), Russian and  Protestant spirituality and monasticism. The point of this brief post was prompted by this latter chapter. In it he discusses the surprising revival of Protestant monasticism in the post world war 2 period. He places Anglican monasticism outside of this, noting in an unexplained sentence that it is 'catholic'.

What interested me, however, were his comments on the revival and renewal of Christianity in the first two decades after the end of the second world war. He saw this Protestant style monasticism, exemplified by the TaizĂ© community as evidence for a revival and rejection of arid formalism. In the changes in liturgy, the moves towards a simpler Christianity focused on worship and charitable action in the world, he saw a pan-Christian revivalism and renewal.  Thomas Merton died in 1968, so he could not predict nor see the collapse of Christianity in the western world that began to be evident in the 1970s. Sociologists working in the last decades of the 20th century crunched the numbers and saw slippage as early as the 1950s. The Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, for example noted that despite the exponential growth in church construction and membership in the 1950s, churches were actually growing slower than the rate of population increase. Vitality hid an inner crumbling it seems. Sociologists have since begun to posit a change to another type of Christianity replacing institutions with individual or even online realities. But this is not a theory accepted by all such. Steve Bruce, the English sociologist sees decline, not change. Historians have joined the debate, attempting to find the time where decline began and reasons why.  Callum Brown the British historian of religion places the collapse as beginning in the 1960s and assigns the reason to the disappearance of women from the institutional church.  Debate rages among scholars of all sorts over whether the United States is the lone hold out or not in this western collapse of Christianity. So, soon after Thomas Merton's death churches emptied, the western world changed laws to root out Christian foundations, atheists began their boldest attacks on Christianity (claiming they were attacking 'religion' but Christianity was their target).

Of course, only time will tell but at this point the future does not look good for Christianity, and I would argue for western civilization as a project. Despite what that curious bunch called 'the new atheists' might argue, western civilization rested on a foundation of Christianity.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Protestant Work Ethic?

I just finished watching a series by Niall Ferguson where he looked at 'western' civilization and its rise and potential fall. He quite creatively posits six 'killer apps' that made the West dominant: competition, science, medicine, property ownership, consumerism and the work ethic. (PBS has a nice, easy to remember page listing these:  Six Killer Apps  ).

Like all television presentations there is much left out, primarily nuance, but in general he makes a good case. The principle curiosity (as in a curio), is his resurrection of Max Weber's protestant work ethic theory. I have profound difficulties with social scientific theorizing as humanity is, in my view, much too supple and complex to be understood or predicted in a theory. Weber's is not accepted uncritically anymore in any case, so i was surprised to see him use this for his final of six shows. This leads Dr. Ferguson to ignore Catholicism in the United States and in China. He compares the U.S. and China in terms of the Protestant work ethic in this last episode. He mentions only Protestantism assuming that the only innovative and hardworking people in either society are Protestants. You can make a case for Christianity being tied to the rise and dominance of the West, but not just Protestantism. In an earlier episode, he contrasted South America with North America and suggested that the rise of North America to prosperity was in part linked to Protestantism. This ignored the fact that there were large numbers of Catholics in North America. I should mention here that by 'North America'  he actually meant the United States. Yet the wealth that industrial capitalism brought to the U.S. was in the second half of the 19th century at a time when Catholic immigrants largely provided the cheap work force for new factories. You could make some case for this in Canada's history, as French Canada remained pre-industrial with a pre-industrial mindset bolstered specifically by the Catholic church - but not for the United States. In English Canada, Protestantism and industrialization dominated from the 1850s, though the cheap workers were mainly English and Irish, both Catholic and Protestant.

I would agree that the 'work ethic' is intrinsic to the rise and dominance of the West, but I wonder if it can be attributed to Protestantism alone. There is a link perhaps, but one more associated with individualism than directly to Protestantism. The United States did and does have a Protestant based mentality, to which Catholics are integrated. Hmmmmm. So, maybe he is correct in the end, but with a savage disregard for nuance in his arguments.

I'll think about this more and post when I have more marking to procrastinate from....

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

An Advent Meditation on a minor matter

Last Christmas season I bought a laser light that projected little green and red points of light. At first I aimed it at my house front as is common. I noticed a few stray lights hitting the branches of our tree in front. These looked like small lights I had climbed high to attach to the branches.

So I moved the projector back, and aimed it up into the branches .... et VoilĂ  ... I had strung all the branches with little lights.

For some absurd reason I found this beautiful. The projector had a timer, so at dark they would come on, and before dawn turn off. Every chance I had, when outside at night, or from my front upstairs office I would look at these lights in the tree. Their tiny, insignificant loveliness transfixed me.

The season ended and I took the projector out and put it away until this year

Two weeks ago I set it up before the ground had frozen, driving the stake into the ground and aiming the projector as last year.  For two weeks I was again transfixed, every night. I took a video on one of the early nights as there was a light snow falling and the laser caught the tiny flakes in the air and produced little floating sparks to add to the beauty in the tree.

Last night, December 11, I looked out from the upstairs office window and there were no lights. I went downstairs and out front to see if the wire had come unplugged.

The projector was gone. There was snow about that had been falling for about an hour but no footprints, no projector. I walked up the street to a neighbour's house as he had a projector too - fancier than mine. He had nailed it to a telephone pole that stood on his lawn. His was gone too - ripped away from the base. I found the base of my projector still frozen into the ground and knew that the thief had broken it off to take it.

For some reason, this minor loss of rather cheesy beauty strikes me deeply. I was angry at first, then thought perhaps this thief needed to sell the projector for 5 or 10 dollars. Or maybe he was one of those individuals I have come across in life who lack morality. Whose only braking system is a desire not to be caught. In either case, an object of pity rather than anger.

I am left with almost hoping the theft was a necessity for some money by someone destitute.

I am left with a hole where beauty once lived.

Monday, November 27, 2017


The 'Crusades'. 

If a person knows nothing about history at all, they have heard of the 'Crusades' and they know all about the Crusades. The Crusades in this telling are the exemplar of the violence they see as endemic to religion, and by 'religion' they mean Christianity. To Muslims who also remember the Crusades, they are an epithet to hurl at that false religion Christianity. They are also a call to arms to recover what they see as the proper place of Islam in the world and also to recover 'Andalusia', their poetic word for Spain and Portugal.

When I mention the Crusades at all in teaching, it is that the first Crusade was preached by Pope Urban II in 1095 ostensibly to recover the Holy Land from Islam. I add another layer briefly and state it also had the purpose of keeping medieval western warriors from the pleasures of killing each other and to kill those who adhered to the wrong faith instead. These words of mine typically have no impact on students who are embedded in our anti-religion (Christian) culture of today. That religion (Christianity) is evil is a meme now that is heard from the mouths of those entirely ignorant of history to those with some knowledge. It is heard from the mouths of the highly educated and from those with only a basic education.

What started me thinking about this, now? Well, I don't get much time to read and what time I do have to spare I use in writing. But I have decided to discipline myself to set aside a few minutes each day in the morning for reading. I have three books on the go  at present. One is a Christmas gift from about ten years ago (that time span is a perfect illustration of my lack of reading time), called London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd. I am reading this because I, too, have written several 'popular' histories although mine are as minimally popular as his are maximally so. The second is Indian School Days by Basil H. Johnston. I am reading this for work purposes, to get a handle on the residential schools furor that grips Canada at present. As an historian I take a cool and careful attitude, but I want to understand the ongoing furor. I knew a close friend of Basil Johnston and know from that reference that his account of residential schooling is likely to be absent emotionally unverifiable extremes and thus, for me, believable. The third is the concern of this blog post.

Ways of the Christian Mystics by Thomas Merton is gripping (I wanted to say 'fascinating' as that word properly defined is a more accurate representation of the book's impact on me, but the word 'fascinating' like so many words today has become weak and watery from overuse and improper use alike ... somewhat like saying 'awesome' has nothing much to do with 'awe' anymore... but that is a topic for a whole blog post or even book of its own.). It is gripping on more than one level. Thomas Merton was a superb craftsman, even artist, of the English language. He was also that rare commodity in the modern western world, a Christian mystic. Mysticism still imbues the Christianity of the broader Eastern Orthodox world, but the 1960s burned mysticism out of western Christianity except for a few isolated pockets. Secondly, the book itself is a joy:  a Shambhala Pocket Classic, books which are true pocket books, bound with sewing not just glue, lovely cover designs, readable fonts inside and each page embossed with a red margin and red titles at the top. I carry this book or Merton's Thoughts in Solitude with me when I travel. Even in a busy airport terminal I can enter a universe of mystical thought through these portals.

I am re-reading Ways of the Christian Mystics and have arrived at Thomas Merton's meditation on the Crusades. Like most mystics, Merton lived in this world and understood it in a way academic historians should but sometimes do not. That is, he sees and even touches the warts along with the smooth unblemished parts of life. He sees them as a whole, in context and not from the modern view of accusation and moral superiority that has become endemic recently.

In the section I am currently reading, Merton is discussing pilgrimage. He talks about its origins and its inevitable institutionalization, hedged about with rules and regulations in the manner of all human endeavours, whether linked to the purely secular, or to the human craving for the transcendent. (My apologies for using a compound/complex sentence in this day of short sentences and short thoughts).  Eventually he gets to the First Crusade, which was preceded by the practice of pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a form of penance for great sin. As an example, he mentions Duke Robert II of Normandy who walked barefoot to Jerusalem as penance for the murder of his brother. This is to say that the medieval West knew the way there and knew what was there; they were not ignorant of geography or the political and military situation.

When the Pope, Urban II, preached the crusade it was not only to free the Holy Land from non-Christians, but as a massive redemptive and penitential act for western Christianity as a whole, according to Merton. The ultimate goal was oddly similar to that of the 19th and 20th century evangelical millennialists: to prepare society for the Second Coming of Christ by cleansing the world of the sin and violations of the teachings of Christ that had become too common in the eyes of many. We are and have been a civilization here in the West always seeing decline and alway proposing ways to correct and do penance for our sins, errors and crimes. The Pope saw the Crusades as a means to bring about a purity and unity among all the world's Christians, centred on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To quote Thomas Merton here:  "Thus we see that in the course of time the peaceful and defenceless pilgrimage, the humble and meek 'return to the source' of all life and grace, became the organized martial expedition to liberate the land promised to Abraham...." 

Merton was of the opinion that the Crusades were linked to the later development of the Renaissance and of the modern versions of Christianity, but in the situation of the times, an unmitigated disaster.
Beward of unintended consequences is a useful axiom. The First Crusade, which among all the many military ventures into the Middle East was the purest in intention, was a disaster from the point of view of the Pope's prayers. Not only was Christendom not united, but it was more deeply and lastingly divided as a result. Christianity in the West in particular also took on a militant tone. I recall singing Onward Christian Soldiers lustily as a boy in Sunday School in the United Church and the Anglican both. The late 20th century saw a recession of this confident and bold Christianity established by the Crusades into the minds of the West and its replacement by an anemic and apologetic faith.

Thomas Merton looked back at the Crusades from the attitude of a mystic and a devout Christian. I look at these military ventures from the more contextual and holistic attitude of the trained historian. The trick to being an  historian in the 21st century is to do as I never tire of quoting:  'To re-think the thoughts of the past', that precious bit of wisdom from R.G. Collingwood. You must practice a kind of backwards looking anthropological participant observation and immerse yourself in that other country, the past, and think and feel as its citizens did, while keeping a part of yourself as an observer. You must understand especially when dealing with faith, that religion/faith/ritual/ etc was not a hobby, nor an add-on but integrated and embedded into individuals and into society at the deepest levels of psychological, emotional and lived experience.

The Crusades are a useful lens to enter the medieval mind and the incipient modern mind. They are also useful delimiters of the shifting and always vague boundaries between purity and impurity that are one of the marques of being human.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Lifestyle and Religion

While nearing the end of another term teaching courses that explore the intricate dance of religion and society, a perennial thought arose. Christianity is a religion that places proselytizing close to its heart. Early missionaries in different parts of the world debated among themselves whether religion and culture/society must reflect the European integration of these two. That is, was 'correct' Christianity only possible in a European, or European cloned aspect?  Was it necessary for missions to convert the society in order to convert to the faith?  The Jesuits got into trouble with Head Office in the Vatican sometimes by stretching their frequent, though not uniform, practice of 'going native'. I think of the Jesuits in China who dressed as mandarins and allowed ancestor worship. The Jesuits in Canada seemed to go part way, acting like 17th century anthropologists engaged in participant observation, though at the same time creating separate Christian villages among the Wendat. And of course, there was that early capitalist enterprise, the Hudson's Bay Company that booted Methodist missionaries out of Rupert's land for their habit of attempting to destroy the native hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Not, I add, because of any modern identity politics paradigm but for the hard fact that this damaged the fur trade. In the modern world, there is the Day of the Dead in Mexico; in Africa there are a number of Christian/native religion mixes.  I could stretch a point, perhaps to breaking, to mention the official, state-approved 'Catholic' church in China today.

These are just random musings, rather than rigorously researched thoughts on this interesting phenomenon. But I think this gets to the source of the success of Christianity's expansion into many very different cultural contexts around the world. My much more limited understanding of Islam, another proselytizing faith, has encountered the fact that the Sufis - often considered heterodox Muslims by the Islamic mainstream - were the most successful group in converting Africans and Asians to Islam.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Most wars are caused by religion" (no)

I had a two day debate with a fellow who said that and more. He also gave a random list of rulers who had caused wars to be fought and because some were Christian, that to him meant that religion caused the particular wars they pursued. It was quite a list including figures such as Napoleon - I guess for this person Napoleon's conquests were in the name of Christianity.

Well this may seem extreme, but there are a lot of people out there who repeat this meme as though it were true in some existential sense. I am thinking about this phenomenon, now so common in the western world. I am  not quite sure what to make of it yet and this blog post is a first written effort to sort this out in my mind.

I've considered and studied religion in history for a long time now. I began when quite young, but only as an adult in graduate school did I apply the discipline of academic historical thinking to religion and its place in society. I guess that would be my starting point: that religion, as far as I know, is usually integrated into society. To go to an even more basic level, humans are social animals whose survival has always been predicated on forming societies. That is, we humans are too physically weak to survive and then thrive on the basis of our physical presence. We need to band together, that is, to form a society.

Now, religion.... my present thinking is that human beings seem to always have had a spiritual side - that wondering about the possibility of more than what our senses can apprehend or comprehend is intrinsic to human psychology. This 'feeling' or 'curiosity' or 'need' (and there are probably more to add to this list),  I am tentatively assigning the word 'spiritual' and 'spirituality'.  I don't know how strong the glue is on the reverse of this label, whether it will peel off at some point, or someone else will scribble out the words and write in their own. But that is where my thinking resides at this moment. Next, I would call 'religion' a society of spiritual individuals. That is, just as humans had to bond together in social groups to survive physically, so too we bonded together in spiritual social groups we call religions. Human beings do not live compartmentalized lives, or we didn't for most of human history. So it is an artifice to say that 'religion' is separate from 'politics' or 'medicine' or 'sex' or any human social activity or grouping. Each individual human contains all these and that means that religion, like all other social groupings is integral to society as a whole.

So in an odd and truncated sense, my debate partner was correct. Wars are fought by people who are religious because they are spiritual, but also the same warriors exist in a political context and a health context and a sexual context .. in short, in a variety of contexts that make up the whole. All these elements of a context go to war, but I doubt that the 'religion context' is primary. The evidence of actual wars shows only a few where religion was the prime motive. For most, power and politics was the initial motivation and the goal.

Politically avaricious rulers discovered in the 16th century that religion could be used to motivate an entire population to fight a war where once wars were the glory and joy and goal of only a warrior class. By using religion, a king or a Duke or a Margrave (titles for monarchs were various) could mobilize an entire population rather than just warriors who lived to fight, or even just a newly invented professional army. This meant that 'civilian' populations also became the deliberate target of armies, rather than accidental victims of soldiers trampling down crops or stealing cows on their way to battle other warriors.

So religion as defined above is involved, but as a tool and as a part of the character of a society but not as a prime motivation.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Five Senses

Religion is usually studied from a doctrinal viewpoint. There is often some mention of historical development in this, but the approach almost always is to discuss ideas and how these ideas are transmitted in words printed on a page or presented on a screen. The default attitude to religion is intellectual. You read about and think about the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism, or the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism; the Bible; the Qur'an, etc. You might also place these words in the context of a place and a time. You discuss secularization in the United States as compared to western Europe since the mid 20th century; you discuss Henry VIII and his Act of Supremacy; you discuss Luther and Calvin in early modern Europe; you investigate the Rashidun.

Two disparate sources of information got me thinking about this approach to understanding religion.

The first is a reading I have students encounter in a course I teach on Religion and Society in the western world. The reading is Chapter XI in Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More, 'Holy, Holy, Holy'. Here the author describes the religious experience of Thomas More prior to the reforms initiated by King Henry VIII. This very short chapter (5 and a bit pages) brings the sensual experience of religion in London, ca. 1500 to readers. It hints at beliefs, but the beliefs of both ordinary, illiterate Londoners and literate alike, but concentrates on what it smells like, sounds like, tastes like, feels like, looks like for a person living faith in that day. My intent is to entice students away from the standard 'religion as doctrine' view, to do what the historian/archaeologist/philosopher R.G. Collingwood called 'rethinking the thoughts of the past'. Only I want to go one step further and have 21st century students 're-sense the sensuality of the past'.

The second source is very different. I subscribed recently to an online magazine called Aeon Magazine. Today there was a quirky article - very few words introducing a  21 minutes video. The video, by Berlin based Spanish artist Ignacio Uriarte is called  History of the Typewriter as Recited by Michael Winslow.  Michael Winslow, you might recall, is the guy in the Police Academy movies who could make all those sounds - I thought it was movies magic, but apparently he actually does make those sounds with his own mouth. This film uses Ken Burns style titles saying which typewriter model and its year, white on black, followed by a a clip of Michael Winslow making typing noises with mouth, microphone and some metal instrument he sometimes uses to manipulate his lips, (I think). This obviously has nothing to do with religion, except it does. We don't just live inside our heads. We live in a world where the keys I am tapping right now feel a certain way and do make a certain, soft sound. The chair under my bum feels, the floor under my socked and slippered feet has a feeling. The air moves or doesn't move; there are house smells. If the window is open there are outdoor sounds and smells. I hear my dog moving about, panting. I can hear the background noise of a TV downstairs. As I type this I am muttering the words (I have a writing technique that says I must say the words out loud as a kind of copy edit). In  a church there might be the smell of wax from candles and at Easter from a Beeswax Easter candle, the faint hint of incense perhaps, the feel of hard wood pews, floors either carpeted or not, and the air - don't forget the air - it might be still, or air conditioned, or smell of an aged building. Lighting might be bright and harsh, it might be old and soft. I attended a Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy once where the only lighting was from hundreds of tall, thin candles stuck in sand in chest high containers, providing a kind of flickering mystery that took the eye a while to adjust and allow a degree of normal vision. The typewriter film reminded me of this. The sound of a typewriter was something experienced as background for many from the 1880s into the 1980s, whether mechanical or electric. You did not notice it especially, but this video reminded me it is gone now, replaced by the soft, plastic tapping of fingers on computer keys on my laptop, and no sound at all when using a phone or tablet (except for the occasional swear word or strangled laugh when you hit the wrong letter or autocorrect 'dis-corrects'). There is some blending of old to new because I learned to touch type in High School and laptop and desk top keyboards are laid out the same way for the standard letters.

Anyway, all this reminded me that when studying religion - it does not matter which religion - ideas, words, texts are for those who are not religious professionals, merely the tip of a very large iceberg.