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. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Newfoundland and Anglicanism

I am in the process of writing a review of Beating Agains the Wind: Popular Opposition to Bishop Feild and Tractarianism in Newfoundland and Labrador, by Calvin Hollett.  The review is for a little journal called Fides et Historia, a Journal of the Conference on Faith and History. This is an excellent organization of evangelical scholars, mostly found in the many small church colleges in the United States. This may seem an odd place for a Catholic such as myself. But, their level of scholarship, camaraderie for any scholar of religion and sheer joy in their work welcome anyone serious about the history of religion. I subscribed for a few years until the pile of editions grew too high for my home library. Apparently they remembered me as an historian of Anglicanism and of Canada, so sent me a note asking if I would be interested in reviewing this book. I was and am.

The book is interesting in that it focusses on a particular aspect of the history of religion that is my own focus: the religion of the 'people in the pews' rather than the leaders, theologians, ecclesiastical structure and so on.

Thus far in my reading and thinking, the book does very well in unearthing the religiosity of mid 19th century Newfoundlanders. I wish I could say the same of the author's critique of Bishop Feild and more particularly of the Oxford Movement that Feild represented. I get the sense without good evidence Dr. Hollett is himself an evangelical as his tone seems to be one of opposition to anglo-catholicism (which he insists on calling tractarianism throughout) rather than scholarly detachment. It is no small matter either that his first name is Calvin. The insistence on the term tractarian is itself an indicator.  While the ritualism of the later anglo-catholicism did arise out of the Oxford movement, or Tractarianism, it is not equivalent. Tractarians or members of the Oxford Movement did not consider ritual to be important. They did consider that the church to be a divine institution which should not be controlled by the state. This was the genesis of their movement in fact. They were intellectuals, perhaps too much so except in the case of John Keble who spent the last 30 years of his life as a rural parish priest. He was an intellectual but one who lived happily among  his congregation and who in turn saw nothing distant about him. Anglo-Catholicism was focussed determinedly on ritual, to the point they were often labelled ritualists by their enemies, though not inaccurately. Feild was, if Dr. Hollett's description of the man is correct, a ritualist or Anglo-Catholic. Using the term tractarian is therefore misleading.

Anyway, I am learning about what Dr. Hollett calls the  kitchen Anglicanism of a people who were not urban in outlook or lifestyle. My studies focussed on urban culture and my conclusions suffered from a lack of a look at rural society.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A quick thought

I am marking final exams (well, actually those of you reading this post will note that I am procrastinating). Something a student said in the course of answering a particular question struck me as profound. That is, the student noted that religion prior to modernity was experiential and today is literal. That is, prior to the 'privileging' of doubt, religion was an experience, or rather an intrinsic part of the holistic experience of life. With the growth of literacy as part and parcel of modernity, religion became something one thought about and wrote about and talked about. The student said 'literal' however, not 'literate'. I don't know if this was a considered and deliberate word choice. But 'literal' is a more profound comment than that indicated by 'literate'.  We, today, do live in a literal world. This era is the age of seeing only the material. Where some Protestant Christians read the Bible 'literally', the semi-atheist majority here in the West read life literally. Life is about physicality: comfort, pleasure, happiness, indeed a world where pleasure and happiness are equivalent, and a horror of pain in any degree. This explains perhaps why 'assisted dying' is the new next best thing. The old Christian, Jewish and Muslim ideal of the sanctity of suffering is now seen as a form of madness, inexplicable to the literal mind. Externalized belief served to tear faith from its internal moorings and set it adrift to float with other aspects of thought such as science or pleasure or psychological state... all the components of the organic machines formerly called humans.

Well, back to marking.


Maybe I will take my dog for a walk.

Then do some more marking.