Sunday, August 28, 2011


Over the past month I have been re-thinking and re-writing my World Religions in Historical Perspective course.  Along with that I am finally making decent progress on the Religions of the World Portal for the Northern Blue Publishing Company ..... and, working away at my book length essay on religion and society in the Atlantic world.  This may sound like an awful lot of work, but it is not as much as it seems.  There is so much overlap that notes I take from one secondary source illuminate my thinking for all these book length essays.  For example, today I was reading J. Heath Atchley's, Encountering the Secular:  Philosophical Endeavors in Religion and Culture.  In this, Prof. Atchley brings a philosophers eyes to the secular.  He draws on many others, but is particularly entranced by Paul Tillich's 1964 book Theology of Culture.
To give one example how he has made me re-think basic concepts for all my studies of religion in history, he looks at the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and his thoughts on immanence.  He notes that Christianity claims to be both immanent and transcendent because the transcendent God came into the world as Jesus Christ.  Yet, the emphasis and focus of Christianity is on transcendence, on this immanent world as temporary and broken, and on a goal which is transcendent and eternal.  This led me to meditate on Judaism, which emphasized the immanent.  Judaism always had a weak concept of an after life.  In Judaism, the 613 mitzvot are rules for the here and now - how one lived now in the immanent is the focus of Judaism.  I thought too of Islam, which shares a focus on the transcendent with Christianity.  I then went through in my mind other religions in my World Religions course and writing, noting which combined immanence and transcendence, and which focussed on one or the other.  I have not yet come close to any fuller thoughts on this, but obviously I will need to integrate this philosophers' ideas into my courses and essays.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The King James or Authorized Version of the Bible

A BBC report on the re-re-discovery of an original printing of the KJV - my favourite translation of the Bible - not for its textual accuracy - scholarly understanding of Hebrew and Greek is more advanced now than in the 17th century, so modern translations are more technically accurate - but because I tend to see the world through the eyes of a poet, and the Authorized version, or as it is usually labelled, the King James version, is pure prose-poetry and elicits all the responses good poetry should in the human heart.

Here is the link [also linked if you click on the title of this post]

Wiltshire copy of KJV Bible

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Academic Study of Religion and Objectivity

On a listserv I follow, a poster cited the historian Garry Wills as an authority on Catholic history. Here is the response I posted:

Gary Wills?  No.  Email needs a gentle sarcasm emoticon.  Gary Wills is an example of a phenomenon labelled by anthropologists as 'going native'.  Let me explain.  Anthropologists do basic research using a technique called participant observation. They live over extended periods of time with the group they are studying, the object being acceptance to a degree that they see and experience things an outsider would miss. At the same time they must keep enough mental distance to retain a social scientific objectivity. Anthropologists all know stories of colleagues who went over this indistinct, shifting line and became members of the group they had set out to study, losing objectivity and becoming defenders, supporters, advocates rather than researchers.

Gary Wills was an excellent historian whose work can be read with profit.  Alas however, he did the equivalent to 'going native' for an academic historian. He became an advocate,
supporter, defender for a particular point of view rather than a researcher.

When I began my training as an historian of religion, my first mentor taught that one should study primarily outside your own faith group in order to avoid the temptation to 'go native'. This like most sage advice is most often ignored, but is still wise. Garry Wills's books on American history are highly thought of by fellow academics, but his books on Catholicism are not. He went native and lost the ability to be a good historian.