Thursday, December 19, 2013

Religion and Beauty

While doing my morning routine, I watched a YouTube video on classical Indian architecture, focussing on temples.  This got me to thinking about the old chestnut that the prime impact of religion on humanity is warfare.  This, to an historian, is of course demonstrable nonsense, but it is a meme that endures nonetheless.  The video got me thinking about the true impact of religion, speaking generally, on humanity. Religion has introduced another level of beauty into an already beautiful earth.  We humans take that which is here and refashion it according to our imaginations.  We sub-create, to use the term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. Only divinity truly creates and myself being a Christian, I would say only God creates.  Humanity sub-creates, that is, we take creation and being in the image of God, we refashion it into various forms of beauty.

I cast my mind and memory over examples of religious architecture.  Gothic cathedrals, Quaker meeting houses, grand mosques, Hindu temples, all represent the highest forms of beauty ever produced by humanity.  Our secular architecture always pales next to the religious. Even that great evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins said that he would miss Hindu temples if religion were to vanish.   Add to this great endeavour, the arts:  painting, sculpture, calligraphy, metal working, poetry, music, dance.

Religion has as its face, beauty.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Happiness.  I came across this in a student's discussion post where he disputed the fact that First Nations' peoples may have  been 'happy' to convert to Christianity.  This got me thinking about happiness and our pursuit of it in this modern world.  The Americans have it built into their Constitution as a human right.. not happiness itself, but the pursuit of same.  I may be reading history badly, but I don't think happiness was a goal of human societies, or even of individuals until the Enlightenment.  This is not to say a society or an individual might not be happy, either generally, or on occasion. In another discussion in another class, a student brought up one of those statistical studies that float through the ether these days which stated firmly [being the result of scientific research] that the Danes are the happiest people on earth, while being amongst the least religious. I wonder what Hamlet would have thought?


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Right brain/left brain and Religion/faith

For some years I was on a discussion list that purported to find a way to unity amongst Christian denominations.  At one time it had representatives from a range of churches, but in recent years there were mainly traditionalist Anglicans, some Catholics and occasional visits from extremists of various sorts.  It was going nowhere in terms of Christian unity, so I asked a Baptist friend who had no fear of engaging in dialogue to join as I wanted to  see what would  happen.  Well, it became obvious that the long term members could only think of  'the church' in terms of carefully defined and delineated structures, bound with clear rules. I could see at last why the purpose of this discussion list would never be realized, as they could not think outside the very precisely measured box they had constructed for themselves.

Today, I happened on a talk given by an English psychiatrist about the physical and mental structure and architecture of the human brain and mind - the old left brain/right brain dichotomy updated where the dichotomous was amputated from this understanding and replaced with a holistic view - but one which noted the particular features each hemisphere brought to this whole.

After watching it, I realized that the members of the fruitless discussion list all saw their faith from a left hemisphere dominant mode of thinking.  They were rational, but not reasoning - that is, they focussed on the particular and could not see the whole.  A properly functioning brain uses both to give us a full idea of the nature of life.  The left brain according to this psychiatrist [Dr. Iain McGilchrist] functions to focus narrowly and perceive in a wholly scientific mode - a kind of dissection of life into component parts, a view of life as a machine to be studied and which functions in a machine like fashion.  The right brain has the primary function of seeing holistically - of seeing life in a whole context.  Both are necessary to living, but our modern world gives primacy to the left hemisphere's view.  Hence we have constructed a world - which he opines began with the industrial revolution and the lifestyles necessary to the operation of industrialism - which has as its essence, the cogs in a machine view of life.  The now secondary right brain which sees life as a holistic, integrated, interoperating system, has been relegated to entertainment, rather than the serious business of functioning in the world.

Dr. McGilchrist did not talk about religion.  But immediately I began to see the left brain dominant position of the members of this list I had finally abandoned.

In religion, extremists are modernists in this sense - an irony indeed, in that they view religion as a rigid set of rules and practices that must be controlled and never deviated from - while ordinary believers, see religion in its context, as a part of a whole and full life, but which can be altered to fit reality, as it is part of reality.  A balanced mentality sees the left brain need for some structure, some large box to put it in those terms, or you do have chaos, but also sees that like all of life, context is vital and flexibility is more so to function within a context.

Anyway, I will probably view this talk again - and if I can scrape together the money, buy his book [alas, my finances are handled by my right hemisphere!].

I found the video in the excellent Big Ideas series by TVOntario - far better talks in my estimation that the much better known TED talks as the speakers here go into greater depth, not being limited to 10 or 15 minutes of sound bites while striding around a stage....

Here is the link:

Dr. Iaian Gilchrist: The Divided Brain

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Yesterday I showed some overall statistics for religions in the world, and more focussed numbers for Judaism to a class at the University of Guelph/Humber.  I made the usual cautions about the reliability of statistics and their use as only one tool in an historian's toolkit.  I then mentioned that stats are useful at least to give you broad indications of the place of religion in the world.  One statistic that stood out for me at the world wide level was for those with no affiliation - roughly 16% - which is about the same as appeared on Canada's 2001 census [the last reliable census data for religion in Canada BTW, perhaps forever....], and about the same proportion as social scientific data can winnow from surveys of Americans.  The statistic surprised me as I know from a recent article I read that there is a resurgence of religion in China, and other places where atheism had been imposed for some time.

I suppose it depends on  how one defines that difficult word, 'religion'.  Does it refer to the institutional aspect only?  Or does it refer primarily to that amorphous concept called faith?  Or both?  The study in Rethinking Secularism [edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen] by Richard Madsen, Secularism, Religious Change, and Social Conflict in Asia reports that in Asia, religion was traditionally a matter of ritual that bound families and communities together and did not necessarily need belief in the western understanding of religion.  That is, an individual who willingly took part in religious rituals - Buddhist, Taoist, or even Christian, in China did not necessarily accept all or even any of the doctrinal bases of these faiths.  The individual had a cultural acceptance of the need for communal ritual to bind society, and usually, local society/community together.  There may well be a poignant faith in an unseen order, but there may also be only a residual belief in this, or even none whatsoever.

This is something I must think more about, as it might apply more to the western world than I would have thought - at least to the West before the Protestant Reformation.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Prince Charles, champion of the holistic approach to life

Seeing this, I began to realize that the great juggernaut of industrialization relies upon a somewhat aberrant kind of language–a man-made one–which articulates a world view that ignores Nature’s grammar. Much of the syntax of this synthetic language is out of synchrony with Nature’s patterns and proportions and this is why it so often jars with the language of Nature. This is why so many Modernist buildings don’t feel ‘right’ to so many people, even though they may find them clever; or perhaps why we feel uncomfortable with factory farming, even though it makes economic sense because it supplies such a lot of food at such low prices; or why we feel something is missing from a form of medicine that treats the body like a machine and does not accommodate the needs of the mind or the spirit.
I find, by contrast, that if people are encouraged to immerse themselves in Nature’s grammar and geometry–discovering how it works, how it controls life on Earth, and how humanity has expressed it in so many great works of art and architecture–they are often led to acquire some remarkably deep philosophical insights into the meaning and purpose of Nature and into what it means to be aware and alive in this extraordinary Universe. This is particularly so in young people and the results of such immersion are as heartening as they are surprising.
The Prince argues that the modern rejection of the spiritual dimension of the universe led directly to the confrontation of fundamentalist secularism (materialist, atheist) with fundamentalist forms of religion (puritanical, literal). “Science can tell us how things work, but it is not equipped to tell us what they mean. That is the domain of philosophy and religion and spirituality.” But the religion we need has to be authentic, not an ideological substitute for the real thing. We need to get beyond those forms of tradition that have become empty shells or been corrupted by “mechanistic thinking.”

Prince Charles, as quoted by Stratford Caldecott in Prince Charles: Imaginative Conservative

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Religion Statistics and the Canadian Census

IIn 2010, the federal government decided to remove a whole series of statistical data from the legally required collection of census data in Canada. Since the first national census in 1871, Canadians have been asked to state their religion on the national census.  This is an obviously useful tool for historians of religion as well as for a host of other scholars and others.  In recent years the census was divided into two forms: a short form asking basic demographic questions every five years and a long form census sent using random sampling techniques to roughly 19% of the population.  Random sampling - an effective technique used in a sophisticated fashion in the social sciences and Humanities - was abandoned in the 2011 census conducted in May of that year.  While the National Households Survey, the questionnaire designed to replace the mandatory long form census, was sent to a variety of households, it is entirely voluntary.  This renders it useless, albeit interesting, to scholars.

As the chief statistician of Canada Munir Sheikh, said briefly and to the point after his resignation in protest over the voluntary nature of the NHS in 2010:

 “I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion ... the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census ... It cannot.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Patheos Portal and this Blog

Some time ago a colleague commented on a comment of my own that this blog was not as interesting as many appearing on the Patheos portal.

This has bubbled away in the background of my mind until this morning.  I jumped off my exercise machine [aka attempts to extend my life long enough for me to finish several books] to write my reaction before it evaporated from my misfiring synapses.

The Patheos portal - and most religious blogs - is primarily theological in its outlook.  That is, it contains blogs by theologians and by those who are employed professionally in Religious Studies departments or Departments of Religion, etc. at universities or seminaries.  I, on the other hand, am not a theologian, or a scholar trained in the religious studies stream.  I am firstly an historian.  My special focus and interest is the history of religion and of spirituality - I say 'and' here, but that is a mistake - students of mine will know my terms 'religio' and 'spiritus', two labels I invented to stick onto institutional religion and onto the sense of the numinous that individuals feel either as individuals or in a community of believers [or, non-believers!].  But I must develop this further to emphasize that they are integrated and integral to one another - humans are social animals mostly, and we experience 'spiritus' as part of a group - we 'feel' it inside our own heads and hearts, but reinforcement, growth, ... watering and feeding of spiritus comes from a community.

Well, what does this tangent have to do with my approach and my reasoning for not entering this blog as part of the Patheos portal?  Well, as an historian, my principle interest is the integration and dis-integration of religion into culture [that is, in its anthropological sense, not its 'artistic' sense] and how this changes over time.  Theology is a part of this picture, but for my interests a lesser part.  In the Patheos portal, theology takes pride of place and is central.  I am less interested in what religious professionals, well, profess...than I am in how real people function as religious and spiritual beings in society over time.  As an historian, I focus in this blog on the overall social and cultural setting of religion and all the factors in this maelstrom called life.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Experience of Religion: Buddhism and Consumerism in Collision

FromW05 - the first is by a student that term, the second by my daughter who attended the same event:

I thought that I would share this amusing story with everyone. Last year I went to see the Dalai Lama at Sky Dome because I was interested in his words and Buddhism in general. There was no crowd control at the ticket boxes at the Sky Dome, or proper lines set up, it was just a mass of people pushing each other to get through to buy tickets. At one point some crazy forty-year-old man, who had his wife and kid with him lost control and started punching a teenager who he thought cut in front of him for tickets. My friend and I couldn't believe this and restrained the guy and pushed him out of the area. This sparked other people to start pushing and swearing at each other; it was unbelievable. Here was a spiritual leader who came to Toronto to talk about peace and toleration, his tour was called the power of compassion, and people were going nuts and fighting each other. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

Also, I was expecting some kind of spiritual enlightenment or at least spiritual atmosphere at this event. But it is here that I really realized the importance of religious venue. The Catholic Church I attended for this assignment, I thought, did a pretty good job of creating a spiritual environment through the architecture of the church and structure of the ceremony. When I was at the Sky Dome to hear the Dalai Lama speak, it was absolutely impossible to experience anything spiritual because of the venue. At the Sky Dome, one is surrounded by B. S. advertisements, and other marketing nonsense. The Sky Dome is so big and empty, cold and gray that it made a spiritual feeling during the Dalai Lama's talk unattainable. The talk would have had a much higher spiritual impact if it had taken place at a temple or in a field with a natural setting.

AND, from my daughter who is a Buddhist:

I have always been attracted to the notion of Buddhism, I knew a little from my undergrad but it wasn't until after my daughter was born that I really felt drawn to it as a religion, a way to structure my life. I am not sure why this happened when it did, it must have been a divine, karmic intervention. Anyway, I studied with a Thai Monk for a year and then set out on my own to try and keep Buddhism in my way. When I heard that the Dalai Lama was coming to T.O. I made sure that I would attend his talk, as a means to continue my spiritual growth. I guess that I envisioned it as a pilgrimage of sorts like those one sees on t.v. and in the movies. I hoped to be moved. Well I was moved, but not in ways I had expected. My first taste of what was to come occurred when I realized that my group would be paying 20$ to park our car miles from the event. As we trudged through the rain to our entrance, we were met with some joyful, some sullen faces, and many who appeared to be there for show. When the lines began to move in, people began to jostle one another, shoving to get in. Once inside, the chaos stepped up a notch. I recall feeling as I imagined survivors of some horrible natural disaster would feel, trying to stay close to those you knew while strangers ran idiotically around you, making it hard to walk together. People were rude, yelling to one another, shoving, desperate to rush to their assigned seat. Insanity was all around and closing in. Heaven forbid you had to use the washroom!!! Where was the love, the compassion, the concern for fellow man? Where was the letting go of the material, of all that binds us??
Once we fought our way to our seats this surreal experience continued to unfold. As I tried to get in the mood, as I tried to listen to this man I admired, whose presence itself moved me, whose words made me glad, I found it difficult to block out the hockey game mentality and disrespect running rampant around us. I watched couples looking for their seats while juggling hot dogs, pop and a jumbo popcorn (a more economical choice, for only 50 cents more). I looked around for the beer stand as I watched another man saunter back to his seat, munching on his pizza slice, seemingly oblivious that a few feet away was the icon and spiritual leader of Tibet. I anticipated the ads around the stadium, but I did not expect the actions of those filling it to be disrespectful, so self indulgent and self centered. I am glad I went, as I wanted to hear him speak, however, I would have liked it if somebody's mother had at somepoint knocked some manners into those around me.

The Experience of Religion: Hinduism

Now Hinduism:

from Winter 2004 

I know this is off topic but I have a couple of Hindu stories that my mom had to memorize in the form of poems in school in India.  I think this gives insight into how the Hindu's viewed the poor people in their society or the untouchables.

The first one is very short and is more like a anecdote than a story:
Some background into the story before my mom told it to me is that the untouchables were the only caste that were not allowed inside the temple but worshipped directly outside of it.  They came to the temple and prayed and offered whatever they had to the deities that were carved on the outside of the temple.   I found this interesting because we can see these deities clearly carved outside of the temple to Vishnu.
So an untouchable came to pray outside of the temple and stood in the corner silently praying to a bare wall and one of the statues inside the temple is said to have turned right around and faced the untouchable praying outside the temple instead of the people of higher caste inside the temple.
The second story she told me is a little longer one, forgive me for the fragments of both the stories, parts may be missing but the main point is still intact!
There as a rich man with a big house and every morning a poor beggar would come to the house.  The rich man would feed the beggar everyday but this day the rich man was going to the temple with his family to give a special offering to one of the deities, so when the beggar came to his house he just shooed him away without even stopping to talk to him.  That day the man and his family got ready to go to the temple by grooming themselves and cleaning their house.  They prepared an ornate offering by putting fresh fruits, fresh flowers, and lots of pearls on a gold tray to sacrifice to the deity. 
When the man took the tray of beautiful things to the temple he went to the altar where the deity was and bowed before it.  When he looked up the stature of the deity had disappeared and what was left was the poor beggar standing there in its place.  The deity had come to the man in the form of a beggar and he had chased him away, disregarding him.  The moral of the story:  the gods are not only in the temple but present in the poor and in everyday life.  This story was told to the higher class people to be good to the poor despite their place in the caste system because the deities don't care what caste an individual is in. 

The experience of religion - Islam

Here from S13 is a discussion by a student this term about Ramadan:

our group discussion, the topic of the Muslim month of Ramadan came about. I thought it would be nice to share some information about this month for the rest of the students!
Every year, Muslims have a month called Ramadan. Muslims follow the lunar calendar (it's more accurate than the solar calendar) so the months shift by 10 days every year. We still have 7 week days and 30 day months, all without the need for a leap year every four years.
So we have Ramadan, and Ramadan is a very holy month. During this month, Muslims who have passed the stage of maturity are required to fast during daylight hours. This means that from sunrise to sunset, we do not eat or drink. When the sun is down, we are allowed to eat and drink as normal.
Muslims fast primarily so that they can realize what it is like to be poor without food, and this helps them become more generous and give to those that don't have as much. It helps them realize about the plight of people around the world who do not have anything to eat.
I must say that this month really opens up one's eyes. In this rich Western society we do not appreciate food to the extent that we should. We throw away so much, meat, vegetables, grains, etc. We know that people around the world do not have it. But like they say, you do not appreciate what you have until it is taken away.
And it is during this month that you actually appreciate the food that you have. There is nothing like abstaining from water for 12 hours to make you realize how sweet and precious it really is. It puts things into perspective. You realize that you have been blessed with sustenance, and that others are not as lucky.
The hunger that you feel all day also serves as a reminder to protect you from other sins. Because hunger is a constant feeling, you are continually aware that you are fasting, and therefore continually mindful of God.
So if you are tempted to lie, or steal or cheat etc you won't do it because you're constantly reminded that you're fasting for God, and you're constantly reminded that God doesn't want you to commit those other sins. The hunger reminds you that God is always present and that you must live your life morally.
This whole deal lasts for a month because that is a sufficient time to build habit - if you abstain from sins like lying or cheating or stealing for a whole month, it's probably going to become a habit for you so even after the month is done you'll still be living with goodwill. So, the month is like a yearly rejuvenation for Muslims that makes us better people in general!
Fasting also has incredible heath benefits. It's good for your metabolism and stamina, acts as a detox session, and allows you to burn off a lot of excess fat. In a week I lost several pounds, all fat. When I look in the mirror I can see my muscle tone more clearly, which is definitely a plus. So all in all it's a whole month of rejuvenation, spiritually and health wise as well!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Finality and Digital Work

Corey Pressman on Finality in Print and Digital

One of the signal events of religious history was the Reformation in western Europe in the 16th century and onwards [an argument can be made that the 'reformation' is an ongoing process].  I say 'signal' - an archaic use of this word meaning an event whose importance signalled profound change - because the reformation of western Christianity came to have an impact on cultures and religions around the world. This impact was driven by the expansion of western European society to most of the rest of the world, and through the competition for souls between protestant and catholic states.  Protestantism was primarily carried by the British, who although officially Anglican, dragged along all sorts of evangelical  institutional modes and habits of thought in their wake.

Print culture was and is, intrinsic to reformed Christianity.  Christianity in the West prior to movable type and the paper necessary to printing and Christianity in the East did not require a print culture - although reading and the text of the Bible were fundamental. This Christian culture was oral and tactile, appealing to the senses firstly and with its intellectual component largely confined to those who inhabited the very small cadre of educated, reading individuals - mostly monastics and by the 16th century as a product of the Renaissance, a handful of educated lay people.

Cheap, widely disseminated printed material began to make western Christianity over into an intellectual and rational pursuit.  

Corey Pressman's thoughts linked above look at the factor of finality being integral to print culture.  To compress his thoughts, printing of books produces a product that by its physical nature, must have a beginning, a middle and, most tellingly, an end.  Each book [or pamphlet or essay] is a complete, unitary, self-contained physical and intellectual, object.  Amendments, arguments can be made - glossing is the most obvious [and incidentally, hated by librarians in my generation] - and other self-contained printed objects [books] are produced to add to or contradict those books.  So, books are final, but not wholly so.

This does not detract, however, from the advent of the internet, its chief aspect these days, the world wide web, and more recently, eBooks.  The net and web and eBooks have shattered, or are shattering  I should say, the finality of print.  Print culture went a long way to training our minds to think and comprehend in a linear, beginning, middle and end fashion.  The net and the web and now eBooks, are retraining us to think in a fashion similar to that of our oral culture ancestors.  We can produce a website, or eBook which has a beginning, middle and end - but that product is merely one link in a non-linear web of other objects that the thinker can leap around on in a non-linear fashion.  Print-based publishing companies are attempting to put this new wine into their old wine skins, but these skins are bursting all over the place.  

In my World Religions online course at the University of Guelph I have begun to seek a new wineskin for the new wine - gradually moving away from total linearity.  There are 12 units.... with an introduction and a conclusion.. but there is also now a 'star field' graphic which groups religions against the backdrop of a stellar scape by cultural type, and in which students can click on any of these and jump across hyperspace to that religion.  I have also introduced [gently] the use of the Prezi presentation tool, rather than power point type tools, because it too can present material from a bird's eye view, showing linkages, rather than a linear, cause and effect presentation.  I am mindful always of the old logical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc.....

In terms of religion itself - well, the Reformation ingrained in us the idea of a linear text governing our understanding of our own faith and of religion in general.  These are early days, but I wonder at the eventual impact of the shattering of linearity which seems possible, if not probable, on faith...


Monday, May 20, 2013

Three books worth reading

I purchased three books on Amazon which I read mostly on my iPad, but they sync across devices so I can pick them up here in my home office, or while standing in line at the grocery store, on my iPhone.

I have finished two, and have just begun the third and, to me, most interesting [and difficult].

First: another tour de force of historical research and analysis by Eamon Duffy:

Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition  sub-titled Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations.

This book operates on two levels - its primary goal of understanding the English Reformation, and on a secondary level Prof. Duffy discusses the issue of subjectivity in the study of religion.  To address this second point first, Eamon Duffy is a practicing Catholic, noted in his academic work for his mostly successful revision of interpretations of the Reformation in England.  The traditional tale says the Catholic church by the 16th century was corrupt, and although Henry VIII did not have pure motives, Catholicism was merely waiting for a push to collapse in on itself.  Duffy, along with other revisionist historians, managed through a veritable deluge of finely research evidence, to show that the English reformation was not a popular movement.  He also demonstrated that Catholicism in England was deeply rooted in the cultural landscape.  Later revisions of the revision have modified this but have left untouched this basic premise.  G.W. Bernard, for example, has to some extent rehabilitated Henry VIII's religious opinions in favour of the reform, and Nicholas Tyacke has demonstrated the popularity of the reform in certain parts of Britain - well, I should say, England... as the reform seems evidently to have been popular in Scotland and Wales.

In Part I, Prof. Duffy deals with this secondary issue, in Part II, he presents his usual close study of material  evidence.  The third section,  however, is worth reading all on its own.  Here  he gives three holistic analyses of John Fisher, Thomas Cranmer and Reginald Pole.  There is much written about the famous [or if you are an English Catholic, infamous] first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, but very little on Fisher or Pole.  They usually play stock figures and supporting roles in this play.  I am, myself, a great fan of using biography to make great social movements in history understandable.  I began that practice years ago in a course I taught once at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario. In Religion and Society in Canada, I described the cultural turn in mid 19th century Canada by giving a  lecture or two comparing John Strachan, Egerton Ryerson and Ignace Bourget.  So, perhaps I am biased over the quality of this third part of Duffy's book, but this is my blog!  I suggest that if you read just this part of the book, you will come out at the other end with a more profound understanding of the Reform in England than you will by grappling with material evidence, documents, psychological studies of Henry VIII, or the politics of the time.

To give you an overview [you will actually have to read this yourself, if you want more], the English Reformation, unlike that in the German-speaking lands, was a complex of motives, but was more like the process of Reform in Scandinavia.  That is, it owed more to the desire for independence from Rome by the monarchy, than it did to agreement with the theological positions of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, or Jean Calvin - or indeed the so-called radical reform movement.   The English Reformation is often decried as being lightweight theologically, but was more intense in that regard than the reform in Sweden, for example, which was also driven forward by the monarchy.  The English reform was comfortable with the culture of England at the time.  Duffy does not point this out, but his years of research into material religion both before and after reform show a land where religion was tactile and sensory rather than ideological or theological in the scholastic sense.  This explains a lot about the future nature of the Church of England, even to the present day.  Anglicanism world wide is less about theology and more about the 'feel' of faith.

Second:  The Reformation:  A Brief History by Kenneth G. Appold

Dr. Appold is an open advocate of the Reformation.  Some of the reviews of this book praise it for dealing with the 'reformations' rather than the traditional view of the 'Reformation' - but I don't see it.  While he does deal with some interesting areas seldom presented in histories of the Reforms - Scandinavia and Hungary, for example - the meat of the book discusses the reform movement in German-speaking central Europe as though nothing else existed.  He does not follow the traditional pattern of dealing only with theology, or perhaps to be fair, treating theology as though it was the whole of the Reforms - he goes deeply into the culture of pre-reformation Europe and how the reform movement was received by all aspects of European society then - from 'peasants' [ a term that jars on me] to ruling aristocrats.  For someone new to the study of this profound cultural shift, the sections of his book on Luther, Zwingli and Calvin are superb.  The book should be read in conjunction, however, with Duffy's work above - as Dr. Appold ignores the Reform in England entirely - in all of Britain for that matter.  This lacuna is deeply puzzling as one cannot truly see the 'Reformation' as 'reformations' without including the peculiar case of England.  He deals fairly with the issue of Catholic reform, but not in the deeply motivated fashion he does with the magisterial reformers.  His short work would have been improved if he had included a short section matching that by Duffy on the influence of personal belief on one's work.  Dr. Appold too often takes his personal preferences as representing self-evident truths, rather than the subjectivity which is an inevitable part of all historical research and writing.

Third:  Rethinking Secularism, edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Jeurgensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen.

This is a collection of essays on secularism, secularization, religion, faith and their complex interrelationships presented by a coterie of scholars:  sociologists, anthropologists, historians, etc. I have only just begun reading it, but it is a must read for anyone interested in the current state of thinking on this topic.  I do like a term introduced in the first and introductory essay:  secular imaginary - that is, the idea that the nature of the world about us is imagined in a fashion that looks at cause and effect in isolated categories - isolated from each other - and not in a holistic sense.  Thus if you are working in finance in some way  or business, you would come to grapple with the markets without reference to faith, or if you are in the medical field you study biology and disease and surgery without reference to faith.  In other words, your daily life is lived without considering faith in any practical sense.  Well, I won't say more as I am not even finished reading this first essay, let alone the whole book.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Even in Turkey

Turkey, the only secular Islamic state [secular:  defined as the separation of the institutions of government from religion - NOT as the lack of religious faith] has moved to block this plot, but it is troubling, nonetheless

Plot to Murder Patriarch of Constantinople

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Martin Luther and Tim Berners-Lee

I published most of this post on my other blog on writing - but it belongs here also..... the only change I have made is to add this brief note and to the title.

I am reading the Reformation: a Brief History by Kenneth G Appold. In the current section he is describing the sources of his radical re-interpretation of Christianity. The author goes on to describe the political manoeuvrings around Luther - why he was at first ignored, then the politics of bringing him to trial, or at least debate. This occurred between the time of the posting of the 95 theses in 1517 and 1521, when Luther was excommunicated. In this period a pamphlet war was engaged.

What this all says to me is two factors had changed - one the rise of individualism and the other the necessity of reading and of relatively cheap material to read. Reading is an essentially individual activity - this is not to say it is necessarily private - one can read out loud, one publishes [as here] for others to read. But writing and reading are the dissemination of internal, personal and individual thought.

The Protestant Reformation is usually, and quite sensibly, approached as a revolution in religion - but it can be seen from another angle if you turn it on its side. The Reformation was a cultural turn from the mediaeval world of communal and oral life where what you knew, you knew because others said it to you and you said it to others as you lived your life in a small community. Learning was also visual and tactile. Words and sight and touch moved in a dance of reinforcement, integrated into the oral and communal life of people.

The Reformation is the label historians of religion stick onto a cultural change in western Europe - religion being integral to culture and culture to religion [I use the term 'culture' here in its anthropological sense, of course, as the 'total way of life of a people'].

Reading and writing came to the fore for a growing class of intellectuals in that broad, other cultural movement called the Renaissance. The dissemination of ideas now rocketed off in all directions with the new technology of communication called the printing press, movable type, and paper. This new form of mass communication could not be contained by the old 'powers-that-be', at that time aka the 'Church'. I will here give the standard 'historian's caveat' - this did not all happen at once - the 'Church', now much constrained and limited to far fewer lands than before [well ... and another caveat - European lands, because at this same time, the old religion was busily establishing itself in the Americas and on other continents]. Anyway, this did not all happen at once because there was not to be one Reformation, but rather, 'reformations' - Luther's ideas dominated the northern German and Scandinavian lands, but other Reformations took hold - those of Jean Calvin most importantly, but also the state reformed Catholicism of England, and the small persecuted groups of so-called anabaptists.

Again my point in all this is this cultural turn came out of a perfect storm of multiple changes. The change that interests me here, in this blog, is the very change I am a part of in the 21st century -the communications revolution. To put the Reformations in a modern mode - Luther's ideas went viral - and just as ideas spread via the internet today, were altered and changed as they spun there way across western European society.

Those who defended the old ways - principally what we today call the Catholic Church, or the Roman Catholic church, which until the ideas of Luther went viral, simply, 'The Church', was changed - adapted to the new reality of a war of words and of control over communication.

So too today, email, instant messenger programs, YouTube, facebook, twitter, Linkedin, cell phone cameras, self published eBooks, website, ftp..... I have probably missed something here - constitute the technological drivers of another cultural revolution not seen in the world since the printing press and movable type and paper.

What is the 'church' today? Well for a writer such as myself, it is the legacy publishers, the academic presses, peer review old style, copyright law. What is the Reformation (s) today? Smashwords, Creative Commons licensing, the world wide web [not to be confused with the internet - the WWW is a part of the internet], experiments in online peer review for academics [for example, the History Working papers project ] , wikipedia.

Who is our Luther? Probably, Tim Berners-Lee who created the first web page and convinced his supporters at CERN where he then worked to give it to the world and built into it the protocols that prevented any one 'church' [as in big computer company] from owning or controlling it. The essence of the WWW is that it cannot be owned or controlled and this philosophy still very much has driven all the changes that I write about in this blog.

All this is something of a personal irony for me, as I am a Roman Catholic - but the double irony is I belong to the Church of Rome, not by birth, but by my individual choice. There is a triple layer of irony also - I belong not through cold reason - an intellectual assent to theological fact, but because I am also an heir of the Romantic movement and enjoy the wafting scent of faux mediaevalism and of even older memories stretching back to the world of imperial Rome.

Ah well, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and to the technological revolution that brought about computers and the internet, I am liberated to choose and write as I will - but thanks even more so to the much older cultural revolution of the early modern era, the essence of which is the rise of the individual and individual ideas.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


I borrowed an interesting little book from the university library, Sufism:  A Global History, by Nile Green.  Only 263 pages including index and notes it is giving me some much needed depth on the Sufis of Islam [I have not yet finished reading].  But something else is happening.  I read a review prior to borrowing the book, where the reviewers said Nile Green manages to give you an overview of the history of Islam itself - at least from the 9th century onward in the course of this study.

At the same time, I am attending in virtual form a lecture from iTunes University and Oxford University on my iPad while on kitchen duties.  This one is a talk by Dan Robinson on Kant - called 'What is Kant's "project".  I have had a side interest in Philosophy for many years, and a regret I never studied this discipline formally as an undergraduate.  I mention this lecture series because it too, while focussed on one philosopher, is providing me with the philosophical context within which Kant produced his Critique of Pure Reason.  I am 2/3 of the way through the first lecture in the series, and I have had good summaries of David Hume and Thomas Reid.

Nuggets of gold contained in a rich river where one does not discard any part.

Sufism: A Global History by Nile Green

For those who do not have access to iTunes U, here is the web podcast - for no reason I can ascertain, they are not in order, so you must scroll down to find lecture 1/8

Dan Robinson, 'Just what is Kant's 'Project"'

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Worst Thing

The worst thing that has ever happened to Christianity was its legalization in 313 and then the subsequent adoption as the 'official' religion of the ancient Roman state - empire.  From this time on, Christianity became integrated into the power structure of the times.  Germanic and Slavic tribal 'kingdoms' saw the uses of Christianity as chief ally to the achievement and maintenance of power.  Evangelical reformers in the West in the 16th century saw the same, as did Catholic powers. Orthodox Christians in non-Christian lands saw it as a communal defence mechanism.  Christian ethics and morals were supported in the more liberal democracies as a route to common ethics and morals even where Christianity in recent times was implicit rather than explicit.

What we know of the historical Jesus - and what those of us who are Christians, believe about the Christ,  show a man or an incarnate aspect of the Trinity who was not integrated into the power structures of his day  and did not seek that.

On the other hand, neither is there any historically disciplined evidence, or supporting exegesis  that he supported an overthrow of secular power structures - at least not in a direct fashion.

What was taught in word and deed, was to think outside the box, to put it in modern terms.  The proposal - and that is what Christianity is at one level - a proposal - was to change an individual's personal approach to others.  This is a truly revolutionary idea.  Standard issue revolutions merely put in place another regime which over time devolve into the same old thing.  Only a personal alteration of how one views the world about you holistically and organically is truly revolutionary.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

communications technology and religion

Cross posted from my History of Religion facebook page:

A TED talk that, on the surface, does not deal with religion at all - but given the interrelated nature of literacy, printing and the 16th century reform of western European Christianity - and the ongoing impact of communications technology on the Muslim Arab world... and the damaging failure of Christianity outside of evangelical Protestantism to understand new technologies.....

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cultural conflict

The conflict between ultra Orthodox and ultra liberal Judaism continues in Israel

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Torah and the nature of scripture

The scriptures of the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are often regarded as unitary books. In the case of the Qur'an this is true - alternate versions having been destroyed under orders by the third Rashidun Caliph Uthman.  This is not so, however, for Judaism and less so for Christianity.  While Christians acknowledge two basic divisions for their sacred scripture - the Old Testament and the New Testament - and also acknowledge that these are comprised of various separate books - they are meant to be read as a whole.

For Judaism, the Torah came to form the basic Scripture of this religion - but added to it were other books, the group known as the Prophets and a final body of literature known simply as the Writings.

What makes these scriptures different - and which also allows Christian scriptures to be included in this categorization - is their form.  While the Qur'an was told to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel as the direct words of God - the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity take the form of the story of God's relationship with the Jews, then with their successors, the Christians.  That is, they form a collection of narrative tales which contain lessons for the proper relationship of humanity to divinity, rather than a collection of precepts.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The New Religion

Science as religion - all this new creed lacks is a sense of community - it gives a creation account, provides a sense of worth for the individual and has its preachers:

In the beginning was the code

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Creativity and sub-creativity

I started to watch a TED talk [not by me ....:-)) this morning where a digital artist was talking about creativity - he mentioned how difficult it is to create something from nothing.  A throw away line of course, or a meme - but that got me to thinking about J.R.R. Tolkien [bear with me!] - Prof. Tolkien was a devout Christian and believed that only God creates - that is, only God has or can produce 'something' from 'nothing'.  Tolkien believed that humans 'sub-create' - that is they re-assemble existing forms, ideas, things, and so on, into new forms.... but that we cannot by our nature begin with a literal nothing.

Now, to be fair, I suppose the fellow giving this talk was using the term 'creativity' in its general sense, and not in a theological or philosophical sense - or indeed, in a scientific sense.  Scientists too, after all creatively re-arrange matter to suit humanity's purposes, or just out of curiosity.

The TED talk:

Aaron Koblin:  Artfully visualizing our humanity

And J.R.R. Tolkien:

” The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. . . The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. . . in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; FaĆ«rie begins; Man becomes sub-creator.” 

from:  Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2006. pg 122. found here: