Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Jesus was anti-religious

I have been tasting a bit of Tillich's thoughts lately - just a small pdf where he answered questions from an evangelical Christian student about his concept of 'ultimate concern'.  Religious philosophy is interesting sometimes and at others times induces sleepiness. But in this case what interested me was Tillich saying that neither Jesus nor the Buddha were religious. 

What I take from this is related to two artificial concepts I use when I teach history of religion at the university level.  I borrowed two terms from Latin and twisted them somewhat:  religio and spiritus. By religio I mean the institutional face of religion - structured, organized Christian denominations, Islamic mosques and nations, synagogues, temples, rules, regulations, theologies, philosophies.  By spiritus I mean the inner spirituality of the individual believer or believers in groups. Despite the best hopes, efforts and often threats (both theological threats and physical!) of religious professionals, ordinary believers often only share partially in the official dogma and doctrine of a religion.  In situations where religion and the state work in tandem, this spiritus may be hidden and outwardly all believers conform.  In the democratic West, where believers used to conform outwardly due to social pressures, now pretty much anything goes. This does not mean, however, that the two never touch.  Actually they are tangled up together, but just in an asymmetrical fashion.

Being a simple historian in the British empiricist tradition, I was left confused as to what Tillich meant by saying neither Jesus nor the Buddha were religious, so I squeezed this thought into my own wineskin (see Matthew 9:17 "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”). Both Jesus and the  Buddha broke the rules of their religions and the societies within which they were integral.  Jesus the Jew and Siddhartha the Hindu poured their truth into new wineskins. That is, they were filled with spiritus but not so much followers of religio.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Rethinking Secularism: preliminary thoughts

I am reading through again a collection of essays called Rethinking Secularism.  I've gone through the first article by Charles Taylor and am deep into José Casanova's contribution, but have read the entire book through once before.

First some general thoughts:  the volume has 14 contributors of whom one is an historian, one is a philosopher, one is an anthropologist and the remaining 11 are divided between sociologists and political scientists, which gives the volume a heavily theoretical ambience.  I, as an historian,  long for a clearer foundation in actual events upon which to build this theoretical edifice.  Having said this, the book is thought provoking.

The first article, by Charles Taylor follows the sophisticated twists and turns one expects of a philosopher and in the second by José Casanova, the careful constructions expected equally of a sociologist.  But getting to the essence of their arguments one sees an agreement that 'secularism' and the process 'secularization' are to them a 'western' phenomenon and not a general theory of human development as, for example, evangelical atheists such as Richard Dawkins claim.  They both see the roots of secularism (of course, to make their case they have to 'do' history!) in the development within western Christendom of a dualism of this world and the next, a division of life both lived and conceived in Latin Christianity into a dyad of separate spheres. They do not see this process occurring outside of 'western' Christianity.

So far so good, says this historian.  But.....

What exactly do they mean by 'western' Christianity?  I think they mean the long running show the Catholic church centred in Rome and its spin-off series, Protestant Christianity. Here they see a commonality of conceiving existence as being a dyad of this world and the next which over time morphed into an emphasis on life in this world and eventually to varying degrees of rejection of the importance or even existence of, the next world. Thus today you see a spectrum ranging from those who are fully religious and structure their lives around preparation for the still separate next world,  to those on the other end who reject the existence of the next world utterly, and the vast majority lying at different points between these two extremes.  Most of the middling sort lie closer to the atheist end of the spectrum than the believer end.

My problems with these two approaches and also with their underlying similarity lies in the lack of contextual nuance.  Both see secularism's roots as beginning with a late mediaeval emphasis on this world vs the next.  Yet this part of their separate yet similar  analyses miss all the historical research on the mediaeval mentality where this world and the next are fully blended - a world of enchantment as Charles Taylor put it in  his book A Secular Age.  I would argue that this  lack of separation continued and even continues for a much longer time than they postulate. You see this most clearly where ordinary believers find their regular practice of religion (not only personal faith - but practice within an institutional setting) threatened in some fashion.  I saw this in my own close study of individual congregations in late 19th century Canada. 

'Doing' religion is intrinsic to any religion and is far more important and necessary to any religion than a stadium filled with arguing philosophers and sociologists. A close look at the evidence over time does show a theological emphasis on this world in contradiction to the next, but turning the lens of research onto how populations 'do' their religion reveals something quite different.  One sees an overall and an individual concern to live one's faith, to breathe it in.  Where a break occurs, following the research of the Canadian historian Michael Gauvreau and the British historian Callum Brown,  is in the mid to late 20th century.  This is when you begin to see large numbers of people abandoning the public and private practice of Christianity in the western world.  The ruminations of philosophers and social scientists over late mediaeval roots for this  turn are interesting and part of the puzzle, but miss too much.  Why so late in the day?  The evidentiary thread is so long and so thin attempting to connect a mid 20th century cultural change with a theological turn 500 years earlier causes me to put on the scholarly brakes. There is no good  evidence of such a change of any social significance during that 500 year span.  It all seems to happen very rapidly within a 20-30 year period in the second half of the 20th century.  Callum Brown notices this and postulates it is connected somehow to the feminist movement of the 1960s and the resultant abandonment of Christianity by women in western societies.  This is a good start, but the theoretical work of philosophers, sociologists and political scientists desperately needs some 'in the trenches' research by historians to provide an evidentiary foundation for their thinking, if indeed they are correct.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Violence and Recent Events here in Canada

Like most Canadians, I was moved, transfixed and altered to some degree by the events in Ottawa.  I was affected too by the death of Patrice Vincent in Québec, but in that case it was the historian who reacted, alas, not my affective human self.  But that death was what did get me thinking about violence and the nature of war and the relationship of religion to violent acts.  These were inchoate thoughts, mulled over in spare moments until the attack in Ottawa.

I wondered at first if these two were the actions of random mentally unstable individuals, but that seemed unlikely, given their personal histories and recent conversions to that perversion of Islam personified presently in ISIS/ISIL. As much as commentators as diverse as a neighbour and the radio host John Moore, or those wild individuals who post anonymously on the net might like to assign these actions to random violence perpetrated by individuals with no meaning beyond that, I cannot agree.

At this point in my ongoing internal analysis I have some tentative conclusions, and I stress they are carefully tentative.

First:  there is enough evidence to understand that a certain type of individual, citizens of this country,  is attracted to the ideology of radical Islam.  They are particularly attracted to ISIS/ISIL because of that groups skilful use of social media, in videos particularly. From sketchy media reports, these individuals, who come from English-speaking western countries (though they may also come from other western countries; I simply do not know this one way or the other), are usually young males. Most of them seem to be the sort of young male who has been in trouble in petty ways with the law - drugs, assaults, small crimes, regardless of their upbringing.  But another group are reported as being stable, friendly, popular and 'ordinary' individuals who changed fairly rapidly.  But virtually all of them are young men.

Second:  Even where the label, 'mentally unbalanced' can justifiably be applied as perhaps in the two recent incidents, their unbalanced violent rage was pointed at targets symbolic of western civilization in a deliberate fashion by social media produced by ISIS/ISIL.  These individuals may well have killed, but they would have lashed out at some other target that offended their mental states, rather than the military and parliament.

At this moment in time, I rate arguments that this violence is fundamentally random as specious.  As I wrote on my Facebook page this is a new sort of warfare, that uses social media to inspire unpredictable violent acts that in former circumstances would have been unreachable by combatants half a world away from us.

We have here two conflicting ideals of human civilization.  On the one hand the form developed over the past thousand years or so in what is loosely called 'the West'. Historians happily debate the roots, but Christian ideals of the intrinsic worth of each individual are part of that mix.  This idealization of the individual person grew slowly over a thousand or more years, given large boosts in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the gradual expansion of democracy, and the wild explosion of individualism that is the marque of the present day. It is a messy civilization, where corporate interests of businesses, governments, schools and so on conflict and swirl around with individual desires for expression, all loosely held together in a constantly evolving ferment. Part of this ferment is religion - in this case, religion adopted by and more importantly, adapted by, individual desires. In this bubbling cauldron, we have individuals choosing to change their religion, reject religion entirely, accept wholly the traditional beliefs of one faith, or choose which bits and pieces to accept or reject.  An observer from far above would see a unity of individualism held together by social chewing gum and tape, but constantly disassembled and reassembled.

Opposed to this, is an ideal for human civilization that demands a unity of faith, of purpose, of political organization.  This is an old ideal.  'Western' civilization observed it when that concept called 'Christendom' still prevailed.  Islam observed it when there was a single Caliphate in the first centuries of that religion.  The ideal of a holistic society composed of believers who integrated civil and religious under a single successor of the Prophet ('Caliph' being the anglicized word for 'kalifah' or 'successor') or Caliph.  This was a unitary idea for society, where others were tolerated only where they stayed to themselves and paid special taxes, and was tolerant in that situation.  This new 'caliphate' self-declared, has perverted this original idea and sets about killing those who do not adhere to its dictates. Mercy was a central teaching of Muhammed, and these 'successors' have decided to abandon his central teachings in this regard.

I doubt these two ideals for civilization can exist together in the same space.  They can of course, tolerate each other so long as they live in separate geographical locations and restrain attempts to convert one another to their ideals.  But the world is never so neatly organized and separated.  Few people in the broader Islamic world wish for the sort of place promulgated by ISIS/ISIL or the Taliban when they controlled Afghanistan. They may well prefer a more corporate and holistic society than obtains in our very untidy 'western' world, but they do not at all like the harsh nonsense of the radicals.  We in the 'western' world often pine for a more holistic and unitary world, often imagined as existing in some past golden age.

What then, does this have to say about the relationship of religion to violence?  It says that violence is not intrinsic to religion, but a tool sometimes used for the promotion of an ideology.  If Christianity is one of the roots of 'western' society's veneration of the individual, then violence is and has been used to promote an individualistic view of the proper ordering of human affairs, that arose in a Christian incubator.   If Islam is a religion that is one of the roots of the ideal of a unitary society, then violence has also been the tool of that view.  At this point in history, ISIS/ISIL is using violence in a very direct fashion to recreate the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq.   I suspect the long term goal is to conquer Saudi Arabia and controll thereby Mecca and Medina and truly recreate the ancient Caliphate. They quite rightly see the 'western' world with its Christian roots in individualism as the enemy and chief threat and impediment to their goals.  They don't, I think, really care about directly attacking within 'western' countries like Canada, but are concerned to  create a little disruption here by influencing the sorts of young men I mentioned above, in aid of their ultimate cause.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thoughts on this War

I watched the opening of parliament on TV today here in Canada.  I witnessed a rare unity of parliament, where partisan differences were put to one side.  The Prime Minister did not give a Churchillian speech.  Rather he spoke in the manner ordinary Canadians would express themselves. He spoke from the heart as a Canadian and as a parliamentarian. After his words, greeted with applause by all Members, he rose and walked to shake the hand of the Sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers in thanks and then handshakes and hugs with Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Thomas Mulcair the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in Canada and leader of the New Democratic Party.  These actions, as far as I could tell from the body language were genuine on the part of both Prime Minister and his opponents. Parliament on this day rose to its height as the chief organ of democracy in this country. We all owe to the unflappability of Kevin Vickers the fact that our democracy functioned today. From reports of his character, Mr. Vickers is a kind and gentle man with a grave demeanour, but one of those individuals who does what needs to be done, who rises to whatever the occasion demands. Thank God for that.

We are in a war now.  I am convinced of that. They say that armies are always preparing for the last war.  Yesterday in Ottawa and a few days ago in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu in Québec we saw the new face of war.  Yes, traditional bloody battles on land, sea and air will continue.  But this new face of war happens at home and in attacks from individuals or small groups who are not connected by lines of command, but through propaganda found on the internet.  This war is not a war of countries making formal declarations and putting their armed forces into the field until one side or all sides win or lose.  

This war is a war of two ways of life.  On our part, we wish for a world where people can live with friends and family  and work and play in proper measure.  On the other part, is a world of harsh dogma, where rules are set and all must live by those strict rules or die. Some here think that by bowing out of direct combat we are isolated from this.  We are not.  The ideologues hate us and will kill us when they can even if we buried all our weapons, along with our heads, in the sand.  This is not a war of religion. I teach the history of religions at the university level and know how rare purely religious wars have been, and have a good understanding of the role that religion sometimes does play in warfare.  But this is not a war of Christianity vs. Islam, or the secular West vs. the religious Islamic world.  It is a war of us - those who are atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druids - whatever your belief, who believe that living in peace with family and friends is a higher good than strict adherence to one set of rules for existence - a war of us against those who want to enforce their view of life onto the world through violence and terror.  In the Middle East where a traditional war is raging, the ISIS or ISIL group is battling both Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians and soon Jews.  They are a polyglot group of haters who battle ethnic groups that do not share their hideous ideology. 

Our role here in Canada is to do as parliament did so magnificently today, to continue on loving our families and friends, and working at our tasks and enjoying our play, and eschewing hate.  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

After Atheism

Recently I listened carefully to a series of podcasts taken from CBC Radio's Ideas broadcast.  I think it was originally produced in 2012, but the podcasts came to my attention only recently.  I selected one of these for students of two of my history of religion online courses, one at the University of Guelph and the other at the related institution, the University of Guelph/Humber.

I presented the third podcast because it deals with the very nature of religion, of society and of the relationship between the two.  The producer, David Cayley interviews William Cavanaugh a theologian at DePaul University in Chicago. The interview centres around two books of his, one called The Migrations of the Holy (2011), and the other, The Myth of Religious Violence (2009). Generally (and this is a very general statement!), Cavanaugh advances the idea that the new nation-state became and usurped the object of worship from faith in the early modern era.  He thinks that 'religion' became both a tool of the new form called the nation-state and a scapegoat for violence from which the State claimed to protect citizens.  In reality this was a cover for violence which as is usual in history was a product of greed, honour, the desire for expansion and so on.  Later, the state began to find religion less useful and privatization occurred.

I am not sure yet what to think of his ideas, except of course, most wars were not primarily religious, though sometimes religion was a factor or used by those promoting war, and only rarely was religion a prime factor. This is a reasonable stance for any serious student of history to take.  Cavanaugh is farther out on a limb when he discusses the role of religion today - citing examples such as the Papacy's opposition to war in Iraq. He sees 'religion' as having a role in a faith an a political sense.

I need to think a lot more about this before coming even to preliminary ideas.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dying and Henry

A blog post about my old dog dying may seem inappropriate or irrelevant to some in this space, but not to me... and this is my blog, after all, and my dog, Henry.

My old chocolate lab has a severe kidney malfunction that is causing him to die, slowly.  He is ten years old and thus old in dog terms, but  as usually labrador retrievers live to 12 or so years, a bit early for this.  With all my other pets, I have taken them in to be euthanized when they were in evident distress.  Henry is not; he is just slowly shutting down.  I decided therefore to keep him at home either to die in peace in his own place, or if he does begin to experience severe discomfort, then to take him.  I went today and bought a sedative for him should I have to do so as I do not to want him to suffer the stress all animals do with visits to the Vet.

This has got me thinking about animals and the afterlife.  Some years ago I read a newspaper report of some theological opinion from a Jesuit theologian in Rome that animals do not have souls and will not be in Heaven.  Seems to me that for some, Heaven wouldn't be Heaven if there were any of those pesky animals in place - just people sitting around on clouds thinking deep thoughts.  For others, such as myself, this would be closer to Hell than Heaven.  None of us know, of course, if Heaven will be as described when we were young children, or if it will be some place of amorphous joy.  I rather hope some version of my childhood view is true than some place where nebulous souls float around meditating.

This too, reminds me of my grandfather's death.  He, unlike virtually everybody today in the West, died at home.  Not , alas, his home and indeed after a number of years of sad debility and thus in a very hard and unpleasant fashion.  But he did not die in a cold, efficient institution. He died in his own bed, while under the care of his wife and my mother - women then as now, shouldered the bulk of caregiving.  I was six years old, and I recall while the adults were buzzing and whispering, I slipped into his room because I was curious.  I had seen my grandfather in his bed, unable to move, or feed himself or talk, only able to make inarticulate roaring noises when he was frustrated.  I fear he was normal inside and going slowly mad within the prison of his stroke disabled body.  When I walked into the room this time,  it was utterly silent, unlike the subdued excitement in the rest of the house. Although only six, I knew instantly what death was.  There was a deep absence that I intuitively understood.  That wonderful old phrase I was yet to learn described the mood of that room perfectly:  'the peace which passeth all understanding".

I was taught as a Christian to see death as a passing to a better place.  Perhaps Heaven is peace.

An update:  Henry's distress became evident the day after I wrote this post.  RIP Henry the Dog

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Definition of Religion (whatever that is)

A belief and hope that there is ultimate meaning.

I listened carefully to Richard Dawkins when he debated the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this debate,  to Prof. Dawkins, existence - the universe - was a giant accident initially, pure chance.   Development  has been a chain of accident combined with cause and effect since that beginning.  

Religion - any religion - all religions, on the other hand,  whether they are atheist like Buddhism, or philosophies like Confucianism, or monotheistic like the Abrahamic faiths, or polytheistic, all reject chaos and assert there is an essential order beyond any seeming chaos. They may disagree on the nature of this essential meaning; they may disagree on the proper behaviour of individual humans; they may disagree on the structural aspect,  but they all start with ultimate meaning. So, religion is also to put it in its negative sense, the rejection of a philosophy or a science that posits chaos as the foundational element of existence.

I would add to this that my wording 'ultimate meaning' is reminiscent of the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich's definition from the middle of the 20th century which used the term:  'ultimate concern'.  My definition above was thought out over the vast period of time of six minutes, but was the culmination of 50 years of thinking about religion and probably Prof. Tillich's thoughts lurked somewhere in that hard drive I carry around on my shoulders. But I think it is different.  I will let those of you who read these words decide.  

A Postscript:

Intellectual ramblings about the nature of religion are what I call thinking about a Philosopher's God.  My thinking about religion as an academic has centred around the religion of ordinary people, believed and practiced in their daily lives, rather than high octane definitions of a purely intellectual sort.  Yet, I do  not at present see any conflict between my broad definition (now there's an oxymoron!) of religion.  One can believe and pray and function as a religious person while assenting to and enjoying an intellectual approach.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Liberal Islam

I have just listened to a Humanitas lecture by Prof. Abdou Filali Ansary where he suggests some very interesting things about Islam today.  I had to follow his lecture in bits and pieces as having a full hour uninterrupted is a rarity for me, and if I can find a free hour in the future I will hide somewhere and listen again. He makes important points, not heard much today in the roar of radical Islam that fills the western media, and dare I say, the Islamic media also. 

He begins by looking not so much at European reactions to Islam, but at Muslim visitors to Europe as long ago as the 16th century.  He begins there as this talk carefully circumambulates modernity. Modernity is, of course,  a very slippery term when you dig below the surface, but is useful as clearly something changed in European, and today’s child of Europe, the West with the advent of ‘modernity’.  Prof. Ansary does mention here and there in his talk western perceptions of Islam, but what interests him more are Islamic reactions to modernity and therefore the West.  He details the reactions of some Muslim visitors to Europe as modernity takes hold and notes their surprise at the profound changes in world view  and mentalité that are intrinsic to modernity.  

He goes on to speak about the nature of modernity in the Islamic world.  Where in the West, the enchanted world (to borrow from Charles Taylor) is replaced gradually by a scientific outlook, which reaches its climax with the birth of social sciences in the late 19th century, in the Islamic world modernity means something quite different.  Modernity there is a search and movement to restore ‘normative’ Islam. Muslim intellectuals, many affected by the primacy of logic, reason and the use of observed social evidence see an Islam that had departed from the pure teachings of the Prophet and the ‘golden age’ of the Rashidun.  They see an Islam that had syncretically melded Islam with local cultural practices and beliefs, a mongrel and hybrid form, not pure. 

Syncretism is a term that is under attack and often rejected these days, but I have yet to find a workable replacement for what it signifies.  In the university course I teach on Religion and Society in the modern western world, I have students consider such things as Tequitqui in the former Aztec lands, or the very individual case of an Oji-Cree Anglican priest active in his northern Ontario parish in the 1950s, 60s and 70s who also functioned as a traditional medicine man. Of course his Anglican bishop knew nothing of his parallel track job, but there it was.  This fact of syncretism, whether it can be defined as a melding of beliefs and local cultural practices, or an acceptance in some locales of parallel belief systems existed also for any other religion that spread beyond its original socio-cultural setting.  

Modernity then, for Islam, was not the rejection of religion as in the West, and its replacement by the secular religion of Science (I use the term religion here stressing its etymological roots as a social apparatus that provides a common worldview for a society, that is in functional rather than substantive terms). Modernity for Islam was a move by intellectuals and activists (often the same persons) to restore a normative Islam and scale away the syncretic accretions attendant on expansion over the centuries.  The way this is happening dominates the media:  ISIS currently in the news with its claim to restore the Caliphate; the Muslim Brotherhood, a much older organization battling within Egypt; Wahabbism the first of these, still  in control in Saudi Arabia. 
Abdou Filali Ansary is none of these.  He points to a different path to Muslim modernity, one little noticed, but perhaps needing to be so noticed.

He refers to this path as Liberal Islam.  It is found in  a handful of individual scholars who reject the traditional approach to the Qur’an, which is to regard it as a set of discrete laws, where each Surah is sealed off from the other and applied to modern situations.  These thinkers argue that true Islam resides in the spirit, the holistic spirit of Islam that should guide Muslims in the modern world. Ansary is not hopeful that this will happen, as the purveyors of apologetics - the conservative and traditional interpreters of Islam, control education in the Muslim world and each new generation of teachers is trained in the same system.  Also he notes that they use language that appeals to the masses, either to fight against despots in the Islamic world, or to fight against the West. The Liberal Muslim intellectuals do not translate their ideas in such a way as to appeal to the  masses. 

A good place to start an exploration of Liberal Islam can be found in this book:

and here:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

50 Years

50 years ago I wrote my first essay, and my first exploration into the nature of religion. I was 13 years old and was in Grade 8 at a school that contained grades 1 through 8. It was a semi-rural school board  outside Windsor, Ontario and did not have the money to establish 'middle schools' or 'senior public schools'.  I was approaching the end of two years of a hellish experience of being an outsider and bullied by the other denizens of this place.  But there were two points of light for me then.  One was my confirmation in the Anglican Church of Canada, and the other was a teacher at this school.

This teacher, Norton Mansfield was also the school principal (Head Teacher to Brits).  He was a tall, spare Englishman with a loud (when needed) and precise (always) voice and manner of speaking.  The year before we all had heard his loud form as that was a year with a coterie of violent and angry young boys in the school. Corporal punishment was normal then, but only in extreme cases and only administered by the Principal, which in this instance he did so and with gusto.   Anyway, I was a bit nervous as I entered Grade 8 as my teacher - this school still placed all students into a single room with a single teacher for the academic year by grade - had been the second in command for discipline.  The teacher,  George Hinch, turned out to be a wonderfully kind and gentle man.   Norton Mansfield was the same.  But, what mattered here was Mr. Mansfield's love of the English language.  He taught us English literature every Tuesday morning from 9 to noon.  From him I learned of  my own passion for writing. Writing is two things to me:  it is thinking in an organized and permanent fashion and it is  also and now mostly for me, a feeling/experiencing in a way to communicate either ideas or feelings. We read poetry, a novel, short stories and essays under Mr. Mansfield's tutelage and he made them live and breathe for me.  I was a reader already, but he opened new worlds of creativity and profound thought in my heart and in my mind.

Because of him I wrote this first essay.  Its genesis was in my local Anglican parish church.  After confirmation at age 13 that winter,  I began to attend church services rather than Sunday School.  This was St. Matthew's Anglican church in South Windsor.  As I sat in the pew with my family, I began to argue mentally with the sermon. Many times I wanted to jump up and shout NO, WHAT ABOUT .... X or Y.....

As this was rather frowned upon, I began writing passionately after my family came home from church.  I had a desk and I had a pad of yellow, lined paper and a pencil in my bedroom. While my mother made 'our Sunday egg' as she called it (eggs in those days made me mildly nauseous, but I was always a good son, or at least I was rarely caught). I would sit for the half hour or so until called up to eat lunch,  furiously writing my essay on the relationship between religion and society, for such it was.  I focussed my 13 year old mind on science and religion.  I came to the conclusion that as science advanced, religion would decline.  I have seen this opinion again many times in student discussions in the university courses I teach in the History of Religions, especially the one that focusses on religion and society.  My wiser (I hope) and more mature (less likely) self has mostly rejected this early conclusion as clearly religion is not going anywhere, though its form and practice are altering profoundly.

The next year I entered High School in Grade 9 (for my American friends, we do not use the terms 'freshman, or junior or senior and so on, but the grade you are in - and for my British friends, although we used American 'grade' terminology the Ontario High School system was modelled on the British 'forms' - High School went either to 12 - 5th form for those not going on to university, or Grade 13 - 6th form for those going to university).  I polished and worked on my essay, but was in an agony of wanting someone else to read it.  I did not want to show it to my parents as they had the habit of finding anything I did worthy of great praise, whether it was worthy or not.  That Fall I had made a friendship of sorts with another student, whose elder brother was the school genius and also President of the Student Council. My friend and I used to do homework together in a spare room - much of that time was spent fooling around, but we did some work.  I knew also that my friend often had his brother help him with his homework.  So I hatched the plan of slipping my pencil written document 'accidentally' into my friend's homework at a time when I knew he was going to get help from his brother.

This happened on a Friday and I waited over the weekend hoping, wondering.  On Monday, we met as usual in this room and my friend looked rather oddly at me, as though he had never seen me before.  He pulled out my essay and handed it back and said, 'This got mixed up with my homework. 'My brother read it while helping me and said "This would get an A grade in Grade 13".  I had my answer. I was a writer and a thinker from that time on in my life.  This was the Fall of 1964, 50 years ago.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The History of the Middle East in Maps

No comment here, except that Christians appear to be omitted (though I have only skimmed these and may have missed this component)

The History of the Middle East in Maps

Friday, July 11, 2014


I am grading final exams for one of my summer courses.  One question I require all students to answer requires them to compare the state of religion and religious faith in 1500 to the present day, using a quote from Charles Taylor's A secular Age.  Many of the responses discuss science as a leading factor in this change.  I don't intend to debate this idea here - the very first thing I ever wrote was an essay for myself on the relationship between religion and science.  I was 13 years old when I wrote it and I came then to much the same conclusion my students of today do in their answers. My thoughts have changed since that essay of 50 years ago.

What interests me at this moment, however, is science.  That is, what is science to these students? Most of their answers suggest that science is the answer to all questions, or to those questions worth asking.  Questions worth asking are those where there exists a concrete impact on human life, sometimes direct as in disease or pain, and sometimes indirect as in food supply or weather.  Unspoken is any consideration of what might come after life.  Morality is assumed to be 'natural', or 'logical', that is, morality is not something that needs to be discussed or thought about in any deep way, it is merely obvious.  All 'real' things and morality are not connected in any direct fashion to religion.

I am not sure what to make of all this.  I would have thought, or hoped at least, that a study of different religions as integral components of societies across time and space would have changed this meme.  Apparently not.

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Cults popped into my head this morning, quite uninvited, but I welcomed them all the same.  I am an hospitable person.  A few years back, a student reading a chapter from Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More, commented that the Catholic services as described were 'like a cult'. The chapter they had to read is entitled 'Holy, Holy, Holy' and describes Catholic London in More's time, with an emphasis on ritual.

Since then,  I have occasionally mulled around in my mind the concept of a 'cult' vs. a 'religion'.  Our animus against cults began, I think, with Charles Manson's family of bizarre murderers.  Since that time, the media have had a dark romance with 'cults', a romance shared by readers, listeners and viewers - a modern day collective boogie man with which to scare both children and adults.

Where is the line between religion and cult, however?  To this student (and to a few others who made the same comment in other semesters),  what makes a cult appears to be ritual, but more specifically ritual chanting, the mass repetition of formal words in a communal context.  Darkness, or half light helps, as do material objects like candles or paintings barely seen in this glimmering haziness.  I would guess too that this opinion was another manifestation of a latent anti-Catholicism found among students, even where they themselves and even their parents, have long since abandoned Protestant Christianity.  Anti-Catholicism did become integral to English cultural forms in the Early Modern era.  This anti-Catholicism was exported alongside the political British Empire to most of the English-speaking world, where it resides in this truncated form today.

Oxford defines cult this way:  A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members...

I surfed around academic Anthropology sites, as well as leafing through indices in my own collection of Anthropology texts, but by and large Anthropologists seem uninterested in 'cults' of the sort Oxford defines.  Most often Anthropologists of religion see the term 'cult' as being related to ritual, but without the 'strange' or 'excessive control' features noted in the above definition.
Nonetheless, my students who saw late mediaeval Catholicism as cult-like were unconsciously using the Oxford definition.  The problem, of course, is that Catholics were not a small group of people, and 'excessive' control is in the eye of the beholder.  Perhaps the word 'strange' is the key.
In the modern sense, derived from Manson, a cult must be comprised of a small group of people, holding beliefs that vary essentially from those of the dominant culture.  Whether this cult involves ritual behaviour also as a necessary part I am not sure - ritual is common in all sorts of activities (doing the wave at a football game, crowds singing their team's song in European football/soccer, that first sip of coffee in the morning, and so on).

Well, back to work!  Problem unsolved! 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Vikings

I have watched bits and pieces of this TV series showing in Canada on Shaw, as at one point in time I was interested in the period of transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England, and latterly in the late Anglo-Saxon period.  Recently, I caught a snippet of two weddings in the series:  one pagan and Viking, the other Christian and Anglo-Saxon.  The pagan wedding must have been scripted by latter-day hippies, and the same for the Christian.  Let me explain.  The pagan wedding was a scene of joy and love in the manner it was portrayed, while the Christian wedding was filmed in a dark, stiff and joyless fashion.  I suppose that's why Christianity is now a good 2000 years old and one of the surviving rituals even among those who are only occasionally Christian is the wedding ceremony.  We humans must love to be joyless at a wedding. (This, for those who didn't catch it, is sarcasm).

Why oh why do film makers and TV producers insist on trashing Christianity?  Well, there are all sorts of possible answers, but no hard facts at this moment.  Mostly ignorance, and I fear, willful ignorance at that.  I will let others ruminate on this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


This book and even this review alone are must reads for anyone interested in native/newcomer relationships

Procrastinating from Marking

I was thinking idly about the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism while reading a quote in an essay where the term 'Christianity' was used rather than the more accurate, 'western Christianity'. I am not talking only here about students either! Too often in writing about Christianity by western historians, the Orthodox east is forgotten. The Orthodox do share most of their theology with Catholicism, but there are important cultural differences shaped, of course, by a very different history that have produced a very different lens through which faith is viewed.

The Orthodox have bishops and priests and parishes and monks and nuns as does the Catholic church, as well as the Anglican. Orthodox parish priests are usually married, which seems a sensible practice in my view, but bishops are never so - the ranks of bishops are filled from the monasteries. This reflects the different emphasis on meditative spirituality in Orthodoxy over and against the structural legalism of the Catholic church, and indeed of most Protestant churches. For the Orthodox, theology is an end result of the process of meditation, where for Western Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, it is a process of logical and philosophical study of the Theos.

I wondered at the history that produced this divide. For the Orthodox, firstly the immediate influence of Greek practices perhaps, but more likely I think the long survival of the Roman Empire in the east (misnamed by generations of western historians as the Byzantine Empire - the 'Byzantines' called themselves 'Romans' - as did the conquering Muslim Turks, but I diverge). This long survival was followed by a 'wagons in a circle' survival mode for Orthodoxy - a Christianity which had to stress other worldliness as it floated on a Muslim sea. Well, a very large book could be written on just this, but, onward and upward...

The Western Christian church found itself in a place of chaos in respect to the former comforts of imperial order - well it was not chaotic to the Germanic tribes, but in terms of cities, roads, written laws, professional armies and money commerce, it was chaotic. The western Christian bishops had to be hard, pragmatic men and they had to fashion a public face for Christianity that openly displayed their beliefs while at the same time dazzling the Germanic animists. Eastern Christian bishops were (pardon me for this) preaching to the choir - their flocks were fully immersed in this form of Christianity after a thousand years of imperial rule. Western Christian priests, on the other hand, had to distance themselves from their half or less than half, converted flocks - they needed to stand apart as Christian shamans to make a point. Eastern Christian priests needed rather to be part of their flocks, the job of standing apart in a mystical sense could be left to monks and nuns and bishops.

Anyway, just sayin'

Monday, March 24, 2014


Syncretism is a term that is in some dispute, but still useful.  When cultures collide, or even as today in Canada where they meet there is a degree of modification of both the host culture and newcomers. A few years ago I did a micro study of syncretism in northern Ontario between the 1880s and 1920s.  I used the Round Lake study database which was a major project growing out of the 1962 Round Lake Study.  The second project created a vast data base of some 7000 individuals with fields populated by data on residency, kin relationships, religion and so on. The First Nations of the Severn River basin in northern Ontario inland from Hudson's Bay offered a unique instance of a people touched by European contact to a degree far less than any other in North America. They speak a language closely related to both Cree and Ojibway.  This language was initially classified as the Severn dialect of Ojibway, but came to be recognized as a separate language and was called Oji-Cree.  The people themselves quite readily accepted this name and so they are today.

The Oji-Cree were converted to Christianity in the late 19th century by missionaries from the Church of England's Church Missionary Society [CMS].  The first bishop of the area was John Horden, a CMS supported cleric who was heavily involved necessarily in mission work. A principle technique was to employ natives as 'catechists', who could read the Bible and who had been trained in basic Anglican theology, and who knew Cree syllabics also.  The lived a fully native lifestyle and carried the Gospel with them.  European missionaries were in the field too, but recognized the need to integrate Christianity into the daily lives of people.  Churches were built, usually at HBC posts. The HBC did not like missionaries who disrupted the fur trade so the Christianity accepted by the Oji-Cree had to fit in with their lives.  Church registers of baptisms normally carry two dates from these  early days - one for the baptism in the name of the Trinity which any Christian can do as children were born in the bush many miles from even a Catechist, let alone a church.  Then when they came into the HBC post to trade furs, they would have the infant 'received into the church' using the Anglican Book of Common Prayer at the church. Their Christian name was then entered into the Anglican records.

Anyway,  here it is:

The following is the text of a paper I read a number of years ago in a session on First Nations’ studies at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. At the time I was working for Dr. Mary Black Rogers, an ethnohistorian who, with her late husband, Dr. Edward S. Rogers, had conducted a multi-year ethnographic study of the community of Weagamow, Ontario [Round Lake, in Englsh]. Their main goal was to produce an ethnographic database of kinship records. These records included all known names, kin relations, places of residence, hunting territories, places where they fished and where they gathered berries in season. The study covered the years from the late 18th century through to the present. The records were assembled through participant observation techniques between the years 1958 and 1974, careful collection and sifting of Hudson’s Bay Company post records found at the archives in Winnipeg, and Anglican Church records found at the diocesan office in Kenora, Ontario and at the archives at Anglican Church House in Toronto. The paper records of the ‘Round Lake Study’ as it was called are housed today at the University of Alberta archives in Edmonton and the database at the data archives at the University of Toronto. I had access prior to any of this material leaving Ed and Mary’s home office in Burlington, Ontario where I worked for Mary as a SSHRC assistant on two grants for six years. Her husband Ed, had predeceased her and she was determined to complete their project as a last way of honouring Ed, who was Curator of Ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum and a professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton.
I received Mary’s permission to use the data base to write this paper, which has not been published, but is, of course, copyright.

An Ethnohistorical Case Study of Syncretism in Northwestern Ontario
I will take a few minutes now to look at a specific analysis of the ministry of a Cree Anglican priest who was stationed in the area inland from Hudson and James Bay in north-western Ontario from the 1880s to the first world war - a time when Amerindians there were still living their traditional life-style, but apparently fully Christianized -- more interesting than this, was the activity of the clergyman himself - accounted by his Anglican superiors as being fully Europeanized and Christian -
The first recorded baptisms for the aboriginal people of the interior are entered in the Anglican church register at York Factory for Big Trout Lake in 1855. In 1872 the new bishop John Horden established a permanent mission to serve this area at the Big Trout Lake Hudson's Bay Company post, and these early records were transferred there. In 1880, Horden himself made the difficult journey by canoe and portage to the Trout Lake mission, where he baptized 203, confirmed 157 and gave communion to 17. Apparently the enthusiasm of the local congregation induced him to continue sending missionaries out from York Factory to attend to Trout Lake, and finally in 1883 to once again send a native catechist, this time a Cree from the York Factory post by the name of William Dick.
William Dick was perhaps a seminal character in the development which Christian belief assumed in this part of Ontario's north-west. It is not certain whether William Dick was fully Cree, or Orkney-Cree, a mix of Scots trader and native. What is certain is that he was regarded as "a real Indian", to use the words of a later Bishop --- Lofthouse in 1913, and most likely then, Cree.
William Dick, then, was a member of the trading post band around York Factory. Trading post bands were First Nations’s peoples who had settled around Hudson’s Bay company posts and often acted as mediators between those living fully traditional lives in the interior and Europeans at the posts.
He had made at least one trip when he was in his early twenties to Trout Lake as a canoe man for the Anglican missionary W.W. Kirkby in 1874, but is not
otherwise mentioned in connection with the Church. The normal mission practice at York Factory, as at Moose Factory, was a segregation of native and newcomer services. In 1883 the York Factory Anglican mission journal contained the short, but significant entry, "Wm. Dick communicated with the English for the first time" [
communicate is a verb which means to take communion - the central ritual in Christianity] providing a clue to the degree to which Dick had been accepted as fully acculturated. In the ensuing years at Trout Lake the HBC post journals carried regular references to Dick dining with, and interacting with, on a personal and private level the European post employees in preference to the natives of the region. From the beginning Dick instituted regular winter rounds of the hunting camps of the interior peoples. Reports from visiting clergy sent out to Trout from York Factory confirmed that the Church was pleased with him,
"Mr. Winter [the clergyman, G. Smith-Winter] returned on Friday from T Lake and Severn, after having a most encouraging & successful journey having baptized 100 persons, including 3 adults, admitted many fresh communicants, & married 22 couples. God has blessed Wm. Dick in his work."
In 1889 William Dick returned to York Factory to be ordained deacon in the Anglican Church, in a ceremony where again unusually natives and Europeans worshipped at the same service. This new clerical recognition for William Dick was, however, short of that usually accorded Europeans. While the diaconate in the Church of England allowed William Dick the authority to baptize and to perform marriages and burials, it denied him the essential clerical marque of celebrating the service of Holy Communion. For Europeans in the Church of England the position of Deacon was customarily of short duration, usually no more than one year of preparation prior to an almost automatic promotion to the priesthood. Dick's failure to move on immediately to the priesthood is perhaps a reflection of the opinion of Bishop Horden, who remained doubtful of the ability of natives to fully enter into the leadership of the church. Those who had, were notably of mixed parentage, usually European fathers and native mothers, while Dick, as noted was most probably pure Cree. Perhaps Horden's CMS ideals for a native run church were tempered by the reality by late Victorian racial attitudes which assumed a racialist and paternalistic view towards natives. This was despite the fact that Dick was apparently fully literate in both Cree syllabics and English.
Like Anglican clergymen everywhere in the world he kept careful records in his own scratchy yet legible hand of baptisms, marriages, confirmations and burials in the Trout Lake parish book . Dick also produced statistical reports for the Church Missionary Society of attendance at mission services. He was remembered fifty years later for the large Bible which he used for teaching and study. Dick trained a number of native catechists to handle services when absent from Trout Lake. There are a number of mentions in the HBC journal of trips taken to York Factory, seemingly every summer, to Kenora and even to Winnipeg on one occasion.
Not until 1895, after Horden had died and was succeeded by Jervois Newnham as bishop, was William Dick priested. This is perhaps because Newnham, unlike Horden, was raised in the north, albeit around Lake Nipigon, where he interacted with the Ojibway of that area even before knowing his own culture. By this period too, the Church provided William Dick with an annual salary, 75 pounds sterling.
Yet for all his seeming integration into the life of the institutional church, both Dick and his wife pursued a traditional lifestyle at the same time. He is recorded
as having shot the first goose of the season and tending the nets. His wife, Nancy, is at one point recorded as trading in furs at the post. His ability to survive in a traditional fashion can only have served to enhance his position with the people of the area, fitting as these practices did with traditional concepts of power.
He was to remain at Trout Lake, with only summer visits to York Factory until his retirement in 1917, returning for one brief visit in the summer of 1918 before his death at York Factory in 1919.
A number of interesting questions arise out of Dick's long tenure at Trout Lake. Elders at Weagamow, one of his mission stations far into the interior, remembered Dick, or at least stories of him as late as 1958 when anthropologists began to study that community. As traditional leadership in Ojibway society was a factor of charisma and of spiritual power, it is a reasonable supposition that William Dick may have had his share in the minds of the local peoples. Whether he, himself realized this is a moot point. The Indians of the interior, especially of the Weagamow area were recorded as being especially enthusiastic converts by the third bishop in the area, Joseph Lofthouse, who gave this report in a church newspaper in 1907,
"James Seagull, a Crane Indian, was our guide. He is a splendid fellow, and acted as catechist at Trout Lake all last summer, when Mr. Dick was at York Factory. One cannot help being struck with the difference betwixt these Indians and those near the railway [Bishop Lofthouse had travelled into the interior from the rail line to the south, at Osnaburgh]. All carry their books, which they read very well, and they always have morning and evening prayers, which one seldom finds with the Indians in the South. . . . we came upon another party of Crane Indians, on Round Lake. They had come some twenty miles to meet me. They belong to the mission at Trout Lake, though living fully 100 miles away. James Seagull acted as their catechist, receiving no pay, and they are all Christians. We had service with them, when I baptized three children . ... and married one couple. After staying about two hours, the whole party packed up, and accompanied me to Deer Lake, their camping ground. There were about 30 canoes, and it seemed like travelling in state, for they formed around me in a sort of bodyguard. I spent the night with them and we had another service."
Lofthouse's account of his reception upon arrival at Trout Lake provides more,
"At Trout Lake I spent 8 days. The Sunday evening I arrived we had a grand service, the church being packed from end to end. Mr. Dick has enlarged his
church since my last visit [Lofthouse visited Trout in 1904], but it is not large enough when all the Indians are in. We had a service every night, and never had less than 350 Indians. On Sunday, July 1st, a most lovely day, fortunately with a nice breeze, we had a full day beginning at 8:30, when the church was full and many standing outside; Mr. Dick preached. At 11 we had Confirmation, when 70 candidates were presented - 36 being men and 34 women. At 3 p.m. we had another service, ending with Communion, when 201 knelt around the Lord's Table - 97 men and 104 women. This service lasted over three hours, and the people were not at all anxious to leave. They wanted another service in the evening, but I was really too tired and had to refuse."
Several years later, in 1912, Lofthouse returned to the district, where the tone was similarly triumphant,
"I was most heartily welcomed by the Rev. Wm. Dick, a real Indian, who has been at Trout Lake just thirty years, and done a wonderful work amongst his own people. There are 720 Indians at this station, and not one who is not a Christian. They can nearly all read well in the Indian language, but not 5 per cent of them can speak or understand English.[in 1958 similar percentages obtained at Weagamow] . This year they paid over $50 for books, and subscribed nearly $200 for Church work. ... It certainly was a treat to see the way they all turned out to service, and the devout, intelligent way they took their part in it.”
Some years later, William Dick was succeeded at Trout Lake by a Euro-Canadian, the Rev. Leslie Garrett, who in marked contract to Lofthouse's cheerful optimism, expressed suspicion about the level of conversion. Early in his tenure there, in April 1924 he wrote,
"...I would say that all my T.L. Indians are nominally Christian ..." and in a report to the CMS a year later, "The more I see and hear the more I am convinced that the spiritual tone of this place is far from what it should be. ...Not that we have met with any open opposition but merely indifference and falling away...The Indians are so independent here...All through the were held every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All of which were well attended"
Garrett apparently hears confessions, a rare, but not unknown practice for Anglicans, for he writes further,
"So often they have had to confess failure and unfaithfulness. Sometimes, truely (sic) desiring a fuller experience of new life in Christ Jesus, but sometimes showing signs of hard resentment."
We do not unfortunately have anywhere recorded the thoughts of William Dick. We can only guess whether Garrett's sense of disapointment with the level of Christianization of the Trout Lake native people was a factor of his own personality, or a reflection of the earliness of his ministry there when he was still unfamiliar with the people and the language. Garrett was to take a somewhat violent leave of the Anglican church, moving to Weagamow to found an evangelical congregation after having smashed the altar and altar cross at the church at Trout. His disapproving comment on the 'independence' of the people here is highly suggestive of a laxity of adherence to norms expected by European clergy.
In an attempt to understand the sort of Anglican Christianity held by this nation, I extracted some figures from an ethnohistorical database containing some 7000 records, including data on marriages, baptisms and funerals by Anglican clergy. From the 7000, I found 604 persons who lived within the area cared for spiritually by William Dick during his time at the Trout Lake mission.
The data base shows that of the 604, fully 75%, or 453 were baptized. This high percentage accords well with what is known of traditional Ojibway beliefs as maintained in this region. Baptism, in Anglican theology consists of two parts, one in which the individual is received into the Christian community, i.e. the Church, and one in which the Holy Ghost or Spirit descends on the person and a name is given. Both beliefs fit easily into Ojibway belief systems. Conversely of 236 recorded deaths for this same population, only 10% (23) availed themselves of Anglican rites of burial. This large statistical descrepancy is likely the result of two factors. On a practical level it may reflect simple expediency. As most of the people in the Severn River basin were hunters, they were not ordinarily resident near the mission. Deaths would then most often have occurred elsewhere, and most often at too great a distance to allow for transportation of the corpse to Trout Lake. Secondly, the available ethnographic evidence on traditional rites surrounding death suggests that these fit less easily into Christian belief systems, and were in any case culturally more necessary to maintain. Usually where issues of great power were concerned, informants in Ojibway communities were less likely to speak openly, and information on death rituals was unusually thus kept from outsiders. There is evidence that both practiced burials, and that the Ojibway beliefs included an afterlife. At the Ojibway community in Red Lake Minnesota,
for example, graves were commonly surrounded by small, white fences. Similarly, the Anglican cemetery at Weagamow in modern times has graves individually surrounded by white fences, this time surmounted with Christian crosses, though what the significance of the fence to both Christian and non-Christian native person is unknown.
Statistics on marriages are more revealing, though producing their own complexities. There were 282 marriages in this period of which 221 were Christian and Anglican, a rate of 80%. The factor which makes marriage a better indicator of religious belief for natives as Christian laity is the existence of the indigenous custom of polygamy. Though thought to be common, only 33 instances of the 282 recorded marriages for the period of William Dick's tenure are identified as concurrent in the data base. Of these 19 can be attributed directly to William Dick.
I have chosen this statistic for deeper analysis because of the unvarying Christian opposition to polygamy which stood in stark opposition to traditional custom, which included both polyandry (although this was rare indeed) and polygyny, and to test the apparently unqualified acculturation of William Dick.
Of the 19, three cases are of particular interest. In the first, the man involved was married twice in Anglican Church records during the main part of Dick's ministry. He was again married at the Trout Lake mission during a final visit by Dick to Trout in the summer of 1918 a year after he had retired to York Factory. There is a second, similar case where a man had contracted two marriages, to use William Dick's customary phrasing in his register, 'according to the rites of the Church of England'. A third case was of a man who married twice, once at Wunimum Lake and the other at Deer Lake. In this instance, because it dealt with somone whose hunting camps were only on Dick's winter itinerary, it is possible he might be ignorant of the existence of one or the other of the man's wives, unless he checked his register.
There are some immediate problems with this data. In none of these three is it known for certain when the first and Anglican wife died, leaving open the possibility that they are consecutive and not concurrent marriages. Simply taking European records as hard evidence would show this conclusion to be valid. There is, however, no hard evidence either that both wives were not alive and married at the same time. While it is highly unlikely that a fully accultrated native, and impossible that a European clergyman would allow bigamy, the balance of evidence from field data suggests that this was in fact the case. The ethnographic
data was collected starting in 1958, as mentioned, at a time when there were still individuals living who remembered these people, either directly from their childhood, or through the memories of their parents. For example, in the first case cited the final Christian marriage for this man was solemnized in the Church in 1918. Although the evidence then for concurrent Anglcian marriages is circumstantial to some extent, it seems to be weighted on the side of concurrence. If this is so, we have caught William Dick, the seemingly fully converted aboriginal in three instances of disobedience to a law fundamental to virtually all Christian churches.
If there is some doubt whether Dick had gone quite so far, there is none that he did allow, or at least look the other way when native meembers of his flock married a second wife according to native tradition. While not so greivous a sin as bigamy to the church, there is little or no chance that any European missionary would have openly condoned this practice. In twelve cases of concurrent marriage, where one wife only was married in the church, and the other, or others 'according to the custom of the country', the native custom marriage was chronologically second.
Dick's awareness of these concurrent marriages is not in doubt as in six of these twelve, he baptized children of both, making it unlikely he would not be aware of both marriages. In one case, of a Weagamow man, there were two traditional custom wives, and when one died the man proceeded to marry the other in the church. In other similar cases where the marriage custom remained outside the orbit of Christianity, the children were all baptized by Dick. These statistics suggest several things.
William Dick obviously considered baptism to be more important than the Christian moral status of the parents. They strongly suggest, though not conclusively that William Dick himself did not always abide by even essential clerical definitions of Christian behaviour. Finally they do conclusively show a laity, i.e. the Oji-Cree speaking peoples of the Severn River basin happily selecting which and to what extent they will abide by clerical definitions of orthodox belief.
This statistical data is reinforced obliqely by the various ethnographic studies done in the region between 1958 and 1974. In this period there was still at least one person who had more than one wife. In the case of close cousin marriages, (the ideal form being first cross-cousin marriage), field research records the residents of Weagamow being amused by a Euro-Canadian clergyman who refused to marry first cousins, but in fact had done so on more than one occasion, ignorantly, because of the haphazard way surnames had entered this culture. In another, and
different case, an informant told the ethnographer when questioned abut the survival of traditional 'medicine', said that no, because you cannot follow two paths at once. Yet the anthropologist in this case knew from other sources that this particular informant was in fact occasionaly functioning as a medicine man or shaman, when requested to do so, while practising Christianity in a very public fashion. The very fact as well that such request were made is in itself significant.
The Ojibway practice of child naming, though not involved quite so directly in a syncretic understanding of the new religion, showed more than the surface statistics might indicate. Ojibway names were traditionally unitary. An individidual would as well have several names throughout life. There were names usually used, there were humourous nicknames, there were secret persoanl names, and a riutal name bestowd by an elder in infancy. Thus,
"... the traditional practice made ready room for the baptismal efforts of the missionary, which supplemented rather than replaced it. ... [but]there was a reluctance to accede to a euro dual naming system , for names can be involved in conceptions of power thus producing a reluctance to have a shared name ...thus a study of surname adoption might say much about the extent to which natives syncretized Christian beliefs - whether this amalgam includes abandoning concepts of power - ethnographic data suggest not- for throughout...1958-1975, Oji-Cree speakers were often reluctant to, or considered unimportant supplying a surname when being questioned, and in fact had to be prodded to do so" (from Round Lake Study report)
The aboriginal peoples of the Severn River area saw baptism then as supplementing traditional concepts of power and cultural traits involved in naming.
There is evidence too that traditional religious beliefs continued in the telling of stories and legends. Apart from the telling of traditional stories and legends which continued at least until 1975, if not to the present, there are at least two accounts of tradtional beliefs surviving to this period. In one, a windigo was reported as being seen in 1970, and in 1974 some bad travel luck was attributed to a medicine man at Sandy Lake.
The hard evidence shows that the natives of this region were receiving the message that a man is allowed only one wife at one time. They were however, understanding this message in terms of their own culture, that is, that only one wife at a time may be married in a church. There is even doubt in a very few, but significant cases that even this rule was being violated, not only by the laity who

might be expected to not always understannd all the nuances of Christian orthodoxy, but by a seemingly fully accultrueated natvie clergyman, William Dick.
A note on terms:
polygamy - having more than one spouse, either male or female polyandry - having more than one husband
polygyny - having more than one wife
windigo - an evil spirit that can seize control of a person and make them do evil things such as murder 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sexuality and Gender in the German Reformation

This interesting talk by Prof. Lyndal Roper looks at Martin Luther not as a theologian but in terms of gender, defined sociologically.  Listen to the talk if that is what interests you here.  What I wish to comment on briefly is the tabu subject of sexuality in the study of History.  After listening to this talk, it occurred to me that sex seems to be absent from history and gender exists in the academic ghetto of women's studies or as it is now usually labelled, gender studies.  Prof. Roper's talk is a case in point as gender is the focus of her research.  I suppose it might be the social scientific need to compartmentalise all study and avoid holistic surveys that bring a broad understanding of humanity.  But what about the place of sex itself in this whole?  Prof. Roper presented a convincing and fascinating glimpse into Luther's character but I wonder at the whole man.  At the end she notes rather tantalisingly that Luther, towards the end of his life became impotent and wrote a letter of apology to his wife for this impotence.  This suggests a different sort of man than the strutting, aggressive style of masculinity she gives Luther in the balance of her talk. What impact did Luther's attitude towards appropriate male sexuality both in terms of its use as a weapon against male opponents and its use in a full love with females?

I wonder. But whatever the answer you won't find this being researched and taught and discussed in undergraduate or graduate classrooms outside of gender studies.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Secularity, Philosopher Style

I have just listened to an interesting talk by the English Philosopher, Daniel Whistler, courtesy, called Utopia, Abstraction and the critique of religion.  His title is a bit misleading as  he never gets to a critique of religion.  Rather, he uses German Idealism, specifically Fichte and Schilling to do what he calls, 'rescuing secularity'. This involves and attempts to describe secularity and to free it from an immersion in the realities of politics and to transcend the Hegelian dialectic, that is, to be abstracted from the particular and to exist as a pure idea. This pure idea he hopes will be indifferent to any ideology.

He begins in an interesting way for a philosopher by dissecting a court case in modern Europe.  The Italian government fought a European court ruling that crucifixes must be removed from classrooms. The reasoning used in part by the Italian lawyers was that secularism was itself an ideology and by removing all religious symbols from classrooms you were not presenting a neutral space, but in fact promoting the ideology of atheism.  This seems a reasonable argument as far as it goes, though I have trouble with the second half, which is that the Italian government argued that Christianity, as a religion of negation - basing this on the crucifixion - was itself a neutral ideology.  I don't see that myself, but understanding this is unimportant to Prof. Whistler's intent.  What he goes on to attempt, is to find a secularity that is not subjective.

To do this he takes his listeners through the German idealism of Hegel, Fichte and Schilling.  One of the regrets of my academic self is a lack of training in Philosophy, even an introductory course.  Keep that in mind as I do my best to summarize Daniel Whistler's thesis here.  Firstly he dispatches Hegel, as a dialectic involves subjectivity.  Next he looks at Fichte who argued that the philosopher must transcend the objective but can never do this.  Finally, he looks at Schilling, from whom he gets his idea presented here that there can be (possibly) a state of indifference that transcends the always dialectical particular of the ordinary world.

I should not comment as I am hardly versed at all in Philosophy, let alone German Idealism, but this being my blog, I will anyway!  One questioner in the Q & A session following the talk,  defended the dialectic by noting that every an idea that transcends the particular is in itself defined against that state, so you have not abstracted secularity from a dialectic.  I would note that seldom do pure ideas survive the reality of life as it is actually lived.  The fate of Marxism is a good case in point - this philosophical idea was altered to suit the reality of Russia, China and other smaller countries.  The claim was made that if the entire world adopted Marxism, then it would work, but that is a chimera and to be frank, nonsense.  The only philosophical ideals that function are those that take into account the realities of human nature and human nature in groups, and how these change over time.  My thinking, such as it is, concludes that religion will always exist whatever your opinion of specific claims because both human individuals and human societies need religion.  Of course, that is an historian's opinion and is therefore based on what I do know about history in general and the history of religions.  A smart intellectual could well argue, as does Daniel Whistler here, that one can conceive a fully abstracted and indifferent philosophy where religion is neither included nor excluded, but I don't see it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Soft Semi-atheists of Today

I was writing something entirely different elsewhere when my mind shot off on a tangent and the title above dropped in to my brain.  Oh, I remember the chain of events!  I am writing a blog post on my writing blog about how writers can write love.  I started by toying with definitions, and in that process, the basic Christian idea of God, that God is Love had to be mentioned.  That blog being wholly secular then required me to apologize for mentioning something so crass as God in a rational forum.  Something like farting while being presented to the Queen I would guess.

Despite all the evangelical preaching of public atheists such as Richard Dawkins, I don't really believe most people are convinced.  Perhaps they want to be convinced there is no supernatural sphere as this would justify any sort of behaviour in this life, or at least allow a cleverly rational person to find a justification.   At this moment in history, of course atheists and soft semi-atheists [I suppose, structurally, I should have defined this term by now... but bear with me], are required to publicly assent to the morality taught by religion - I don't mean here the nut bar fringe and their moral imperative to handle poisonous snakes or have sister wives, but basic moral precepts - play nice, in other words.  All religions teach us to play nice.....and both evangelical atheists and soft semi-atheists who make up the core of their congregation must assent to this precept at this moment in history.  They must because the habit of religion over a million years of humanity has ingrained this into their psychological makeup. Internal restraints then are more important than outward forces such as law, or social sanctions.

Soft semi-atheist [definition]:  Those who are not quite sure if there is a God, god, goddess, supernatural order, etc. but devoutly hope there is not as that frees the individual person from internal restraints. Hence the eager, laughing, clapping crowds at hard, pure atheists' sermons.

Internal Restraints [definition]:  now termed 'freedom' - freedom used to have a different meaning but this is its current usage. [freedom used to involve knowing or seeking, truth]

Friday, February 14, 2014

An interesting man

Muhammad Iqbal

Like Gökalp in Turkey, Muhammad Iqbal (1873–1939) is also widely known as the ideological father of a modern state (in his case, Pakistan). He first proposed a Muslim state in northwestern India as early as 1930, and was a much-loved national poet. However, his most lasting legacy may well be as a philosopher who regarded the kernel of Islam as being the betterment of the individual. Iqbal took the earlier Islamic modernist approach to science one crucial step further: for him, the study of nature was itself a religious act since natural laws were created by God. As he said: “Nature is to the Divine Self as character is to the human self ...[and] knowledge of Nature is the knowledge of God’s behaviour.”6

At the same time, Iqbal felt that the Qur’an pointed toward the spiritual nature of reality. In his view, religion provided answers to questions beyond the scope of science, which ultimately has only a “sectional view of Reality.” Indeed, only religion enables human beings to understand their cosmic purpose, which is to be God’s representatives in this world, despite all their failings. In this context, Iqbal interpreted the expulsion of Adam and Eve from heaven not as a fall, but as an elevation to another plane of consciousness. Adam—and by extension every human being—was a free agent, capable of disobedience and doubt.

Iqbal’s worldview was a positive one. The universe was forever growing and improving, and humans would ultimately triumph over evil. But that required each and every individual to strive toward self-improvement, in the full knowledge that they bore responsibility for representing God in the universe. In many respects, these ideas reflected the prevalent attitude of European thinking, and indeed Iqbal enjoyed the benefits of a European education—first at a British missionary college in his native town, then at Government College, Lahore, and later at Cambridge, Heidelberg, and Munich. Yet his ideas also flowed directly from the Qur’an. The conclusions he drew, though, were revolutionary: self- perfection, in and of itself, becomes an act of prayer, and thus prayer need not be limited to Islamic ritual.

From:  Islam, by Jamal J.Elias

Amherst College, Massachusetts 

Taylor & Francis e-library, 2005