Sunday, October 11, 2015

George Grant on my Mind

Today I got into a bit of an educational moment about George Grant.  The discussion began on Facebook when I posted this article from the National Post by Conrad Black:

Conrad Black on the Canadian election

Bear with me!  Religion will enter soon.....

I wrote in my explanatory comments for posting this on Facebook:

"Conrad Black writes in a strange, Victorian style. In this analysis he is all succinct business. I find nothing to disagree with here, finding clearly spelled out reasons why a George Grant Tory such as myself cannot vote Conservative this time."

Then I wrote in the thread spun off from this:

"... he was anything but cloistered in the 50s, 60s and 70s - despite his essential (and true) 'Toryism' - unlike every Conservative government after Diefenbaker's, he was a public intellectual. He wrote for non philosophers and non academics in a clear and engaging style. No doubt if he were alive today he would be active on social media. Though he was in some ways the very image of an absent minded professor. I wrote two medical histories for a doctor who had retired from family practice in the small town Dundas Ontario where Grant lived while at McMaster. He told me that one time he was called out to make a house call at the Grant home for a sick child. Grant himself was rushing out the door, late for a class. The professor was wearing his usual tweed jacket etc but my doc friend noticed that pyjama trousers poked out of the bottom of his regular trousers! He had just pulled them on over his pyjamas..."

Then I decided to surf around to see what the internet had on Grant and I came across an old, uncredited interview of Grant - by someone I don't know, in colour, but noted as occurring in 1973. In it a largely incoherent and beardless Grant answered questions about his public philosophy. Then I turned to an episode of the Agenda with Steve Paikin done as far as I can tell just a few years ago as President Obama was referenced once, but ISIS not at all.   Here it is as this discussion interested me in that the discussants missed the point.  That is, some of them, sometimes came close to the central element of Grant's idea, but then missed still. They were brought together to discuss his seminal book, Lament for a Nation. I suppose that could excuse their missing the mark, ... but no, it can't.  They seemed unable to get away from purely political discussion and from short term thinking.

Still Lamenting for a Nation

(now I see the date - 2011)

George Grant's essential point was that we have become a civilization that sees everything as 'object'. He ascribes this to 'science', that we look at nature, at animals, at our own bodies, at ideas, at societies, at everything in short,  as 'object' - something to be manipulated, altered, improved, added to, taken away from, .... manipulated. He calls this technique - the attitude that comes from a civilization based on technology and science. His lament for Canada, written in 1963 has this view at its core. It was indeed focussed on the Canadian election of that year, and the defeat of a Conservative government by a Liberal party - but this was just an illustration from the political life of the time for his underlying thesis.  He used the United States  in those days as the exemplar of civilization based on technique - as the paragon of this. These were, however,  temporal and temporary examples of a permanent principle. He believed there must be some eternal ideas lying at the heart of existence, or all was a nonsense. In this view Grant also saw a past that was holistic and not manipulative in that sense.  In this, he saw Christianity as being in opposition to this technique, this technological attitude.

One criticism raised in the video linked above was the case of China.  Here the discussants opined was a case of a civilization that took this capitalist civilization of technique and bent it to its own purposes.  What they missed was contained in the 18 minute clip where Grant said he saw more similarities between Marxist approaches and capitalist then differences. Both implicitly accepted technique. One, the Marxist he compared to George Orwell's dystopian fantasy, 1984. The other, the American paragon exemplar of capitalism he compared to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, an equally but differently dystopian fantasy. Both required the same mentality however.

In another of Grant's essays he talks about religion in schools in Ontario in the 1960s - back when 'public' elementary schools were still following Egerton Ryerson's model of generic Protestant Christianity.  He saw the religion taught in these schools as dead because their true religion was technique.  Only the Catholic schools were genuinely Christian because they still believed Christianity to be true. The Catholic church he saw still had one foot in the premodern, pre-technique world.

As an historian I would say that George Grant's error was not in predicting the eventual victory of technique driven civilization, but in not going far enough back to find its roots. He mentioned John Locke, but a civilization based on technique is older. He needed to go back to Gutenberg. Print technology changed the way we think, the way we perceive reality and led to our current state of worshipping at the altar of technique. Grant was also wrong in seeing some possibility of light in political systems. Light, in my view, comes from the undercurrent of attention paid to holistic views.  First Nations' peoples are beginning to recover their own connection to this, people who choose to live in small scale communities, Prince Charles and his experimental communities, the organic movement, the work of Jane Goodall, the fact that the Catholic church is 2000 years old and has never been entirely able to forget this, the caring and sharing communities of evangelical Christians, the ethnic communities of large cities - all speak to the survival of an older, saner holistic conception and reception of reality. This exists as a hidden current running silently, but alive below the notice of a world worshipping the manipulation of objects.

Quite some time ago, I took a photograph with my phone of a small flower growing in a crack in pavement.  Therein lies hope.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Travails of Modern Religion

Religion in the Western world has become an undercurrent that only occasionally pops into view.  In the 1960s, sociological opinion held that religion was dying, Today sociologists have mostly changed their minds and hypothesize that religion has  not declined, but changed. Social historians have pushed the timing of this change into the late 20th century from the earlier idea that ascribed this transformation to Darwin & Co. in the 19th century. This was the very first topic I ever wrote about way back .... way, way back about 50 years ago.  My adolescent self opined that science was the cause of the decline of religion. My adult training and reading in the history of religion has added a much more nuanced view.

Of course, all this requires a definition of what one means by the term 'religion'.  Sociologists, who are much enamoured of statistics, liked to chart attendance and membership figures, which the media also love to quote. This has produced articles that note the decline of religion because only a small percentage of people attend weekly, or monthly or whatever standard suits the already formed opinion expressed.  For my university courses in the history of religion I have attempted to solve this problem by introducing two terms I invented a few years ago. One is religio and the other spiritus.  By religio, I mean the institutional presence of religion - Imams, ministers, priests, rabbis, temples, churches, mosques and the bureaucracy needed to maintain all this. By spiritus I mean the actual faith felt, reasoned, adhered to, practiced by all concerned whether an ordinary believer or a religious professional. Of course, like most attempts at categorization, this hides the reality that both exist in the same space and time.

In this blog post, I thought I would approach these thoughts here summarized from a different angle. One is the personal and the other was inspired by a newspaper article commenting on the meaning of the current Catholic Pope's visit to the United States. (I say Catholic Pope, not to be redundant, rather to be deliberately pedantic as there is a Coptic Pope also. Forgive me my pedantry.)

My mother was raised an Episcopalian in the United States.  She married my Canadian father and after the Second World war never lived in her native country again.  For some time, my family attended the United Church of Canada, then moved to the Anglican Church. My mother attended St. Matthew's Anglican in South Windsor Ontario from 1960 to about 2005. The reason I bring my mother into this meditation is that she makes a mockery of statistical analyses of religion, whether that be of religio, or spiritus.  As a family we attended church every Sunday, except in July and August during the long school summer break.  We did not go to church in the summer. Yet my mother was a devout, believing Christian.  For ten months of the year a sociologist or social historian would have classified her as a regular attender and believer, but for two months every year as being wholly secularized. When I was in my 40s and first training to be a professional historian focussed on religion, I asked my mother once why she still attended after the Anglican Church had abandoned most of the beliefs it once taught were necessary - male only priesthood, closed communion, confirmation and so on. Her reply is one I have turned around in my mind ever since.  She said, 'I go to church to pray to God, and I ignore what those stupid men at the front are saying.'  So.... if religio includes doctrine and ritual and all that goes with that, where does she fit?  She had obviously a strong spiritus, but not orthodox if that means observing what a particular church is teaching at a particular time.  She violated all the statistical models of the social scientist.

Next, I am cutting and pasting the first part of the article in the National Post today as it is the essence of the writer's point and I think describes accurately why so many avoid religio in particular unlike my mother.

“The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.”
– Psalm 19
That Psalm verse was sung at the papal Mass in Philadelphia on Sunday. And the claim made by the psalmist captures the heart of Pope Francis and the message of his visit to the United States.
The psalm claims that following the way of discipleship, obeying the commands of the Lord, conforming our plans to His will, brings joy to the heart. Pope Francis’ triumphal tour inspired so many, including those rather distant from the practice of religion, in large part because he so transparently has been transformed by the joy of the Christian gospel.
Yet many, if not most, of those around us have drifted away, or decided against, the things of God precisely because they consider the psalmist wrong. The precepts of the Lord, far from bringing joy, are instead considered a burden that diminishes our freedom — at best a duty to be discharged for fear of even worse consequences; at worst an assault our own identity, autonomy, priorities and ambitions. The secular age considers God, not a loving father who elevates us, but a rival who threatens us. The precepts of the Lord are thus to be ignored, if not actively rebelled against.
His point is that the experience of religio is one of constraint, discomfort, boredom, hypocrisy, ... a dreary, dreadful faith. This stands out to me as an historian because historical descriptions of Christianity are replete with descriptions of life and joy even in periods of persecution of the early church. I think here of one of Pliny's letters to the emperor Trajan where he is asking how to handle these Christians. In the letter he describes their worship:  
they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.
Modern Christianity, of all types, seems to have become a sterile practice where religio is the main point and spiritus has been lost to a great extent.  There are, of course, exceptions, but this is the message often given from the pulpit - a long list of sins, crimes and thou shalt nots, delivered angrily, or haltingly with much wagging of fingers. No joy is found here.  Is this the result of science? I don't think so as science as properly defined as a method began in the 17th century and had no discernible impact on religio or spiritus until the late 20th century.  In any case, science itself has become atrophied into arguing political positions and lust for grant money which is not that much different than any religion in need of reform. 
So what happened?  Historians note that whatever happened and whatever the reason, it seems to become evident in the 1960s.  This loosely defined decade was one of profound cultural change, and one must never forget that religion is not some separable thing, but an integral part of any society of which I am aware past or present. I think here of what I learned about religion during the six years I worked as a research assistant to an anthropologist studying the Oji-Cree of NW Ontario.  'Religion' for them was woven into the fabric of their culture, much as it was for Christians in Europe from the first century until the 20th and is still for Muslims and for Christians in the so-called Third World. Apparently decades of Marxist-type socialism in China has not been able to squelch ancestor worship either. Perhaps, the increasing stultification of religio - putting the institution ahead of spiritus is what is being rebelled against and 'religion' is now become a current within society, integrated into all the other activities, worries, joys that make up humanity. So people may not spend time each week engaged in ritual, whether that be highly complex, or quite simplified, but simply pray when their heart needs prayer. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Religion and Science (again)

On an examination for one of the History courses I teach, I have asked this question for a while now:

Evaluate the following statement using historical evidence:
In 2007 the McGill University philosopher, Charles Taylor noted this: “... why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?” 

Many students have sophisticated thoughts on this cultural sea change in the West, but most attribute the change to 'science', and underlaying this, to the ability of science to answer questions about life in a more satisfying fashion than can religion.  This was the conclusion of the very first essay I wrote, back when I was 13 years old.  The older I get, however, the less satisfied I am by this answer although I have never rejected it entirely.  At this point in time, this idea raises another question for me:  are people in general more interested, or more affected, or need more, explanations to material phenomena than they wonder or worry about answers to the question 'why'?  One student opined a few years back that 'why' is used to ask, 'why does water boil?' and other such concerns.  I answered that this was really asking 'how?', not 'why?'.  'Why' implies purpose, not mechanical function. I got closer to the difference between naturalists (atheists) and supernaturalists (I was going to put 'theist' here, but that omits Buddhists who may be atheists, but are believers in a supernatural mode of existence), when I watched the debate between Richard Dawkins and  Rowan Williams at Oxford some time ago.  Prof. Dawkins stated that the origins of, well, everything had no purpose - that it was a colossal, cosmic accident that started the ball of everything rolling.

From this, I take that the true difference between believers and non-believers is this point called 'purpose'.  For a true materialist there is no existential question 'why' as there is only an original accident. 'Why' is a meaningless question, unless used as a stand-in for 'how'.  For the believer, an existential 'why'  is the only question and for them has an answer.

To get back to my students and the examination question, looking at this issue from the point of view of an existential why and of the impact of scientific thought, both answer why religion as practiced for most of Western history has seemed to collapse in recent decades, and also answer why most people still claim to believe in God.  Only those who either do not ever think about an existential why fall into the truly secular. materialist group and the majority have lurking somewhere in their minds a churning worry about this 'why'.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Multimedia and Worship

Over the past few years I have assigned a discussion project in my World Religions' Course at the University of Guelph which requires students to attend a place of worship. Preferably this should be an unfamiliar one, and they must report on the experience. I have always allowed 'attendance' at television or online services with the added proviso that they comment on the differences between online and physical attendance. Which, come to think of it, is ironic given that they are 'attending' an online class.

The comments to this comparison are various.  Some appreciate being able, as one said, to sit in my pyjamas noisily eating my breakfast cereal 'at church', while others find the experience profoundly unsatisfying.

Why unsatisfying?  Well, let me analyze that by noting the online services that students have generally enjoyed.  These are the services which use multimedia effectively.  They have interesting graphics (gifs I guess....), music that is of roughly the type they listen to as entertainment, lots of movement, lighting and so on - in other words, the techniques used are those used in music videos or concerts.  The services most students did not like online, were simple camera views of old-style services - two dimensional, flat, boring. A few comment that the service might have been better had they attended in person.

So, multimedia yes - but not simply multimedia.  I teach that multimedia began with George Whitefield in the First Great Awakening in the 1740s. He used what was then high tech - the newspaper to build excitement before he arrived in any town, then delivered a talk that pulled at the emotions and was light on doctrine. This is what successful online Christian services do.  Plus ça change!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sycnretism Today

A Contemporary Example of Syncretism

This link may seem quite odd in a blog on religion, but bear with me.  Louise Erdrich is an American writer - and quite successful at that art form.  This link is to an interview and article on her in the American literary magazine The Paris Review.  What caught my attention for this blog was the author's religious beliefs, mentioned in passing in this piece.  She has a mix of European and Ojibwe (Ojibway in Canada, but both are pronounced the same way) heritage. In terms of religion she professes a mix of Catholic Christianity and traditional Ojibwe religion, a melding of beliefs that comes from her native American mother.  Apparently she does not attend Mass ever - but keeps various holy objects such as crucifixes along with Ojibway 'medicine'.

Sunday, May 3, 2015


An atheist's definition of intelligence

This is a clip from a talk - well a sermon - by a fellow named Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I had not heard of him before a friend sent this to me.  He speaks well and is personable, but after a few days of ruminating on his talk I began to wonder at the foundation underlying the opinions expressed here. He uses percentages of highly educated people (those with graduate degrees is his definition here) who believe in a personal God.  I note he does exclude, whether deliberately or not I don't know, those who have a more intellectual perception of the divine as an amorphous force rather than a personal God. In his schema, the higher up the IQ scale the well educated go, the less likely they are to believe in a personal God.  Thus he presents statistics (with no indication of their source, though that may have appeared in a full version of  his talk) that 40% of highly educated (again his definition) people do believe in a personal God, but among the most intelligent, this drops to 7%. His twist is, that he is surprised that the number of the most intelligent who do believe in a personal God is so high.  He expected none or maybe some statistically insignificant percentage.  Then he ruminates on the obverse of a coin I have often considered, that perhaps some people are wired in their brains to believe in a personal God and no amount of evidence can change that.  My take has always been that atheists are persons who are missing some wiring connections in their physical brains that would have allowed them to believe in God.

Anyway, this long paragraph is really to set the context for something tangential to his argument, but which is nonetheless damaging to his rationale. His definitions of 'highly intelligent' and the most intelligent in society restricts this last, highest category to scientists. For some time now, I have been meditating on intelligence.  I watched this video of an English psychiatrist who has written a book drawing on the newest research into the functions of the left and right brain hemispheres. Prior to this research the belief was that the right brain dominates artistic ability of all sorts: painting, poetry, writing, music and so on, while the left brain controls practical abilities such as science, auto mechanics, engineering, construction etc. The more nuanced view today, apparently, is that everybody uses their entire brain, but that the right side governs a contextual view of life, while the left brain directs focussed looks at life. This is similar to the old view as art of any type often, but not always, requires a sense of the overall context of the place of humanity in the world, while science, engineering, plumbing, auto mechanics all require that a person focus narrowly on a problem or enhancement within the whole in order to improve or repair. From this point, he notes that in the modern world, the activities and understandings governed by the left side of the brain are rewarded and therefore dominant in how we organize our lives today, our societies.  He goes on to enter the world of social History and believes that this is a product of the industrial revolution, which required at its base, a division of life's activities into discrete categories that could be focussed on while ignoring to a large extent the whole.  Thus for example, in my field, the history of religion, you study one religion and only secondarily look at its relations with other religions.  Religious studies' textbooks are always presented with chapters devoted to singular religious faiths, and within those chapters, the religion presented is itself carved up into rituals, texts, social life and so on. It is exceedingly rare these days to find any sort of history text or scholarly monograph that attempts to put all this together in context - in any field of history. I have tried to overcome this approach in my own teaching, but I have no idea whether I have succeeded in this, or not.

This has resonated with me in terms of the atheist link above, where Mr. Tyson considers those individuals who are scientists to be the elite of the intelligentsia, and those who are most narrowly focussed to be the elite of the elite.  His definition of intelligence rests on this narrow focus, this giving of overarching privilege to the left hemisphere of the brain.  Here I am reminded of the comedy series 'The Big Bang Theory' which mocks this sort of intelligence. The genius is this show about experimental physicists is a character, Sheldon Cooper, who is barely functional in the world of human relationships as his entire intelligence revolves around his narrow field of study and anything outside that is secondary and external, and to him, risible.

Next I began considering the idea of EQ (Emotional Quotient or Emotional Intelligence) as opposed to IQ. Intelligence quotient tests were devised in the early 20th  century and EQ or EI  dates from the late 20th century.  IQ tests purport to test intelligence and are also purported to be an indicator of future success in life.  This all begs the questions, what is intelligence and what, indeed, is success.  Is a great artist who dies in poverty a success or a failure? EI purports to measure the degree to which an individual relates to others.  Both are based on the idea that you can measure human beings and both require socially embedded definitions of 'success' or 'failure', usually determined by 'how much money you make' or 'how famous you are' or 'what degree of power' you have. In other words both, although usually presented in opposition to one another, are based on the left brained view of life, and neither, though EI comes closer, look at context, or view life holistically.

All the forgoing has deep implications for the state of religiosity, and religious institutions today. Religion, any religion, consists firstly of a holistic view of existence.  It doesn't matter if you are a Buddhist who rejects any idea of God or gods, or a devout Muslim or Christian, your essential worldview is holistic. It requires you to put all the pieces together, or rather it assumes that existence is integrated and not a machine composed of parts that can be engineered separately. I wonder if the current state of religious belief in the western world has more to do with this dominance of a particular understanding of intelligence? If religious faith is not about a cause and effect and focussed views of life, but a holistic understanding that life is more akin to a functioning organism, then both the decline and contemporaneous continuation of faith are understandable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Time (for ordinary people)

While marking final exams my mind flew off on this tangent: time (as I was procrastinating, this seemed a good tangent).

When does a day begin?  For practical purposes, when you get up in the morning and it ends when you go to bed at night.  For scientific purposes - that is, in the never ending effort to carve all existence up into verifiable, countable, examinable, testable, categories, the day begins at one minute after midnight and ends at midnight 24 hours later.  For religions, there are similar idiosyncrasies. If you are Jewish, for example, the day begins at dusk and runs to dusk 24 hours later.  So Saturday night is really Sunday and Sunday night is Monday.   For Christians the day used to follow the 'get up in the morning, go to bed at night rule, but a few decades back in order to either attempt to smooth out some of the inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments, or to give recognition to the Jewish roots of Christianity, the dusk to dusk rule was followed. Sort of. Not really. Almost. If you are Catholic you can go to Mass at 5 on a Saturday evening and satisfy the rule for attending Sunday Mass. Get home after six and you are free to party, drink, watch a movie, stay up late, and then sleep late on Sunday all having fulfilled this obligation. But. You may also attend a 7 p.m. Mass on Sunday evening, which if this new ordering of time means anything, should not be Sunday Mass but Monday.
Oh well.  O Tempus, O Mores!  (Cicero, 1st Oration against Catiline: a piece I had to sweat over in Latin class at university)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Narcissism Epidemic, Atheism, and the decline of Christianity

This morning while doing morning things, I  watched this youtube interview with W. Keith Campbell:

The Narcissism Epidemic

In it Steve Paikin of TVOntario is the interviewer on his The Agenda show. They do not mention religion, but about three-quarters through the interview I realized that the decline of Christianity in the West is symptomatic of the rise of narcissism. By narcissism, I should add, Keith Campbell does not mean ordinary pride in accomplishments, but a culture where too many people base their lives and actions around their own wants and desires and needs. This got me to thinking about Richard  Dawkins and an essential view of atheism, expressed in this debate with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams over faith and atheism:  Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Anthony Kenny: "Human Beings & Ultimate Origin" Debate.  In it, amongst many other points, Richard Dawkins states his belief that existence began as an accident.  It is fundamental to many religions that there is purpose at the heart of reality and existence. According to essential atheism, there is no overarching, fundamental purpose to the universe, including life or inanimate objects - to everything in short. When I initially mulled over that one statement of his, I saw that you must, as an individual atheist, be narcissistic in order to live - because if there is no overarching, pre-existing purpose to life  then each person must create that purpose within - that meaning only subsists in your own head - cogito ergo sum, that famous statement by Descartes is here taken to its extreme position: I think, therefore, I am. Thus in a world where narcissism has become the default social reality, any religion, but in the case of the West, Christianity, will decline because once one strips away all the complex details (I am reading Leviticus right now and that book is all about details), Christianity is about purpose lying as the foundation of everything. Also, Christianity contradicts this narcissistic basis of atheism in its two fundamental precepts:  1. love of God and 2. love of others.  Christianity is being rejected because it violates narcissism, not because it is scientifically unprovable, or illogical, or did or did not cause wars, but because at root it tells individuals to think of oneself third, if at all.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Religious Studies and History: two views of the same thing

This morning, while sipping my first caffeine of the day, I sat quietly looking out my kitchen window at bare tree limbs, blue sky, scattered clouds and snow.  Meditating I guess, or perhaps just thinking. Anyway, for no particular reason I began to think about the study of religion through two different lenses. Most universities in Canada have Departments of Religion, or Religious Studies (not all, my own doctoral alma mater the University of Guelph does not), and they graduate individuals who study religion in all its aspects.  These departments are the successors of theology departments. Again, most but not all, universities in Canada had church origins. For example, the University of Toronto began as an Anglican school, the University of Windsor was Catholic, Queen's was Presbyterian and my undergrad and MA school McMaster was Baptist.  When the provincial governments dangled 30 bits of silver before each institution they gave up their church control and secularized.  (One of the last holdouts was Waterloo Lutheran which did not accept the money until very late  in the game and transmogrified into Wilfred Laurier - maybe so they didn't have to change their monogrammed linen).

After secularizing, these universities kept a church college or colleges to act as a seminary in most cases, but suspended their rights to grant full Arts or Sciences degrees. In the place of theology they tended to institute departments of Religion or Religious Studies, where religion would be examined in a social scientific manner.

About ten or so years ago, I faced the prospect of no work, and saw that my school, the University of Guelph did not offer much in the way of the study of religion.  So I came up with the idea of a World Religions' course in the History department, as I am an historian. This was accepted, and was structured and taught through an historical, not a social scientific view of religion. While religious studies courses and textbooks include the historical development of religion, this is not their central focus. For my course history came first, and as a social/cultural historian, the complex dance or duet of religion and society as it changed over time was the focus.

While searching for a textbook to complement the course material, I found that most were written by graduates of religious studies programmes and not appropriate therefore for an historical approach. I did find one finally, written by one of the pioneers of the study of world religions, the late Ninian Smart. I have yet to find another that does as well as his 1999 second edition. The many, many world religions' texts approach religion overall and in particular cases from the religious studies focus, while I remain an unrepentant historian first and foremost.

So what is the difference?  Well in the religious studies' approach, presentism reigns supreme -that is, a particular religion is presented as it exists today (well, today being the rough time it took to produce the book).  This involves the beliefs, rituals, architecture, art, geographical spread, ethnicity or cross-ethnicity, and a section on history.  From what I can see in their books, they are primarily sociological studies with some anthropology thrown in, spiced with a dash of history.  In the approach I take, that of the historian, I emphasize and focus on the story - the history of religion in general and the particular religion being presented.  This involves the same facets found in religious studies, but with an emphasis on change within social context.  This assumes that some aspects do change and some do not and this too is a matter to be discussed and studied.

This approach is, I am sure, a disappointment to some of my students as they expect to learn about, memorize and repeat on tests and exams the rituals and customs of people of different religions along with their theologies.  What they get is very little of that and lot of how and perhaps why, religion functions within different social settings at different periods of history and how and why change occurs.

The problem I have had with the religious studies approach is the way in which each religion tends to be hermetically sealed off from every other and the implication that the views and beliefs and practices of ordinary followers mirror that of religious professionals.

I think I stress ritual and belief too lightly and will work to change that, but am convinced that the study of the place of religion in life itself is and should be the primary focus, not the doctrine or dogma or ritual practices.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


The other day I put Christmas away.  I took the tree down and put it outside to be recycled into mulch.  I boxed up the ornaments we have inside, especially the crèche. Outside I took the wreath off the front door, removed the red bows arrayed on bushes and railings and the Christmas light from bushes. Tuesday was Epiphany, or 12th night, the 12th day of Christmas and the formal end of the Christmas season.   As most people today who celebrate Christmas are not actually Christians they don't realize that Christmas Day is the 1st day of Christmas and that 12th night celebrates the arrival of the 3 Magi to venerate the Christ child. The name epiphany is curious.  Its Greek roots mean 'reveal', but the word can mean in a secular sense a moment of sudden revelation, usually important and in the Christian sense when Christ was revealed as God for the first time.

As I walk the streets at night with my dog, I notice that many houses still have their Christmas lights up.  Mostly trees are gone from living rooms - often removed within a day or two of Christmas day. The lights and the trees for many are set up early in December and gone by the 26th. This all reminds me that Christmas has become something both similar and different to the holiday celebrated by practicing, believing Christians themselves.  The spirit of this season seems to be the same for both non believers as for believers - a time of feasting and celebration and gift giving - of joy, in short.  But it has little to do with thinking about the birth of Christ for many, perhaps most in our society.  This does not bother me much but is a curious fact that is a mirror image of the origins of this holiday. This date was chosen for a celebration of Christ's birth in order to piggy back on the pagan winter solstice or Saturnalia. These sorts of deliberate syncretism made Christianity more popular as ordinary people did  not have to abandon favourite celebrations entirely.  The irony is that secular people in the West have now incorporated the Christian holiday of Christmas into a secular celebration in order that they not have to abandon the favourite parts of this holiday. This all means of course that Epiphany has been lost in the neb-secular feast of Christmas that runs from sometime in December to January 1.