Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Five Senses

Religion is usually studied from a doctrinal viewpoint. There is often some mention of historical development in this, but the approach almost always is to discuss ideas and how these ideas are transmitted in words printed on a page or presented on a screen. The default attitude to religion is intellectual. You read about and think about the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism, or the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism; the Bible; the Qur'an, etc. You might also place these words in the context of a place and a time. You discuss secularization in the United States as compared to western Europe since the mid 20th century; you discuss Henry VIII and his Act of Supremacy; you discuss Luther and Calvin in early modern Europe; you investigate the Rashidun.

Two disparate sources of information got me thinking about this approach to understanding religion.

The first is a reading I have students encounter in a course I teach on Religion and Society in the western world. The reading is Chapter XI in Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More, 'Holy, Holy, Holy'. Here the author describes the religious experience of Thomas More prior to the reforms initiated by King Henry VIII. This very short chapter (5 and a bit pages) brings the sensual experience of religion in London, ca. 1500 to readers. It hints at beliefs, but the beliefs of both ordinary, illiterate Londoners and literate alike, but concentrates on what it smells like, sounds like, tastes like, feels like, looks like for a person living faith in that day. My intent is to entice students away from the standard 'religion as doctrine' view, to do what the historian/archaeologist/philosopher R.G. Collingwood called 'rethinking the thoughts of the past'. Only I want to go one step further and have 21st century students 're-sense the sensuality of the past'.

The second source is very different. I subscribed recently to an online magazine called Aeon Magazine. Today there was a quirky article - very few words introducing a  21 minutes video. The video, by Berlin based Spanish artist Ignacio Uriarte is called  History of the Typewriter as Recited by Michael Winslow.  Michael Winslow, you might recall, is the guy in the Police Academy movies who could make all those sounds - I thought it was movies magic, but apparently he actually does make those sounds with his own mouth. This film uses Ken Burns style titles saying which typewriter model and its year, white on black, followed by a a clip of Michael Winslow making typing noises with mouth, microphone and some metal instrument he sometimes uses to manipulate his lips, (I think). This obviously has nothing to do with religion, except it does. We don't just live inside our heads. We live in a world where the keys I am tapping right now feel a certain way and do make a certain, soft sound. The chair under my bum feels, the floor under my socked and slippered feet has a feeling. The air moves or doesn't move; there are house smells. If the window is open there are outdoor sounds and smells. I hear my dog moving about, panting. I can hear the background noise of a TV downstairs. As I type this I am muttering the words (I have a writing technique that says I must say the words out loud as a kind of copy edit). In  a church there might be the smell of wax from candles and at Easter from a Beeswax Easter candle, the faint hint of incense perhaps, the feel of hard wood pews, floors either carpeted or not, and the air - don't forget the air - it might be still, or air conditioned, or smell of an aged building. Lighting might be bright and harsh, it might be old and soft. I attended a Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy once where the only lighting was from hundreds of tall, thin candles stuck in sand in chest high containers, providing a kind of flickering mystery that took the eye a while to adjust and allow a degree of normal vision. The typewriter film reminded me of this. The sound of a typewriter was something experienced as background for many from the 1880s into the 1980s, whether mechanical or electric. You did not notice it especially, but this video reminded me it is gone now, replaced by the soft, plastic tapping of fingers on computer keys on my laptop, and no sound at all when using a phone or tablet (except for the occasional swear word or strangled laugh when you hit the wrong letter or autocorrect 'dis-corrects'). There is some blending of old to new because I learned to touch type in High School and laptop and desk top keyboards are laid out the same way for the standard letters.

Anyway, all this reminded me that when studying religion - it does not matter which religion - ideas, words, texts are for those who are not religious professionals, merely the tip of a very large iceberg. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Newfoundland and Anglicanism

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A quick thought

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

Well, back to marking.


Maybe I will take my dog for a walk.

Then do some more marking.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rambling Thoughts upon reading Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today version 2

Rambling Thoughts upon reading Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today

Charles Taylor lays out an interesting philosophical look at early 21st century society and the place of religion today in a short (roughly 100 pages) book Varieties of Religion Today, where he ruminates on William James’s book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James’s book was based on  his Gifford Lectures given over 1901-02, just as this short volume was based on Taylor’s Gifford Lectures given in 1999. While the two are separated by the neat figure of 100 years, Taylor sees James’s work as mostly holding true for today, but with some modifications necessary. 

It is the second part of Taylor’s lectures and book that interest me most. Here he looks at the state of western society and therefore, of religion in western society at the very beginning of the 21st century. What he sees is the gradual growth of the individual pursuit of happiness and of the growing emphasis on the individual in society, two elements of modernity. Prior to the post-world war 2 period, this individualism was embedded in various checks such as ‘good citizenship’ of the sort envisioned by the founders of the American republic and their ideal of rule by the citizen, in a sexual morality that promoted and protected the family unit, and an ethic of hard work and productivity. What Prof. Taylor sees happening after the Second World War is the gradual removal of these checks on individual behaviour and their replacement by one only: that individuals do no harm to other individuals. He notes that this is not an abrupt change, though the 1960s can be seen as the turning point, but a change where old verities exist and perhaps recede alongside this new total unleashing of the individual. 

He uses several terms as labels: paleo-Durkheimian, neo-Durkeimian, post-Durkheimian, expressivism and the Culture of Authenticity. 

To boil down Durkheim’s work to sound byte size, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, one can say that Durkheim saw religion as being essentially functional and about social cohesion.  By this light, crowds doing the wave at a football game could be seen as playing out a religious ritual - that is, a social ritual (as opposed to an individual ritual) that has the function of binding a group together in a common identity. 

When Taylor uses the term paleo-Durkheimian, he means it in this pristine sense and ascribes it to societies with a dominant church to which all are required to belong. Here in specific historical terms he refers to western Europe prior to the Reformation and the Catholic church. In this system also, there is a division between the sacred and the profane, but one where they are nonetheless, linked. Religion permeates society at the political level and at the level of daily life.  Neo-Durkheimian is used to denote a period where denominations have emerged with profound theological and ritualistic differences, but which accord a degree (sometimes less and sometimes more so) of mutual respect to one another. In this period, an individual may join whichever denomination suits their individual comfort. You might, to put this in obvious terms, belong to a Baptist congregation because you are comfortable in that particular congregation and at the same time accept the individual choice of a neighbour who joined a Catholic church. There exists a sense of an invisible ‘church’ consisting of accepting God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and of these denominations being merely individual expressions of a system that is both basic and overarching at the same time. It is also expected that this invisible church guides and directs society, but a level of individual choice has become the norm.  Religion here is still serving a function of joining a society together, but with a large step towards full individualism. Hence neo-Durkheimian. 

Post-Durkheimian is the situation obtaining today. Here Charles Taylor is less clear (to me, anyway). He earlier introduces the term expressivism, which seems to denote the gradual strengthening of the sense of passion as leading to religious truth rather than theological thought. Theology in the Middle Ages, was considered to be the Queen of the Sciences. This was the place where intellectuals who today are for example Physicists, congregated to understand the essential reality of the universe. Theology was a strict intellectual discipline with rules of thought carefully and arduously learned and followed once one became a Master. The truths of God, morality, social relations, the purpose of life and the physical world  were the objects of study and thought. Purpose lay at the heart of this intellectual pursuit in contradiction to modern day Physics which now posits a cosmic accident as being at the very beginning of existence. Scholars then saw Jesus as the Alpha and the Omega (beginning and end), now scholars see pure chance as the alpha, but human will as the omega. Taylor seems to suggest (and again I would need to read more deeply into his work to verify this) that expressivism, the victory of passion and feeling over intellect has led to this current situation. Taylor traces the growth of expressivism through historic periods quickly:  this is, after all a short book based on a lecture. He sees it beginning in the 18th century, which although historians have labelled this the Age of Reason, it was also the age of a reaction to hard logic in the Methodist movement and the Pietists who form the instigator of Methodism. Modern Methodists are not a passionate folk, but in the 18th century they based their view of Christianity on emotion more than reason. He then  looks at the impact of urbanization and industrialization which had their beginnings contemporary to Methodism and Pietism, and at the Romantic era and at the growth of individualism as being factors. 

Post-Durkheimian means for Taylor, the abandonment of religion as having a societal function. It is now to be a matter of personal emotional interest, or even intellectual interest, but personal, passionate and primarily individual. Finally, in the post world war 2 period comes Taylor’s concept, the culture of authenticity. By this he means an understanding of the nature of life that emerged from expressivism. To be authentic, an individual must create their own way of being, that comes authentically from within your personality and predilections, and is not dictated by social norms including religion. 

In the mediaeval world of western Europe, there was one religion and a societal acceptance of two spheres of the sacred and the profane within that mental universe. There were physical objects and places which were recognized as sacred and those apart from the sacred were profane (or in more modern terminology, secular). Religion was experienced societally - individual happiness with or contentment with was not regarded as vital. Religion and society were integrated (to use my own terminology). I prefer integrated to other possible descriptors such as entangled or unified because I want to convey the idea that ‘religion’ and society, politics, daily life, work, play, pain, failure, success and so on were not separate categories, but part of an integral whole. 

How do I concatenate this with Taylor’s thesis of the separation of the sacred and the profane? I will have to think more deeply about this and read more of Taylor and perhaps Peter Brown on the origins of the mediaeval mentality as I do not at present see an obvious answer. Where they do meet is in particular places and times where human beings meet or enter. Thus, a church is sacred and people enter the sacred while literally entering a church building. Unlike today, there were other sacred places such as holy wells, or entire cities such as Jerusalem. There were objects that were sacred, primary among them being the bread viewed or consumed in communion at the Mass. ‘Communion’ is a good term here as it indicates ‘communication’ or ‘communing with’ the sacred ‘other’ and letting it enter your body.  In a more holistic or perhaps neo-Durkheimian sense, I would suggest that there existed an overarching reality that included the sacred and the profane into the same existence, that connected this world and the other world of pure God. They were connected, but not the same.  But I am no theologian or philosopher so must ground any thinking here in my study of the idea of mentalitiĆ© drawn form the work of the French historian Michel Vovelle, but that is another can of worms avoided here. 

In the modern world - that mental universe which began to overcome the mediaeval mindset - individualism began inexorably to replace the more holistic sense of reality that had obtained, not only in the western European culture, but that of the more Mediterranean centred world of ancient Rome. One can argue time frames,  but let us say that it began with the Renaissance and we can use Petrarch as a marker in the same way Taylor uses the 1960s as a marker of change. This is not a specific point of time, but a hinge moment. Petrarch’s ascension of Mount Ventoux is a tale of the conversion experience away from a holistic, social existence to one focussed on the individual called humanism. Modern research has cast doubt on this event, but that too is indicative of the change from a world that allowed for mystical experiences to one that always tries to debunk any mental or physical universe other than the purely material. 

Yet for Taylor, that individualism was still bounded and limited by other ideals still accepted by society in general and individuals in particular. Thus we may now be generally inhabiting a post-Durkheimian universe, but many still live in a neo-Durkheimian place where there is a real religious and Christian reality that acts as an overseer of individual choice to join a particular denomination or even to be agnostic or atheist. The next stage, not considered in this 1990s meditation of his, would require analysis of the impact of theist and non-Christian religion becoming significant in the West. Would the growing numbers of Muslims and Hindus serve to strengthen neo-Durkheimian society? That is, would Islam, for example, take its place alongside Presbyterians and Catholics? The present tense fear of Islam in the United States is probably more an indicator of a struggle to place this non-Christian religion within the context of a society that is still mostly neo-Durkheimian. For Canada, we are dominated by a post-Durkheimian mental universe so any struggle would involve the full privatization of Islam, rather than including it alongside Christian denominations, which are already mostly privatized. Again, I would stress that this is not a neat and tidy process, but messy and chaotic in the extreme. Any analysis or comment must require a large degree of humility on my part and on that of any other thinker. Fortunately I have a vast store of that.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Religion and Categories

I am reading a textbook I found a while back in my university of Guelph mailbox from Oxford UP. I have a lot of unread books on shelves and stacked on the floor. This book is nice and short and clearly written and gives a good overview of theory as used by those who teach in Religious Studies departments. My university does not have such a department, though years ago there was a move to create a 'minor' in Religious Studies at the U of Guelph. That came to nothing as the order of the day for universities is to cut back on the Arts and Humanities and move what little money they have into more pragmatically oriented disciplines.

In any case, I teach, write, think about religion from the perspective of an historian. That is to say, I am interested in the place of religion, of faith, of all the aspects of religion within a society and as part of its culture as it changes over time. But this roughly 200 page book gives a good introduction to theory. I have read the introductory section, mostly to see where my intellectual meanderings had placed me in this theoretical universe of thought.

The author, Chris Klassen (whom I met once long ago) teaches religious studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He goes over various approaches to defining religion, while sensibly noting that definitions are not as solid as one might think or perhaps hope. Definitions fluctuate and change with new research and with the times.
He then looks at different theoretical approaches to the study of religion. He surveys the 'cognitive' approach:  looking at religion as ideas or theology which then affects culture, using the 19th century work of Sir James Frazer as best expressed in the book, The Golden Bough; at the functional approach, as expressed by Emile Durkheim in his book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), which looks at how religion affects society by attempting to understand  universal basic elements of religion. The he surveys Max Weber and his thesis found in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'. Weber combined Luther's idea that "labour is a calling from God" (p 12) and the Calvinist view that if you prospered financially in life, this was a sign you were one of God's elect. Prof. Klassen then looked at Marx and his view that religion was part of 'superstructure' and designed to support the modes of production or the 'base' of society. Usually people do remember Marx calling religion the 'opiate of the masses'. Next up is William James, a psychologist who studied religion as an individual experience at the psychological level in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). I have a little book that builds on this work by the philosopher Charles Taylor called 'Varieties of Religion Today' published in 2002 and based on a Gifford Lecture he gave. James's book was also based on a Gifford lecture. Next comes Mercea Eliade, perhaps the first scholar of World Religions - the others touched on so-called primitive religion, but mostly used Christianity as being 'religion'. Eliade studied a variety of religions and from an historical perspective and focussing on myth and symbolism. He thought religion  should be studied for its own sake, not as an adjunct to other areas of the human experience.
Then Chris Klassen gets to what is the meat of the matter, in my liking and view anyway:  Clifford Geertz and the anthropological approach; and a newer way to study, the 'lived experience' approach. Students of mine will recognize that I teach religion from this latter means: religion is something people do, live, experience and is often different and sometimes wildly different from the official doctrines and practices of a religion.

I think I will post more on this book as I move through it in my spare time. But for now, this introduces the ideas contained within and which will likely spark ideas in me too.

Klassen, Chris. Religion & Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Don Mills, ON, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


A well known secret in the academic world is students often suggest the most interesting ideas.
In a recent discussion on the integration of religion into society in western Europe prior to the Protestant Reformation, a student commented on individualism. The reading at the core of the discussion described Mass in a large London church in about the year 1500. There were also brief mentions of the integration of worship into the street life of the city. In all this there was a sense presented of a corporate, holistic mentality that, to this student, stood in sharp contrast to the high individualism of the early 21st century.

This got me to thinking about individualism and religion. Of course, human beings are always individuals whether you lived in the socialist nirvana of the Soviet Union, or the modern dictatorship of the Party in today's China, or in that maelstrom of individualism, the United States. But there can be a weighting assigned to individualism and factors that tip these scales one way or the other without removing any sort of balance.

Historians use a term or category called 'modernity' and divide that further into early modern, fully modern and perhaps today, post modern. This all avoids to a degree debate on a usable definition of 'modern'. But part of what 'modern' means (to me anyway), is the gradual tipping of that scale in favour of individualism.

This individualism can be seen in the religious aspect of western Europe as early as the Renaissance. A reading that students are often required to engage with is Francesco Petrarca's account of his ascent of Mount Ventoux in the south of France. Although critically analysed for some time by historians (perhaps an early example of alternate fact?), the idea explains neatly the primary ideal of the Renaissance and a movement called Humanism, or Renaissance Humanism (to distinguish from the modern atheist/agnostic philosophy). Whether literally true, or an alternate fact, the ascent of Mount Ventoux is as good a means as any to describe the earliest beginnings of a cultural turn, from a society that looked to God firstly to a society where humanity was the primary focus. This was only an early beginning and in terms of numbers involved only  a tiny minority of people. But it was the beginning of the ultra individualism considered as normal here in the early 21st century.

The impact on religion was to be profound. The Protestant Reformation has too often been taught from a purely theological perspective, with a soupƧon of political life thrown in for seasoning. The Protestant Reformation was a tectonic cultural shift, or to borrow from Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm shift. But it was not a change isolated from other ongoing changes in western Europe. Neither before, nor after the Reformation can one realistically separate religion from society or society from religion. Religion, whether considered from the institutional aspect or from the spiritual aspect was as fully a part of daily life and of all aspects of human social life as economics or medicine or sex or anything that goes to make up the individual and society in general. As my first professor of religious  history, Michael Gauvreau taught me, religion can be useful to the historian as a lens to understand change over time, quite apart from the study of religion as belief system.

What then appears in this lens in the period from 1500 to 2000? Among many other factors, of the type I listed above, individualism grows and begins to tip those scales. We have some of the earliest documentary evidence of individualism in the 14th century with Petrarca. But technology which is another of these social factors speeded up the process and more importantly, expanded its reach with the adoption of movable type, that is, printing in the 15th century. A greater number and variety of people could now sit sole and alone and quiet and read  ideas. It is true this did not happen all at once. We know that often the single local person who could read, would read out loud to others who were illiterate. We know that the status of written words as having a greater authority than spoken words preceded all this but was necessary to give the later printed word its authority.  I draw here on a book by M.T. Clanchy from a number years ago called 'From Memory to Written Record'.  But technology spread this. Printing technology was another of the multifarious factors that caused this particular snowball to begin rolling down the mountain (probably not Mount Ventoux!), gathering speed and gathering mass as it went.

It is worth noting that individualism was not yet in its glory and would not be so for many centuries after Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the door of his university church. The new national and Protestant churches enforced uniformity within state borders. Even after this, and in 19th and 20th century countries where multiple expressions of Christianity were dominant in settler colonies of western Europe, there was a social uniformity enforced by social pressures that did not need legislation. Nationalism itself took on religious aspects and enforced a collective discipline on minds.

I won't here get into thinking about why individualism seems so much more extreme, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, ordinary, today. But the process towards this particular point in time where we now live and where I write these thoughts has very deep roots and has disrupted the place and role religion has played for most of western history.