Tuesday, December 12, 2017

An Advent Meditation on a minor matter

Last Christmas season I bought a laser light that projected little green and red points of light. At first I aimed it at my house front as is common. I noticed a few stray lights hitting the branches of our tree in front. These looked like small lights I had climbed high to attach to the branches.

So I moved the projector back, and aimed it up into the branches .... et Voilà ... I had strung all the branches with little lights.

For some absurd reason I found this beautiful. The projector had a timer, so at dark they would come on, and before dawn turn off. Every chance I had, when outside at night, or from my front upstairs office I would look at these lights in the tree. Their tiny, insignificant loveliness transfixed me.

The season ended and I took the projector out and put it away until this year

Two weeks ago I set it up before the ground had frozen, driving the stake into the ground and aiming the projector as last year.  For two weeks I was again transfixed, every night. I took a video on one of the early nights as there was a light snow falling and the laser caught the tiny flakes in the air and produced little floating sparks to add to the beauty in the tree.

Last night, December 11, I looked out from the upstairs office window and there were no lights. I went downstairs and out front to see if the wire had come unplugged.

The projector was gone. There was snow about that had been falling for about an hour but no footprints, no projector. I walked up the street to a neighbour's house as he had a projector too - fancier than mine. He had nailed it to a telephone pole that stood on his lawn. His was gone too - ripped away from the base. I found the base of my projector still frozen into the ground and knew that the thief had broken it off to take it.

For some reason, this minor loss of rather cheesy beauty strikes me deeply. I was angry at first, then thought perhaps this thief needed to sell the projector for 5 or 10 dollars. Or maybe he was one of those individuals I have come across in life who lack morality. Whose only braking system is a desire not to be caught. In either case, an object of pity rather than anger.

I am left with almost hoping the theft was a necessity for some money by someone destitute.

I am left with a hole where beauty once lived.

Monday, November 27, 2017


The 'Crusades'. 

If a person knows nothing about history at all, they have heard of the 'Crusades' and they know all about the Crusades. The Crusades in this telling are the exemplar of the violence they see as endemic to religion, and by 'religion' they mean Christianity. To Muslims who also remember the Crusades, they are an epithet to hurl at that false religion Christianity. They are also a call to arms to recover what they see as the proper place of Islam in the world and also to recover 'Andalusia', their poetic word for Spain and Portugal.

When I mention the Crusades at all in teaching, it is that the first Crusade was preached by Pope Urban II in 1095 ostensibly to recover the Holy Land from Islam. I add another layer briefly and state it also had the purpose of keeping medieval western warriors from the pleasures of killing each other and to kill those who adhered to the wrong faith instead. These words of mine typically have no impact on students who are embedded in our anti-religion (Christian) culture of today. That religion (Christianity) is evil is a meme now that is heard from the mouths of those entirely ignorant of history to those with some knowledge. It is heard from the mouths of the highly educated and from those with only a basic education.

What started me thinking about this, now? Well, I don't get much time to read and what time I do have to spare I use in writing. But I have decided to discipline myself to set aside a few minutes each day in the morning for reading. I have three books on the go  at present. One is a Christmas gift from about ten years ago (that time span is a perfect illustration of my lack of reading time), called London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd. I am reading this because I, too, have written several 'popular' histories although mine are as minimally popular as his are maximally so. The second is Indian School Days by Basil H. Johnston. I am reading this for work purposes, to get a handle on the residential schools furor that grips Canada at present. As an historian I take a cool and careful attitude, but I want to understand the ongoing furor. I knew a close friend of Basil Johnston and know from that reference that his account of residential schooling is likely to be absent emotionally unverifiable extremes and thus, for me, believable. The third is the concern of this blog post.

Ways of the Christian Mystics by Thomas Merton is gripping (I wanted to say 'fascinating' as that word properly defined is a more accurate representation of the book's impact on me, but the word 'fascinating' like so many words today has become weak and watery from overuse and improper use alike ... somewhat like saying 'awesome' has nothing much to do with 'awe' anymore... but that is a topic for a whole blog post or even book of its own.). It is gripping on more than one level. Thomas Merton was a superb craftsman, even artist, of the English language. He was also that rare commodity in the modern western world, a Christian mystic. Mysticism still imbues the Christianity of the broader Eastern Orthodox world, but the 1960s burned mysticism out of western Christianity except for a few isolated pockets. Secondly, the book itself is a joy:  a Shambhala Pocket Classic, books which are true pocket books, bound with sewing not just glue, lovely cover designs, readable fonts inside and each page embossed with a red margin and red titles at the top. I carry this book or Merton's Thoughts in Solitude with me when I travel. Even in a busy airport terminal I can enter a universe of mystical thought through these portals.

I am re-reading Ways of the Christian Mystics and have arrived at Thomas Merton's meditation on the Crusades. Like most mystics, Merton lived in this world and understood it in a way academic historians should but sometimes do not. That is, he sees and even touches the warts along with the smooth unblemished parts of life. He sees them as a whole, in context and not from the modern view of accusation and moral superiority that has become endemic recently.

In the section I am currently reading, Merton is discussing pilgrimage. He talks about its origins and its inevitable institutionalization, hedged about with rules and regulations in the manner of all human endeavours, whether linked to the purely secular, or to the human craving for the transcendent. (My apologies for using a compound/complex sentence in this day of short sentences and short thoughts).  Eventually he gets to the First Crusade, which was preceded by the practice of pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a form of penance for great sin. As an example, he mentions Duke Robert II of Normandy who walked barefoot to Jerusalem as penance for the murder of his brother. This is to say that the medieval West knew the way there and knew what was there; they were not ignorant of geography or the political and military situation.

When the Pope, Urban II, preached the crusade it was not only to free the Holy Land from non-Christians, but as a massive redemptive and penitential act for western Christianity as a whole, according to Merton. The ultimate goal was oddly similar to that of the 19th and 20th century evangelical millennialists: to prepare society for the Second Coming of Christ by cleansing the world of the sin and violations of the teachings of Christ that had become too common in the eyes of many. We are and have been a civilization here in the West always seeing decline and alway proposing ways to correct and do penance for our sins, errors and crimes. The Pope saw the Crusades as a means to bring about a purity and unity among all the world's Christians, centred on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To quote Thomas Merton here:  "Thus we see that in the course of time the peaceful and defenceless pilgrimage, the humble and meek 'return to the source' of all life and grace, became the organized martial expedition to liberate the land promised to Abraham...." 

Merton was of the opinion that the Crusades were linked to the later development of the Renaissance and of the modern versions of Christianity, but in the situation of the times, an unmitigated disaster.
Beward of unintended consequences is a useful axiom. The First Crusade, which among all the many military ventures into the Middle East was the purest in intention, was a disaster from the point of view of the Pope's prayers. Not only was Christendom not united, but it was more deeply and lastingly divided as a result. Christianity in the West in particular also took on a militant tone. I recall singing Onward Christian Soldiers lustily as a boy in Sunday School in the United Church and the Anglican both. The late 20th century saw a recession of this confident and bold Christianity established by the Crusades into the minds of the West and its replacement by an anemic and apologetic faith.

Thomas Merton looked back at the Crusades from the attitude of a mystic and a devout Christian. I look at these military ventures from the more contextual and holistic attitude of the trained historian. The trick to being an  historian in the 21st century is to do as I never tire of quoting:  'To re-think the thoughts of the past', that precious bit of wisdom from R.G. Collingwood. You must practice a kind of backwards looking anthropological participant observation and immerse yourself in that other country, the past, and think and feel as its citizens did, while keeping a part of yourself as an observer. You must understand especially when dealing with faith, that religion/faith/ritual/ etc was not a hobby, nor an add-on but integrated and embedded into individuals and into society at the deepest levels of psychological, emotional and lived experience.

The Crusades are a useful lens to enter the medieval mind and the incipient modern mind. They are also useful delimiters of the shifting and always vague boundaries between purity and impurity that are one of the marques of being human.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Lifestyle and Religion

While nearing the end of another term teaching courses that explore the intricate dance of religion and society, a perennial thought arose. Christianity is a religion that places proselytizing close to its heart. Early missionaries in different parts of the world debated among themselves whether religion and culture/society must reflect the European integration of these two. That is, was 'correct' Christianity only possible in a European, or European cloned aspect?  Was it necessary for missions to convert the society in order to convert to the faith?  The Jesuits got into trouble with Head Office in the Vatican sometimes by stretching their frequent, though not uniform, practice of 'going native'. I think of the Jesuits in China who dressed as mandarins and allowed ancestor worship. The Jesuits in Canada seemed to go part way, acting like 17th century anthropologists engaged in participant observation, though at the same time creating separate Christian villages among the Wendat. And of course, there was that early capitalist enterprise, the Hudson's Bay Company that booted Methodist missionaries out of Rupert's land for their habit of attempting to destroy the native hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Not, I add, because of any modern identity politics paradigm but for the hard fact that this damaged the fur trade. In the modern world, there is the Day of the Dead in Mexico; in Africa there are a number of Christian/native religion mixes.  I could stretch a point, perhaps to breaking, to mention the official, state-approved 'Catholic' church in China today.

These are just random musings, rather than rigorously researched thoughts on this interesting phenomenon. But I think this gets to the source of the success of Christianity's expansion into many very different cultural contexts around the world. My much more limited understanding of Islam, another proselytizing faith, has encountered the fact that the Sufis - often considered heterodox Muslims by the Islamic mainstream - were the most successful group in converting Africans and Asians to Islam.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Most wars are caused by religion" (no)

I had a two day debate with a fellow who said that and more. He also gave a random list of rulers who had caused wars to be fought and because some were Christian, that to him meant that religion caused the particular wars they pursued. It was quite a list including figures such as Napoleon - I guess for this person Napoleon's conquests were in the name of Christianity.

Well this may seem extreme, but there are a lot of people out there who repeat this meme as though it were true in some existential sense. I am thinking about this phenomenon, now so common in the western world. I am  not quite sure what to make of it yet and this blog post is a first written effort to sort this out in my mind.

I've considered and studied religion in history for a long time now. I began when quite young, but only as an adult in graduate school did I apply the discipline of academic historical thinking to religion and its place in society. I guess that would be my starting point: that religion, as far as I know, is usually integrated into society. To go to an even more basic level, humans are social animals whose survival has always been predicated on forming societies. That is, we humans are too physically weak to survive and then thrive on the basis of our physical presence. We need to band together, that is, to form a society.

Now, religion.... my present thinking is that human beings seem to always have had a spiritual side - that wondering about the possibility of more than what our senses can apprehend or comprehend is intrinsic to human psychology. This 'feeling' or 'curiosity' or 'need' (and there are probably more to add to this list),  I am tentatively assigning the word 'spiritual' and 'spirituality'.  I don't know how strong the glue is on the reverse of this label, whether it will peel off at some point, or someone else will scribble out the words and write in their own. But that is where my thinking resides at this moment. Next, I would call 'religion' a society of spiritual individuals. That is, just as humans had to bond together in social groups to survive physically, so too we bonded together in spiritual social groups we call religions. Human beings do not live compartmentalized lives, or we didn't for most of human history. So it is an artifice to say that 'religion' is separate from 'politics' or 'medicine' or 'sex' or any human social activity or grouping. Each individual human contains all these and that means that religion, like all other social groupings is integral to society as a whole.

So in an odd and truncated sense, my debate partner was correct. Wars are fought by people who are religious because they are spiritual, but also the same warriors exist in a political context and a health context and a sexual context .. in short, in a variety of contexts that make up the whole. All these elements of a context go to war, but I doubt that the 'religion context' is primary. The evidence of actual wars shows only a few where religion was the prime motive. For most, power and politics was the initial motivation and the goal.

Politically avaricious rulers discovered in the 16th century that religion could be used to motivate an entire population to fight a war where once wars were the glory and joy and goal of only a warrior class. By using religion, a king or a Duke or a Margrave (titles for monarchs were various) could mobilize an entire population rather than just warriors who lived to fight, or even just a newly invented professional army. This meant that 'civilian' populations also became the deliberate target of armies, rather than accidental victims of soldiers trampling down crops or stealing cows on their way to battle other warriors.

So religion as defined above is involved, but as a tool and as a part of the character of a society but not as a prime motivation.

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 mentalitié 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 soupçon 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.