Monday, December 11, 2017

Courting trouble

For the penultimate session of "Theorizing Religion" today, we read a recent blogpost by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan on the legal incoherence of notions of religious freedom:

The notion that religion exists and can be regulated without being defined is a fiction at the heart of religious freedom protection.

We read this is as a reminder that, free as our discussions in the academy (and even in our private lives) might seem to be about what counts as religion, etc., in real life what's sanctioned is constrained by legal definitions woefully uninformed by research and reflection about religion in general and about the diverse hybrid realities of contemporary US religion in particular. Sullivan is calculatedly frustrating - she doesn't suggest a way out of our jurisprudential fix; there can't be a neutral definition of religion, fair to all comers. But we got mired in details about drug laws in Oregon, cemetery practice in Florida, contraception for employees of closely held craft supply megastores in Oklahoma... and that evangelical "wedding cake artist" in Colorado whose case was heard before the Supreme Court last week.
It all left a bitter taste. Why? Because religion is not nice? Because reality is messy, and law can't fix it? Because we can't all just get along? Because life isn't just one long liberal arts seminar?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Saturday, December 09, 2017

'Tis the season

First snow of the season!

Thursday, December 07, 2017


Just about exactly one hundred years ago Don Martin, a correspondent for the New York Herald, left New York for France to provide first hand reports of the American efforts in the Great War. His adventures, written in stirring prose in articles, a diary and letters, notably to his young daughter Dorothy, are fascinating to read. We've been enjoying them in the family for a while now, but now you can, too! Dorothy was my grandmother, and her son, my father, has demonstrated the most remarkable filial piety in tracking down Martin's publications, and in transcribing them, too. He will be sharing them through the blog Don Martin: WWI Soldier of the Pen, each on the precise centenary of its writing or publication. The filiality doesn't end there: Don Martin's great great grandson (one f my nephews in that Great War-obsessed land down under) helped design the website. Official launch today! Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 06, 2017


Daoism came to "Theorizing Religion" today, in the form of two chapters of James Miller's China's Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. It was a way to introduce the "religion and ecology" discussion (still some seats in the class I'm teaching next semester on that topic), and to get at the "Daoism as a religion" question. The Harvard Divinity School MOOC series will run again next year, with a sixth course - on Sikhism. Why not consecrate Daoism the sixth world religion, as the Norton Anthology of World Religions did? But first we needed a sense of what Daoism is, no easy matter...

Following Miller's lead I emphasized that Daoist practice is about experiencing the body in the world, the world in the body - and "the world" is not some amorphous blur but full of local landscapes and powers, just as time is not a gauzy mist but calendars with specific cycles where particular named forces are close or far. (It all waxes and wanes: yin yang.) For this reason, Miller argues, western categories of nature - human - supernatural don't know what to make of Daoism. By the same token Daoism offers a powerful alternative to understandings of "religion and nature" premised on the western categories, which are all about distinctions and boundaries (protecting nature!), not the flows of vital energy (qi) which are what it's all about. It makes for a different way of approaching ecology if the environment is in me, as Miller puts it, and a different form of education if this is something to be understood not intellectually but "aesthetically," in the way we feel our living.

Still, world religion #6? One student astutely observed that you couldn't possibly provide the aesthetic education in the significance of particular places and times through a MOOC. (I'd summarized an article by Yang Der-Ruey about how the conventional 9-5 M-F schools of the state-sponsored Daoist organization in China have killed Daoism by divorcing it from specificities of geography and calendar, leaving only the empty husk of abstract philosophy and arbitrary ritual.) But, we'll have to ask next week, can you really MOOC any religion without turning it into abstract philosophy and arbitrary ritual?

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Befriending the silent observer

I got goosebumps in "Buddhist Modernism" today, not something I was expecting. As a final example of our topic before they give final research presentations, I'd given the students two chapters from Haemin Sunim's The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm in a Busy World, a book currently climbing Amazon charts in various western language translations, but originally a compilation of tweets. Sunim's observations became the most retweeted tweets in South Korea, and the books that have brought them together have been major bestsellers there.

There are few zingers among the tweets we read, though - that's not what they're about - and our discussion was a little flat. It got a little better when I asked students to read aloud one which spoke to them, so we had a taste of retweeting. Now each appeared as something someone else had cared enough to send on. But the advice and observations still seemed pretty common-sensical: slow down, relax, be yourself, enjoy the little things. There were a few clearly Buddhisty ones, like the one I was surprised it was left to me to read aloud:

I wish you could see my true nature.
Beyond my body and labels,
there is a river of tenderness and vulnerability.
Beyond stereotypes and assumptions,
there is a valley of openness and authenticity.
Beyond memory and ego,
there is an ocean of awareness and compassion.

but in general it seems a pretty ordinary, slightly New Agey, self-help book. If you read to the end, though, you find that all rivers lead to the sea. The goosebumps came when I read the class the book's epilogue:

Your Original Face

When you are so busy that you feel perpetually chased, when worrying thoughts circle your head, when the future seems dark and uncertain, when you are hurt by what someone has said, slow down if only for a moment. Bring all of your awareness into the present and take a deep breath.

What do you hear? What does your body feel? What does the sky look like?

Only when we slow down can we finally see clearly our relationships, our thoughts our pain. As we slow down, we are no longer tangled in them. We can step out and appreciate them for what they are.

The faces of our family and colleagues who always help, the scenery that we pass by every day but fail to notice, our friends' stories that we fail to pay attention to - in the stillness of the pause, the entirety of our being is quietly revealed.

Wisdom is not something we have to strive to acquire. Rather, it arises naturally as we slow down and notice what is already there.

As we notice more and more in the present moment, we come to a deeper realization that a silent observer is within us. In the primordial stillness, the silent observer witnesses everything inside and outside.

Befriend the silent observer. Find out where it is, and what shape it has assumed. Do not try to imagine it as something you already know. Let all your thoughts and images merge back into silence and just sense the observer already there in silence.

If you see the face of the silent observer, then you have found your original face, from before you were born.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Acting plural

Had a wonderful moment in Theorizing Religion today - not just a moment, a class which afforded wonderful moments. In last Wednesday's class we'd poked and prodded the charming and deceptively clear arguments about religious exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism, and I thought we might have a little more discussion in us. Did we ever! "I've never met a real pluralist," one student had written in a response. "How can anyone not be a pluralist?" another had asked. "Can anyone say they think their views are true but incomplete, and that others have truths they'll never be able fully to assimilate, and really mean it?" I added. So off we went.

One moment which I particularly relished came from R, a student in the Theater BFA program, responding to the Lang cliché that "everyone has their own truth." I rail against that every year, but usually nobody agrees with me. R, however, took it and ran with it. If it can't conflict with what others believe it's not truth, just opinion, he said. R told us this was a point stressed by his acting teachers. Characters don't have "their own truth," not if they're well acted. The actor's job is to let the character live the truth.

Now doesn't that throw things for a lovely loop! I told R after class this recalled a discussion we had in "Theater & Religion" years ago about whether belief is an inner thing or observable. I remember getting excited about how the idea of "believable" performance complicated the idea that one's beliefs were entirely private and could be known by noone outside. But none of the actors in the class took me up on that. I have a sense R, and his teachers, might. Is the practice of acting a pluralism, then?

Toled you so

Always spot-on Tom Toles. (Bottom right always offers a 2nd punchline!)

Friday, December 01, 2017

Hard times for higher ed

We'll be reeling from the consequences of the perfidious tax 'reform' of the plutocrat party for a long time (and paying for it for even longer) but one consequence seems clear, and devastating for folks in our biz. This is a message I got from an alum, who's recently arrived at a calling to pursue an MDiv/MSW after many years of discernment, and found what seemed to be the perfect program for pursuing it, out in Denver:
Taxing graduate students isn't a significant revenue boost, and will have the effect only of thinning the ranks of those who can afford to pursue further study. Why do it? It only makes sense as part of the broader attack on the institutions of civil society which is what, alas, you'd expect from a party beholden entirely to Mammon and its jealous God.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Religion includes what it says about itself

Theorizing Religion encountered Diana Eck's powerful arguments for pluralism today. To let students appreciate that it's not as simple as it sems, I revived an activity from a few years ago and asked them to diagram the difference between pluralism, exclusivism and inclusivism. We came up with some cool things, but, curiously, as we explored them one by one, what had been proposed as a depiction of inclusivism, say, started to sound more like exclusivism or pluralism, etc. Why so tricky?

One problem is that Eck's protagonists are people comfortably identified with one world religion or another, something true of only one member of this year's class. The rest would be banished into the outer darkness of tolerance, relativism, nihilism and syncretism - the false pluralisms Eck deplores. A further problem is that pluralism, as Eck celebrates it, isn't something you can do by yourself. It's not a view, a stance, but an ongoing open-ended practice of listening to - and hearing - others.

A final issue: we could see the political necessity of genuine "participation in plurality" but is there a religious reason? Of course not! The whole point is that "there is no such thing as a generic pluralist": each tradition must find its own reason, in itself, for such engagement, its own understanding of the fact - gift, challenge, temptation, test - of plurality. If such reasons are to be found... we can't supply them for others, let alone posit where or how or even if they'll find them!

(The quote above is not from Eck but S. N. Balagangadhara, whom we read last week.)