Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Intro. to Studying Religion: the Sacred & Ritual

I'm just going to outline a few issues linked to studying religion in general. A polythetic approach allows us to cast a wide net concerning religion in order to understand the varying and nuanced ways that religion finds its way into all parts of people's lives. So, we could try to rigorously identify certain core features and claim that anything that does not fit this core is not religion. But, this would reproduce what religious communities do when they try to impose one model, idea, or practice about what is their version of religious truth. We are not so much concerned with finding the truth with a capital 'T' because we are not approaching the study of religion from a certain preconceived notion of what religion is or ought to be. To do so would be illegal because the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that teaching religion in public education is not permitted, but that teaching ABOUT religion is permissible and even encouraged to help create informed citizens. Justice Tom Clark wrote: "it might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religions or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." So, the study of religion is one of the only academic subjects to be directly sanctioned by the Supreme Court (read more here).

The sociologist Emile Durkheim and Historian of religion Mircea Eliade tried to identify religion according to how individuals and groups set some objects and ideas apart as having special significance, what they called sacred, as opposed to other objects and ideas that were of no particularly special importance, or what they called profane. This approach allows us to see anything that people set apart as uniquely important as sacred. So, the bodhi tree where the Buddha achieved enlightenment (nirvana) is considered sacred by Buddhists. However, there are other banyan trees that are profane, so it is not the tree per se that is important but the memory associated with this particular tree. Here's another example: in 2005 Chicago Catholics noticed that after a heavy rain an outline of an image resembling the Virgin Mary (mother of Jesus, founder of Christianity) appeared at a highway underpass. Catholics in the region flocked to the site, built an altar, said prayers and sang songs, and the police even had to close the right lane of traffic to protect the religious observers (here and here). Now, a day earlier this was just another concrete underpass that could have been a homeless person's shelter, or that no one would have even paid attention to, i.e. it was profane. But, as one person observed the image and brought others it became sacred. So, the sacred can be anything that people set apart as unique and as possessing special meaning, even the seeds of a squash vegetable at an Afghan restaurant I visited in 2003 in Salt Lake City, Utah where the owner discovered the word Allah engraved on a seed (here). So, if we had a predetermined definition of religion we most certainly would not have included a squash seed or a water stain or a tree, which would have created a blind spot for ourselves that would have ignored the significance of these sacred objects to religious people. 

We will spend plenty of time in the textbook covering the theoretical aspect of religion because that is easiest to access since it mostly consists of religious thought written down. Ritual, however, is a bit more difficult to get a sense of because it involves bodily movements and engaging the senses, which is hard to capture in a book. So yes, we will cover ritual in the book, but I will also try to expose you to ritual practices in photo or video formats so you can get a better sense of them.

A good example of religious ritual that falls outside of the standard worship practices of prayer and meditation is the recent football fad of Tebow-ing, where religious kids all over the US are striking the Tebow kneeling pose as a sacred religious gesture, also as being a fan of a sport celebrity (Tim Tebow), and in some cases mocking the player and his faith. See this video:

and here's a more satirical take:

This has become a popular culture ritual, but you will not read about it as a sanctioned religious practice in the Bible or anywhere else. This just means that we need to be aware of what religious people are doing in different times and places and not focus exclusively on texts.

These are enough examples and key points for the first part of the assigned chapter this week. Feel free to leave comments here or to discuss these issues in the Online Student Union.