Friday, January 27, 2012

Encountering Ancestors: a vital part of religion

In recent days, there seems to have been an uptick in the media coverage of Mitt Romney and ceremonies performed in Mormon temples for deceased relatives. As per standard, the articles at Gawker and the Huffington Post assume a kind of odd secularist perspective whereby interaction with ancestors is one the one hand ineffective, but also somehow necessarily creepy, disrespectful and manipulative. 

LDS Vicarious Baptismal font, Atlanta GA temple

Yes, LDS church members who hold temple recommends do in fact perform various ordinances for the deceased, in order that in the post-mortal realm they will have an opportunity to be missionized and thus be eligible for higher levels of spiritual progress and heaven. They claim scriptural precedent for this, as they also do for some of their other distinctive Christian doctrines. Consistent with their essential doctrine of freewill, these are not automatic 'conversions.' Freewill is very important in LDS doctrine, and this is no less true here.

Yet the telling problem here in the articles has little to do with the LDS, although the articles betray a fundamental ignorance of LDS theology in multiple ways. The problem lies in not being aware that interaction with the deceased is a fundamental component of much of religion, whether Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Amerindian religion, Vodou or other traditions. Furthermore, sizable populations of Americans across different traditions already claim to have encountered or interacted with other-than-human persons.

Pew Research, December 2009

In Catholicism, the laity historically has been regularly asked to unite their prayers with the both the priests and the saints, holy men and women who have moved to the heavenly side of the mystical body of Christ after death. In fact the modern process of sainthood in Catholicism and Orthodoxy depends on Church officials holding priesthood powers to 'work between the worlds' in establishing beatific status. In the LDS community, where the intention is that all worthy men should hold High Priesthood keys and anointments, this power works to offer (not compel) ancestors a chance at Exaltation. In Hinduism, regular prayers and offerings are made on behalf of deceased ancestors (across generations, even). In that scenario, the deceased may either influence the birth of future progeny or even reincarnate themselves within the family--thus its a good idea to be on good terms with them!

A Hindu prayer for ancestors during an auspicious festival time
In Judaism, specific beliefs concerning afterlives vary considerably, but it is standard practice to say the Kaddish prayer on the behalf of recently deceased, and in folk Jewish pop culture, as in many traditions, dream visits and interaction with the deceased is quite common and even celebrated, as in the film Fiddler on the Roof. As for Ojibwe funeral hymns, the scholar Michael D. McNally has written eloquently and convincingly about the use of such hymns as a way of keeping the deceased within the bounds of the community as a whole.
Fiddler: Sarah retuning from the Dead in Tevye's fake dream
One of the great enduring themes in religion, whether American or otherwise, is kinship. The maintenance, healing and repair of kinship relationships is course part of our everyday lives with those in this world--why should it not extend beyond it as well?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Hinduism- A Way of Life

As a teacher and scholar of religion and media (and a scholar of ‘World Religions’ pedagogy) I’m always interested in new films, music, or other cultural products that I can use to help teach about religion in the classroom. I recently interlibrary loaned a copy of ‘Hinduism: A Way of Life’ from a nearby library and watched it. Its produced by Shethia Films in India and Gypsy DVD. 

Before it opens, the DVD has two important scenes apart from the copyright notice: 1) a disclaimer suggesting that the facts in the film “have been taken from various sources and the producer does not take responsibility for the authenticity of the narrated facts. The presentation made in this programme is for the pure purpose of creating awareness…[it] is not meant to hurt the sentiments of any religion or society either intentionally or unintentionally.” 2) a certification notice from India’s Central Board of Film Certification that the film has been approved for public display/sale in India with a V/U rating—that is, unrestricted viewing. It is quite likely that the presence of 1) probably assists the film in obtaining 2), since one of the reasons films can be censored in India is for promoting “communal disharmony.”

The film has nine chapters: all with a single narration set against ambient interpretations of Indian classical music: flute, sitar, sarod, tamboura and such. No scholars or attributions of facts are made except for a few obvious sources in the smrti, or inspired epic literature. The chapters are: “Hinduism a philosophy,” “Varnas,” “Four Stages of Life,” “Hindu God,” “Jyotirlinga,” “Vishnu Avatars,” “Temples,” “Jain Religion” and “Kumbh Mela.”

The first chapter makes the case for “2 million gods” being worshipped in India, and a conception of Hinduism (or as the video also calls it: ‘Sanatana Dharma’) as centered around the “three” aims of life: Kama, Dharma, Moksha. The traditional aim of Wealth/Social Power, or “Artha” is not mentioned. Then the 4 varnas, or castes are discussed in a general context of the physico-moral hierarchy of all existence created by karmic cause and effect. There is some discussion of diversification of caste into the myriad of “subcastes” or “jati” and its relationship to the division of labor. There is no discussion of the Dalits. From there the video briefly discusses animal reverence, especially the sacredness of cows. It attributes cow veneration to the 5 gifts of cows to human life: milk, ghee, leather, urine and dung.  The next chapter appears to make the case for universal application of the famous four stages of life, even suggesting the sanyassi as an ideal. It does suggest that older Hindus are among the most participating in sacred pilgrimages.

While suggesting that folk Hinduism is polytheistic early on, a very brief mention of puja as reverence “to God in one of his many manifestations”—a diffused monotheism that the literature seems to suggest is more common among socio-economic elites. Overall, the video suggests a subtle class-based nod to both polytheism and monotheism, but does not attempt to summarize it as “henotheism,” an approach popularized among some scholars.

The next chapter, along with the attention to the 4 Stages, is problematic for me: it adheres to an older textual tradition of defining God as the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Quickly the video though breaks this down by saying that most Hindus in practice tend to focus on Vishnu or Shiva—with Shiva’s functions largely encasing Brahma’s. This latter part is where Introductory Hindu pedagogy has been going, as far as I know, with the Trimurti fading in importance—since there is comparatively little ritual devotion to Brahma and that in Hindu devotionalism one of the gods is pretty much always predominant. I was frustrated by the lack of attention to Mahadevi, and the appearance of Goddess almost exclusively in terms of the wife/shakti of Shiva or Vishnu. The film does not cover Goddess devotion per se, even though the literature suggests it's a major part of the lived practice, especially in north/northwestern India. The brief nod to Durga describes her as the collective wrath of the male deities, but also points to her guardian role for the righteous. No mention of the massive Durga festival is made. Nevertheless, it seems reductionist when Vedic/Devi-Mahatmya material also suggests a competing theme of Goddess as the originator and there is a long tradition of literature/commentary on Goddess texts.

 It does offer a nod to the views in their respective major Puranas that Vishnu and Shiva are each understood as the Supreme Deity. The film offers a brief look at Ganesha/Ganapati repeating the common account of his beheading and subsequent elephant head. Perhaps the most helpful distinction in Vishnu/Shiva devotion is made in the subsequent chapters: Shiva’s ‘incarnationality’ is discussed in terms of the 12 sacred Jyotirlinga in temples of the Indian landscape, while Vishnu is discussed in terms of his avatars and their direct personal role in Hindu heilsgeschichte,  of course emphasizing Rama and Krishna. I tend to make a distinction in class between Shiva as the protean power of opposites or categories in tension (celibacy/sexuality, creation/destruction, lingam/yoni) with a translated selection (‘Pillar of Fire”) from the Shiva Purana. Vishnu I tend to discuss as a salvational figure who enters universal history in times of great danger or stress, coupled with the transmittal of grace through darshan/puja. Of course I talk about Puja in more terms than just Vishnu, and I tend to emphasize the theme of yoga as one form of imitatio dei when it comes to Shiva.

One of Vishnu’s avatars discussed is Shakyamuni Buddha. This could provide an opportunity to discuss incorporation other holy persons as ‘cultural defense’ for Hinduism. It could also serve to introduce criticism of Buddhism by Hindus who see Vishnu’s incarnation as a way of leading people astray with false teachings.
The video’s concluding chapters are a study in contrast. The video tries to include Jainism as a Hindu sub-tradition—a process that admittedly still exists in World Religions textbooks but that I find exceptionally problematic.  

While there are of course many intertwining symbolic, linguistic and phenomenological threads between the traditions, the video reduces Jainism to a single expression devoid of its own diversity (at least between the Svetambharas and the Digambaras) and instead hold the exotic tradition of Digambara nakedness and the famous ‘fasting unto death’ (Sallekhana/Santhara) ritual as the apotheosis of the tradition, with the more basic cosmology and ritual devotion ignored. I found this the least useful part. Thankfully there is no attempt to do this with Sikhism.

The video concludes with a rather long chapter on Mela pilgrimages, and especially the Kumbh Mela. This is quite useful in showcasing the immense diversity of audiences and approaches. Although the narration becomes a bit devotional and supplicative of the sadhus there. There are various displays here and throughout the video of yogic feats and demonstrations of material power, especially the three-day Samadhi seclusion of Yogamata Keiko Aikawa. The festival is discussed in terms of the famous ‘mythological’ (that’s the video’s words) competition of the gods and demons over the recovery of the sacred nectar of immortality.

On the whole it's a difficult product to judge, although I don’t think focusing on the four stages of life is very helpful and the failure to adequately address Goddess worship is really discouraging. So is the perfunctory nature of the Jain chapter. The benefit of the DVD is that you can play individual chapters from the chapter menu—after the chapter finishes, it returns to the chapter menu. So segments of the video, like the Mela pilgrimage or the Jyotilingam can be used as short segments within a broader presentation. If I recommend that the library get this, that’s how I’ll use it—not as an integrated product in itself.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

One of the occupational hazards found in working and teaching humanities, especially religious studies, is the practice of drawing boundaries. Humans are messy, and so human culture is also messy.  When teaching about religion, its necessary and dangerous to draw boundaries, precisely because religion, like ethnicity and class, works at the center of creating personal and social identity. Its easy to threaten a person's sense of identity by redrawing maps of identity s/he has previously embraced.
Two situations come to mind. Both are students in my World Religions classes at Iowa State. Earlier in the semester one student pulled me aside to talk about Sufism. He asked me whether Sufis were Muslims. I said yes, of course--while there are exceptions, the vast majority of Sufis identify themselves as Muslims. He tried to convince me this was not true---because his family and community were deeply suspicious of Sufis.

After I answered his objections, he told me he was a Muslim and as a Muslim, he had become attracted to Sufism. I explained that some of the most highly regarded Islamic philosophers and theologians, like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali had been Sufis, and that the only traditional judge of a Muslim's core faith ("iman") has been God alone--because in Islam only God truly has total access to a person's heart. Do they have important differences from other Muslims in understanding and applying the Quran and hadith? Sure. So do Ismaili Muslims. Do Muslims argue about who is more authentically Muslim among professing Muslims? Of course they do. That's common to certainly most religious traditions.
Which brings me to my second example. Yesterday I gave a lecture that tends to turn heads--on comparative Christologies (theologies of the Christ) between Catholics/Orthodox, Protestants (John Calvin, really) and the Mormon church. A student who had been giving me some seriously angry looks (and a few comments) during Hinduism and Sikhism challenged Mormon Christology's source of authority to identity themselves as Christian. After class he engaged me further, using arguments that suggested he was an evangelical Protestant. I explained that suspicion over both Mormons and Catholics as "legitimate" Christians had been a long tradition in American religious history. The issue of progressive exaltation in LDS theology and the presence of the Book of Mormon seemed the most troubling to him. He said he would come to my office with Scripture and I invited him to do so.
Protestants, despite repeated attempts to establish social systems based on theocratic principles, have also historically had a deep skepticism of human institutions and claims to authority. As rabbinic Judaism has had not only the written Torah but also the oral Torah tradition, so too have Catholics, Orthodox, and Mormons embraced the idea and practice of apostolic authority as a valid source of Christian knowledge. Mormons understand their church as a Restoration of the primitive Christianity that existed as the early Church--alongside and influenced heavily by Hebrew traditions at the time. The Catholic Church has always drawn not only from Scripture but also the authority passed down from the Apostles, who in turn received their spiritual charge from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In embracing the doctrine of "sola scriptura" (Scripture is the only authority), Protestant Christians have had some difficulty dealing with communities that embrace Apostolic authority as a source of knowledge, and also with the primitive Church before the canonization of the New Testament. Before the New Testament's finalizing, many different Christian communities used many different new scriptures, teachings and accounts, as well as a reliance on the Septuagint. There are still churches today, both new and old, that have never accepted the Councils of Nicea or Chaceldon. The LDS Church famously rejects the former as a corruption. Oriental Orthodox churches like the Coptic Christians of Egypt reject the latter. Rejecting these churches as not Christian makes little sense when one takes a historical view. How could the New Testament in the 21st century be used to excommunicate those Christians who lived much closer to Christ in time and culture than anyone since? Disputes over the nature and function of the Trinity (and its constituent personas) contributed to  the break between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, as well as of course smaller disputes and breakups.

As C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, the name Christians seems to have emerged at Antioch and is addressed in the New Testament (Acts 11:16). Lewis notes that its 'objective' sense refers to anyone embracing the teachings of the Apostles. If this is true, it is certainly odd, perhaps even ironic,  then that centuries upon centuries later the term has often used by some Christians (some evangelical Protestants to be exact) to police those who openly embrace Apostolic authority out of the Christian tradition. Like trying to use the Quran to police those who draw themselves nearer to God in their hearts, it tells us far more about those doing such policing than the communities supposedly in question. As far as the Roman Catholics and Mormons are concerned--they focus on Christocentrism, which seems to me to far more workable way of distinguishing Christians from others.