In Memoriam.

Yesterday, the United States celebrated Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honour and remember those who died while serving in the armed forces.  In order to commemorate the event each year, a number of service men and women place flags in front of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.


Image borrowed from The Washington Post.

While I have my own personal connections to Arlington, one thing that I’ve always appreciated about the cemetery itself is the way in which the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the Cemetery Administration have made efforts to ensure all individuals interred there are represented in equal fairness according to their religious beliefs.  While this is a somewhat new development, coming after a 2007 decision to permit the placement of a Wiccan symbol on Sergeant Patrick Stewart‘s headstone, the VA’s policy has become quite open to religious diversity.

This diversity comes in the form of religious emblems, etched into the top of each headstone, and painted black to match the name, the rank, and the campaign(s) in which the individual either fought, or that were fought during their time in the service, as well as the date of birth and death, any medals or honours received, and a short description of the individual (such as ‘father,’ ‘mother,’ ‘wife,’ etc).  Here is the Cemetery Administration’s ‘sample headstone:’

sample headstone

The religious emblems are chosen by either the interred, or their family, based on a list of approved symbols.  As well, the headstone may be placed with no symbol, or with one not on the list as long as it meets approval by the Department of Veteran’s affairs.  Sergeant Stewart’s Wicca symbol is an example of the latter.

Here are the 61 emblems currently on the list, which can be found on the Veteran’s Affairs website here:

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Some of the most recent additions are the Atheist symbol, the Humanist emblem of Spirit, the Infinity symbol, the Hammer of Thor (Mjölnir), and the Sandhill Crane.  This does not, of course, mean that these are ‘special’ or ‘different,’ but rather that they represent a further acknowledgment on behalf of the Veteran’s Affairs office of the religious diversity represented by all American citizens.  Additionally, it should be noted that these changes occur without announcement, and the Cemetery Administration keeps the details about the emblems displayed, and the individuals for whom they are displayed, confidential.  In fact, the information we do have about them comes from the families of those interred, via those more curious about their meaning.  Some of these sources are cited below.

I would argue, then, that the Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the 147 national cemeteries maintained by the Veteran’s Affairs office, provides for us an exemplary source with which to determine and research the religious diversity of the United States.  Upon each headstone is a list of identifying information, so that not only do these lasting memorials provide for us contextualizing data about when an individual lived and died, their rank, or the wars during which they were active, they offer us as well an insight into the way they defined themselves religiously.  Observing this personal insight affords us a number of routes through which to approach the meaning of ‘religion’ in the American context.  Whether that means that this particular data supports the theory of a distinct American religious economy, or that there is in fact a strict delineation between a ‘religious America’ and ‘secular Europe,’ as discursive devices these emblems represent a distinct language-use that signifies not only the identity of those for which they represent, but a revered acknowledgement that not all individuals in the United States identify as religiously similar.

Which further means, they discursively describe an identity in symbolic form, each image representing a signifier that we might utilise in order to make sense of their unique usage.  That is, each emblem is also a lasting monument to what each individual believed, which we might then use to guide our efforts in understanding how and why they believed, what they believed.  This does not mean, of course that these 61 approved emblems in any way represent a complete list of each and every American religious identity.  Nor that they represent the only emblems accepted by this aspect of the American government.  As we have seen, the list is growing, and as more and more individuals advocate for more and more diversity, it becomes a much more complex example of the various ways in which the signifier ‘religion’ is filled with meaning.

In a more theoretical capacity, then, these emblems serve to remind us that defining a term like ‘religion,’ beyond any well-determined context, or in a broad or general manner, is a much more precarious undertaking than it might initially seem.

For those interested, here is some more info on a few of the most recent additions, including the Hammer of Thor and the Sandhill Crane:

We’re All Novelists.

Last week I was sitting in the bar at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, enjoying a glass of wine, when my drinking companion pointed out that she suddenly felt special.  On every table in the bar was a small glass vase, inside of which was a yellow gerber daisy.  The vase on our table had two.

It was a relatively warm day, and since spring tends to come later than usual in Edinburgh, these little flowers were a nice touch.

The bar itself was fairly crowded for a weekday afternoon.  The King and I, starring Yul Brenner, was playing on the television.  The sound was turned off.

I commented to my companion that on certain occasions, like this one, I like to imagine the world (everything) as part of some great novel.  In moments like these it almost feels like you can see the crossover between fact and fiction, as if the world suddenly seems to have been quite specifically designed, ‘put together’ for metaphorical effect.  On the table behind us, against the wall, two men were engaged in a heated conversation.  It wasn’t an argument taking place between them, but rather one they were sharing about something else.  They were both sitting forward, arms resting on knees, their language peppered with indignant terminology.  “It’s not fair,” said one.  “It’s criminal,” said the other.

Their conversation carried on like this for a while, until their raised voices began to melt into the background.  However, something interesting about them stood out to me, something that prompted my seeing our surroundings through the novelist’s eye.  Everything about the scene within which they were acting appeared to compliment their shared mood.  Their body language was rigid and combative, the language in their discourse was atonally violent.  They seemed to be heating the room, and I got the sense when looking at them as if they were somehow marginalised to the back corner, isolated in their misery by their own choosing.  They looked like characters, constructed for a purpose, like representatives of discomfort or despair or hardship.  They were almost cliche, like action figures of a novelist’s tableau.

On their table, the yellow gerber daisy was wilted and dead.

This week I submitted my doctoral Thesis.

Roughly 90,000 words of four year’s research.  After I submitted the copies necessary to the School of Divinity, I passed around my own copy at the bar.  At dinner that night, it sat on the table at a spare place setting, like an empty plate waiting to be bussed away.  This felt like another one of those occasions where my life felt like a novel, and it reminded me about how I found myself writing about fiction.

At some point in the early stages of my PhD I suddenly decided I wanted to do something with fiction.  As I had come to Edinburgh to study Atheism, combining these two interests seemed like a fun idea, that made no real sense.  It took a few years to figure it out.

Originally, I had come to do an ethnographic study of the Humanist Society of Scotland, but soon my interest in this subject waned as I began to plot out how I might turn that into a Thesis.  As well, because Atheism is such a new topic of interest in the world of academia, I found that there wasn’t much of a foundational base in the ‘anthropology of Atheism’ on which to build my own.  Defining the term was bad enough, but defining how we might study individuals who use ‘Atheist terminology’ in a broad and abstract manner is even worse.  So, instead of following what some might consider the ‘academic route,’ I turned toward fiction.

On so many occasions over the years I’ve found myself either taking or tutoring courses that use a novel as a source for the subject being taught.  I once took an American history class where every text was a novel.  We read Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to discuss the political and civic alterations taking place at the turn of the century; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to discuss the Great Depression; Yate’s Revolutionary Road to discuss the lost sense of identity discovered by many during the mid to late 1950s; and O’Brien’s The Things they Carried to discuss the harsh realities of the war in Vietnam.  Here in Edinburgh, we’ve had some great success with our course on Religious and Ethical Debates in Contemporary Fiction, which I have written about a bit already.

Not only did I want to use fiction in this same way, I wanted to elucidate a deeper meaning about why we might use the novel in this capacity, as well as how that might be accomplished.

I took as my focus the use of a novel (two, actually) as an ethnographic text.  This required a number of establishing details, which I separated into three ‘pillars:’ a discussion on how ethnographic texts are constructed, and the literary focus adopted into that methodology in the 1980s via the sorts of theoretical arguments started by Clifford and writing cultureMarcus’ Writing Culture; a discussion about how novels are critiqued within the context of specialised fields in Literary Theory; and the manner with which we approach concepts, especially when they are attached to religious identity construction, within the context of an anthropological analysis.  By marrying the first two into a methodological approach, that is then theoretically supported by the third pillar’s focus on the concept ‘Atheism,’ I created a means with which we might read a novel ‘ethnographically.’  I called this ‘Ethnographic Criticism.’  I’ll likely write much more about this, and how it is done, in future posts.

While my use of Ethnographic Criticism seemed rather successful in regard to using fiction as an ‘ethnographic source’ of British Atheist identity (though any certainty about that must wait until after the Viva), there arose in the process a rather precarious defect.  This has to deal with the role of the author in the construction of an ethnographic text, and how our acknowledging that role shapes the way in which we read his or her ethnography.

For example, if an ethnography is written in an omniscient voice, adopting the strict objectivity we find in classic texts like Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the culture argonautswe read there is presented in a manner quite different from an ethnography written from a reflexive first-person perspective, such as we find in the ‘ethnographic novels’ of Michael Jackson, Timothy Knab, and Richard and Sally Price.  In the latter this is greatly determined by what Geertz (Works and Lives, 1988, 8-9) refers to as the ‘signature of the author,’ or ‘author-function,’ which he borrows from Foucault.  Recognising the enigma variationsauthor’s role in writing the text, and thus in also recognising that the text has been ‘authored,’ means that our perception of the culture within the text is dictated by our acknowledgement that it is an artifice, designed and structured by an intermediary.  Thus, when it comes to reading a novel ‘as ethnography,’ our perception of the culture being represented is equally dictated by our acknowledging the author’s role in writing the text in the first place.  Where we might simply look at how the author (let’s say Ian McEwan) designed his novel (let’s say Enduring Love) with an intention based enduring loveon his own discourse, context, and opinions, this is much less simplistic when we consider the ‘author’s signature’ in a novel written from a first-person perspective (such as in Enduring Love).

In other words, where reading a novel as ethnography would require our acceptance and comprehension of McEwan’s role in shaping it from his imagination, when written from a first-person perspective, that novel ceases being written by McEwan at all.  That is, it becomes something more akin to the first-person ethnographic novels cited above.  In this way, it is no longer a novel.  It becomes an ‘auto-ethnography,’ a text written by an individual within the context being depicted, who is writing about his or her own culture.  Thus, McEwan ceases to exist.  The text we are reading is now a text written by an individual who might now be perceived as ‘actually’ existing.  Which also means that the novel equally transmutes out of the realm of ‘fiction.’  This has repercussions on a number of levels.

If the novel ceases being a novel, then Ethnographic Criticism isn’t actually reading a novel ‘ethnographically.’  Likewise, if McEwan ceases being the novelist who created the text, then the lead character narrating his or her story is now suddenly ‘real.’  Brought together, these two issues determine even larger ones concerning how we perceive texts (like ethnographies) as representing fiction, non-fiction, or something somewhere in between.  In this way, we might actually start to believe, because a ‘text’ in each and every instance is something both made-from (designed via research and data) and made-up (invented from one’s imagination), that everything is fiction.

This is, in essence, part of the focus of my Thesis.  Again, I’ll discuss more of this later.

Next week two friends of ours will be defending their Theses.

Some time ago, one of them shared this Tumblr page with me, with this particular post:

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I love the idea of a ‘secret novel,’ as if writing fiction is something we’re just not meant to do.  We’re academics.  We write facts, not fiction.  Our work is empirical and objective.  It isn’t just ‘made-up.’

I find myself disagreeing with this now.  Four years of reading and writing and thinking about the thin pragmatic line we maintain between fiction and non-fiction has brought me to a somewhat vague conclusion.  Everything, I’d argue, is fiction.  This doesn’t mean that everything is the product of imagination, solely made-up and invented with no connection to what is ‘real,’ but it also doesn’t mean that imagination is entirely left out of it.  When we sit down to write a wholly objective text, we are still imagining how it will take shape.  It’s still designed.  It is still an artifice, no matter how empirical we are about its creation.

A thesis is no different.

A thesis is, just as much as McEwan’s Enduring Love, a novel.  We’re all novelists, merely by the fact that we are writers.  Our novels are a particular genre.  So, the idea of a secret novel is not that secretive at all.

Here’s an example.  A good friend of mine (Jonathan Tuckett) just successfully defended his thesis and passed his viva.  His focus was on phenomenology, and the text he produced was very ‘academic.’  Yet, it was designed to tell a particular story.  On one level it told the story of his research, defending his argument, a narrative driven by a plot that came to a particular conclusion.  On another, it told the story of his research, of his efforts in proving his knowledge and expertise on the subject.

Whilst he was writing this novel, farholthe was writing another (and likely others, he’s quite the wordsmith).  That second novel was published recently.  It is the first of a saga, titled: The Mystery of Farholt.  You can read more about this, and his other ‘fictions’ here:

I use him as an example because his writing works well for my argument.  Both of the texts produced by Jonathan are novels, designed and created by an individual employing the art of writing to tell a particular story.

As well, the fact that each represent a plotted narrative designed for a particular purpose furthers my argument that everything is fiction.  How we determine the meaning of that term in relation to the ‘fiction’ of Jonathan’s thesis and The Mystery of Farholt, is merely a difference of genre distinction.  Therefore, I will conclude here by once again arguing that, because we are writers, and because what we are writing is fictitious in its being written, we are all novelists.  There’s nothing really secretive about that.  In fact, when you look around, there’s usually good evidence for the idea that not only is everything fiction, but that we are all of us living within novels of our own devising.

The Profitable Age

Here’s an opinion.

A few years back, the University of Edinburgh hosted Bruno Latour for its Gifford Lecture.  Latour’s lecture series was titled: Facing Gaia: A New Enquiry into Natural Religion.  You can find more about his six lectures, as well as view them, by clicking the link there.  Also, my good friend David Robertson put a lot of work and effort into interviewing Latour for the Religious Studies Project.  That’s worth looking at as well.  Here’s Part One and Part Two.

At one of the lectures, titled “The Anthropocene and the Destruction of the Image of the Globe,” a lecturer from New College, the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity, which also houses the Religious Studies department and which has been my home for the last four years, questioned Latour’s use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe the current age in which we now live.  Instead, he argued, we aren’t living in a ‘time of man,’ but rather the ‘Christocene,’ an era defined by the influence that Christianity has collectively given to the ‘modern world.’  It shouldn’t be surprising that this lecturer is a theologian, and while his suggestion was really just a way for him (as many academics tend to do) promote his own ideas on top of Latour’s, it’s an interesting take.

For my intentions here, I will do the same.  I will build atop these distinctions with my own.  This does not mean that I think they are wrong, but rather than I see the age in which we currently live as defined by something else as well.

We are currently living in a Profitable Age.

Here’s some evidence for this, based on data that I retrieved from perhaps the most accessible source: popular culture.

Depending on which addition you look at, J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit, is roughly 300 pages in length.  While the remarkable success of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of the Lord of the Rings not only garnered 17 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for The Return of the King, it also accumulated a financial largess roughly equal to 3 billion dollars.  Which might explain his reasoning for stretching the limits of The Hobbit to three films over two hours in length each.  Worldwide, the films have earned almost a billion dollars in revenue.

This isn’t limited to just this series of films. In the last few years we’ve been provided with a number of entertaining films in serial form: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Fast and Furious 1-7.  Likewise, in print form, it appears that publishers have been earnestly trying to locate the next Harry Potter, the next Twilight, the next The Hunger Games, the next Hobbit.  Fifty Shades of Grey (the books) have sold over 100 million copies.  The first film of the trilogy based on the novels, which premiered this year, has grossed roughly $600,000,000.  It is third on the list of the most profitable films this year.  The second is Avengers: The Age of Ultron, the eleventh film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has films planned up to 2019, with 22 films so far either already released or in development.  The highest grossing film so far for 2015 is Furious 7.

Franchises are proving quite profitable.

Beyond popular culture, we might also find evidence for our living in The Profitable Age in politics, particularly with examples such as the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission (2010).  Originally dealing with issues pertaining to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Citizen United’s Hilary: The Movie (2008), and the role these films played in deciding what constitutes a political statement, and who might be considered the ‘voice’ of that statement.  In brief, the decision was, in essence, a First Amendment issue: in their argument, the Supreme Court declared that restricting or denying Citizens United from releasing the film would be an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.  This, though colloquial understood as removing any sort of restriction on what a corporation or union could give to, or spend on, a particular candidate, or that this would somehow mean that ‘corporations are people,’ really means that corporations were free to directly advocate for an candidate.  Whether this means a financial advocacy is something of debate. For a better description, here’s a New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin that explains the case in much better detail: 

Again, this seems like another exemplary addition to the idea that this is a Profitable Age.

One final example.

A week or so back I wrote something here about the ‘business‘ of academia, and last week, in my discussion of the World Religions Paradigm I touched on this a bit as well concerning the way our ‘product’ is being presented in a manner that will guarantee financial success.

Tuition costs for example, are on the rise.  In the United States, the cost of a four-year undergraduate education has exponentially risen in the last thirty years. Here’s a useful graph based on data provided by Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 12.41.03 As well, here is the data unabridged.  Notice also that these prices have been amended to ‘2014’ dollars in order to address inflation: tuition 1At the same time, ‘for-profit’ universities have been on the rise as well.  Rather than my terrible description, here’s John Oliver talking about student debt, and for-profit education:

Humour aside, Oliver touches on a number of essential issues, particularly concerning the rise in cost of an education, and the means with which students are driven to pay for these costs with loans.  Granted, taking out a loan is one’s choice, a choice that each and every student makes in full knowledge of the amount and difficulty there might be in paying it back.  Of course, in many instances, an education is a necessary requirement for employment, so it is, in many ways, a double-edged sword, and an inescapable quagmire. As far as ‘for-profit’ education is concerned, here’s an interesting take on it from the Atlantic about the University of Phoenix (the largest for-profit education system in the US) by Bourree Lam from April of this year.  While this article addresses many of the issues facing for-profit education, such as the lack of relatable skills that they offer to students, as well as their low graduation rates, I think this quote is rather poignant:

People who graduate from these schools don’t seem to be getting jobs sufficient for paying off the costs of attending them.   

I think this, perhaps more than anything, nicely sums up the Profitable Age.

Let me conclude here.

Here I have offered three examples.  This is, I admit, not really enough to support my argument, but that should not dissuade the reader from appreciating my theory.  This is a Profitable Age.  Whether that is defined by film or novel franchises, by political developments, or the business of academia, it seems more often than not that the world we are living in seems dictated by profit.  How this dictates the way we move forward, and whether that might mean a diminishment of value, is something we will have to wait and see.

The Spiritual Menu: An Alternative Solution to the World Religions Paradigm

Over the weekend I came across this image on the internet:

spiritual menu

It comes from the Hotel Preston, in Nashville Tennessee.  According to a number of sources the menu on the right (though the pillow menu looks pretty nice too), is the brain-child of Howard Jacobs, the chief operating officer for Provenance Hotels, the owner of the Hotel Preston.

Among the spiritual and pillow menus, amenities of the hotel also include a pet goldfish, as well as a ‘pet spiritual menu:’

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While this is a very clever (and more than likely quite successful) marketing scheme, the Spiritual Menu might be helpful in another way, particularly concerning how we approach and study ‘religion.’  My intention with it, then, will be to use it as an alternative methodological approach to researching and teaching ‘religion’ beyond the limits of the normative ‘World Religions Paradigm.’  To do this, however, I need to first provide some background on the latter.

The World Religions Paradigm 

When I decided to ‘return’ to school after a few years working full time, one of the first courses I took was an ‘Intro to Religion.’  Though it would become the subject to which I would devote my scholarly energies from that point on, I was a bit anxious about this course.  I had a fairly poor experience the first time I tried to attend university, and one of the first courses I took then was also on the ‘World’s Religions.’  In this version, the instructor spent most of his time showing pictures of himself standing in front of Buddhist Temples.  I ended up failing the class because I stopped attending.  My second experience was much better.  In fact, I might even go so far as to blame this course for the route that my academic interests would take.  smithFor this class we were assigned a single text: Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.  I loved this book (and still do).  I was enthralled by Smith’s narrative, by the way he introduced ‘religion’ via stories, summarising a millennia of beliefs and practices into short and practical explanations.

The text is simple: a somewhat reflexive introduction followed by a Chapter each on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Primal Religions, and a Conclusion about the interrelatedness of religious belief told through narratives and stories across thousands of years of human cultural development.

For me, the text’s simplicity was ideal for my introduction to religion.  Here were the ‘world’s religion,’ in simple prose, presented as they occurred in the real world, almost progressively, like an evolutionary system of socio-cultural belief leading toward some sort of conclusion.

A few years later, when I was working on my first Master’s degree in Religious Studies, I was introduced to Ninian dimensionsSmart’s Dimensions of the Sacred, which also introduced me to his own The World’s Religions. world religions While the former introduced me to a theoretical world of functionalist approaches to the ‘meaning’ of religion, the latter seemed a rather more complex version of Smith’s World’s Religions.  I didn’t think much of it, but it did indeed assist me in growing my knowledge about the subject.

In fact, the trend of presenting ‘religion’ in a ‘world’s religion’ category has carried on for some time, the most recent addition being the Norton Anthology of World Religions nortonedited by Jack Miles, with contributive ‘chapters’ by Wendy Doniger, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., James Robson, David Biale, Lawrence S. Cunningham, and Jane Dammen McAuliffe.  The anthology itself is split into two books, with sections devoted to Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism (Volume One), Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Volume Two).  As described by the publisher, this is a “landmark work in which the six major, living, international world religions speak to readers in their own words.”

Again, this seems like a fairly straight-forward text, offering primary source ‘voices’ with which to tell the story of these ‘religions.’  However, and as I too came to realise over my years of studying religion, this is not without its faults.  For example, while this makes the job of teaching about religion slightly easier (if not more marketable), it also quite simplistically isolates the concept of ‘religion’ into a particular six-to-seven part typography.  Likewise, this presents the issue of a normative or ‘western-centric’ perspective, so that ‘religion’ is thus defined here by our isolating it to these particular cases.  This becomes even more problematic when we begin to study ‘religious beliefs and practices’ that might not fit into these typographies, such as Scientology or ‘New Age.’  Which, as we might argue from the outset, moves us outside of the realm of strict objectivity by underscoring our intentions with preconceived notions about what ‘religion means’ before we’ve even had the chance to discuss it.

This argument is made much better by others.  For example, Suzanne Owen published an article a few years back that I think quite nicely addresses the issues inherent in using the World Religions Paradigm.  First, her description:

For comparative purposes, scholars have placed the different manifestations of religion into various categories separated according to criteria chosenbeforehand. The divisions could be decided along historical lines, e.g. ‘primitive,classical, living’, or geographically. The most popular typology dividesWorld Religions from other religions. The World Religions generally includeBuddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, with many lists includingSikhism and also Zoroastrianism and Baha’i, organized first geographicallyand then historically in textbooks and most modules covering them. Otherreligions include various New Religious Movements and the indigenous traditionsof Africa, North America, China, Japan and so on.  [Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change” (Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2011), 254.] 

To support this description, she cites Suthren Hurst and Zavos (2005):

This model conceptualises religious ideas and practice as being configured by a series ofmajor religious systems that can be clearly identified as having discrete characteristics.These systems are seen as existing alongside each other in a common space in the globalfields of cultural, social and political life. They apparently compete, have dialogue witheach other, regenerate themselves or degenerate within this space; a series of systems,then, with their own historical agency.  [J. Suthren Hirst and J. Zavos, “Riding a tiger? South Asia and the problem of ‘religion” (Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2005), 5.]

As she then points out, while the World Religions Paradigm seems to be surviving the number of criticisms it has received over the last few years (decades, even), it is still thriving (exemplified by the Norton Anthology).  He are some great examples of the criticism and discussion about it that I think are worth a listen:   

A podcast interview with Jim Cox, a renowned phenomenologist discussing the use and issues of the paradigm:

A roundtable discussion about the paradigm including Suzanne Owen and Jim Cox, alongside a number of academics who are quit critical of its usage:

Another roundtable, though perhaps not as ‘professional’ as the one above, where a group of us met a few years back to discuss it from the perspective of those in the process of working toward the PhD:

As well, the brilliant minds behind the Religious Studies Project (David G. Robertson and Christopher R. Cotter) have a forthcoming text on the subject set to be released in the very near future.

To conclude here, then, and thus move on to my use of the Spiritual Menu, I return once more to Suzanne Owen’s conclusion, as I think it might do a more concise job of summarising both the departmental and discursive issues in using the paradigm to teach religion:

On the whole, religious studies departments are still constrained by theWorld Religions paradigm for various reasons, such as the expectations ofstudents and institutional concerns. This affects recruitment, as they continueto advertise posts for specialists in a particular religion rather than for someonewho is a specialist in the study of religion. University undergraduate coursescontinue to teach descriptions of particular religions in turn, divided accordingto historical and geographical criteria. However, departments these dayscannot afford to have a specialist in each of the World Religions, especiallyif they have to share the department with a dozen theologians and biblicalscholars. Several departments are trying to find alternative approaches, but theWorld Religions paradigm is still growing vigorously in primary and secondaryschools and thus continues to inform the non-specialists who inhabit themedia and political arenas.  [Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” 266.] 

As she states here, not only does it cause issues concerning the way that ‘religion’ is presented in the classroom, and is thus perceived by students (such as myself), using this paradigm also affects the discourse beyond the classroom.  In the British case (the context within which she is writing) this translates into a public perception that further normativizes the notion that ‘religion’ is something that consists of an ‘us vs. them’ binary.  What this further produces is a somewhat inherent bias that not only raises certain ‘religious beliefs and practices’ above others, but that equally denigrates others that don’t fit into this sort of typography.    

The Spiritual Menu

While the Spiritual Menu appears to be yet another example of the World Religions Paradigm, I think it also provides an outlet from the issues that arise in using it.  Here’s a quick description of my argument:

While on the surface it appears to divide ‘the spiritual,’ which we might translate as ‘religion,’ along similar lines of the World Religions Paradigm’s promotion of ‘popular religions’ (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Scientology), it is doing so by means of textual narratives, such as we see in the Norton Anthology.

This is similar as well to the use of narratives in Smith’s and Smart’s World Religions.

In this way, ‘religion’ is presented via narrative representations, much like Smart’s dimensions in regard to the ‘mythology’ or ‘doctrine’ that underscores a definitive aspect of religious belief and practice.

Said otherwise, these are presented via particular discourses.

Thus, rather than seeing the texts offered in the Menu as furthering the notion that the best means of presenting ‘religion’ is done though a typography divided by the World Religions Paradigm, they can instead be reflective of particular discourses pertaining to how individuals might define themselves ‘discursively’ via myth and doctrine.

What I might also argue from this line of thinking is where the contributors of the Norton Anthology might have ‘gone astray,’ beyond the idea that the religions they present have the bizarre ability to “speak to readers in their own words,” is not so much found in their using discourse as a means of allowing the ‘subject’ to speak for itself, but in their isolating this discourse within a paradigm at all.

The ‘Menu’ is thus nothing more than a discursive sampler: texts used by individuals that represent, on one end, the discourses we might see as ‘underscoring’ a ‘religion,’ that on the other are used by individuals identifying with that ‘religion.’  In the same way, these texts are not the religion itself.  The Bhagavad Gita is not Hinduism.  What is Scientology is not Scientology.  Rather, they are narrative representations filled with language used by individuals in their processes of identity construction.  Therefore, unlike where the Norton Anthology uses similar ‘primary sources’ to describe how a religion might ‘speak for itself,’ the use of the menu here gives us a much more clear and nuanced look at how individuals might use a similar source in order to shape the language they use to describe themselves ‘religiously.’  In other words: a Scientologist might use What is Scientology to describe him or herself as a Scientologist; the book is a discursive tool, not the discourse itself.

Thus, again, while the means with which those who use the World Religions Paradigm is not inherently problematic, their doing this within the confines of a paradigm that provides a normative and biased position on the meaning of ‘religion’ confuses their intentions by turning their attention to the religion describing itself, rather than the religious individually describing themselves from within the context of that religion.  This is, as well, quite contrary to the objectivity necessary of religious scholarship.


To conclude here, I will borrow and amend an insightful statement made by Niki Leondakis, the chief operating officer with the Kimpton Hotel chain based in San Francisco, which has equally adopted the Spiritual Menu: “offering a menu that includes as many philosophies and beliefs and spiritual perspectives was much more in keeping with the culture of our company.”

Or, as I might argue: by translating the mythological and doctrinal narratives that are used by individuals in the process of their ‘religious identity construction’ as a ‘menu,’ through which they isolate their own discursive understandings of ‘religion,’ we can form a much more complex and varied person-to-person perspective on how individuals use, and thus define, the concept for their own intentions.  Which, I believe, seems much more in keeping with the culture of religious studies.