Imagining, Re-Imagining, and Re-Re-Imagining

[Indulge me as I post these brief presentations I’ve made over the last couple of years. I do so before I suffer some massive supernatural tech failure, and because I’m deep in the midst of (re-)thinking, (re-)reading and (re-)writing about some stuff in them.]

Here we have the presentations I made last fall and the fall before for ongoing the Laurentian colloquium called, “Re-Imagining the Humanities.”

In 2011, I offered this under the theme, “Imagine: the Work of the Humanities and the University Experience.”

Above the underpass of the Parker building there ought to be a big sign that reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

I say this not as an expression of any jaded view about the university or education.

But, it seems to me that post-secondary education is becoming less able to propagate skills, knowledge, and values, and human development than it should be.

Still, I believe that it’s increasingly important for the university, especially with the humanities in mind, to make explicit that what it has on offer is a holistic programme of cultivation.

This is not meant to lead into the usual apologia for the humanities with pat reminders that, if nothing else, we teach “critical thinking, analytical reasoning & written communications” (to use the list of skills the CLA is intended to measure).

Besides, in the teeth of such modest claims we often throw a refutation of such utilitarian justifications.  But if we were to argue from utility, I think that a far more comprehensive argument is to be made.  That:

  • We promote critical thinking, etc. to be sure
  • But we also provide unique content (to which critical thinking is to be applied)
  • And that content transmits humane values
  • And that content, and its values, are the very stuff of the cultivation of character (or virtue in the classical sense)

Of course, acquaintance with Can. lit., Ancient philosophy, or the Confucian Classics does not guarantee personal development.  But certainly as long as we continue to provide the content we do, and which students are only able to grasp as “through a glass, darkly” (for whatever set of reasons), we can be certain that growth through university education will be inhibited.  Content needs to appear within a bigger picture.

The best statement I’ve encountered lately suggesting that higher ed. serves this holistic purpose comes from Margaret Mead who said:

In college, in some way that I devoutly believed in but could not explain, I expected to become a person.

I’d find this a little rich if it weren’t for the fact that it seems to speak to issues concerning our students today.  First, there’s no doubt that many students don’t know or can’t articulate why they are here.  Second, recent material I’ve read suggests that many students are looking for a reason to believe – they have spiritual concerns, questions about ‘the meaning of life’ (for lack of another way to put it), and they desire to cultivate values or virtue. (But, for whatever reasons, university work isn’t often the place that’s done.)

They experience life like the rest of us, aware of “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and in the face of them they might say that “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” or throw up their hands saying life’s “nasty, brutish and short.”

These phrases are often just slogans or clichés to students (as well as poorly understood).

But what we do in the humanities is present Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Hobbes and others in full, and let them address those perennial questions that many of our students seek to answer.

The genuine literacy that higher ed. offers, surely delivers some of the very stuff that all of us need to approach big questions.

Of course, one doesn’t need a university education to engage fully in the encounters into which life inevitably drags us.  But to enter university is to volunteer to train for such contests, and to accept a dedication to some vow like, in the words of Edward Gibbon:

We improve ourselves by victories over ourselves. There must be contest, and we must win.

As for the role of those of us in the university – more treacle, I know – increasingly I have to believe, as Sharon Daloz Parks says, that:

every institution of higher education serves in at least some measure as a community of imagination in which every professor is potentially a spiritual guide and every syllabus a confession of faith.

And it’s the matter of imagination that ultimately I find the hardest to convey to effect in the classroom.  Between me and the students, something imaginative is not always being born.

So, to conclude, I want to say that above the stage exit wherever Laurentian convocations are held ought to be posted a sign, again quoting Dante, “that without hope we live on in desire.”

As the economy contracts, as jobs for university grads become scarce, and as our discourses about every major issue become more Manichean, our students need as much as ever to leave university with something more than a credential or the ability to say only that they completed a post-secondary education.

What that may be is hope.  Hope in a larger sense, which we might take from the Dante references, understood as the ground of fulfillment.  Without it there is only desire, understood as the affliction of the residents of Dante’s Limbo, the longing for something missing in which fulfillment might be found.

PS – in the “Proust Questionnaire” section of the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, mystery writer PD James was asked, ‘What is your greatest regret?’ to which she replied, ‘That I didn’t go to university’.

This past fall, I presented this under the theme, “Worldviews in the Humanities: Whose world view?”

Every year, I face an intellectual and pedagogical dilemma, one which I’ve shared recently with Kornel, and one which I’ve failed to resolve in any satisfactory way. The source of this dilemma is the course RS 2205 – The World’s Living Religions. This introduction to Religious Studies (at least it is in most places, though not for US at Laurentian – and that’s a point worth noting which I hope to return to later) which is in reality an introduction to RELIGIONS, is problematic in several ways, yet seems to have a certain utility for a liberal education (and importance for Laurentian and our Department at UofS). But it’s fraught.

The problem with this course is that it has a built-in set of assumptions – reinforced by the limits of what can be communicated in a (virtually) fresh folk setting – but which, in any case, skew the 1st & 2nd order terms in which multiple sub-disciplines of the field operate. Of course, much of the damage done by a world religions intro course might be undone in more senior courses, but here few students return for advanced, more discriminating, study in Buddhology, Indology, Sinology etc. (the emphasis on “Eastern” fields here is on purpose).

So, the problem is, what students walk away with from World Religions is a set of thumbnail sketches of several “religions,” constructed within a framework in which it’s imagined that a number of abstract concepts are shared across them in some way: divinity, text, rite/ritual, belief, etc., etc., etc. The problem is that this is to advocate (intentionally or not) for what we might call:

a worldview of worldviews

Insofar as a world religions course is expected to propagate pluralism, it may be said that it succeeds, yet the question is, ‘how does any of that reflect reality’? And, well, it does and does not. It does insofar as it manages some materials from foci that we might be able to draw together in order to label it as a ‘tradition’. It doesn’t insofar as it tends to create an orthodoxy by which, it may be imagined, that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, even Jews, Christians and others, are expected to conform, or at least by which world religions’ scholar might judge them.

Thus, what/who is a good Hindu, Buddhist, etc. is defined in such a course. But has any service been done when students are sent into the world with such a reconstructed bourgeois conception of the Other in their minds? It should seem obvious that the “Islamist terrorist” or “Christian fundamentalist” becomes a problematic entity here, not in himself but insofar as he is imagined to be within or without that company which “world religions” constructs.

Tomoko Masuzawa ably (perhaps excessively) documents this process in her The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. I’m not particularly concerned about the Christian dominance that Masuzawa argues was originally built into the construction of the idea of world religions: as others have argued (as the discipline of RLST insists) the playing field has been levelled since the mid-20th century, and world religions or comparative religions has, in large measure ceased to dominate the scholarly activities of the discipline, and now occupies a shrinking corner next to assorted specialties and a plethora of other pursuits.

For the same reasons, I’m not particularly concerned by further step taken by Timothy Fitzgerald in his Ideology of Religious Studies to the effect that RLST has been dominated by, and constructed out of, a liberal Protestant ecumenical theology. Again, specializations etc. have larger left most if not all of this behind.

But, insofar as the work of scholars like Masuzawa, Fitzgerald, and many others in between, and further afield, compel us to re-evaluate how we understand religion, and religions, historically, and how we teach them, this work calls attention to problems like that which I outlined initially and, by extension, the prevalence of “world religions” discourse in the greater contemporary cultural world.

In a sense, RLST has seen the chickens come home to roost.

As a result we in the field find it difficult to get a hearing in order to contest a popular vision of religion and religions, one that retains all the worst vestiges of thought from the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the reductionism of 19th century social science, and bourgeois ecumenism. And one based on so totalizing and essentializing a conception of religion which RLST in large part invented and which persists in middle-brow thought.

We can see this in places of lesser and greater concern:

(But let me begin with a middling – though immediate – concern: essentialized religion is reproduced in virtually every world religions textbook produced for undergrads in North America. And despite his claim to have written a different kind of textbook, one that presents religion with its warts and all, Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World simply reproduces a series of religious essences but with the added vice of essentializing particular religions’ perceived flaws.)

Lesser transgressions:

CBC Radio’s Tapestry. Episodes invariably treat religion in bargain basement Schleiermachian Romantic terms, degenerating into the merely therapeutic – religion (better to call it faith here) is just a personal feeling by which one makes one’s own meaning in the face of contemporary alienation, often with breathtaking cultural appropriation of Eastern materials.

The Ottawa Citizen’s feature “Ask the Religion Experts.” These experts are mostly clergy and community activists; where they have advanced academic training it is of a narrow and partisan sort. The questions they address are usually theological or faith constructions of matters of more substantial social or political importance. Prison chaplains, terrorism, abortion, etc.

But of particular interest to me – so I may be exaggerating its significance – is that religion, defined and reduced to various systems of ideas, and so subject to moral and metaphysical scrutiny (and found wanting if for no other reason that the rest on a basis of belief in supernatural beings) is the crux of the reaction against religion represented by contemporary atheists who populate the internet and non-academic publishing.

What we find here is the construction of world religions turned in on itself. And here, Masuzawa’s argument about Christian dominance in the invention of world religions is important. For the New Atheist critique of religion is an old school imagining consisting of the West and the Rest. It treats Eastern religions with kid gloves while implying that they are no less irrational than those of the West, and making this explicit when any anecdote reflecting badly on Asians presents itself, or via some tenuous connection between religious sources and social injustice.

So, in conclusion, to return to my original dilemma. Teaching Asian religions in particular, within world religions and even independently, I find myself caught between a dangerous shoal and a lee shore: at risk of becoming an apologist for Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. or supplying fodder to religion’s new cultured despisers. At least in upper level courses there is opportunity to provide some clarity to fundamental concepts (belief, text/scripture, etc.) and their content. But in The World’s Living Religions, there is little space to accomplish this, and each tradition ends up reduced to a laundry list of texts, beliefs, practices (reducible further to a simple scorecard of beliefs about supernatural and metaphysical things) all meant to create an impression of a worldview. This doesn’t tell you much about eg. “Hinduism” and it doesn’t tell you much about Hindus and how they make their way in the various worlds they occupy.

This shortcoming, in tandem with criticism of religion as a 1st order term by scholars like Fitzgerald, would seem to undermine the enterprise of RLST.  In response, I can only say that if culture, particularly of the East, wasn’t housed within RLST then where would its place in the university be? I have to assume that you’d agree that scholarship and teaching directed at the amorphous target of religion (as it’s commonly understood) is necessary within any university, to the best of that institution’s ability, thus minimally as some program of the study of the religious cultures originating throughout the geography of the world, if only as a single course. As a provider of such a limited vision, among other things, all I can do is open some spaces to indicate that there are some things limited, if not artificial, about the picture that we’re trying to paint (which is not really different from the other editorial limitations put on any other course of study of 13 or 26 weeks). But the difference from the past is that we do and must invite an interrogation of the tendency to construct worldviews of Hindus, Buddhists, et al. and how much more a worldview of worldviews?

This last one was well received (as was the one which followed mine, by Kornel Zathureczky) enough so that KZ and I are embarking on some serious work in methods and pedagogy and whatnot in RLST.

ATM I’m up to my eyeballs in all sorts of stuff about teaching religion in K-12 and post-sec contexts. The legitimacy, but especially the necessity, of this kind of religious ed. that my sources are selling – with little in the way of interrogation of terms and methods, or reference to the state of the art – I find increasingly gob-effin-smackin. Slingers of new pedagogy are not only earning their bread by repackaging old suspect visions of something called religion, but they are institutionalizing stoopidity for snowflakes. Bitin’ the hand that feeds.

1 Comment »

  1. Pete Bresnahan said

    Well done !!!! I sent this to my 18 year old son–who regrets not taking ‘academic’ in HS but plans on taking a general arts program at George Brown with the hopes of being admitted into a university to study philosophy…much to the dismay of his uncle, cousins and nearly everyone else who thinks that college/university is there so that you can make ‘lots of money’……He sees through that.


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