Six years ago on the Saturday of Holy Week, I wrote about what I call The Empty Day.

For many Christians, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the key days of that week.  For me, as one who is constantly on the boundary between faith and doubt, it is that in-between Saturday which confronts me most vibrantly with the gut reality of Jesus in my life.

Christ of the Desert, Icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Yesterday, April 4th, I was already by choice shut down mentally and emotionally, merely as a way to recover from the intense week of library staff training I had just completed. However, that shutdown-ness resonated with the spiritual aloneness of the day.

Following the recent deaths of my mother and father, I can much more readily settle back into visceral emptiness of loss, that paradoxical awareness that, though biological death is empirically understandable, the vanishing of a person one knows is inexplicable.

Yesterday I felt that emptiness in relation to Jesus. Though never having met him physically, since my childhood Jesus has been as real to me as any other family member. To remind myself—to regain that visceral awareness of him in my inner life—I let myself feel the loss I felt following the deaths of my parents.

There was nothing particularly spiritual or metaphysical about the exercise. It was simply a form of attentiveness, of silent listening.

When eventually I remembered the sort of “resurrection” I perceive when my mother or father surface in memory, I also recognized that same potential for Jesus in my inner life.

And so it is,
Blessèd be.

Michael


Image:Christ of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. Brother Robert writes:

Out of the deserts of the Middle East comes an ancient Christian tradition. Although it has been overshadowed by the Greek and Latin traditions, it is their equal in dignity and theological importance. It is a Semetic tradition, belonging to those churches that use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ himself.

This icon celebrates the richness of Syriac Christianity. The inscriptions in the upper corners read “Jesus Christ,” and at the bottom, “Christ of the Desert.” The Syriac language has ties to the earth that are deep and rich. It is more inclusive than most European languages. The theological experience of Syriac Christians is different because they have encountered the Gospel in such a language. Theirs is an unhellenized expression — one that is neither Europeanized nor Westernized.

Semitic as it is, the Syriac tradition knows no dichotomy between the mind and heart. The heart is the center of the human person — center of intellect as well as feelings. The body and all of creation longs to be reunited with God.

A constant theme in Syriac literature is homesickness for Paradise, a desire to restore Paradise on earth. Christians pray facing east because Paradise was in the east. This longing was expressed in monastic terms in ancient times, but its implications today reach far beyond monastery walls. With earthy roots, this longing for Paradise involves concrete responses in the realms of politics, ecology, and economics.

Read more about The Syriac Orthodox Church here.

 

Leonard Nimoy sat down with the Wexler Oral History Project last year, his impressive Yiddish skills on full display. In this video, Nimoy describes the origin of his famous Star Trek hand greeting: the Jewish priestly blessing, or duchening.

This article was originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, the blog of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.

A Garden Grows: Quakerism in Nazi Germany by Mary Mills, available as an e-book from Amazon or Smashwords through the QUF Bookstore, translates five essays by Hans Albrecht, Clerk of German Yearly Meeting from 1927 to 1947, along with the illustrated album written by children of the Quaker school in Eerde.

With A Garden Grows: Quakerism in Nazi Germany, her new book of translations from the German, Mary Mills has given us a challenging glimpse into the heart of courageous, faith-driven action during exceedingly dangerous times.

The context for these writings is the reawakening of the German Quaker movement after World War I.  As described in “Quakers in Germany since 1918,”

[When] the Armistice came, members of the Friends Ambulance Unit were amongst the first to enter Germany. They found hunger, malnutrition and hopelessness….  Assistance came from the Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) in London and from the newly formed American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia….

About a million children were helped to survive the traumas of post-war Germany.  At its peak the Quäkerspeisung scheme was feeding half a million children daily.

In this context German Quakers had come together again, and they reopened the Bad Pyrmont Meeting House [1] in 1926, holding their first yearly meeting there. [2]

Bad Pyrmont Meeting House

Recovering History

In a discourse [3] at Bad Pyrmont in 1938, Yearly Meeting Clerk Hans Albrecht recalled this historical prelude to the struggles of Quakers under Nazism.

Here, in this small borough, a German Quaker community has come into being, which has had a vigorous bond to the larger Quaker communities in England and America….

[There is] a great difference between the formation of Quaker communities from almost 150 years ago in this region and the contemporary Quaker movement in Germany after the war.

While the former…emerged mainly from the missionary efforts of Sarah Grubb from Ireland and have remained limited to a small area, the present Quaker movement has arisen spontaneously from the search for spiritual-religious forces, which came with the surprising arrival of Quakers from England and America as friends after the war. (14-15)

Albrecht then added deeper grounding for the current faith and practice of his listeners.

English Quakerism to a large extent has its roots in pre- and post-Reformation German mysticism, which was pushed back by the ecclesial reformation and then jumped into an England torn by religious strife, where it encountered similar movements….

Then George Fox’s action happened in England.  His action gave speculative and philosophical mysticism a decisive, forward-pointing turn toward activity, which arises from inner religious experience.

He returned all religion to the sublime simplicity of a single teaching: the Inner Light, which allows every individual the freedom to go unburdened the way of his personal religious experience and yet allows all people to become one again in union with God. (16)

A Heroic Relationship with God

Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and ordered a boycott of Jewish stores.  At the 1933 Yearly Meeting, German Friends were compelled to confront this situation.  After much disagreement, The Yearly Meeting settled on a minute which “encouraged each of them to stand firm in their principles without endangering others. It ended by encouraging those who could not support this policy to leave.”

Meister EckhartAlbrecht pointed out in his 1938 discourse that this new German Quakerism was the reawakening of

an old legacy of Central European spiritual life, which returned to us with the message of the Inner Light in action.

It was the same experience that 600 years ago in Köln [Cologne] enabled Meister Eckhart to win over such multitudes…when he spoke about the “fortress of the soul,” “the flicker in us,” and “the birth of God in the soul.” (17)

Albrecht believed that the Germany of the 1930s was caught between the false, materialistic promises of National Socialism and Marxism, on the one side, and the failure of the Protestant Church to offer a living spiritual alternative, on the other.  The Church had lost its grounding in mysticism, in part through its despairing response to World War I, in particular its retreat into “dialectical theology and rational bible study.”

The one-time spiritual leader of the people, adviser for the individual, bearer of charity, morality and justice—all these areas have been taken over by the state, groups of people, movements, and the social feeling of a new time. (20)

Quakerism, by contrast, Albrecht saw as uniting thinking and mysticism.

It does not concern a compromise of religious views but rather the development of an independent, spiritual concept of religion…. That is not intellectualism, but the creation of a spiritual, unsentimental atmosphere, into which God can descend. (22)

For Albrecht,

Quakerism is the mystical creation of a heroic relationship of God to human being and of human beings to each other. “God is not only above us but in us, and we can prevail with him” [4] if we accept him into our will. Thus the human being, who is merely a creature, is himself a creator. (22)

Turning Mysticism into Action

In May of 1956, the year Hans Albrecht died, he returned to this theme of relationship in a discourse entitled “The Essence of Encounters.” [5]

Fox did something huge by making the abstract mysticism of the Middle Ages vigorous and giving it an intuitive turn to action. That takes place again and again in our quiet prayer meeting, where the person is not the addressed object of an acted out storyline but a subject, initiating action on a higher level….

[Here the] highest encounter occurs: the communal encounter with God and at the same time, the inner encounter with my neighbor, who moves me to do the will of God toward him, namely, to recognize him and all people on this higher level as a Friend. (50)

This is core of the Quakerism which Albrecht and his fellow German Quakers practiced: recognizing the neighbor as a Friend and turning that recognition into action.  It enabled many courageous efforts in opposition to the Nazi regime and its broad public support.

As early as 1930, Hans Albrecht gave a “Deposition” on behalf of Expressionist artist George Grosz, when the Weimar government had charged Grosz with blasphemy for his anti-war drawing, Christ with the Gas Mask.  Albrecht’s testimony aided the acquittal of Grosz and his publisher, Wieland Herzfelde. [6]

Quakers in the World describes the German Quaker response when Hitler came to power in January 1933 and ordered a boycott of Jewish stores.  At the 1933 Yearly Meeting, Friends confronted this situation.  After much disagreement, the Yearly Meeting settled on a minute which “encouraged each of them to stand firm in their principles without endangering others. It ended by encouraging those who could not support this policy to leave.”

Some Quakers lost their livelihoods and others suffered harassment. Several spent time in Concentration Camps, although none were actually executed. Some resisted in relatively small brave ways by, for example, not saying “Heil Hitler,” an act reminiscent of early Quakers refusing to raise their hats to their “betters.”  Some went further and befriended Jews and even helped them to leave the country….

From November 1938 until September 1939, when War was declared and the British had to leave, both German and British Quakers were involved in the Kindertransport, which enabled 10,000 Jewish children to be evacuated. [7]

The Little Gardeners’ Album [8]

Mary Mill’s book concludes with the translation of a very mundane yet powerful example of focused Quaker action in the midst of growing danger.  Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the translation.

In 1934 as human rights were being trampled and groups such as Jews and political dissidents became increasingly targeted by the Nazis, the Quaker School at Eerde was founded by Friends from England, Germany, and America, in cooperation with the small, but vigorous Dutch Yearly Meeting…

Many Jews and liberals sent their children to the school. Students and teachers from mixed marriages or families that had converted to Christianity were welcomed into the school community….

Students of Quaker School in Eerde

The “Little Gardeners’ Album” is a journal written by the pupils of Quaker School Eerde, who formed a gardening club and called themselves “Little Gardeners….”

A light-hearted, exuberant joie-de-vivre permeates the children’s description of the activities they undertake in the spirit of gardening. They detail the importance of maintaining garden beds while sponsoring festivals, composing and reciting poetry, writing and performing playlets, and playing musical pieces—all in the name of gardening.

I think “The Little Gardeners’ Album” may be viewed as a practical application of some of the ideas discussed by Albrecht in “The Concept of Community” and “The Essence of Encounters….”

One cannot help but notice the total lack of fear on the part of the Little Gardener pupils as they continue their studies and gardening activities in a country overrun by the Nazi war machine…. Generally, their happiness seems to give them a sense of security even as the world outside their school was falling apart.  (62-63)

Does Spirit-led Action Fail?

The world at large may look upon efforts like the Eerde School as failures.  The German Quakers did not “save” those children, did not “stop” the horrors perpetrated by their fellows throughout Europe. As Mary Mills writes,

Nonetheless, the virulent persecution of Jews invaded the school in September of 1941…. Between September of 1941 and July of 1945, 14 Eerde Jewish pupils were murdered in concentration camps. Most of them perished at Auschwitz. The Little Gardeners [themselves] suffered at least one casualty [who] died on a forced march from Auschwitz. (63)

Yet Albrecht and his fellow Friends were clear about the higher purpose of their actions. During a 1938 retreat at Bad Pyrmont, Albrecht gave a discourse called “The Concept of Community.” [9] He spoke of the false division of the world into “the divine and the temporal.”

We avoid the divine because the burden of our imperfection and inability chokes us and makes us flee into this world, until the moment comes to us again when the icy cold of our own hopelessness and of the inner and outer, familiar and foreign misery cuts to the quick in the wasteland of this life.  These are often horrid hours of loneliness, when we long for other people.

We long for spiritual companions in fate, who stand before God in the same distress that always slumbers within us. True fellowship, even the most personal, is always at the same moment a fellowship of suffering. For life and suffering are indivisible just as love and compassion are indivisible. (36)

It was in order to create that community of “spiritual companions in fate” that Quakers and their allies acted throughout the horrors of World War II.  It is for that same purpose that we act in the present.  Not to “fix” the future, but to stand before God in the present, embracing our neighbors as best we can for the sake of all of our lives with God in the present.

The last entry of “The Little Gardeners’ Album” is dated July 13, 1941—scarcely three months before German troops invaded the school.  The previous year the children seemed aware of the German move into the Netherlands, yet they wanted to continue with their annual Little Gardeners’ Festival “despite upsetting circumstances.” (79)

Now they held what they would not have known was their last festival.   All of the events were created and acted out by the children and their teachers.

There was cocoa, cookies and chocolate. From time to time, there was singing, and also a little play was performed…. While we sang in an atmosphere of warm friendliness, suddenly it started to rain…. In the gym, there was a roller coaster, and in the music kitchen, there was a chamber of horrors….  We rode on a wagon through the dark gym, where the wagon made rather sharp turns. Now and again, the light was turned on and screams could be heard and the riders were squirted with water….

Afterward…the circus was held. Olaf was the first act and appeared as a muscleman…. Wulf, Olaf and Maarten appeared as athletes. After an exciting round of boxing, Schmeling (Olaf) against Louis (Wulf), the “Tilagirls” danced. They were scared away by a dappled horse and a red horse. The horses danced folkdances, neighed, and reared up. During the intermissions, Herman and Richard Neuse appeared as clowns. After the circus, everyone got ice cream and went to bed with a full belly and a happy face. (82-83)

Last entry of "The Little Gardeners' Album"


For more information, see “Hans Albrecht and the Quaker Witness in Nazi Germany” for Mary Mills’ introduction to the efforts of Hans Albrecht and the German Quakers in 1930s, as well as “Recovering History: Hans Albrecht & the Quakers of Nazi Germany” for her story of how she became aware of that witness.

See also What Does Quakerism Mean to Us? by Hans Albrecht (1930).


Notes

1. “The Meeting House at Bad Pyrmont,” by Hans Albrecht, Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Association, Volume 25, Number 2, Autumn 1936, pp. 62-73 (Footnotes)

2. “Quakers in Germany since 1918,” from the Quakers in the World website.

3. “Quakerism’s Encounter with the Spiritual Situation in Germany,” A Garden Grows, pp. 14-30.

4. Albrecht here quotes Friedrich Rittelmeyer, Meditation: Zwölf Briefe über Selbsterziehung (1929), available in translation as “Meditation: Guidance of the Inner Life (translated by M. L. Mitchell, 4th edition, 2012).

5. “The Essence of Encounters,” A Garden Grows, pp. 45-50.  Hans Albrecht held this discourse on May 1, 1956, in the prayer room of the Quaker neighborhood home in Braunschweig on the occasion of the Göttingen-Braunschweig Quarterly Meeting. This is an abridged version.

6. “Deposition,” A Garden Grows, pp. 7-13.  This deposition and a reproduction of Christ in the Gas Mask were previously published by Mary Mills in the April 2003 issue of Friends Journal.

7. “Quakers in Germany since 1918

8.  “The Little Gardener’s Album,” A Garden Grows, pp. 61-83.

9. “The Concept of Community,” A Garden Grows, pp. 31-44.

Image Sources

Pyrmont Meeting House

Portrait of Meister Eckhart from The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Children, many of them German Jewish refugees, relax on the steps of a Quaker boarding school in Eerde. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Monica Lake)

From a photocopy of the original German “Little Gardeners’ Album.”  This image shows the beginning of the entry for July 13, 1941, with illustrations by the children of Quaker School at Eerde.

Note: This post was first published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, the blog of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship. It has also been republished on QuakerQuaker, and there is a substantial comments discussion appended to the post there.

During a one-month practice period (dathun) at the Buddhist Gampo Abbey in the spring of 1989, Pema Chödrön gave morning talks to encourage participants “to use the abundant material of daily life as their primary teacher and guide.”

Midway through the month, she spoke about the meditation practice of tonglen, “sending and taking,” which has to do with cultivating fearlessness.

tonglen sayingThe essence of tonglen practice is that on the in-breath you are willing to feel pain: you’re willing to acknowledge the suffering of the world.  From this day onward, you’re going to cultivate your bravery and willingness to feel that part of the human condition.

You breathe in so that you can really understand what the Buddha meant when he said that the first noble truth is that life is suffering.  What does that mean?

With every in-breath, you try to find out by acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition.  With every in-breath, you explore the discomfort of the human condition, which can be acknowledged and celebrated and not run away from.

Tonglen puts it right on the line. (132-33)

Awaking Loving-Kindness (1996)

The history of the human consciousness has been filled with the struggle to assign meaning to suffering.  No living being welcomes suffering, yet human beings impose immeasurable unnecessary violence upon themselves and others—psychic, emotional, religious, political and physical violence—in order to avoid suffering, or at least to define who does or does not deserve to suffer.

Yet what a simple notion Pema shares: acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition.

Not that life is nothing but suffering.  Just that fully lived life of necessity includes suffering.

We are now in an age of endless argument between those of us who lean toward a “God” who measures out pleasure and suffering and those who, horrified at the notion of such a “God,” insist there cannot be any “God” worthy of belief.

theist-secularist-suffering circle diagramOne could draw a simplistic diagram to represent this argument, because it is not really about “God” but about “human beings versus suffering.”

The irony is that all of us personify “God,” the theists and the secularists and those who waver in between.  This is because all we human beings know about is interaction with persons.  More to the point, we live with the knowledge, or at least the fear, of being at the mercy of persons with absolute authority over us.

How could we imagine a Wholeness which simply is, in which we know ourselves to be complete and compassionate, even in the midst of our finite, fallible, suffering, mortal existence?

In his 2011 book, Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John, Douglas Gwyn shares a commentary on John 6:25-34, a passage which follows the sacred story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish.

The people are puzzled….  Jesus brushes aside their mundane concerns….  He knows they didn’t really see the sign he had performed in feeding them yesterday.  Or more exactly, they didn’t see where the sign was pointing.

If it pointed anywhere for them, it was simply toward more bread today, and tomorrow. These are agrarian peasants, after all.  Many of them live a hand-to-mouth existence….  Jesus gave them bread, but they took it as loaves.  They grasped the commodity, the form, without perceiving the substance….

Apparently, the crowd at least understands that Jesus is the one sent by God….  So they ask, what work will he perform, that they should believe in him?  They remind Jesus that Moses provided their ancestors manna in the wilderness.  That was a daily event.  So yesterday’s miracle is only yesterday’s miracle….  (45)

Jesus…aims to shift their frame of reference…from yesterday’s miracle to the eternally present work of God.  He hopes to refocus their eyes into the eternal, heavenly dimension of their temporal, mundane present.  But again they miss it.  They simply ask Jesus to provide yesterday’s bread every day.  (46)

These people were normal people like us.  It was extremely difficult for them to stretch their imaginations, their expectations, beyond the mortal needs of the day.

And their notion of “God” was our normal one: “God” as a powerful being who can relieve our day to day suffering—if we can only figure out what we need to do to persuade “him” to do it.

The only other alternative we can normally imagine is the existentialist one: there is no “God,” and hence no meaning, no sacredness, to existence.  We just exist.

Bread

Both Jesus the Christ (“the Anointed One”) and Gautama the Buddha (“the Awakened One”) breathed in the suffering of their fellows and breathed out a loving “middle path.”  Not one that removed suffering, but one that led to an adult embrace of all aspects of life.

Jesus, ministering to country folk who were basically good but struggling folk like us, used the “God” language and the scriptures they knew.  Even so, he sought always to breathe in their fear of the stern, capricious gods of their world and their time.  He sought always to breathe out the embrace of a compassionate “Father,” whose sole purpose is to lead “his children” into mature, emotionally self-sufficient adulthood as mortal beings.

The distinction is a simple yet challenging one.

It is not necessary to use “God” language in order to witness to such life, yet it is also possible to use a sort of “God” language which gives voice to such witness.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Image Sources

Bread loaf: “An afterward to bread-making,” by By Alex Legeros, Staff Columnist, The Gustavian Weekly, November 5, 2010

Tonglen saying: “There is nothing unique about our suffering (Tonglen, a compassion practice),” on Beyond Meds – Alternatives to Psychiatry: interdisciplinary & integral holistic well-being

Note: This Beyond Meds post includes links to tonglen teachings by several different people, including this YouTube talk by Pema Chödrön.

This is slightly modified version of a blog post published on July 28th on Quaker Universalist Conversations.

Brent Nongbri is a post-doctoral research fellow in early Christianity at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His 2013 book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, offers a corrective to the conventional modern uses of the term “religion.”

Before Religion, by Brent NongbriThat corrective stands as a direct challenge to Quakers who call themselves “universalist.” The challenge is not that universalist intuitions about human faith and practice are wrong, but that we confound our perceptions and prevent clear discernment by continuing to use the concept of “religion” in it’s traditional senses.

Crucial Distinctions

Nongbri emphasizes two sets of distinctions to undergird his argument. The first is the distinction between the ancient world and the modern world, the boundary being loosely defined by the 16th century Protestant Reformation. During this era there were profound shifts in how European Christians conceptualized what we now call “religion.”

The second distinction is between descriptive and redescriptive scholarly accounts of groups of people. Descriptive accounts are “an observer’s best effort at reproducing the classification systems” of the people being studied. A redescriptive account “freely employs classification systems foreign to those of the people being observed.” (21)

Since the 17th century, Western thinkers have described the cultic and contemplative practices, mythologies and sacred texts of other peoples using categories based on their conceptualization of Christianity. Even with the 19th century shift toward describing other cultures as independent phenomena rather comparing them with Christian cultures, scholars continued to expect those peoples to have “religions” with the same categories which they had defined for Christianity.

The crucial error, according to Nongbri, is that these categories are applied to Christian and other cultures as if they were descriptive, when in fact they are redescriptive. Post-Reformation thinkers have looked for what they define as “religion” by looking for those ingredients in the cultures they study. If they find phenomena which they can squeeze into their categories, they call that the “religion” of those people.

Inventing Ancient “Religions”

For example, the first European description of “the religion of India” comes from Henry Lord, an Anglican chaplain with the British East India Company.

A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians, by Henry LordFor his 1630 tract, A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians [note 1], Lord relied upon Brahman interpreters. However, since they merely did their best to answer the questions he posed, the tract is actually redescriptive, not the descriptive work he and his audience believed it to be.

For one thing, Lord grouped all the cultic practices, superhuman beings and holy texts of the Indian subcontinent under the rubric of the “Indian religion” (which, by the 18th century, came to be known in the West as “Hindooism” [note 2]).

Having done this, Lord then tried to fill in the predefined categories which Christian colonialists carried with them into foreign lands.

For example, seeking to identify their “holy scripture,” he came up with “a booke of theirs called the SHASTER, which is to them as their Bible, containing the grounds of their Religion in written word.” (110-11) As Nonbri explains in a footnote, “‘Shaster’ in all likelihood refers to the Sanskrit term śāstra, which is a general term for a rulebook rather than the name of a specific text.” (208)

The History of “Religion”

The bulk of Nongbri’s book is a thorough and fascinating account of two historical processes.

Dance of ShivaFirst, Nongbri describes how medieval European Christians inserted the notion of “religion” into ancient texts by translating as that term words which had other meanings in the original languages. [note 3]

In addition, whether they were considering cultures of the ancient world, such as Greece or Rome, or groups in their own time which practiced what they saw as heretical versions of Christianity (including, surprisingly, Judaism and Islam), they did as Henry Lord did with India and sought phenomena to fit into the expected categories of “religion.”

Second, Nongbri reveals how Reformation and Renaissance thought drastically changed Christian Europe’s conceptualization of the whole cluster of cultural phenomena which we now group under the heading of “religion.” Driving this shift was the change in the nature of European governance during the 16th and 17th centuries. During “religious wars” of that era, princes and leaders increasingly embraced the notion of “religion” as separate from “politics.

By the late 17th century, John Locke, a “prominent voice in the domestic and international affairs of the British government” (100), was describing “religion” [note 4] as

purely a matter of the salvation of the individual…. Whereas the medieval church had been conceived of largely “as an inviolably holy body, possessed of unchallengeable, because divine, authority,” Locke presented the church, or rather churches, as much more circumscribed entities….

The church was now a voluntary assembly of individuals who gather together for the sole purpose of obtaining salvation. Any gathering for this purpose ought to be tolerated by the civil authorities, provided that the participants played by the rules of the game, the most important of which was, do not disturb the functions of the state. (102)

That rule, “do not disturb the functions of the state,” is crucial in Locke’s schema. “Religion” is to be strictly a private matter, perhaps shared collectively by groups of believers, yet never to have a say in the legal or moral life of the state. For Locke, “religions” were convenient tools for socializing and controlling the behavior of their “members”—so long as they did not interfere with the commercial and colonial interests of nations.

By the 19th century, thinkers such as Rudolph Otto and William James had completed the redefinition of “religion” as being about private, internal experience, not about shared ethnic phenomena which are part of defining a people. In this new conceptualization, “each individual religion is celebrated for its uniqueness, and all are thought to be legitimate paths to individual ‘salvation’ or ‘liberation’ or ‘self-realization’.” (130)

Letting Go of “Religion”

A theme which Nongbri presents early in his book is that modern Westerners tend think to religion is “just there,” that religion is a human universal. What he hopes for us to learn from his work is that “religion” is a historically recent concept which we have extended outwardly through space and backwards through time.

In the natural way of all humans, we mistake the categories which we have learned or created for actual descriptions of reality, rather than remembering that they are artificial boundaries—redescriptions—marking out the patterns which our cultures and our own beliefs have seduced our brains into “seeing.”

What Nongbri wants us to be able to do is to see the phenomena themselves, to lay aside our categories so that we might recognize how other people, other cultures, organize their own narratives of interaction with the sacred.

Then, instead of seeking something to label as their “religion,” we might notice that the ancient Greeks, for example, organized their corporate rituals and belief systems around ancestral tradition. The ancient Romans organized theirs around what celebrated and preserved what they perceived as Roman ethnicity. And both the Christians and the Muslims organize theirs around heresiology, around the contentious question of who is worshiping correctly.

Using “Religion”

With this new openness and freedom of perception, Nongbri believes that we could then still use “religion” as a redescriptive term, employed in its mundane sense “to discuss things involving gods or other superhuman beings and the technologies for interacting with such beings.” (157)

We could, for example, focus our attention on the ways in which government entities such as the Supreme Court

determine what does and does not get to count as religion…. What sorts of interests are involved in such decisions? Who is doing the defining and why?

In other words, a good focus for those who would study “religion” in the modern day is keeping an eye on the activity of defining religion and the act of saying that some things are “religions” and others are not. (155)

We could also use the redescriptive approach to ask

“Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?” Take the example of capitalism…. [We] might ask different questions, such as “How might we understand human behavior differently if we, as a thought exercise, regard capitalism as a religion?” (155-56)

"Ebenezer," by Mike Shell

Universalism

What would happen if we were able to let go of “religion” as a descriptive category?

Perhaps we would become more able to see clearly—and to appreciate and value, without necessarily embracing—what other people, other peoples, regard as sacred. Perhaps we would become more able to allow others their different narratives of interaction and interrelationship with the sacred.

We would not have to either agree or disagree with their narratives. We would simply ponder the sacred itself and, perhaps, learn from without having to gauge the truth of other people’s narratives.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael


Notes

1. Nongbri writes: “The name ‘Banian’ most likely derives (by way of the Portuguese and Arabic) from the Gujarati word vāṇiyo, a person of the merchant or trading class.” (208)

2. “The term hindu, which is itself ancient, was derived from the local name of the Indus river and was a geographical identifier, referring to people or things from India.” (110)

3. Latin religio, Greek thrēskeia and Arabic dīn, for example, each went through a range of connotations across the centuries, but none of them meant what modern English speakers mean by “religion.” Latin religio was used by the playwright Pautus in the 2nd century BCE to mean “scruples”; by Cicero in the 1st century BCE to mean “divine and human rules”; by the north African Christian Tertullian in the 3rd century CE to mean “worship,” “rite” or “reverence”; and by Augustine, northern African bishop of Hippo in the 4th-5th centuries CE, to mean “worship.”

4. In a tract entitled Letter Concerning Toleration.

Image sources

Cover of Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, by Brent Nongbri (2013).

Frontispiece of A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians, first volume of A Display of Two Forraigne Sects, by Henry Lord (1630).

Sculpture of the Dance of Shiva, from the blog, Wonder, silence, gratitude.

Ebenezer,” by Mike Shell. When my late mother moved to Florida from South Carolina after 40 years in her church choir, the members gave her this copy of the stained glass cross in the altar window.

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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On Attribution

I'm a writer and a librarian.

I license my own online work through Creative Commons.

When I cite books or websites, I link to them. When I use images, I add a pop-up title which gives attribution. Also, the image itself usually links to the source website.

Often the images link to very interesting source sites which I am nudging my readers to look at.

Have fun. Be honest. Give attribution!

Photography on RedBubble

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