Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Do" Instead of "Do Not"

Gandhi represents a real sea change that occured during the late 1800s into the 1900s. Instead of the common conception of religion being a series of rules designed to govern people's behavior, people like Gandi (and later, the Liberation Theologists) began to emphasize the power of good behavior and quests for social justice. This is a fundamental change from the manner in which religion had heretofore been thought of. Gandhi's mix of Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam created a wholly unique vision of the manner in which the present world (and after-life) existed. Of course, since his reality demanded that action, not beliefs, guided religion, it should come as no surprise that he would lead the nonviolent protest movement against the British imperialists who had control of India at the time. His version of reality demanded that he act.

This is a large part of the point I have been beating into your heads lately. The concept behind religions-be it Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or whatever-has changed dramatically over the last 3,000 years, and the very "truths" of these religions, open to interpretation, change as humanity changes. What it was like to be a Jew in 100 B.C. is exponentially different than what it means to be a Jew today. Sure, the holy book is the same, but the interpretation of that book, over time, has meant very different things to different people living in incredibly different historical periods.

So where does that leave us today? As I mentioned in class, the world is still adjusting to the concept of religion as "do" versus religion as "do not." Those who still believe religion is a set of rules tend to see the world in wholly different (and contradictory) ways from those who see religion as demonstrated through good actions. As such, we see many conflicts that arise out of these contradictory realities. From 9/11 to the situation in Darfur, the competing visions of reality that shape those people involved set these conflicts in motion, and help keep them going. Hopefully, as people begin to become more comfortable with these competing ideas of what religion truly means, these conflicts will subside and the world will begin to gain some understanding of itself.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Religion as Agent of the Powerless

All religions preach nonviolence. Every essential text, from the bible to the qu'ran preaches a nonviolent approach to life. Additionally, the idea of nonviolence is essential to the teachings of all religions. Hence, we today consider it simply natural that people shouldn't be violent because we were all brought up (rightly) being taught that violence is wrong and immoral. But we never question why is it natural that we should be so "naturally" against violence.

The answer comes from religion, and the origins of religion's anti-violence stance can be analyzed historically. During their early years, each major religion was a minority in the society in which it was created. As such, it was persecuted by the group in power. Each religion, consisting of a relatively small group of followers, could not advocate violence, because it would easily be crushed by the group in power. So nonviolence became the only manner in which a newly-founded religion could survive in the ancient world.

The key change occurs when that religion goes from being the persecuted minority to the religion of the those in power. The powerful members of that religion have to then re-adjust the interpretation of the basic nonviolent foundations of that religion. So religion becomes an excuse for violence. However, it is important to understand that it wasn't religion that caused the violence, it was the position of power. Religion does not necessarily promote violence-the attempt to either gain or solidify power does.

As we saw last week, religion is often used by powerful people to retain their power by violent means. However, religion certainly be used by those without power in a nonviolent manner to achieve social justice. People like Martin Luther, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama are terrific examples of that...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Missionaries and their Reality

Its easy for secular people to dismiss missionaries as either fools or con artists, getting people to follow a government or governments that just seek to enslave or kill them. But that judgment doesn't do justice to the history of missionary work as it relates to colonialism. Its important to understand that these men and women truly believed in what they were doing.

I made this analogy in a couple classes: missionaries in the 1500s thought of themselves as if they were in a lifeboat and all others around them were drowning. Their Christianity was the lifeboat, and the drowning people were the non-Christians who were doomed to hell if they didn't accept Christianity. They felt that if they didn't do everything they could to get the non-Christians into the lifeboat (convert them to Christianity), that was essentially murder. They were complicit in destroying the souls of the nonbelievers. They believed the fate of the world rested in their hands. This explains why they were so vigilant in their attempts to convert people, especially the Africans.

Don't get me wrong-this is not meant to excuse the behavior of those missionaries who essentially said "convert or die." The death and destruction that came from colonialism is inexcusable. But its our job as students of history to understand why they did what they did. The missionaries were dedicated to their cause, so much so that (in many cases) they decided that death was preferable to disbelief.

The other important issue discussed today relates to the comparison of Buddhist missionaries to Christian missionaries. Notice some essential differences: (a.) Era in history-the Buddhist missionaries did their work before 1500, which severely limited their geographic impact (as there wasn't a whole lot of transportation technology available), and (b.) Nature of Monotheism versus Polytheism-remember, Polytheism is not based upon the acceptance of a single God. The Christian missionaries were naturally going to be more aggressive because their reality told them to be so.

Overall, the presence of missionaries throughout history has had an undeniable and massive impact on the world throughout history, and the world as we know it today would be dramatically different if those missionaries did not convert thousands. Who know, without missionaries and evangelism, Mike Huckabee might just be another guy, not the new frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Crusades-Religion as Motivation

Pope Urban was quite the speaker. His ability to mobilize people in support for a war that really wouldn't affect in any way their daily life is pretty impressive. Going away from the discussion today, I think its important to recognize the power of words to mobilize people. A good speech can convince people of virtually anything, especially if those people have little personal experience regarding the subject of your speech.

Also of importance is the connection between Urban's speech organizing the Crusades and the words of Usama bin-Laden in declaring the "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders" in 1998. They both break down to a couple essential ideas:

1. The Holy land is under attack.
2. The people who are attacking it are bringing murder, immorality and decadence to the Holy land.
3. If you defend the holy land, you are promised great benefits in heaven.

These themes are virtually identical in both Urban's speech and bin-Laden's declaration. There's a lot there to be said about the manner in which powerful people can use religion to both (a.) convince average people that they should hate someone else, and (b.) there's actually something in it for them personally to act on behalf of the powerful.

On the other side, though, is the experience of the Crusdaders that were highlighted in the second and third readings I assigned. Clearly, their experience (positive relationships developed between Christians and Muslims) contradicted all the horrible things Urban tried to convince them of, and as such, actually promoted economic and cultural relations between Europe and the Middle East.

So the important lesson for modern day is this: regardless of how hard some will try to convince average people that they should hate someone, they can't overcome the positive experience of two people who actually sit down and get to know one another.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Religion as an agent of the Powerful

This week's theme is "Religion as an agent of the powerful." What we're trying to look at this week is how those in power use religion to maintain the status quo, or their position within society or government. Religion has been used many times throughout history to maintain the status quo. The question, though, is why religion is so easily adapted to make this happen?

As we saw with Hinduism today, when religion sets in motion a series of "truths," believers are very unlikely to challenge those truths, as doing so might endanger their everlasting existence. As times change and new people are swept into positions of power, they begin to exert their own interpretative influence into the "truths" of the religion, and the concept of reality shifts ever-so-slightly. These ever-so-slight shifts, however, occurring almost constantly over hundreds of years, may completely change the nature of the "truth." Hence, as we saw today, the caste system that began in 1500 BC in India, focused on a division of labor, shifts incredibly (based on who was trying to maintain their power in India over centuries) to the point where it is used to justify the elevation of lighter-skinned Indians solely on the basis of the color of their skin. Taken as two snapshots, one might be amazed that the caste system of the early 20th century had anything to do with the one created in 1500 BC. But tiny changes over two thousand years, taken together, make a world of difference.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


So was Constantine a true Christian? Who really knows, and does the question even matter?

One of the most important things to remember throughout this unit is the concept of historical understanding-evaluating times and people based not upon some unrealistic standard, but upon how they related to people in their times. Sure, Constantine did some horrible things, but do those things disqualify him from being considered a Christian at all? Not really. This is also a guy who (as brought up in D Period) produced the Edict of Milan, a document declaring religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire. There are positives and negatives to everyone. You can disqualify Constantine from Christianity for reasons relating to his time period, but if you disqualified every person throughout history who did not follow the Ten Commandments perfectly, you would have no Christians in history (well, maybe one, I guess).

Remember the theme of the unit-"How one constructs reality." For Constantine, his reality was a mix of Christian ideals and pragmatic necessities, spiced with polytheistic traditions here and there. In his mind, satisfying all these needs would make him the best emperor, while gaining him favor with his God. Understanding him in that context helps us better understand not only him, but the history of this particular religion as a whole. And the more we understand how people construct their reality, the more likely we are to solve conflicts between competing realities in the future.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Akhenaten and Polytheism

Akhenaten seems to be a pretty interesting guy, even though his reign was only about 17 years. More importantly, I think everyone needs to remember that this guy was more influential to later generations than to his own. Overall, the Egyptians didn't really buy into his "one true God" routine, but the Israelites seemed to take some aspects of it and really run with them.

This underscores the importance of one of the themes of this unit-the manner in which religious beliefs are a product of history. Many beliefs in religion that exist even today are not necessarily the beliefs that people 500-1000 years ago. Sometimes, the religous beliefs that exist among the majority of followers in a religion today aren't even the same as the beliefs that existed 50-60 years ago. Religion is different for each person, and even the founding books of those religions in some way were impacted by the world in which the author lived in. Kirsch cites the similarities between Akhenaten's "O Thou only God, there is not other God than Thou," and Exodus 20:2-3 (which, coincidentally, is the first commandment)--"I am The Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before Me." It seems only natural that the people who lived in Akhenaten's time, even if the majority of his "reforms" were rejected, would nonetheless be impacted by the fact that, for seventeen years, they were exposed on a regular basis to his beliefs. Its impossible for people not to be affected by the world that exists around them.

Someone said today that the article "makes it look like the Jews, Muslims, and Christians stole their beliefs from him." That isn't what I'm saying. I'm saying that the early Jews were exposed to some of the beliefs of Akhenaten. Those beliefs inevitably informed their opinion, which they used when they wrote their own books. Those books then influenced Christians as they wrote their books. The Muslims then were influenced by those books. They didn't consciously sit down and say "let's plagarize that Egyptian guy." They simply grew up in a time when those beliefs were all around them, so they couldn't avoid being influenced by them.

That's the thing about history-you can't escape it. No matter what you do, the events of the past and present will inform the future.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Polytheism versus Monotheism

Jonathan Kirsch presents some interesting arguments regarding polytheism and its relationship to monotheism. I think its important to remember that he's not necessarily singing the praises of polytheism, nor is he saying we should all return to a polytheistic religion right now, but he does highlight the manner in which polytheism and monotheism have related to one another over time.

His big concern is, of course, zealotry and rigorism. Those who consider themselves "soldiers" of a religion can cause a whole lot of damage to those who don't share their dedication to the faith. His use of paganism and polytheism in general are meant to highlight the zealotry that sometimes comes from monotheistic religions, and the danger to all mankind that results from that zealotry.

Overall, there are a number of important pieces from today's reading, specifically related to the manner in which God won out over the gods. Consider Christianity's position under the Roman empire: the Roman rulers considered it a cult. 300 years later, it was the most powerful religion in the world. What type of factors allow for that to happen, and how does that change the course of World History?

Most importantly, Kirsch's piece should get you thinking about a bunch of "what ifs." What if Akhenaton hadn't believed in monotheism? What if Constantine hadn't become emperor of Rome? What if Julian had succeeded in returning Roman society to a polytheistic empire? These questions should be the beginning of a much bigger discussion of the role of these religious beliefs in human history...and the way in which religion may or may not be very different in the future.

Religion in World History-Introduction

I think its important to keep in mind that this unit is all about religion in world history, NOT a study of specific religious beliefs. As such, its really important to keep in mind the theme of the unit, which is...

"Religion: The way people construct reality."

This issue of constructing reality is what makes religion so important to world history. Saying that religion is a set of beliefs diminishes the impact that religion has on people. Religion is the basis on which people create their entire worldview. For example (I used this example in period A)...

If I were holding a pencil above a desk and thinking about dropping it, before I did so, I would KNOW what was going to happen. The pencil would fall out of my hand, hit the desk, and make a noise. Even before I did that, I would be sure in my mind that this is what was going to happen. This is not a "belief," its a known fact. If I dropped the pencil and it somehow became suspended in mid-air, my entire world view would be shattered. It would be the craziest thing to ever happen to me. They would write bad movies about this "phenomenon." That is how sure we are of gravity.

For the majority of human history, people were as certain about religion as I am about what will happen when I drop a pencil. It was simply truth that we can take for granted-there are no other options. As such, this is why they believed the sun came up in the morning, why good things (and bad things) happened, and why they should live the life they lived. It is an essential part of world history, because it formed the basis on which so many people did what they did.

But here's the weird thing-I know the pencil will fall because I've seen it happen time and time again. There weren't a bunch of people who got together 2,000 years ago and decided "when you drop a pencil, it will make a noise." But that IS what happened in many religions. What people take for granted as religious truth is the compiled decisions of humans throughout the previous 5,000 years. So what does this mean? It means that religion, over time, means very different things for different people, even people who are in the same religion. A Christian living in 500 AD had a VERY different idea of what the rules of their faith were when compared to a Christian in 2007. Religion is an ever-evolving process that both shapes and is shaped by human beings. Now that's reality.