What I Learned This Year

Here are some things I’ve learned this year in school:

  • I am capable of a lot of work when I put my mind to it, but I also recognize my finitude. I have sometimes taken on too much to the detriment of my family. This will require that I plan my time better in adopting a consistent sleep schedule and study plan. My family deserves better than I gave them this year.
  • I had an inkling of this, but it got fleshed more out in my research of Gordon Kaufman’s theological method: all theology is constructed, from beginning to end. It does not exist “out there” to be discovered and exegeted but emerges out of a thinker’s use of sources. This means that one is responsible for what one says; one cannot just blame something on God.
  • Because of what I discovered with Kaufman, I am giving Christianity not another try, but a different try. I will be actively engaged in the process, not just uncritically accepting certain things. In a sense, Christianity exists “outside” the person because it is a social phenomenon. However, Christianity does not exist above and beyond the individual, because it is always embodied and expressed by individual persons. It shows up socially, too, social or political movements. I’m still working out what this even means.
  • I’ve come to realize more and more that I cannot universalize my personal experience and call myself a responsible person. I don’t call what I do “common sense,” “the way things are,” etc. I own what I do, say, and believe to the point that I recognize I have to demonstrate to others how I’ve come to some of my conclusions. I can’t take for granted that people share certain elements of experience with me to come to the same conclusions. And so this gives me room to hear other people’s stories and how they’ve constructed meaning on their journeys and not dismiss them out of hand; those are their experiences, as important to them as mine are to me. True dialogue can occur after each person recognizes this in the other, once we accept that we are not the same, and then attempt to find shared spaces or possibly create them.
  • There’s a world full of religions (one could just as easily say cultures since “religion” and “culture” intersect so seamlessly sometimes) that have worked for peoples to organize their societies. It’s interesting to learn how diverse understandings of religion arbitrate the relationship between church and state, individual and group, secular and sacred, what actually constitutes “religion,” male and female, or beyond binaries in more recent thought.
  • The word “religion” means something obvious to everyone else besides religious studies scholars. Ninian Smart outlined seven elements that most religions of the world have at least some of: doctrine, ethics, narratives/myths, ritual, experience, material culture, and institutions (here is a picture showing the interrelations of six of those dimensions, minus material culture). Some religions will denigrate others for not emphasizing what they emphasize. Some emphasize ritual and minimize ethics and doctrine, while others do the complete opposite. Both wonder at each other as a foreign, exotic “Other,” which is nonetheless wrong. Religion can also be defined in other ways: functionally, essentially, descriptively, and normatively.
  • There are lots of smart people in the world. I no longer feel the impulse to be the smartest in the class or see myself in competition with others to do better. I’ve adopted a more cooperative attitude that feels better. When I treat my classmates as fellow scholars or collaborators rather than as competition, we all benefit. I don’t glean nearly as much as when I share with others and they with me in a dynamic relationship. I just do my best and hope for the best.
  • Facebook and other internet activities waste a lot of my time. So does Netflix. Not to say these aren’t wonderful things in limited quantities, but they kind of contribute to me being a more passive than active person, making my brain feel kind of mushy after indulging for too long.
  • After reading an article by Richard Godbeer (his writing is as cool as his last name sounds), I encountered the idea that discourses of sex are always present in every sex act. One never “just has sex”; one is playing a script, like it fulfills a biological need or emotional desire, acts as a means to bond with a lover, a duty to fulfill, a peak experience with another involved, etc. He was drawing his ideas from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality in three volumes, some of which I’d like to read this summer. The class I was in, Sexuality and American Religion, has actually given me some ideas of possible minors I’d like to pursue alongside the major of religious studies, like gender or sexuality studies and their presence in religions.

That is all I can think of for now. If I think of other things, I’ll edit this post and add them. Ask questions or comment if you want.

Religion after Enlightenment

I have just begun Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age at the recommendation of John Schmalzbauer and Andre Snavely. This has to do with my research question, “How can religion take modernity seriously and also function in modern society?” Or, “What does religion look like in the aftermath of modernity?” There seem to be a few assumptions going on in this question. The first is that secularity, modernity, plurality, or whatever you want to call it is here and it is not going away. Secondly, and perhaps quite erroneously, it envisions an agreed upon vision of what modernity or “the Enlightenment” entails. Schmalzbauer and Snavely have been instrumental in highlighting that this is not the case, and that I will need to wrestle with multiple definitions of “modernity,” so modernities, Enlightenments. The third assumption seems to be that religions should take modernity seriously, maybe even more so than their historical traditions.

Names that have come up so far in the “secularity” discussion are Charles Taylor, Hans Joas, Jose Casanova, and Henry May. These are the first scholars that have come up, and I am sure they will not be the last. The struggle I am having is narrowing down what I understand as “modernity.” What is it? Is it as indicated above, a multifarious concept that I will need to parse before arriving at my own spin of it? Does it necessarily involve secularity (and this word can have at least three different nuances, as I have found already in Taylor’s work) and pluralism? Should I just focus on one secular context—my own American one—so as to keep my project doable?

These questions interest me. I do not know why they capture my imagination so, but they do. I have a concern, though. Will this put me in the realm of theology more than in that of my career goal of “modern religious thought?” Are those two even separable? I guess that concerns me because I surmise it would be far harder to find a position at a public university with a theological pedigree than with a religious studies one. Even though this is a concern, I will venture forward and keep the conversation alive with my professors, taking their counsel seriously.

Who Brought You to Your Faith?

This is a poll to see which figures were the most prominent in leading people to their faith. If you want, include stories of your conversion experience. Those stories are your history and others’ encouragement. I look forward to those.

What Is Religion?

I used to find this an easy question to answer: people worship their own god(s) with various ceremonies and rituals, think about him/her/them within a certain community of interpretation, and plan their lives according to the dictates of their god’s/gods’ commands. The first stumbling block to that definition is the atheistic strains of Buddhism. If I consider Buddhism a religion, do I merely need to hack off a significant portion of my definition, or go back to the drawing board? My working assumption now is so nebulous as to be almost useless. Religion is what people do in response to their understanding of transcendence, whether that involves divinities or not. This can involve the atheist who muses upon her meaning in life or the devout nun who considers her life under the umbrella of tradition. Religion as I see it transcends the self; if it involves merely the self, I attribute that more to a personal mission statement or philosophy. And the language I use still might preclude other religious understandings. I am one man on his way, trying to understand a lot of data out there. Religion is active, religion does, religion thinks. I won’t merely say that religion is. Mere nominal associations do not make a lot of sense to me. If someone does not act or think like X religion, they are probably a weak representation or non-representative of faith X. While I do have to account for the cultural expressions of religion, I tend to relegate these more to accidents than to essential elements of a religion. Again, these are working assumptions. I look forward to my time at MSU and elsewhere in developing my views toward religion and the religions of the world.

Just How Biased Are You?, or Let’s Play a Game

I was going through a discussion forum today, and came across this list of cognitive biases. According to that list, there are 170 types of biases spread across three categories. Granted, this number is semi-inflated. Some items are

Source: counterthink.tv

Source: counterthink.tv

represented more than once, and not all of them could be called biases. But I went through the first 25 items, under the “Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases” category, from the ambiguity effect to essentialism. I did this to see how many of biases I have had in the past or still have.

This exercise then prompted me to consider how these biases affect my stances on things religious and philosophical. When I go through the arguments for and against the existence of god, consider a religious experience, or evaluate other religions than my own, are there certain barriers in my mind that preclude a fair case? Here are some examples from my turn in the game:

  • Ambiguity effect- yes; now, since I am not absolutely sure god exists, or what is in the bible is god’s revelation to humanity, or that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of god, but I am sure I exist, I am absolutely more prone to use myself as the measuring stick to order my life than an external matrix I am unsure about
  • Attentional bias- yes; I have been a victim of something, and I can’t really attribute it to one thing. For example, in politics, or at least the kind I’m used to, only two positions are offered for public discourse, yes/or no on an issue. It’s a limiter on other possibilities, and then I find myself suffering from this bias in some areas of life and in others not. E.g., I know there are more theistic possibilities than mere “God exists: yes or no”; religion/philosophy runs along a continuum from strong atheism on one hand to strong theism on the other. In between are all kinds of options, like agnosticism, deism, pantheism, polytheism, monotheism, panentheism, etc. But then when it comes to contemporary political issues, I sometimes find myself narrowly focused: “Guns: yes or no” and no nuance.
  • Backfire effect- oh yah. My first read of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian
    Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    had the opposite effect than persuasion on me :) Even some of his good arguments only reinforced what I saw as true.
  • Bias blind spot- haha, yes; when I first encountered rationalism in philosophy, I really ran with it. I took up the assumption I could remove all biases when looking at an argument, having pure objectivity. Too bad I didn’t understand the concepts of conditioning, context, place, and just the fact that no one is immune to bias.
  • Confirmation bias- I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t do this. I’m sure they exist somewhere. Using myself as an example (this may be egocentrism, but I’m trying to be concrete), when I’d look over my life to note my tendencies, I would note particular episodes (like telling my mom when I was 10 that the bible was just stories invented by men) as indicative of my whole life. This obviously isn’t the case, since I also had episodes in life (which I’d conveniently forget when doing this exercise) where I was quite confident in the veracity of the Christian Scriptures.
  • Contrast effect- yes; as pertains to body image, I remember when I was in great shape. Then I would see another guy who was bigger and more ripped than me and would feel not in shape. But just because another guy was 8% body fat and had 10 more pounds of lean muscle did not mean my 10% body fat self was a chub.
  • Empathy gap- Yup. When I was studying to go into ministry, I assumed everyone should be doing what I was doing: reading about theology, biblical studies, church history, because that’s what Christians do, right? I didn’t understand different personality types, different time capacities. I thought my future church parishioners should go through the curriculum I went through, and with the same rigor, not realizing family, work, and other commitments they would have that I didn’t have at the time I was a single college student barely working 10 hours a week.
  • Essentialism- Oh yes. This one’s big and I think a lot of people play this game. For example, I saw the Christianity I grew up with as the true, authentic version. As I came to reject it, I believed I was rejecting Christianity. But as one of my friends pointed out (and something I should have remembered- dern you biases!), there are many branches on the Christian trunk. A mere perusal through the table of contents of Livingston’s Modern Christian Thought, here and here, shows a choir of voices singing sometimes strident harmonies, but the same song (though many in the same choir question others’ true membership). Essentialism tries to get at what is essential for one to be X, say human. A featherless biped which has the capacities of reason, relationship, and self-consciousness. What of the quadriplegic? What of those in a coma? Are these any less human than “normal folk?” or do essentials always fail, since the aberrations are still considered of the same kind, but we lack in language what we need to nail down what constitutes essence?

So out of these possible biases I played with, I’ve had or still have 9, have been unaffected by 8, and am unsure about 8, either because they were presented horrendously in Wikipedia, or I just won’t get them unless I plan on spending more time on them than I feel like doing. All in all, it was neat to see how fallible I am, and how I feel comfortable with that fact now. How do you fare in the bias game?

Potential Horizons

Today I meet with a career counselor to see if switching my degree to religion would be a wise decision. I am currently studying to be a high school history teacher, but that has been on a way to make money for my family, not necessarily a passion of mine. My passions are religion, theology, and philosophy. When I checked O*net on Secondary Teachers of Religion and Philosophy (hehe, and if you read that long thing, it has a buttload of responsibilities attached to it), it said that college teachers of religion and philosophy average around $65K a year with a projected growth rate of 10-19% over the next ten years. That’s what I want to be doing. I want to be studying religion academically (as well as existentially) and helping others in this. I want to be like my favorite teacher, Vernon Purdy, who not only taught, but was available to his students for mentoring and friendship. Maybe that blurs the lines in some minds between teacher and student, but in my friends’ lives and my life, it ignited a passion for learning that went beyond the classroom. Teaching has always been something I’d like to do, it’s just a matter of settling on a subject area. But if this not only fulfills my passion, and also more than pays the bills, booyah!