Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Doom & Gloom

This is why a lot of the people I work with are looking very stressed. And also why I'm going to a union rally tomorrow!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Spring is sprung

On Saturday, because it was 25 degrees, we remembered that we live a couple of minutes from this lovely bit of view. Fish and chips, in the balmy outdoors, with a friend and a dog, while the sun went down. Bliss!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lipstick-wearing Pigs

Party politics always confuse and alarm me. I often find myself being outraged at the policies of politicians I quite like - and vice versa - and agreeing with commentators whose general viewpoint I detest. For example, I wouldn't vote for Sarah Palin and the Republicans in a million, billion years - but I find myself agreeing with Christopher Hitchens (Christopher Hitchens!!) that much of the criticism of her from people I am politically in sympathy with is inconsistent and hypocritical.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Saints and Psychos (II)

[In my first post, below, I argued that many modern evaluations of religion impose contemporary categories - such as 'left-wing' and 'right-wing' - upon religious movements in ahistorical and unhelpful ways.]

All this is not to say that there is no place for making moral judgements about the past, or that religion can only be understood by those with a theological education. It is simply to say that analysis of religious cultures and individuals needs to pay attention to religious beliefs and practices, recognising how they have developed over time and how they interact with other social and cultural changes. I’d like to give one example from my own work of the explanatory value of looking closely at the internal logic of a particular religious sub-culture.

My own area of research is early English Methodism, a movement of reform and revival that developed within the Church of England in the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most influential and certainly the most interesting of interpretations of English Methodism was given by the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson in his book The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson painted Methodism as a movement of political and personal repression. Where generations of Methodist historians had portrayed their forbears as saints, in Thompson’s work Methodists are quite definitely psychos. In his interpretation, the emotional upheaval of the Methodist revivals diverted the energies of the English working class away from political activism and towards a rigorous self-discipline that kept them working uncomplainingly in the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution.

Thompson is particularly damning of the Methodist emphasis on suffering. He argues that in Methodism the Christian symbol of the cross became not just an incentive to personal self-denial, but a model for the whole of life. That is, he argues that for Methodists, the life that pleased God was a life of suffering. This belief made Methodists passive fodder for the factories and workhouses of the industrial cities. Assured that their suffering pleased God, Methodists did not dare to agitate for change.

My study of Methodist culture confirms that, in their hymns at least, Methodists were encouraged to value and welcome suffering as the road to holiness. Quite clearly, such an understanding could lead to the acceptance of injustice. One famous Methodist woman leader wrote of meekly accepting the beatings of her violent husband as the discipline of God for her sins. To this extent, Thompson’s work is, I think, a good model of exploring the way in which a particular doctrinal emphasis, distinctive to Methodism, had broader social and cultural implications.

However, Thompson’s emphasis on the industrial revolution leads him to ignore the full implications of this Methodist belief in the positive value of suffering. This belief could also sustain political and religious activism. A number of early Methodist women defied social convention by becoming preachers. In their letters and journals, they often described the personal cost of this unusual behaviour as a cross they had to bear. They embraced the resulting insult and ostracism as a means by which they could grow in holiness. More broadly, of all religious groups, English Methodists were the most active supporters of the abolition of slavery. Those Methodists who campaigned against slavery often paid a significant price in terms of their health, wealth and social standing. Again, they described this suffering as a cross God had given them to bear, which would eventually lead to a heavenly reward. And it is worth noting that the woman I mentioned above, eventually left her violent husband, believing that God had ordered her to do so.

Recognising the diversity of ways in which early Methodists embraced the ‘cross’ of suffering in this life forces us to go beyond simply characterising them as conservative or progressive, as left or right- wing, as saints or psychos. It may be relevant and indeed I think it is important to make judgements about Methodist complicity in the abuses of English workers during the industrial revolution, and equally to question the value of Methodist activism. But moral judgements of this kind will not help us understand the religious cultures of the past and present and their impact on our world unless we take seriously the systems of religious conviction and practice that informed people’s behaviour at any given historical moment. These are the insights that religious historians can bring to public discussion of religion and its place in our society.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

On the Psalms

Well, after posting the first section of my paper on religious history, I succumbed to one serious virus and have hardly been out of bed since. The rest of the paper is on my computer at work, so I will have to wait till I get back there to post the next installment. In the meantime, I am re-reading one of my favorite books of theology (admittedly, I don't read much theology!), Walter Brueggemann's The Message of the Psalms. These are his wise words on the psalms of lament:

'I think that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgment of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God's "loss of control".
The point to be urged here is this: The use of these "psalms of darkness" may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs to this conversation of the heart.'

Friday, August 29, 2008

Saints and Psychos

A while ago I gave a paper on the value of religious history, called 'Saints and Psychos: What's the Point of Religous History?' I only had 10 minutes to speak, so it is a rather hurried effort - but I thought I'd post it in installments over the next few days.

What value does religious history have for a secular society? I want to reflect on that question briefly, first by talking generally about the value of religious history in Australia and then by giving one example from my own research. I should say that while I am discussing religious history generally, most of my illustrations come from the history of Christianity, as that is the tradition with which I’m most familiar.

The census statistics suggest that, in spite of recent anxieties over the growing power of religion in Australia, most Australians are personally indifferent to institutional religion. While 80% of Australians identify as having a religious affiliation, just over 60% believe in God (other than occasionally!) and only 25% attend a religious service monthly or more often. If most Australians are not particularly excited about religion, however, this is not representative of much of the rest of the world. In the 60s, Western scholars were busy predicting that secularisation and decolonisation would mean the end of religion, but fifty years on the number of people being born into religious traditions and joining them is booming. Whether one looks at Al Qaeda or the American Christian Right, the political significance of religion in the twenty-first century is obvious.

Concern over these developments has not, however, produced much thoughtful public discussion of religious history. Rather, most public discussion about religion in Australia seems to centre on debates about ‘true’ religion. For example, is ‘true’ Islam expressed in the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers? Is ‘true’ Christianity expressed in the voting patterns of self-identified ‘born again’ Republicans who support George W.? I think here of a recent opinion piece in The Age, which set itself up as an analysis of American churches, but was in fact a lengthy lament over the failure of American Christians to pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t want to discount the concerns reflected in such debates. They reflect pressing concerns for a multicultural society trying to live in harmony and wondering whether this is possible if religion inevitably produces violence and intolerance. They reflect the frustrations of those who think that religion is the poison of the masses and want to highlight its dangers. They reflect the concerns of religious communities distressed at being associated with values or actions they detest. But this focus on ‘true’ religion does, I think, distract from important questions about how contemporary manifestations of religious belief and practice have developed historically.

In arguments about ‘true’ religion, history is usually appealed to in the form of examples that act as prooftexts for a particular line of argument. For example, a debate over whether Christianity inevitably produces the kind of aggressive nationalism demonstrated in the US at present. The person arguing that Christianity encourages state violence mentions the Crusades, the German churches during the Third Reich and the Spanish Inquisition. The person arguing that these are not examples of true Christianity points to Francis of Assisi, the anti-slavery reformers and the Catholic church in Chile, resisting Pinochet. And so on, and so on. If you read the letters page of the Age, you will be familiar with this pattern of argument.

This is a limited approach to studying religion, not only because it ignores the historical context of particular expressions of religious conviction, but also because it tends to analyse these developments in terms of categories that have particular modern significance. Categories such as left-wing and right-wing, moderate and fundamentalist or even progressive and conservative. These categories often cut across and distort the internal dynamics of particular religious cultures. If you interpret religion simply in terms of current conceptions of ‘left’ and ‘right-wing’, for example, you may struggle to explain why a Roman Catholic liberation theologian, who supports socialist economic policies, also opposes contraception and abortion. If you interpret religion simply in terms of ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’, you may struggle to explain why evangelical leaders helped spearhead the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in New Zealand. And while it would be difficult to describe Christians who practice the pacifist and doctrinally loose Quaker tradition as ‘fundamentalist’, when they follow their convictions, as some do, to the point that they are crushed under the wheels of an Israeli tank while defending Palestinian homes, it seems equally inappropriate to describe them as ‘moderate’.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Books Books Books

I am very, very excited that Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem, is about to be published. For smart, sheer fun, you can't beat his books.* Not sure when it will be available in Australia, but Andrew and I may need to take a weekend off to read it. We read his mammoth Baroque Trilogy out loud - the perfect books for an historian and a scientist to share! [NB. Don't start with the Baroque Trilogy if you are new to Stephenson - a couple of hundred pages in and you are deep in Puritan angst and debates on the nature of matter, with thousands of pages to go. I suggest Cryptonomicon for starters!]
On the professional front, I am waiting for a parcel of tasty new books from OUP. I had the opportunity (long story) to choose a bunch of books off their list - I have stocked up on various new titles and classics dealing with the history of missions/gender/evangelicalism. Timely additions to my library, as I am gearing up write a funding application for a major project on the transmission of religious beliefs to the colonies... through evangelical women. My own book manuscript is due in about two weeks, after which I expect to have the time and mental energy to get started on this new project.

*You may want to note that, as Ian pointed out in the comments, Stephenson does tend to put a lot of sex in his books.