My Latest Public Professor: More on religions

Here is my latest Public Professor article in the Lethbridge Herald, published yesterday (March 24). For background see my earlier post:

The paper labelled the column “It’s difficult to label Religions

My last column for Public Professor (Feb. 4) stirred up a bit of a controversy. One letter writer expressed shock that a “teacher of religious wisdom” would label the Bible’s creation stories “mythology.”

The word “myth” is frequently used to disparage as false, or deceptive, stories held to be true by others. I presume the letter writer thought I had meant this. In scholarly contexts, however, “myth” denotes stories which are foundational to a group’s sense of identity or understanding of the world. By using the term, scholars do not judge a story as inferior or childish, but as important and sacred to others, regardless of how those people may label it themselves.

In this light, the biblical creation accounts and the gospels themselves can be labelled “myth” since they are central stories in Christian theology. Some (but not all) Christian scholars are resistant to this because it puts the Bible on the same level as other religions. Yet, a common cross-cultural academic vocabulary is necessary for Religious Studies. Given the great number of religions throughout history, it is rather arbitrary to protect one tradition from the critical analysis directed at all others or to adopt the judgments of one tradition over others. For example, I cannot count the times I have had students from an evangelical background become indignant when I or the textbook refer to Roman Catholics as Christian. If I adopt their meaning of “Christian,” however, will I not incur the anger of the Catholic students? Scholars and their students need to come to terms with the exclusivist claims and counterclaims to legitimacy that mark the history of religions.

Part of the “work” religions do is to express for a group of people the essential correctness and boundaries of their own way of life and how they are the possessors of a special truth and are different from other people. The job of Religious Studies is not to affirm this effort at differentiation but to understand it as it develops and is expressed in politics, art, literature, ethics and more. What religions set aside as special, sacrosanct and beyond question, and how and why they do this are the very things that scholarship must investigate. This is not to determine if the beliefs are true or false, wise or foolish but to understand how those ideas and the behaviours surrounding them work within a society and within the lives of individuals.

In many ways we live not only in the physical world but in worlds of the imagination shaped through education, socialization and personal experience. Religion is only one aspect of how people imagine their world and link themselves to one another in societies. Indeed, in many cases, there is no fundamental distinction between religion and other aspects of culture.
People often fail to see how their ideas of what seems normal or natural are actually the result of human decision, political or environmental realities, or the once-radical views of a particular individual. Religions themselves are always changing. This includes how rituals are performed, what structures of authority are accepted, and even the key doctrines and beliefs that are taught. No religion is immune to this even as they affirm that their core teachings are eternal or divinely given. Indeed, the affirmation may be an attempt to find order and stability within the vagaries of history.

Dr. Linville will be giving a rather playful and provocative talk on Religious Studies and secularism on Tuesday, March 27 at 7 p.m. in Turcotte Hall 201, entitled “On the Job of Not Practising What I Teach. Some Personal Reflections on Religion, Academia, and the Evil Atheist Conspiracy.” Go to http://www.uleth.ca/artsci/event/17242 for more details.

2 Responses to “My Latest Public Professor: More on religions”

  1. Dan Says:

    How do you teach wisdom?

  2. Dr. Jim Says:

    Same as you, very badly. :)

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