Religion as timeless

I have been thinking quite a bit about the humanities lately, and what makes the humanities distinctive from other fields of knowledge and ways of knowing.  Why should we care about the humanities at all, since studying humanities' subjects can't create new technology, cure cancer, or build skyscrapers? 

There are two things that immediately come to my mind.  First the humanities is about history, it is about knowing our past, its impact on our present, and how it will shape our future.  The sciences and social sciences are not about our history.  It is not that they don't have a history, but the scientific method and most social scientific approaches are about observing our present and recording those observations.  While cultural anthropologists might be concerned about recording the past of a particular group under study, this is a very local project.  The humanities is about remembering and understanding our past with the distinct desire to apply what we have learned to our present situation, with the hope that we won't make the same mistakes over and over again.

Second the humanities is about knowledge that is "everlasting", rather than progressive knowledge.  Science knowledge improves with time.  As we learn more about the cosmos, physics changes, sometimes with knowledge that shifts the entire paradigm like the theory of relativity.  The same is true of social science, which improves upon itself constantly. 

But subjects in humanities don't really get out-dated nor are they improved upon in the same way as scientific knowledge.  Shakespeare is Shakespeare.  You like him or you don't.  I would make the same argument about philosophy which engages, for instance, logic and morality in only so many ways.  In this way, the knowledge of the humanities is like art.  It is what it is.  It tells us about ourselves.  It is ancient and modern at the same time.  Or timeless, whatever you prefer. Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, captures the essence of what I am saying.

To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world…this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone.”

Religion fits here.  Religion is not about progressing to the best religion.  Religions don't really replace each other (although some may suggest this like Christianity did when it advertised itself as Judaism's replacement).  While some religious ideas are certainly out-dated, by and large, religions today operate the same way they have since as far back as we can trace. 

Even before any sort of complex language, Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead with grave goods in fetal positions, and some people think that they piled up bear bones as religious offerings to powerful spirits.  These religious ideas and practices are as valid today as they were in prehistoric times.  We still concern ourselves with religious burials, and, while we don't pile bear bones up on altars, we certainly place other offerings there, like the body of Jesus.

So I want to spend some time thinking about religion as an art, as timeless.  What aspects have that timeless quality that mirrors our humanity no matter the age?  If we can get a grip on them, I think we come a long way to understanding why human beings are religious and why religion is not going away.

The Humanities and Science

This semester I am teaching a course on cognitive science and religion.  It is called

The Bible and the Brain

, and I am writing a book under the same title.  The course is exploring ways that religion can be better understood when we take into consideration the cognitive abilities and limitations of human beings.  More on these ideas as the semester progresses.

As I am teaching this course, I am aware that there continues to be an uproar about whether the humanities should be in dialogue with the sciences and if so to what degree.  Steven Pinker has written for the New Republic an impassioned plea for humanities' scholars to get with it and engage the sciences


. He articulates in this piece a call for humanities scholars to show more interest in science, especially in the downward spiral that is strangling us in the wake of post-modern critique.  There have been many responses, most like Leon Wieseltier, also published by New Republic,


. The title of his piece summarizes pages of his own impassioned plea which he calls "Crimes Against Humanities: How Science Wants to Invade the Liberal Arts. Don't let it happen."

There was a time in my life when I was very content to go along teaching and writing what I would call strictly humanities content.  I saw very little connect between anything scientists did and my own work and interests.  That is until I married a physicist.  I realized three things very quickly.

First, the scientific understanding of the world is our reality.  We live it everyday.  We have no choice but to engage it.

Second, scientists are studying the universe and human beings, the same subjects that I study as a humanist, and they have information that is essential to how we


understand ourselves and our world today.  This information is so essential that it will likely alter the way we have been perceiving our academic disciplines.  I see this particularly in terms of cognitive studies and embodiment which can help us reformulate the way we "do" history and understand religion.

Third, if we as humanists don't jump into the conversation that scientists are engaging in very public ways, we will be leaving the interpretation of knowledge about humans and the world to them.  Frankly I think we have been so slow on the uptake that this has already happened. In other words, scientists (and social scientists for that matter) are going to continue to run well-funded experiments on our subjects, subjects that we as humanists hold near and dear.  And then they are going to control its interpretation, when in fact, they know very little about the subjects we study, like religion, for instance.

A case in point.  I read a fascinating book this week by Drs. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili, called

Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

.  I couldn't put it down, riveted to the results of their SPECT scans on Tibetan monks and Catholic nuns during meditatively induced states of Unitary Being.  Since I study mysticism, their findings really caught my attention.  But what also caught my attention was the fact that their understanding of religion is under the weather so to speak.  They equated religion with a form of mysticism that is relatively recent in human history (derivative of Underhill and James) and tried to overlay that on Neanderthal burial and cult practices.  They argue that all religion originates from someone's mystical experience and that the purpose of religion is to perpetuate those experiences of unitary being.  So here we have scientists with really good experiments, but with little knowledge of the field of religious studies in which to make good sense of them.  But their views are popular and well-cited in the literature.

If we don't engage the sciences as humanists, we are not just doing ourselves a disfavor, but the public too.  We are leaving the interpretation and popularization of our field open to scientists like Richard Dawkins, rather than doing it ourselves and doing it better.

Humanities and technology

Working in the trenches of humanities in face of the rise in the last decades of the internet and the overwhelming belief that knowledge is about information and data and number crunching, that everything about being human can be reduced to scientific investigation, I have been very concerned about where we are going as a people.

It is as if utilitarianism and efficiency and speed are all the driving forces behind anything we now consider most valuable.  Everything is short and sweet and public.  If it doesn't make us richer, faster, or easier, we don't want it.  We don't think it is worth pursuing.

We are becoming thin and instant like our devices.  We are remaking ourselves in the images of our devices.

We are scattering our attention.  Like our devices, we do two or three things at once.  We watch TV and check our email, giving neither full attention, while ignoring the other people in the room.  Screens intersect and offset us from others as we type away behind them.

At restaurants, in classrooms, in cars we are on the internet, uploading pictures to Facebook to get instant feedback about where we are or what we are doing.  Nothing seems to wait.  Gaming draws us in and keeps us coming back, psychologically preying on our desire for instant feedback and success. 

We mistake computer intelligence for the human mind.  We are held in the grips of our iPhones, iPads, our Facebooks, Twitters, and Texts, as if they were lifelines that plug our brains into other brains.  Some of us have become so addicted to technology that to unplug, even for a day, is traumatic.

I am not against technology.  I have a laptop, iPhone, iPad, a digital camera and all the rest.  And I love them.  What I worry about is what this is all doing to us so quickly.  What are our lives becoming?  How has it changed the way we think about things?  Interact with others?  Value things?

Where is our humanity in all this? What is happening to us spiritually and intellectually as we disengage and devalue the pursuit of knowledge which we have mistaken for information?  When we are convinced that we can reduce everything about us to scientific answers?

Leon Wieselttier gives us something to think about in his commencement address published by Republic


.  He argues that humanities and its pursuit has suddenly become countercultural.  Take a look.  It is worth the read.

Get Sparked by the Humanities

For years I have been listening to the critique of the Humanities and watching its erosion.  I have noticed a couple of things contributing to its demise.  The first, in my opinion, has been the direct result of post-modern thought, which has emptied texts and other cultural productions of authorship and meaning.  It takes my breath away when I think of what this single claim (and it is nothing more than a claim that so many have bought into) has done to the Humanities.  When credit is no longer given to an author and meaning is derivative only of the reader, why bother studying the culture that produced the text or object?  Why bother learning the language that the text was produced in?  Why bother spending years training in a field when there can be no expert knowledge of or about the text or object, but only perceptions of those who read it and view it?  We are critiquing ourselves out of fields of knowledge.

The second is tied to the first.  If there are no expert fields of knowledge, then what are we supposed to do?  If the disciplines are perceived to be useless, then we better work across disciplines.  So the call for interdisciplinary knowledge arose in the universities and has taken center stage, even to the point that interdisciplinarity has been argued to be the next step.  There should be no more departments.  We should all work together and eliminate the limitations and constructed boundaries of departmentalized knowledge.  We are critiquing ourselves out of departments.

The third is tied to the second.   If we aren't experts in a particular field of knowledge anymore, and departments dissolve, then what?  What purpose can we have?  What use?  When I look around, I see a fast scramble now to the sciences and social sciences (whose professors, by the way, have never bought into the postmodern critique and have maintained strongly expert fields of knowledge and disciplinary boundaries).  How can the humanities make use of the sciences?  Terms like Medical Humanities are becoming the rage.  Environmental Humanities.  Emerging Humanities.  We are critiquing ourselves into the sciences.  

Now you might think that my post is about the need for we in the Humanities to resist these things.  But this would be a false impression.  Critique is good for us, as long as it is constructive.  While the Medical Humanities may turn out to be a fascinating field of study, this does not mean in my opinion that traditional Humanities disciplines should receive any less attention.  In fact, I think we are doing ourselves a real disservice by not highlighting traditional disciplines too.

I think that we have to look at this for what it is.  I think we need to take the discourse back to a healthy constructive place.  I think interdisciplinarity is healthy, as long as we have real disciplines that are interacting and sharing knowledge.  I think that disciplines and departments are not only necessary, but foundational.  You need strong healthy disciplines in order to work across them successfully.

I don't buy into the postmodern argument that has killed the author, authorial intent, or meaning, because I realize (this insight is from the sciences) that humans are embodied, and the things that we produce leave our cognitive imprints, and these imprints are bound to cognitive maps from cultural worlds in which the productions were made.  There is no mind, no knowledge, that floats around out there.  Knowledge is made in us and we make it from within the webs of knowledge culturally shared by us in very specific locations.  I will post more on these ideas in later posts.

For now, what I would like to do is to think about Humanities as a spark.  Those of us who became Humanities professors did so because something was sparked in us when we read a poem, saw a vase, studied a text, listened to a piece of music.  Something happened to us when we read Plato, or Josephus, or the Gospel of Thomas, or Dante, or Blake, or Shakespeare.  What?  What sparked you?

For me, whatever it was, and I have yet to name it, was totally absolutely life-changing.  When I first read Plato, it was nothing less than an epiphany.  When I first started to think, I mean really think about what makes us human, I couldn't stop thinking about it.  When my first philosophy professor showed us a film about what a fire storm would be like if a nuclear explosion went off, and he asked us, would you push the button given this circumstance and that circumstance, well I was shaken to the depths of my very being.  When my religion professor examined biblical texts without preferential treatment, but as cultural productions that had left the imprint of their societies on them, I was so upset I didn't want to go back into his classroom.  Who did he think he was?  Obviously I went back, my curiosity winning my private battle of faith.  I understand fully why curiosity is framed as demonic by so many faith traditions and is proverbial in our culture (curiosity killed the cat).  For all that the sciences had to offer me at the time (I was headed to medical school, and had been in nursing school initially), the call to the Humanities would not leave me alone.  I had been changed by the encounter.  My life had been transformed by its spark.

The Digital Humanities

I posted last week about the trouble that technology can cause in the classroom, in terms of students who insist on surfing the internet, reading Facebook, tweeting, and so on while class is in session.  This, however, does not mean that technology is a bad thing.  It means that we need to develop expectations in our classrooms for digital etiquette.

It is also true that the use of technology to teach and research in the Humanities is in full swing, and we need to catch up with this in our classrooms and become more savvy in terms of how we can use technology to help us with our research.

So I'm wondering what ideas you have, as students and as teachers.  What are some of the things that can be done to help us integrate our study of the Humanities and digital technology?  Express your opinion in the comments.

Today the Digital Humanities was featured in the news when 60 NEH grants were given for those with projects that integrated technology and the Humanities.  Here's the story:

WASHINGTON — “Secret plan to replace human scholars with robots,” read Brett Bobley's first slide.
“Oops!” exclaimed Bobley, director of the office of the digital humanities for the National Endowment of the Humanities, feigning embarrassment. The audience, made up mostly of NEH grantees, laughed. They were here at the endowment’s headquarters on Tuesday to celebrate their roles in forging a new frontier for the humanities -- a category of academic fields at risk of turning fallow for lack of public support. 
Humanities research is often derided as gauzy and esoteric, and therefore undeserving of tax dollars. Amid financial crises, humanities departments at many public universities have been razed. But even amid cuts, there has been a surge in interest in the digital humanities -- a branch of scholarship that takes the computational rigor that has long undergirded the sciences and applies it the study of history, language, and culture.
“While we have been anguishing over the fate of the humanities, the humanities have been busily moving into, and even colonizing, the fields that were supposedly displacing them,” wrote Stanley Fish, the outspoken professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, on his New York Times blog in June. 

Forging ahead: Leaving the Middle of Nowhere

It seems to me that we need a new introduction to biblical methodology that reflects what we have learned from postmodern philosophy. I envision chapters dedicated to complete revisions of our old tools, explaining where and why they went wrong, and then rebuilding the method from the ground up. I also envision chapters dedicated to newer methods that have entered our toolbox in the last twenty years. This would be an edited volume, written by various scholars dedicated to the project of revisioning our field and the way in which we approach the materials. It would not be a postmodern handbook which conceives of itself as "critical" and everything else as "non-critical". It would be a handbook that considers our field in the wake of postmodern critique in order to move us out of the Middle of Nowhere.

Leaving the Middle of Nowhere

A New Vision of Biblical Methods in the Wake of Postmodernity

Transtradition Criticism

If you have been following my blog over the years, you know that one of my keen interests is becoming aware of how we read texts and the assumptions we make as biblical scholars. Although I think that postmodern critique has been useful in highlighting problems of authorial intent, monolithic hermeneutics, and the politics of power, we must bear in mind that these problems were known to scholars of modernity already. The difference that I see between the modern and the postmodern discourses is that the postmodern critique has moved the conversations out of historical time into disembodied discourse without attachment to the empirical. This has left us in the Middle of Nowhere. It is suffocating the Humanities more broadly. It is isolating biblical scholars more and more from history, while supporting the growth of contemporary theological readings instead.

It is this move that haunts us now, and requires us, in my opinion, to re-examine our old tools and refashion them, rather than abandon them. We are in a crisis. The moment to act is now. We must return to a more pragmatic approach that takes seriously the empirical. Theory comes and goes, but the manuscripts, stones and bones remain. There are texts and there are authors and there are readers. And we need to deal with them as realities.

I have no desire to create some new grand theory. What I want to do is return to the old tools and identify why they failed. I want to remodel them in such a way that they work in a transmodern academic discourse, a discourse that moves us beyond the postmodern suffocation and the Middle of Nowhere.

I am stepping out here by beginning to talk about refashioning Tradition Criticism. I have finally settled on a name for the updated approach: Transtradition Criticism.

Transtradition Criticism

is an approach to texts, artifacts, and other cultural productions, which seeks to expose, explain and understand the production, meaning, use and transmission of t/Traditions within their historical fields of conversation. This approach is interested in investigating the dynamic interstitial spaces and networks between and across t/Traditions, exposing the politics of power and conceptions of the Other that support the structures of the t/Traditions. Transtradition Criticism is grounded in a pragmatic and embodied view of human beings as personal and social agents who actively and constantly (re)shape the t/Traditions to align with their experiences of themselves and their world. They are participants in personal and social conversations that support, create, modify and destroy t/Traditions.

I will post more as the remodeling continues.