Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

“Hellenistic Sanctuaries” (Melfi & Bobou, eds.)

In April, Oxford University Press will release “Hellenistic Sanctuaries: Between Greece and Rome,” edited by Milena Melfi (Oxford University) and Olympia Bobou (Ashmolean Museum).  The publisher’s description follows:

Sanctuaries were at the heart of Greek religious, social, political, and cultural life; however, we have a limited understanding of how sanctuary spaces, politics, and 9780199654130rituals intersected in the Greek cities of the Hellenistic and Republican periods. This edited collection focuses on the archaeological material of this era and how it can elucidate the complex relationship between the various forces operating on, and changing the physical space of, sanctuaries. Material such as archaeological remains, sculptures, and inscriptions provides us with concrete evidence of how sanctuaries functioned as locations of memory in a social environment dominated by the written word, and gives us insight into political choices and decisions. It also reveals changes unrecorded in surviving local or political histories. Each case study explored by this volume’s contributors employs archaeology as the primary means of investigation: from art-historical approaches, to surveys and fieldwork, to re-evaluation of archival material. Hellenistic Sanctuaries represents a significant contribution to the existing bibliography on ancient Greek religion, history, and archaeology, and provides new ways of thinking about politics, rituals, and sanctuary spaces in Greece.

Marx-Wolf, “Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority”

This month, the University of Pennsylvania Press releases “Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E.” by Heidi Marx-Wolf (University of Manitoba). The publisher’s description follows:

The people of the late ancient Mediterranean world thought about and encountered gods, angels, demons, heroes, and other spirits on a regular basis. These figures were diverse, ambiguous, and unclassified and were not ascribed any clear or stable moral valence. Whether or not they were helpful or harmful under specific circumstances determined if and what virtues were attributed to them. That all changed in the third century C.E., when a handful of Platonist philosophers—Plotinus, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus—began to produce competing systematic discourses that ordered the realm of spirits in moral and ontological terms.

In Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority, Heidi Marx-Wolf recounts how these Platonist philosophers organized the spirit world into hierarchies, or “spiritual taxonomies,” positioning themselves as the high priests of the highest gods in the process. By establishing themselves as experts on sacred, ritual, and doctrinal matters, they were able to fortify their authority, prestige, and reputation. The Platonists were not alone in this enterprise, and it brought them into competition with rivals to their new authority: priests of traditional polytheistic religions and gnostics. Members of these rival groups were also involved in identifying and ordering the realm of spirits and in providing the ritual means for dealing with that realm. Using her lens of spiritual taxonomy to look at these various groups in tandem, Marx-Wolf demonstrates that Platonist philosophers, Christian and non-Christian priests, and gnostics were more interconnected socially, educationally, and intellectually than previously recognized.


Berger on American Civil Religion and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Peter Berger has a very smart column describing both the shortcomings and the advantages of American civil religion, as expressed and manifested in the rituals and ceremonies after the Boston Marathon bombing.  A bit:

Soon after the bombings a makeshift memorial was spontaneously put up. A Globe article described it as “an eclectic collection of crosses, candles, teddy bears, medals, running shoes, and hundreds of other personalized items that reflect a common sorrow.” I don’t know when or where this practice originated, but it has occurred on other occasions of shared grief, for example following the death of Princess Diana. There were a few overtly religious messages inserted into the display, but the memorial as a whole had a clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character. People were coming and going, stood quietly in an attitude of prayer, wrote messages. A six-year old girl laboriously wrote a message saying “We love you so much!”. That was the major theme—expressions of affection for the victims. Then there were affirmations of resolve against violence, and expressions of the intent to run again in next year’s Marathon. Sacral ritual or not, no denominationally specific religion was visible here . . . .

The opening address at the Cathedral service was delivered by the Reverend Liz Walker, a Presbyterian minister. I was struck by the following passage: “How can God allow bad things to happen? Where was God when evil slithered in and planted the horror that exploded our innocence?” She said that she had no answer, and added, “But this is what I know: God is here, in the midst of this sacred gathering and beyond.”

I would not be misunderstood: I have no problem whatever for a minister not knowing “the answer” to the age-old question of theodicy. After all, I co-authored a book with the title In Praise of Doubt—by definition, I think, faith implies an absence of certainty—I don’t have to believe what I know. But that is not the point here. The point is this: The faith that Walker represents does have an answer, centered on the redemptive process inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating on that Day of Judgment when all evil will finally be punished. But what is more: She could not (whether in tones of certainty or not) explicate this answer in the context of this service. Once again, I would not be misunderstood: I have no criticism of Walker’s reticence about the Christian faith she is supposed to represent. It would have been inappropriate here for her to come out with overtly Christian (let alone with Protestant or, if such there are, Presbyterian) references.  But it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in this service . . . .

Grace Davie, a British sociologist, has written about the way in which established churches, in moments of collective grief, become the official mourners of the nation, even though only a minority of citizens worship in their services. The Church of England played this role at the funeral of Princess Diana, as did the Lutheran Church of Sweden (it has recently been disestablished) when the cruise ship “Estonia” sank in the Baltic Sea and a large number of Swedish tourists perished. The United States of course has no state church, but all the denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.

This is a very distinctive American version of the separation of church and state, a quite strict legal separation, yet with diverse religious groups noisily present in public life. I think that, by and large, this has been a very successful arrangement. It presupposes that a religious group, when it enters public space, must translate its commentaries into terms that can be understood and debated by all citizens, most of whom will not be members of the particular group. Put differently, if one wants to persuade fellow-citizens in public space, one must employ a secular discourse. That discourse does have a moral foundation, the value system of the “American Creed”. Adherents of this or that specific faith may find these values more vague, even superficial, than the ones derived directly from faith, and they themselves may understand their allegiance to the Creed in terms specific to their faith. Thus the secular discourse of the public space coexists with the plurality of specific (if you will, “sectarian”) religious discourses.

I wonder about the point about translation, which reminds me a little bit of Rawls’s proviso.  It may be more accurate to say that the specific religious discourses not only coexist with the civil religion, but themselves somehow constitute it.  That could be compatible with believing that the whole of civil religion is greater (and, of course, also less) than the sum of its discrete sectarian parts.  But it would also be compatible with rejecting the metaphor of translation.  Because, as Berger himself suggests, there are deep features of the specific traditions that do not translate (as in, for example, his example of theodicy) but may nevertheless in some way constitute part of the civil religion amalgam.

Chau (ed.), “Religion in Contemporary China”

This month, Routledge published Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation edited by Adam Yuet Chau (University of Cambridge).  The publisher’s description follows.Religion in Contemporary China

Before the modernist transformations of the twentieth century, China had one of the richest and most diverse religious cultures in the world. The radical anti-traditionalist policies of both the Republican and Communist regimes as well as other socio-historical factors posed formidable challenges to China’s religious traditions but, this book argues, these conditions also presented new opportunities for re-generation and innovation.

It shows that economic reforms and the concurrent relaxation of religious policies have provided fertile ground for the revitalization of a wide array of religious practices, including divination, ancestor worship, temple festivals, spirit mediumism, churchgoing, funeral rites, exorcism, pilgrimages, sectarianism, sutra chanting, and the printing and distribution of morality books. Equally new forms of religious practices have emerged such as lay Buddhist preachers, “Maoist shamans”, and a range of qigong sects/schools.

Written by an international, interdisciplinary team of experts who have all conducted in-depth fieldwork research in China, this book provides a wide-ranging survey of contemporary religious practices in China. It examines the different processes and mechanisms of religious revivals and innovations, and, more broadly, relates the Chinese example of religious revitalization to larger issues of social and cultural continuity and change.

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