Religious Difference and the Monkey King of Oklahoma City

IMG_0577.JPG

Flickr user henrik_me / Creative Commons

In 2012 private funds paid to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol. A 2009 state law allowing privately funded religious monuments on public grounds paved the way for the Ten Commandments to sit in granite outside the capitol. Seeing an opening in the new law and the new monument, earlier this month, a Satanist group from New York announced plans to build their own privately funded monument next to the Ten Commandments as “an homage to Satan.” The Satanists have only raised $2,700 of their $20,000 goal–though maybe a more modest homage could be designed. Then, this week, a group of Hindus led by the indefatigable Rajan Zed announced plans to build a monument of their own–the Hindu god Hanuman.

It’s important to notice the different reactions the Satanist and Hindu plans elicited from Oklahoma officials. On the Satanist monument:

“That’s Oklahoma’s house. It’s not the Satanic club of New York’s house,” said Capitol architect Duane Mass, who serves on the commission.

“I think it is a joke,” said Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa.

“This is a faith-based nation and a faith-based state,” said Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville. “I think it is very offensive they would contemplate or even have this kind of conversation.”

On the Hanuman monument:

Rep. Earl Sears, a Republican from Bartlesville, Okla., who called the Satanist monument offensive, was less inclined to speak directly about a Hindu monument.

“We have a system in place to process these requests,” Sears said. “I stand by my comments that we are a faith-based nation, and I know that once you open the door on this sort of thing that you can’t know where or how it will end up. We’ll just let the system work.”

Trait Thompson, chairman of the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission, which approves all monuments, declined to comment, saying only that a good-faith application would be voted on by the commission.

Why don’t the Satanists get to take part in the system? On one level this is yet another example of how religion is a category up for grabs in American culture that is constantly being redefined. For the Oklahoma officials Satanism is not a religion or a faith, ergo it does not get to work through the system. Hinduism is a religion, a world religion no less, in their eyes and so it gets a chance.

But from another angle, this is also a matter of religious difference. Religion only exists when it is a term that encompasses a set of different things. It is a term that necessarily connotes variety and difference. What gets in or out of that term, what that term contains, is always up for grabs. But the term is always an attempt to cordon off a set of cultural somethings.

So note that the the 2009 bill that began this whole controversy makes no mention of religion. It is quite narrow and focused on one thing: the Ten Commandments have an important place in American morality and law. Only at the very end does the specter of religion and its tidal wave of difference and diversity loom.

The placement of this monument shall not be construed to mean that the State of Oklahoma favors any particular religion or denomination therof over others, but rather will be placed on the Capital grounds where there are numerous other monuments.

Smartly played. This monument is not going to open the flood gates for “particular religion,” the bill claims. It does take part in diversity, though; the diversity of monuments already on the capitol grounds. We’re adding a different monument to the monuments, not a different religion, the bill argues. In fact, this is what Rep. Mike Reynolds argued:

“Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said the New York group is trying to place a monument on the Capitol grounds for religious purposes and will be unsuccessful. The Ten Commandments monument, on the other hand, was put up for historical purposes, Reynolds said.” It’s not about religion at all, but about history.

The Satanists, the Hindus, and the constitutional law professors disagree:

But Joseph Thai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the decision to place the Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol could put the state in a difficult position.

“The state can disown the Ten Commandments monument erected at the Capitol with private funds as private speech, but then it cannot reject other privately donated religious monuments — even a satanic one — on the basis of viewpoint,” Thai said.

Or the state could decide to exclude other religious monuments by taking ownership of the Ten Commandments monument as official state speech, but Thai said that could become legally problematic because of the sectarian message on the granite statute.

“The Legislature has put the state between a rock and a hard place, constitutionally speaking,” Thai said.

Either everyone gets a seat at the table or we do this to the table:

table

And so the table, or the Capitol, must make room for Satan and the Monkey King. Because as soon as religion gets to the Capitol, it brings diversity with it. It’s important to note that when folks are given a seat at the table good table manners are not always the norm. For example, the same Rajan Zed that is planning the Hanuman monument had this experience when delivering a prayer on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

(Side note: I discuss this episode a bit more in the conclusion of the book manuscript I’m currently working on.) The Senate prayer hecklers and the Ten Commandments monument builders assume that America is a Christian nation. What that means, I’m not sure exactly. But it is markedly different from the claim that America is a religious nation. The former is a claim that allows the Ten Commandments to exist as historical and not religious. It is a claim of religious hegemony. The latter claim anticipates religious difference and requires accommodation for it. The authors of that 2009 bill knew this and in marking the Ten Commandments as historical they avoided the religion question altogether. Subsumed under history, the monument maintained Christian cultural hegemony. Even if was misspelled. The question that emerges from this brouhaha in Oklahoma, then, is “all religions or no religions?” but “religion or Christian hegemony?”


Remember Zelmo Beaty: Race, Religion, and Basketball in Salt Lake City

One of my favorite weekly podcasts is Slate’s Hang Up and Listen, a sports podcast that deconstructs sports media and culture with a wry wit that deflates American sports of all its self-seriousness. If sports talk radio is Duck Dynasty, Hang Up is 30 Rock.

Every week host Josh Levin signs off with the phrase “remember Zelmo Beaty.” Beaty, a basketball star in the 60s and 70s passed away recently and this past week Hang Up and Listen reminded us why we should indeed remember him. Stefan Fatsis’ obituary of Beaty opened by staking out Beaty’s importance as a pioneer for black players in professional basketball. But what caught this religious historian’s attention was the confluence of race and religion that surrounded Beaty’s move to Salt Lake City to play for the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association in 1970.

Free agency in sports was still years away, so Zelmo had to sit out a season in order to be released from his NBA contract. But during that season, the Stars were sold to Bill Daniels, a pioneer in cable television. Daniels moved the team to Salt Lake City, the population of which was literally 99 percent white. Beaty announced that he wouldn’t report if the team went to Salt Lake, in part because of tensions between black athletes and the Mormon Church, which didn’t let blacks serve as priests. Sports Illustrated reported at the time that that local leaders assured Daniels that his players “would be well treated.” Beaty and his wife Ann made their own visit, were satisfied with their housing options, and agreed to go. All of the other black players on the Stars followed.

Beaty then led the team to the 1970-71 ABA title and won the MVP for the playoffs. But even more than that Beaty changed the face of basketball in Utah.

The Stars eventually started an all-black lineup in all-white Salt Lake City. Beaty wound up playing four seasons there, and he deserves clear credit for making the city a viable place for pro basketball. As SI wrote in 1974, “Beaty quickly gained acceptance from the Utah fans, not only by leading the Stars to a championship in their first season, but by remaining quietly congenial and displaying his considerable innate dignity. He remains the only black player who owns a house in Salt Lake. And, according to other players, Beaty passed the word around the ABA that Utah was an all-right place to play.” The Stars would fold when the ABA and NBA merged in 1976, but the city regained a franchise when the Jazz moved from New Orleans in 1979.

We would never have gotten Stockton to Malone without Zelmo Beaty.

So, for historians interested in questions of race, religion, and sports: Remember Zelmo Beaty.


Reza Aslan and the Impossibilty of an Expert in Religion in America

I think there has been one thing missing from all the blogging and twittering and Facebook posting over the Reza Aslan interview with Fox News:

For many Americans, the idea of an expert in religion is impossible. Sure, you may have a Ph.D., you may know texts in their original languages, you may even have written some books about the history of religions. But you aren’t an expert, in their eyes. Because you don’t REALLY KNOW. You haven’t FELT IT. DEEP DOWN. For most of America, to be an expert in religion one must be a TRUE BELIEVER.

For these Americans, to be an expert in religion makes as much a sense as being an expert in someone else’s mother’s lasagna recipe.

So, when the host, Lauren Green, asks Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus she is channeling a popular understanding of religion in America. She is denying that Aslan could be an expert in anything other than his own Islam. Thus, Aslan’s response that he has a Ph.D. and that this is his job and that he has lots of footnotes will never satiate Green and her audience because they all fall short of expertise. Unless he is a true believer in Jesus, these folks believe, it is impossible for Aslan to be an expert.

It’s like being a true vegan.

What does a real commitment to a certain way of thinking, speaking and behaving look like? Internally it means the idea gets such a hold on your brain that it would be impossible to abandon it without tearing apart the fabric of your being. You must tie yourself to the mast and make it neurologically impossible to change your mind on this one issue. You must be equivalent to your veganism such that to end your veganism would be to end yourself.

So how does one externally manifest this and, short of dying, authenticate a lifelong commitment to veganism? Some suggestions:

  • Refer to meat eaters as “carnists” and “corpse munchers.”
  • Address nonhuman animals in an inclusive manner that doesn’t obscure our own animality. Nonhuman animals are “other animals” or “animal others,” not “beasts” or “it.”
  • Get a visible and potentially career-undermining vegan tattoo.
  • Include a reference to anti-speciesism or sentience in your email address.
  • Bring most IRL conversations back around to the oppression of nonhuman animals.
  • Get a vasectomy, if a man, and an IUD if a woman.
  • Write a living will in which you ask to be euthanized if your memory degrades to the point that you don’t remember what veganism is.
  • Denounce so-called former vegans and call ex-veganism impossible.
  • And most important: Don’t stop believing.

Don’t stop believing, indeed.


AAR Redux: Roundups, NY Times Story, Twitter Fail, and Butchering the Elephant #sblaar

The American Academy of Religion’s annual shindig is over and with Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and a fridge full of leftovers it’s back to work. I won’t do a full recap, but I will say that my favorite two panels were both “author meets critics” style. One on Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption and another on John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I got nonspecific Protestantism on the brain; or as someone on the Fessenden panel described it, “nefarious Protestant hegemony.”

Over at Religion in American History, Karen Johnson posts about the feast of great panels at this year’s meeting. Meanwhile, Matt Sheedy thinks through the experience of conferencing.

And if you haven’t seen Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article on the AAR’s decision to shun the Hyatt over it’s labor dispute with hotel staff be sure to check it out. It’s been blowing up my Facebooks over the weekend. Apparently it blew up Craig Martin’s too, as he posted a response to the story that argued the newspaper article misrepresented and exoticized the AAR.

I tweeted Oppenheimer a link to the Martin post and he responded:

That seems fair enough.

Speaking of Twitter, I think it’s time for the AAR to step up its game when it comes to organizing the use of social media at the annual meeting. The tweets were all over the place, under different hashtags, and with no idea which panel they were reacting too. The #sblaar hasghtag was a mess. And this was with only a relatively small number of attendees tweeting. Without going back and sifting through the tweets (and was anyone even archiving them?), all I remember seeing were tweets from religious studies folks I already knew about panels I was already in (mostly related to secularism, American religion, or pop culture) or biblical studies types. (BTW, those NT and OT folks are much harsher on each other via tweet than us Americanists. We’re downright cuddly.)

The AAR needs to include a “Social Media” info box in all of the pre-conference and conference books they send out that lays out the hashtag (that includes the date, e.g. #aar13) and recommends how to identify the panel (e.g. #A14507). And someone needs to archive these. Ever the social scientist who knows how to code his data, Jonathan VanAntwerpen offered great examples of how AAR tweets should look next year:

Reflecting on the conference as a whole, though, I think the use of Twitter, split mostly between Americanists and SBL-ers, and Martin’s critique of the Oppenheimer piece are examples of a larger theme I noticed throughout the weekend. The AAR is a fractured society. We have folks arguing for a liberal political theology while other folks analyze Protestant hegemony in American culture. Even on the same panels I continually see a divide between papers that are rigorously critical and those that are, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “woo woo.”

Often in introduction to religious studies courses the instructor will trot out the well worn story of the blind men touching the elephant. We all describe different parts of this big religion elephant. The story can be an apology for a big tent approach to theory and method or a lesson in perennialism. But that story doesn’t really capture the state of the field and the AAR right now. We are not all blind men feeling the religion elephant. There are some of those blind men out there, grasping after this thing called religion as if it was the elephant in the room and finding different aspects of this giant unknowable beast. But there are also others standing in a corner yelling “There is no damn elephant!” And then there still others who can see the elephant and are standing over it with knives in hand ready to butcher the pachyderm, hoping to dissect and parse its organs in order to discover how it ever came be in the first place.

The challenge for the AAR in the next 10 years is to find places for all three of these folks and maintain some sort of institutional identity that can hold them. Can it provide a space for the blind men to debate the nature of the elephant? Can it offer a podium and megaphone for those who want to deny the elephant of religion and claim the animals of ideology or culture as their species of study? Can it sharpen the tools and provide the laboratory for the dissection–after all an elephant requires a lot of space? We shall see. But in the next year, let’s just get a better hashtag.


The Metaphysics of the Internet; or Can Lydia Maria Child’s Ghost Read My Comment?

I’m in the midst of the metaphysical chunk of my dissertation. In these two chapters I examine how American writers in the middle of the nineteenth century looked to India for sources to build religious alternatives to orthodox Protestantism. Thoreau, Emerson, Blavatzky, all the usual suspects are there.

Today I’m working on the writings of Lydia Maria Child. I was trying to track down a copy of her essay from The Atlantic “Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions” and I found it here. It was odd to read an article from 1870 as a 21st century webpage complete with sidebar ads. Scrolling down the page, I was surprised to find a comment on the article from 8 months ago. User hans_hassler decided he must correct Child’s argument that there is a resemblance between Buddhism and Catholicism. It is the only comment hans_hassler has made on The Atlantic website.

This is a fascinating situation. I’m not sure what to make of it.

I like what Per D. Smith tweeted about it:

Maybe we all need mediums on retainer. There is an odd spiritualist feel to all of this. When 19th century spiritualists channeled the dead there was a moment of chronological discord. The past and present overlapped at the table. As I sit at my desk and stare at hans_hassler reprimanding Lydia Maria Child I get a small inkling of that desire for spirits, for knowledge, and for the bridge between past and present.

And I can’t help but wonder if she can read it.

UPDATE- Yoni Appelbaum makes a great point:


WaPo Column Ignores History, Colonialism, and the Problem of Religion

Savage Systems

The Washington Posts’ foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius has written a remarkably simplistic column based on the findings of the Pew Research Center. Here’s how it starts:

God had a good convention: The Almighty’s name was mentioned (albeit at the last minute) in the platform at the Democratic National Convention. And He was invoked no less than 12 times in the Republican platform, in case He is keeping score.

But the real news is that God is having a strong millennium, according to some fascinating poll results from the Pew Research Center. The data show that even as the developing world is getting more modern, it is also getting more religious, with especially sharp gains for both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa.

As Eion O’Mahony tweeted: “The use of the phrase “God is having a strong millennium” should be indication enough to stop reading.” Exactly. Ignatius assumes that if Christians and Muslims are gaining numbers then religion is growing. As Per Smith pointed out, Ignatius equates religion with the Abrahamic traditions. This gets particularly problematic in his discussion of what’s going on in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa is seeing one of the great religious booms in history, according to data in an April 2010 Pew study that drew on more than 25,000 interviews in 19 countries. The study found that, since 1900, the Muslim population has increased 20-fold, to 234 million. The growth of Christianity there has been even more spectacular, growing 70-fold to 470 million. People are passionate about their religion, either way, with nine in 10 saying it is very important in their lives.

Apparently there was no religion in Africa before Islam and Christianity showed up. I wonder why Christianity has grown so much in Africa since 1900? I wonder how it got there to begin with? Maybe the long history of European colonialism has something to do with it. Maybe this isn’t “a religious boom” but the results of a much earlier mercantile boom in which Christian Europe carved Sub-Saharan Africa into a RISK board.

Ignatius offers no explanation for this religious boom but it seems irresponsible and simplistic to ignore the role colonialism has played in shaping religious identity in Africa. Claiming that the rise of Christianity is a religious boom relegates all African religious practice before Christianity to some category outside of religion. It rehearses a history in which Africa is characterized by the absence of religion prior to European contact.

I don’t want to knock Ignatius around too much, but his column should serve as a reminder that the problems of defining and measuring religion are often ignored in the press. Now, I’ll leave it to David Chidester to make the final point about the relationship between the absence of religion and colonialism:

The discovery of that absence developed layers of strategic value in European encounters with others. Although the denial of religion carried a significance that varied according to he specific context in which it was issued, the assertion that people lacked a religion signified, in general terms, an intervention in local frontier conflicts over land, trade, labor, and political autonomy.

- David Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 14

[HT Kelly Baker for the link via Facebook]


James Freeman Clarke and the Post-Protestant Metaphysical Roots of Comparative Religion in America

Ten Great Religions

I came across this on page 1 of James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions (1871):

[The present work] is an attempt to compare the great religions of the world with each other. When completed, this comparison ought to show what each is, what it contains, wherein it resembles the others, wherein it differs from the others; its origin and development, its place in universal history; its positive and negative qualities, its truths and errors, and its influence, past, present, or future, on the welfare of mankind. For everything becomes more clear by comparison. We can never understand the nature of a phenomenon when we contemplate it by itself, as well as when we look at it in its relations to the phenomena of the same kind.

It is remarkable to me that I have rarely seen James Freeman Clarke mentioned in histories of comparative religion or religious studies. He gets three mentions in Eric Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History. Tomoko Masuzawa gives him two pages in her book The Invention of World Religions. But both Sharpe and Masuzawa put the American Clarke into a story that is mostly about European approaches to comparative religion. Clarke’s place as a Unitarian minister and his location within the history of liberal religion in America is neglected. Within American religious history, Clarke comes up in discussions of mysticism and Asian religions. Leigh Eric Schmidt highlights Clarke’s interest in universal mystical experience in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese briefly analyzes Clarke’s representation of Hindu religions in Ten Great Religions in her book A Republic of Mind and Spirit.  There are two Clarkes, the comparativist who imagines a universal religion based in Christianity and a metaphysical interested in the mystical East, depending on the history you are telling.

I am sympathetic with the story of Clarke as a metaphysical. I am approaching him in the same vein as Albanese. I have the benefit of a narrower project than hers that will allow me to really dig into Clarke’s representation of “Brahmanism.” Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is another story to tell about Clarke and other 19th century liberal (post)Protestants interested in world religions that unites the comparativist narrative with the metaphysical one. In the rush to throw off the bonds of comparative theology–indeed any kind of theology–I think the academic study of religion in America may have misplaced its history. Perhaps we owe more to Clarke than we do to Max Mueller.

 


On the Anniversary of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and Its Place in American Religious History

First Edition of 'Walden' from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

First Edition of ‘Walden’ from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library via the MARBL Facebook page.

Today marks the 158th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Right now I am knee deep in Transcendentalists, Thoreau included, as I wade through my chapter on Transcendentalist representations of Hinduism. The combination of today’s anniversary and my current writing work got me thinking about how Henry David Thoreau fits into American religious history.

Right now I’m working to put Thoreau into the proper place as one of America’s earliest Orientalists. Thoreau studied and appreciated Hindu religious texts, among other Asian traditions, and found them inspirational for his spiritual thought and literary prose. But he also took a view of “the East” and “the Orient” that imagined it as an essentially spiritual place. As New England industrialized around him, Thoreau looked to the Orient as a counterbalance–a place of spiritual contemplation and ancient truth to offset America’s material industry and progressive zeal. He hoped for a fusion of East and West in his writing, in his religious thought, and in America’s future. This hybrid vision emerges at the end of the chapter titled “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau observes ice harvesters taking ice from the pond that would be packed in sawdust and shipped from New England to India. This connection between cold New England and balmy Calcutta sparks a vision:

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

I want to put Thoreau up as one of the first American Orientalists, with all the baggage that comes with such a title, and analyze the politics and power relations at work in the Orient as he imagined it. But what is his larger place in American religious history? What is the place of Walden?For some Thoreau is the first American yogin. Though that really depends on what you mean by yoga and how much you take Thoreau’s claims at face value. In Restless Souls, Leigh Eric Schmidt argued that Thoreau is part of a tradition of solitude within American liberal religion. When he took to the woods “to live life deliberately” he took part in a larger Western tradition of hermitage and solitude that has continued in his wake–my colleague Brian Campbell is writing his dissertation on this hermitage tradition. Thoreau is also invoked in contemporary talk about “spirituality.” His iconoclasm and belief in individual and intuitive religious experience are often cited as the forerunner to the “spiritual but not religious” of today. Thoreau and Walden are also key to ideas about the relationship between religion and nature. Thoreau found his own sacred meaning in the landscapes around him, as the quote above highlights. These various examples show how Thoreau has become a multivalent icon of religious liberalism and individual spirituality. We’ve reached a point where his face can be deployed to demand you work for peace, disobey, or simplify. Thoreau’s meaning is as slippery as “spirituality.” His face is a blank slate on which we scrawl our own spiritual visions.

What do you see as the significance of Thoreau and Walden for American religious history?


Should we compare American Atheism and American Christianity?: An Impromptu Twitter Discussion

The following conversation emerged on Twitter between myself and Per D. Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Check out Per’s great stuff over at irritually. Per specializes in studying irreligion and so I sent him a link to a CNN article and, well, click on the storify link and you can see what ensued.

[View the story "Atheism, Humanism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Mainline" on Storify]

The question I’m left with is this: Is there a force within American society/culture that is shaping atheists and Christians in similar ways such that evangelicals look like New Atheists and old school humanists look like the mainline? What could it be? How could we find it? Is it the market? Politics? What?

What do yall think?


Transcendentalists and the Smoke Monster of Religion

I’ve made it to the Transcendentalists! The chapter on Unitarian and evangelical ideas about Hinduism is done and passed along to The Adviser. Now, I’m changing gears. The chapters I’ve written so far were exercises in uncovering. Only a couple previous studies had looked at the materials and so my basic work was to dig up representations and descriptions of Hinduism in sources and relate them to the larger context of American culture during the period. For example, only a couple of people have written about Rammohun Roy’s impact in the West and only Carl T. Jackson has really considered how he impacted America. So I had a lot of space to dive deep into the sources and make my arguments about the significance of Rammohun Roy for the history Hinduism in America and the history of American religious cultures.

But now I’m writing about Transcendentalists. There are a lot of books about Transcendentalists. I’ve also caught up with the narrative. Most histories of religion in America argue that the Transcendentalists were the first Americans to show interest in Asian religions–Arthur Christy’s The Orient in American Transcendentalism (1932) did the most to cement that claim. So, there’s a lot of secondary literature on Asian religions, and especially Hinduism, in Transcendentalist thought. That’s the list of call numbers I took with me to the library this week on the left. Now my challenge shifts. It’s not about digging up stuff no one’s found, it’s about finding a new angle on the stuff we already know about. I find this much harder and  much less exciting.

The question of how American’s construct the category “religion” has emerged as a consistent theme in the early chapters of this project and I think it might be my way to cut a path through the underbrush of the Transcendentalist rainforest. Most of the research on Asian religions and Transcendentalism take “religion” for granted. (BTW, there’s a whole discussion of when we should or should not take this term for granted in our writing. But that’s a whole different post.)  There are these religions in Asia and these folks in America “discover” these religions and somehow these religions influences their thinking and writing. But why did Thoreau or Emerson or Alcott recognize the Bhagavad Gita or the Laws of Menu as religious? I think John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, which I’ve started but not yet finished, will be helpful on this point. Secularism makes “religion” as a category possible. It sets the horizons for a “religion” that is a chosen, believed, and, most importantly, can be categorized, be borrowed from, and influence people. All talk of Asian religions “influencing” the Transcendentalists gives agency to religion. Religion does stuff. It’s a virus. Or maybe a smoke monster. The clearest expression of this is Lydia Maria Child’s Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive AgesCompare Child’s title with Hannah Adams’ A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Religion progresses for Child. It has movement. Adams’ certainly has a progressive view of religion in her dictionary, as I argue in my chapter about it. But that movement, that agency, is more pronounced by 1855 when Child writes. This thing, religion, that was invented in the 18th century has gotten more power, more agency–maybe?

So the challenge for me–my way toward a fresh take on Transcendentalism and Hinduism–is to trace the invention of religion as this viral, smoke monstery, agent through Transcendentalist encounters with Hindu religious culture. Now, let’s just hope no one in the stack of books beside me has done that already.


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