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How To Ruin Religion

Yesterday bardcat posted an entry including a Newsweek article by Andrew Sullivan on "Crisis in Christianity."  The article seemed to have included these ideas.  Christians are "dumbing down" and dragging the intellectual climate of the country with them.  Spirituality and compassion are being pushed to the periphery of Christian concerns; and involvement in politics is making Christians more bigoted and defensive. 
Traveling on Grace Street... - The Great Light of the Morning

 am reading Karen Armstrong's book on Islam in which she seems to be making exactly those same points about Islam in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Perhaps i should not be trying to compare an agrarian society which is resisting modernization with a modern society which is resisting the coming of post-modernism.  The materialist in me insists that such different economies cannot be usefully compared.  However, it is tempting to look for similarities between the most powerful agrarian state and the most powerful modern state.

Both 18th century Ottomans and 21st century Americans inherited an excellent higher education system and both societies destroyed those systems in an attempt to make them more "efficient" and "relevant"  Islamic culture had produced the best education system the world had seen which emphasized literature, poetry, history, and  science along with the Quran and the Shariah.  Most of Islam had come to an acceptance of a highly spiritual, if not mystical, interpretation of Islam.  The Ottoman rulers totally shifted the emphasis away from the arts and sciences to law and the Quran plus martial arts for the Janesarries.  Today in the United States there is a similar emphasis on "practical" education.  A mere sixty years ago a college student would have to take half his or her credits in fields unrelated to the major and was encouraged to take mathematics, languages, logic, and courses in  scientific theory and methods.  Today one can get a "bachelor's degree" in Construction Management or Criminal Justice Administration by taking a minimal number of "distribution requirements."  The typical student in the 1960s wanted to learn for learning;s sake and develop a philosophy of life,  The typical student in the 1980s wanted to get a well paying job.  The dull, violent march toward domination turned off many subjects of the Ottoman Empire just as it is turning off many young people today.

Religion, which should at least throw some color on to that dullness has shrunk into a system of rules and defensive gestures both now and then.  Study of the Quran and the Sariah became more and more limited and traditional with less and less room for creativity and imagination.  The same is true today morality, ritual and defense against religion;s "enemies" are crowding out spirituality and compassion.

The Ottomans looked back at the flowering of Islamic culture as an evil time; that's how many of us look at the 1960s.  
Deprived of light and nourishment the Ottoman Empire eventually lost its will to live.  Will that also happen to us?


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 6th, 2012 08:51 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this insightful word. Gives me pause and time to think about history, where we are, where we are going. Thank you Bobby.
Apr. 6th, 2012 01:45 pm (UTC)
Apr. 6th, 2012 02:12 pm (UTC)
The march towards Gradgrindian attitudes is well established here, too.

It seems to go in cycles: The 40s in the UK saw the creation of a state school system to allow access to education for everyone, which tended to facts by rote until it was agreed that working class kids deserved "non-utilitarian" educations; the 50s saw innovation and the 60s the blossoming of an arts as vital enrichment and learning for its own sake attitude; the 80s saw the rise of neoliberalism, an awareness of the massive shift to working class empowerment, and the disparagement of education that allowed that...

It seems that whenever there's a shift towards rocking the pyramid of power, a point is reached where a liberal attitude to education is mercilessly mocked and disparaged on the grounds of "common sense".

However, I'm hopeful. There's a lot of activism out there. There is a generation of social activists using peer to peer networks, of youngsters expecting unlimited access to information, and a resurgence in the emphasis of interdisciplinary education for liberation by an increasingly vocal radicalised, broad church movement for greater equality.
Apr. 8th, 2012 08:17 am (UTC)
I think it was in John Shelby Spong's Why Christianity Must Change Or Die that he retorted to the charge that Christianity is in crisis that there has never been a moment in church history when Christianity has not been in crisis. His point was that there is always tension between statist complacency, radical intolerance based on an unwillingness to read the Bible in context, and a radical compassion found amongst those whose reverence for the Bible leads them to seek out the social, cultural and historical context of the Bible and their own assumptions. I found his position to be really hopeful. There's a tendency for us in each generation to look at some of the incredibly dysfunctional behaviour around us (and within us) and despair - and yet there is always hope, always a movement working away at bettering the situation for everyone. As Studs Terkel had it, hope dies last.
Apr. 8th, 2012 04:40 pm (UTC)
Ah, Studs Terkel and Shelby Spong. I could never argue with either of them. An intransigent Vatican or a stilted fundamentalism (or both) might represent the future of Christianity, but neither will prevent some people from being followers of Jesus, As for the United States, someday people will look for it on old maps and perhaps (like Poldonia or Kharasan) be unable to find it.

(Edit: I'm sorry, that's Podolia and Khurasan)

Edited at 2012-04-08 05:31 pm (UTC)
Apr. 9th, 2012 08:51 am (UTC)
Don't know if you're familiar with Hystery's journal, or a fan of Star Trek. She wrote what I think's a rather lovely little analogy of the Religious Society of Friends as members of the Enterprise, wherein commitment to the Prime Directive/the Light binds together the crew/Society. I like to think that the metaphor can be extended out to all persons of good will - and that the ripple effect will work its inevitable magic.
Apr. 9th, 2012 03:19 pm (UTC)
Not a Star Trek fan but i did watch the first season of the first incarnation, the original "Star Trek" I do remember that the "prime directive" was non-interference. This is a very good prime directive from a Taoist's or anthropologist's point of view. Also, by tracing the etymology of the word "friend" brainwashed Friends would be able to rediscover who they are.
Apr. 6th, 2012 11:39 pm (UTC)
You make me want to try Karen Armstrong again. :D
Apr. 8th, 2012 05:58 pm (UTC)
I have read three of her books: A History of God. The Battle for God, and (in progress) Islam: A Short History.
A History of God was a little disappointing (at least she did not call it The History of God) I hardly remember anything it. I think i might have benefited from her discussions of the differences between Orthodox and Roman Christianity. However when i gave my copy away, i almost immediately replaced it.

The Battle for God was about fundamentalism, a topic i had already familiarized myself with and taught a little. I read this book more critically and thought i found some holes in her discussion of Jewish and Protestant fundamentalisms. My copy is not heavily underlined nor notated which means the book did not engage me as much as i might have hoped.

I have almost finished Islam: A Short History, Short (187 pages) is the operative word here. Though probably more informed than most Christians, i was (and am still) pretty ignorant of Islam, and especially its history before and after the "Middle Ages." I think her main purpose was to present a positive image to non-Muslims and i feel that she accomplished that with a minimum of fudging -- but i am not a good judge of that (and neither are most Americans in my opinion). I have thoroughly enjoyed this book and may end up reviewing it in my journal, (I should add that her glossary of Arabic terms should have been at least doubled in size.)

Edited at 2012-04-08 06:02 pm (UTC)
Apr. 8th, 2012 07:48 pm (UTC)
I've read four of her books. I liked her memoirs best. Through a Narrow Gate very much, and its continuation, A Spiral Staircase less, and mixedly. I read A History of God and was really disappointed, and likewise with Buddha. Having come to the conclusion that her work is too light on scholarship for me, and overgeneralizes by my standards, I haven't read others. And, well, I liked her less after reading A Spiral Staircase.

But perhaps I'll try the Islam book. And looking up the proper titles of what I've read, I see that's she's written about the 14th century English mystics, and that looks worth a look.
Apr. 8th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC)
I also think I'll read The Battle for Christianity. I keep trying to get a feel for fundamentalism, though I don't seem to have a temperament for it.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )



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