Tag Archives: Religion and Culture

Yoga and the University

Not into Yoga

Not into Yoga (Photo: Ottawa Magazine)

Earlier this month, controversy broke out when a Canadian university canceled a beginners’ yoga class it had offered for years. The reason for the class cancellation at the University of Ottawa is a bit murky, but a student government representative evidently told the instructor that the class showed insufficient sensitivity to foreign cultures. Yoga, after all, comes from India—a country, the concerned student explained, that had suffered oppression and “cultural genocide” as a result of “colonialism and Western supremacy.” The yoga class could be perceived as a slight to Canadians of Indian ancestry and to Indian civilization, and had best be shut down.

Many conservative commentators expressed disbelief. Here’s another example, they complained, of political correctness gone crazy. What could possibly be wrong with a yoga class? It’s just stretching. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual about appropriating positive aspects of other cultures. Aren’t we all supposed to be multiculturalists now? A yoga class is a tribute to Indian culture. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Etc.

We have seen a number of silly episodes on college campuses this fall, and I appreciate that people have grown exasperated. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this case, it seems to me, the students who object to the University of Ottawa’s yoga class have a point – though perhaps not the one they think.

The problem is not that a yoga class wrongly appropriates a foreign culture. As critics of the university’s decision rightly point out, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in that. And there’s no indication that the teacher or students in this particular class did anything to mock Indian culture. I imagine most of the students didn’t think about yoga’s cultural roots at all. Probably some of them assumed yoga was a Western invention. American tourists in Italy frequently tell Italians that we invented pizza.

The problem is that yoga, in its essence, is a religious exercise. (In America, in fact, some groups have objected to public school yoga classes as violations of the Establishment Clause). For pious Hindus, yoga is not simply mindful stretching, but a form of worship, as much so as Christian prayer. It’s understandable, then, that many Hindus find it deeply offensive to treat yoga merely as part of a good exercise regime. Indeed, an organization called the Hindu American Foundation has started a campaign, “Take Back Yoga,” which seeks to end the commercialization of yoga and restore the tradition “as a lifelong practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.” Think of it as akin to keeping Christ in Christmas.

Of course, the fact that Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice doesn’t mean that others must do so as well. In a pluralistic society, believers must learn to tolerate many things. Perhaps a Hindu has no more right to object to secular yoga classes than a Christian has to object to SantaCon. (Word to the wise: avoid New York City bars on December 12). To each his own. Still, to my mind, there is something very admirable about fighting to preserve an ancient religious tradition from commercialization, misappropriation and dilution – something very conservative, in fact. Maybe the University of Ottawa should just offer a calisthenics class.

“Religious Responses to Violence” (ed. Wilde)

In December, the University of Notre Dame Press will release “Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present,” edited by Alexander Wilde (American University).  The publisher’s description follows:

During the past half century, Latin America has evolved from a region of political instability and frequent dictatorships into one of electedp03204 governments. Although its societies and economies have undergone sweeping changes, high levels of violence have remained a persistent problem. Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present offers rich resources to understand how religion has perceived and addressed different forms of violence, from the political and state violence of the 1970s and 1980s to the drug traffickers and youth gangs of today. The contributors offer many fresh insights into contemporary criminal violence and reconsider past interpretations of political violence, liberation theology, and human rights in light of new questions and evidence.

In contrast to many other studies of violence, this book explores its moral dimensions—up close in lived experience—and the real consequences of human agency. Alexander Wilde provides a thoughtful substantive introduction, followed by thematic chapters on “rights,” “violence,” and case studies of ten countries throughout the region. The book breaks new ground examining common responses as well as differences between Catholic and Evangelical pastoral accompaniment. These new studies focus on the specifically religious character of their responses—how they relate their mission and faith to violence in different contexts—to better understand how and why they have taken action.

“Reimagining the Sacred” (Kearney & Zimmermann, eds.)

Next month, Columbia University Press will release “Reimagining the Sacred” edited by Richard Kearney (Boston College) and Jens Zimmermann (Trinity Western University). The publisher’s description follows:

Contemporary conversations about religion and culture are framed by two reductive definitions of secularity. In one, multiple faiths and nonfaiths coexist free from a dominant belief in God. In the other, we deny the sacred altogether and exclude religion from rational thought and behavior. But is there a third way for those who wish to rediscover the sacred in a skeptical society? What kind of faith, if any, can be proclaimed after the ravages of the Holocaust and the many religion-based terrors since?

Richard Kearney explores these questions with a host of philosophers known for their inclusive, forward-thinking work on the intersection of secularism, politics, and religion. An interreligious dialogue that refuses to paper over religious difference, these conversations locate the sacred within secular society and affirm a positive role for religion in human reflection and action. Drawing on his own philosophical formulations, literary analysis, and personal interreligious experiences, Kearney develops through these engagements a basic gesture of hospitality for approaching the question of God. His work facilitates a fresh encounter with our best-known voices in continental philosophy and their views on issues of importance to all spiritually minded individuals and skeptics: how to reconcile God’s goodness with human evil, how to believe in both God and natural science, how to talk about God without indulging in fundamentalist rhetoric, and how to balance God’s sovereignty with God’s love.

Shavit, “Shari’a and Muslim Minorities”

This month, Oxford University Press will release “Shari’a and Muslim Minorities: The Wasati and Salafi Approaches to Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat al-Muslima” by Uriya Shavit (Tel Aviv University). The publisher’s description follows:

Based on a comparative analysis of several hundred religio-juristic treatises and fatwas (religious decisions), Shari’a and Muslim Minorities: The Wasati and Salafi Approaches to Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat al-Muslima offers the most systematic and comprehensive study to date of fiqh al aqalliyyat al-Muslima – the field in Islamic jurisprudence that treats issues that are unique to Muslims living in majority non-Muslim societies. The book argues that two main contesting approaches to fiqh al-aqalliyyat al-Muslima, the wasati and the salafi, have developed, in part dialectically. While both envision a future Islamizing of the West as a main justification for Muslim residence in the West, the wasati approach is pragmatic, facilitating, and integration-minded, whereas the salafi calls for strict application of religious norms and for introversion.

The volume examines diverse and highly-debated juristic issues, including the permissibility of naturalizing in non-Muslim states, participating in their electoral systems and serving in their militaries and police forces; the permissibility of taking mortgages and student loans; the permissibility of congratulating Christians on Christmas or receiving Christmas bonuses; and the permissibility of working in professions that involve breaching of religio-legal prohibitions (e.g. serving pork). Discussions highlight the diversity within contemporary Islamic jurisprudence and introduce new nuances to highly-charged concepts such as proselytizing, integration, and multiculturalism.

“Teaching Civic Engagement” (Clingerman & Locklin, eds.)

In December, the Oxford University Press will release “Teaching Civic Engagement,” edited by Forrest Clingerman (Ohio Northern University) and Reid B. Locklin (St. Michael’s College and University of Toronto).  The publisher’s description follows:

Using a new model focused on four core capacities-intellectual complexity, social location, empathetic accountability, and motivated action–Teaching Civic Engagement explores the significance of religious studies in fostering a vibrant, just, and democratic civic order.

In the first section of the book, contributors detail this theoretical model and offer an initial application to the sources and methods that already define much teaching in the disciplines of religious studies and theology. A second section offers chapters focused on specific strategies for teaching civic engagement in religion classrooms, including traditional textual studies, reflective writing, community-based learning, field trips, media analysis, ethnographic methods, direct community engagement and a reflective practice of “ascetic withdrawal.” The final section of the volume explores theoretical issues, including the delimitation of the “civic” as a category, connections between local and global in the civic project, the question of political advocacy in the classroom, and the role of normative commitments.

Collectively these chapters illustrate the real possibility of connecting the scholarly study of religion with the societies in which we, our students, and our institutions exist. The contributing authors model new ways of engaging questions of civic belonging and social activism in the religion classroom, belying the stereotype of the ivory tower intellectual.

“God and the EU” (Chaplin & Wilton, eds.)

In January, Routledge will release “God and the EU: Faith in the European Project,” edited by Jonathan Chaplin (Cambridge University) and Gary Wilton (Wilton Park-Executive Agency of FCO).  The publisher’s description follows:

The current political, economic and financial crises facing the EU reveal a deeper cultural, indeed spiritual, malaise – a crisis in ‘the soul of Europe’. Many observers are concluding that the EU cannot be restored to health without a new appreciation of the contribution of religion to its past and future, and especially that of its hugely important but widely neglected Christian heritage, which is alive today even amidst advancing European secularization.

God and the EU offers a fresh, constructive and critical understanding of Christian contributions to the origin and development of the EU from a variety of theological, national and political perspectives. It explains the Christian origins of the EU; documents the various ways in which it has been both affirmed and critiqued from diverse theological perspectives; offers expert, theologically-informed assessments of four illustrative policy areas of the EU (religion, finance, environment, science); and also reports on the place of religion in the EU, including how religious freedom is framed and how contemporary religious actors relate to EU institutions and vice versa.

This book fills a major gap in the current debate about the future of the European project and will be of interest to students and scholars of religion, politics and European studies.

Moussa, “Politics of the Islamic Tradition”

In October, Routledge released “Politics of the Islamic Tradition: The Thought of Muhammad Al-Ghazali,” by Mohammed Moussa (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies).  The publisher’s description follows:

Over the last two centuries the Muslim world has undergone dramatic transformations, impacting the Islamic tradition and throwing into question our understanding of tradition. The notion of tradition as an unmoving edifice is contradicted by the very process of its transmission, and the complex role human beings play in creating and sustaining traditions is evident in the indigenous mechanisms of change within the Islamic tradition.

Politics of the Islamic Tradition locates the work of Egyptian cleric Muhammad al-Ghazali within the context of this dynamic Islamic tradition, with special focus on his political thought. Al-Ghazali inherited a vast and diverse heritage which he managed to reinterpret in a changing world. An innovative exploration of the change and continuity present within Muslim discourses, this book brings together disparate threads of the Islamic tradition, religious exegesis, the contemporary Arab Middle East, the Islamic state and idea of renewal in al-Ghazali’s thought. As well as being one of the first complete treatments of al-Ghazali’s works, this book provides an original critical approach to tradition and its capability for innovation and change, countering the dichotomy between tradition and modernity that typically informs most scholarly studies on contemporary Islam.

Offering highly original insights into Islamic thought and engaging with critical notions of tradition, this book is essential reading for students and scholars of Islamic Politics and History.

Adida, Laitin, & Valfort, “Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies”

In January, the Harvard University Press will release “Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies,” by Claire L. Adida (University of California, San Diego), David D. Laitin (Stanford University), and Marie-Anne Valfort (Paris School of Economics and Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne).  The publisher’s description follows:

Amid mounting fears of violent Islamic extremism, many Europeans ask whether Muslim immigrants can integrate into historically Christian countries. In a groundbreaking ethnographic investigation of France’s Muslim migrant population, Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies explores this complex question. The authors conclude that both Muslim and non-Muslim French must share responsibility for the slow progress of Muslim integration.

Claire Adida, David Laitin, and Marie-Anne Valfort found that in France, Muslims are widely perceived as threatening, based in large part on cultural differences between Muslim and rooted French that feed both rational and irrational Islamophobia. Relying on a unique methodology to isolate the religious component of discrimination, the authors identify a discriminatory equilibrium in which both Muslim immigrants and native French act negatively toward one another in a self-perpetuating, vicious circle.

Disentangling the rational and irrational threads of Islamophobia is essential if Europe hopes to repair a social fabric that has frayed around the issue of Muslim immigration. Muslim immigrants must address their own responsibility for the failures of integration, and Europeans must acknowledge the anti-Islam sentiments at the root of their antagonism. The authors outline public policy solutions aimed at promoting religious diversity in fair-minded host societies.

“The Rise of Corporate Religious Liberty” (eds. Schwartzman, Flanders, & Robinson)

In December, the Oxford University Press will release “The Rise of Corporate Religious Liberty,” edited by Micah Schwartzman (University of Virginia School of Law), Chad Flanders (St. Louis University School of Law), and Zoë Robinson (DePaul University College of Law).  The publisher’s description follows:

What are the rights of religious institutions? Should those rights extend to for-profit corporations? Houses of worship have claimed they should be free from anti-discrimination laws in hiring and firing ministers and other employees. Faith-based institutions, including hospitals and universities, have sought exemptions from requirements to provide contraception. Now, in a surprising development, large for-profit corporations have succeeded in asserting rights to religious free exercise. The Rise of Corporate Religious Liberty explores this “corporate” turn in law and religion. Drawing on a broad range perspectives, this book examines the idea of “freedom of the church,” the rights of for-profit corporations, and the implications of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby for debates on anti-discrimination law, same-sex marriage, health care, and religious freedom.

Holidays of Forgetting

Halloween-Hero-1-AThis article is another installment in the ongoing holidays wars. As I have previously noted, how and what we celebrate has reached a tipping point, due to two competing and perhaps ultimately irreconcilable trends. Our calendar, which marks out sacred space as “holidays,” either civil or in recognition of some religious tradition, is being pummeled between secularization on the one hand, but also a blossoming pluralism on the other.

There are still the annual Christmas wars, where fidgety towns debate how many reindeer can neutralize a crèche, or where to place the menorah in relation to the Christmas tree. The Supreme Court jurisprudence on this point is a hopeless morass, and so many places have tried simply to ignore it, one town famously referring to this time of year as “the sparkly season.”

The Christmas wars were largely a debate between those who think the Constitution enacts some impenetrable boundary between religion and government, and those who did not. Most of the former were generally, but not always, antipathetic specifically to the background Christian culture of the United States. To impose a secularist view would by definition, make the culture less Christian and also less religious. But the more current controversies are adding a new wrinkle.

The underlying theory of the Connecticut schools profiled in the article seems to be that one cannot publicly observe a holiday where some people feel “excluded” or “offended.” Such a position runs against the equally strong current in public schools of multiculturalism. Even if some people don’t like Halloween, shouldn’t the traditions of all people be reflected and invited to understand those holidays? On the other hand, some evangelical Christians also do not like Halloween, so it is easy to understand a decision to ban the holiday by your average school administrator.

Other school systems are taking exactly the opposite tack , and designating more holidays, across a number of traditions, such as Muslim holidays and the Chinese New Year, to accommodate the various traditions present. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is of course, to have no holidays at all, except perhaps secular ones (though some, like Columbus Day are also under attack).

As Paul Connerton writes in his book, How Societies Remember, holidays and the rites associated with them, “have as one of their defining features the explicit claim to” commemorate continuity with the past. It makes a difference therefore whether Halloween is meant to claim continuity with some pagan past, real or imagined, or whether it looks forward to All Saints’ Day. But the real trouble Halloween, as well as other holidays, may have is that it is emptied of memory. In a secular culture, such holidays express nothing but themselves and the passing moment. And that ritualized forgetting may be the real lasting danger to how we celebrate.