Saturday, April 10, 2010

Culture at work in religion

I'm a TA at University of Washington again this quarter. This is my second year teaching this series of classes, so I'm pretty familiar with the material, but they still manage to challenge my own thinking about life and issues I find important. I'm currently teaching a class in the International Studies department titled 'Intercultural Relations in an Interdependent World'. The premise of the course is to challenge students to understand their own cultural presuppositions and those of other cultures by learning social theories (a la Max Weber, and others) to interpret how cultures are built and reinforced.

An example: Max Weber. Weber says that systems of ideas (such as religion) have the power to shape other institutions, such as politics and economics, rather than, as Marx says, religion is used to *justify* societal institutions such as politics and economics. Basically, do we believe that ideas have power in and of themselves to make huge social shifts, or are ideas only used to back up our sociopolitical and socioeconomic needs? For anyone that is religious, spiritual, philosophical, mystical, you probably tend to believe that ideas have the power to shape institutions. But there are other groups that are a bit more cynical and believe that humans have base instincts toward power and survival that instruct their behavior, and ideas are used only to reinforce the systems that serve these power-seekers.

Being a student and TA, I go back and forth about what I believe. Having studied religion academically for 3 years, I'm now more skeptical about religion's pure motives. I see how religions change shape over space and time to adapt to local needs, to adapt to sociopolitical and economic realities, to adapt to emotional anxieties. But, after studying this so much, I've also come to believe that humans do more than just seek survival, that they can appreciate an idea for its own sake, can introduce a new idea when the old system has become defunct. So I see religions doing both things: justifying ideas for the sake of a political, economical or emotional need, and also introducing new ideas simply for the sake of changing the system for the better.

The most recent example I encountered was yesterday: Rene Girard, his theory of violence, and his conversion to Christianity. Girard says that humans desire what their enemy wants, then fight with him over it, leading to an unending cycle of violence that is interrupted only by a ritual sacrifice (scapegoat). When Girard started studying Christianity, he was an atheist. But after coming to the conclusion that the purpose of Christ's death was to teach his community that this cycle of violence and revenge was pointless, and that innocent scapegoats were often sacrificed, Girard decided to become a Christian. He was impressed by this idea that religion could teach men how to transcend their base instincts.

I'm also impressed by that idea. But the next question that comes to me is this: how can I practice a religion using these interpretations of its meanings, when so many in the same religion have different interpretations (i.e. Christ was a sacrifice for our sins--something I do not believe) that really turn me off? There are so few that practice faith in a way that I find inspiring, and even those who do often can slip into using it to justify or advance certain purposes. This is one of the many reasons I've backed off from any practice for the last few years. How do we have faith in a God beyond ourselves when all our rituals of worship struggle just to get past our own mundane needs and limitations?

I don't know the answer. I don't know how to have faith in so many things that used to inspire me (philanthropic orgs, religion, NGO's, environmental movements) when I can now see many of the motivations behind these movements as well as their downfalls. Aid to Haiti right now is a great example--there are those that argue that foreign aid is actually crippling to other countries because it props us corrupt governments and keeps these countries reliant on wealthier countries and their handouts. So then, what the heck do we do to help Haiti?

Even without answers, I think I'm past the worst of my cynicism. I'm coming into a place where I can have faith in ideas for their own sake, even given their limited ability to solve problems or given their potential for ulterior motives. Actually, reading Mark Helprin gives me faith in ideas and beauty for their own sake. If you've never read him, you need to. He writes about beauty in the midst of the most horrible, devastating situations, such as war, and he gives you hope that if not reason and order, then there is at least hope and beauty always around us, always possible. I'm going to keep reading Helprin, and keep believing in the possibility of Good.

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