I was a teen-age religion major. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I did start college at 19 and, being a first generation matriculant, had no idea about majors. No idea about colleges either. The school you choose stays with you for your life—especially if you decide to go into academia. A couple of recent events brought this home to me again. Grove City College is stridently conservative. Since I was raised Republican, it felt like a good fit at the time. It was cheap and close to home, and since my parental contribution was a total sum of zero, both of these factors counted heavily. Overlooked by many a hiring committee, it was also academically rigorous at the time. For better or worse, it’s now on my permanent record. Enough ancient history.
Recently a colleague asked me about an author, noting his undergraduate degree was from a school not unlike Grove City. I saw myself from the outside (yet again). Conservatism can be a lifestyle choice. My fellow religion-major grovers mostly went on to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary or other bastions of further conservative thought. Their minds were already made up. In their early twenties, no less. I headed to Boston University, at the time the most liberal of the United Methodist seminaries, by reputation. But still my record says “Grove City.” My academic writings should leave no doubt as to my scholarly outlook (most of these papers are available on Academia.edu), but there is always a shadow of suspicion over a former grover. You can’t change your alma mater, no matter what the next decision you make says about you.
Then I came across a recent writing sample from one of my Grove City professors who’s still on the faculty. This piece showed that as this faculty member was in the early eighties, so he is still today. Biblical literalism all the way down. With over three-and-a-half decades to read, that’s incredible to me. I guess I just don’t share the kind of arrogance that declares you got it right the first time and that everything you read confirms a literal Adam and Eve. And a snake and a tree. What am I to think when I see a conservative undergraduate school on someone’s academic record? I would hope that I would know to look at the next step to see what that reveals. I am a grover, but a bad grover, I guess. You have to know how to read a permanent record.
Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia
A lesson quickly learned in New Jersey is that the state has housed its fair share of geniuses and that inspiration takes many different forms. From Albert Einstein to Thomas Edison, these thinkers have changed the complexion of not only the state and country, but also of the entire world. While on a visit to Edison’s final factory and laboratory in West Orange yesterday, his devotion to thinking could not be overlooked. With little formal education, Thomas Edison taught himself what was necessary to become one of the most prolific inventors in the history of the world. The key to what he believed to be purpose of human existence is, sadly, under fire from politicians who’d rather keep the populace in the dark while they (the politicians) make the important decisions. “The man who doesn’t make up his mind to cultivate the habit of thinking misses the greatest pleasure in life.” So Edison said. Bully governors would rather turn out the lights.
As politics and conservative Christianity become even more intimate – if that is even possible – those who do not share their views are considered dangerous outsiders. As a religion specialist, it is difficult to gauge how sincerely such politicians take their religion. As their lifestyles clearly indicate, what they practice is as far from what they preach as the east is far from the west. Manipulating sincere, if misguided, believers into marks that will propel them into seats of power, they talk the talk. “Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction – faith in fiction is a damnable false hope.” So said Edison.
If we measure the religion of the Religious Right in terms of action, it clear that their principles have far less to do with what Jesus said and did than with securing personal gain. Women are placed in subordinate positions; the poor, minorities, those who work to keep the economy afloat while the wealthy suck in more than they could possibly use, these people become targets rather than neighbors. Roman emperors knew the society was dissatisfied and provided bread and circuses. The Religious Right is perfectly capable of learning the more insidious lessons of history. If they had been around in Edison’s lifetime, no doubt they would have tried to turn off the lights so that we’d all remain in the dark. In such a situation it might be wise to leave the final words to Edison: “Religion is all bunk.”
Hanging on my refrigerator door is a quote attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha): “Do not put your faith in traditions only because they have been honored my many generations.” Not being a Buddhist scholar, I am not sure if the words originated with Siddhartha Gautama or not. Whatever their origin, however, these words are worth serious consideration. Do we believe what we do simply because of its age? Are older ideas more difficult to dismiss than more recent ones?
During a recent conversation I was interested to hear a member of the clergy say, “We need to move away from thinking of new religions as cults.” That was like a slap from the Buddha — the proverbial sound of one hand slapping. Do members of an ancient religion feel a kind of entitlement to the status earned with the inexorable passing of time? The idea goes back at least to the Romans. Wanting to stop the endless splintering of religions into new sects and potentially divisive rivals, they tended only to allow outside religions within their empire if they could demonstrate a remote antiquity (Judaism was the textbook example). Age of religion constitutes a kind of seniority; who hasn’t had a run-in with a Roman Catholic who believes their form of Christianity trumps all others on the basis of a supposed apostolic antiquity? If it has survived that long, there must be something to it — right?
I wonder if such a criterion is sound for systems of belief. We readily accept change in perspective in most other aspects of our lives. Religion is where many people draw the line. One of the funny scenes in Religulous is where the imam, in traditional garb, receives a text message on his cell phone in the middle of his interview with Bill Maher. The problem with allowing change in most aspects of life and thinking, but not one fundamental area, should become immediately apparent. Unless religion can be severely circumscribed and kept apart from all other facets of life, it has to fit into an entire system of thought. If one region of thought stops at the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze, or Iron Age without being reinforced by the other areas of human thought and experience that have transpired since then, can the system survive? I’m not suggesting that religions should be rejected because of age, but that they should be allowed to grow up. If that were to happen I would happily remove the Buddhist quote from my refrigerator door.