No Doubt

The mind inclined toward doubt is in for a rough ride in an evangelical childhood.  I recall vividly my many, many hours struggling against doubt, trying, crying, praying for certainty and faith.  Many, many dark nights of the soul.  Attending college and seminary I learned of the others in history who struggled the same way, or at least similarly.  I also learned that doubt is natural and healthy, it protects us from falling headlong into the many snares and traps the world continually sets for us.  Blind faith, as I recently quoted from Kurt Vonnegut, is dangerous to everyone.  I was thinking about this again the other day as there was something I fervently wanted to happen but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe would actually come to pass.  My mind isn’t built for blind faith.

Given that, it probably isn’t any surprise that I went into religious studies as a field, even though it’s a dead end.  I still believe it’s vitally important, but that’s a belief much of the world doesn’t share.  It’s one of the few fields of study where a doctorate leaves you without job prospects if you don’t get a teaching post, if you’re not ordained.  And should doubters be wearing clerical collars and preaching to those who want to believe?  Belief is malleable.  It changes over time and it does so via its constant interaction with doubt.  It leads to a life of second-guessing and constant reassessment.  I suppose that’s why I’m baffled to see politicians with less education being so cock-sure that they’re right about things.  I doubt they know what they’re talking about.

Institutions take on lives, like people do.  Although I disagree with the treatment of corporations as individuals by law, still, I understand the thinking behind it.  The church, for example, grew to be a very powerful force in the fourth-century Roman empire.  These collective individuals had vested interest in keeping that power as the church grew more and more influential.  That dynamic still exists where even a small, non-denominational group gathers and asserts that it alone is right.  All you have to do, it tells its members, is believe.  Don’t doubt.  And if you do doubt you’ll be excluded.  Exclusion is difficult to bear.  But even doubting Thomas has hundreds of churches named after him.  Each, no doubt, has many true believers as members.  And on the outside mingle the doubters.

Rel Stud 101

There’s no such thing.  Religious studies, that is.  I first heard this a decade ago while working as religious studies editor for Routledge.  My supervisor stared at me with such knowing eyes that all I could do was nod.  I figured that since I’d spent my entire career in religious studies I’d probably know if it existed or not.  I’ve heard the statement a number of times since then and have come to realize that what it means is this: unlike other academic disciplines, religious studies has no single, central topic of study and no agreed upon methodology.  It consists of scholars trained in a variety of fields looking at different aspects of religion from different perspectives.  There’s even little agreement as to what religion is.

Religious studies is an outgrowth of biblical studies.  Studying the Bible was a long preoccupation with Jews and Christians.  Long before there were universities there were places you could study the Good Book in depth.  When enough time had passed history of Christianity and theology were added to the mix.  It was only fairly recently, about the late nineteenth century, that scholars of Christianity began to wonder about other religions.  The earliest religious studies were Christians studying other faiths.  Now, of course, religious studies exists in a number of universities and colleges (but by no means all of them) and nobody really stops to think how this came to be.  Students are very interested in religions, but as a major it offers few career options (yours truly is a case in point).  It’s a discipline under duress.  Pretty stressful for something that just doesn’t exist, isn’t it?

My suspicion is that many who entered this limbo started out as I did—a curious Christian wanting to know as much as possible about what I’d been taught.  You learn to think along the way, with somewhat predictable results.  Sometimes it takes years to dawn on you.  In other words, I doubt that many entered this field consciously thinking “I want to learn religious studies as a discipline.”  Like a pitcher plant, however, once you fly in there’s no way out.  Instead we have to find tools to study this strange and slippery environment into which we’ve fallen.  Otherwise we’ll simply be digested.  I made it through three degree programs in this field without ever encountering this idea that apparently has been long known.  Numbers are declining, which makes those of us in here how long our odyssey might continue.  If it even exists.

Street Teaching

When I’m out on the street—not so often these days—I’m sometimes accosted with strange questions.  This has happened to me quite a few times over the years.  Recently, when I was taking the recycling out for my daughter on a weekend visit, I saw a couple guys in a car right by the receptacle.  I was wearing a mask, due to, you know,  Covid, so I wanted to keep social distance.  The one in the driver’s seat asked if I was going to dump the recycling and when I said I was his partner said “I’ll take care of that for you.”  They had a plastic bag full of cans and were loading glass bottles in their trunk.  I thanked them for their help and turned to go.  As I was walking away one of them called out.

“Hey!  Are you a teacher?”  I get asked that a lot.  Only the academy refuses to recognize it.  I acknowledged that I used to be.  “What level?” they asked.  I allowed as I used to be a college professor.  “Where?” I told them most recently at Rutgers.  “What’d you teach?”  This is where it always gets interesting and I start to sweat a little.  I told them religious studies.  I also said that’s why I couldn’t find a teaching job.  “The best information we ever had on religion came from a six-year old.  You know what the F in faith stands for?”  I shook my head.  “Forgiveness.  Without that the rest of religion means nothing.”  I told them I could accept that.

Then as I was turning to go they called out, “You know the acronym for Love?  Living our values every day.”  I told them they were now the teachers and I was the student.  They responded by telling me that they’d just sold a song they co-wrote for a million and a half dollars.  I expressed surprise at that.  They told me the title and said it was recording in Nashville this week.  I congratulated them and finally was able to be on my way.  This made me reflect on the several such strange conversations I’ve had on the street.  They often begin with “Are you” and not infrequently end with “a professor.”  This is usually followed up with some kind of intelligent question.  People, it seems to me, are eager to learn.  Maybe not in the classroom, but in what is referred to as the “university of life.”  Perhaps that’s all the schooling we ever really need.

Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

Dark Theology

I’ve been struggling for several years, I expect it’s no secret, with how horror and religion relate to one another.  Many think the task itself pointless, as if pop culture can simply be brushed off like an annoying bug.  But flies keep coming back.  They won’t be ignored.  Almost a decade ago I discovered Douglas E. Cowan was also walking this spooky path past the cemetery.  I also know that as an academic he must demonstrate his chops in technical projects.  America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King was extremely welcomed by me.  Like many people I’ve read some Stephen King.  Like Cowan, I’ve noticed how often and how deeply religion is entangled in his story-worlds.  Before King is simply dismissed, we must reckon with the fact that movies based on his novels and stories have a long  pedigree and almost canonical status.

This is not the place to analyze America’s Dark Theologian in depth, but it is a place that would highly recommend the book.  Cowan takes several aspects of King’s works and shows how they tie explicitly to traditional religious thinking and longing.  I haven’t read nearly all the books Cowan cites here, nevertheless, the analysis he offers is compelling.  Scholars of disciplines outside religious studies have tended to dismiss it as being moribund.  Cowan shows that those who make a living in pop culture disagree.  King makes no bones about the fact that he sees the application not only of religion, but also theology, as one of the driving forces for his fiction.  We dismiss such observations at our peril.  Think of you favorite King novel and ponder; is there religion there?

Clearly religion’s not always the cause, but Cowan gives a careful consideration to much of King’s oeuvre, and there’s no denying he’s onto something.  As he points out, King is far more interested in the questions than in the answers.  Those who know religious studies—theology, if you must—know that the same is true there.  I’ve studied religion my entire intellectual life.  One of the reasons students evaluated my teaching so positively, at least I hope, is that because I encouraged the questions and did not privilege the answers.  In this field, answers are merely speculations.  We only really fall into serious danger when we cease asking questions.  Cowan does an excellent job of parsing out some various pieces that will make some kind of basis for a systematic theology of Stephen King’s thought-worlds.  We would be wise, I believe, to pay attention.

Taking Turns

“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang.  “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon.  Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.”  The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained.  The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge.  It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning.  Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay.  At least until academia takes another turn.  Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say.  And academics are capital imitators.

Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies.  This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs.  Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way.  At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.”  The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in.  The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet.  There’s no need for any divine character or intervention.  There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.

I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn.  To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value.  I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we.  The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited.  We can’t touch naked reality even if we try.  Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling.  It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit.  Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn.  Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.

A New Look

I beg the indulgence of my regular readers as I post a public service entry today. As I noted a few weeks back, I have filled the allotted free space on WordPress. That meant I had to move to a paid plan and what with all the extra space in here I hired a professional web-designer to help me spruce the place up a bit. This note is to let you know that within the next 24 hours the appearance of this website will change dramatically. Don’t worry, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will still be part of it. I hope that, if you subscribe, you’ll be willing to move that subscription to the blog page because I’ll continue to use it. The new home page will allow me to attempt to bring my books to the attention of the world while continuing to do whatever it is I do on a daily basis here at the blog. Since you’ve been kind enough to read this far, I figured I could share a little of my thinking about the blog in an exercise in meta-narrative.

First of all, the title. Why do I call the blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World”? As much as I’d like to say it was an intentional quasi-anagram involving my initials and other key letters of my full name, that wasn’t actually it. This blog began as a summertime conversation with my extended family while on vacation. I hardly knew what a blog was then (and some would argue I clearly don’t know what one is even now!), but but brother-in-law suggested it as a place to do some podcasting. (I did, until I started working in New York City, which ate up virtually all of my free time during the week.) One of my nieces said “What would you call your blog?” Off the top of my head I said “Sects and Violence,” well, you know the rest. I originally had hopes that my career teaching ancient West Asian religions would continue some day. Indeed, I still post in that area, but my interests have shifted a bit since then. The main theme of the blog has remained religious studies, broadly conceived. I don’t limit myself to that, but I do use it as a personal pole-star.

Writing is its own reward. And besides, WordPress told me I’d run out of space. The next time you check in here, things will probably look a bit different. The blog will still be there, but there will be some other pages and features. Thanks for coming at least part way on the journey with me. And when I run out of space again, we’ll see where it goes from there.

Bible Belts

The Bible’s been back in the news. Specifically the Bible and politics. Like twins separated at birth. Jeff Mateer, Trump’s nominee for a federal judgeship, has gone on record saying Satan’s plan is working. Perhaps even more stridently, Roy Moore down in the Sweet Home state has been quite vocal that the Christian God is the one who makes America’s laws. Standing on “biblical principles” that have nothing to do with the actual Bible, politicians have found a biblically illiterate population a field of white-headed grain ready for the reaping. As sure as the sparks fly upward. The response in the educated class is predictable. Cut any funding for departments studying religion. Haven’t you heard? It’s dead!

Having grown up in a conservative, religious family, and working my way through a doctorate in a closely related field, I’ve been watching in dismay as the past quarter-century has been marked by decreasing positions in religious studies. If you can pull your eyes from the headlines surely you’ll agree that religion is something we just can’t afford to study. Wasting resources, it is, since if you teach economics you have an actual shot at the White House. Yee-haw! Pull out your six-shooter and celebrate! And no, “yee-haw” is not etymologically related to the name of the deity of ancient Israel. It’s only a matter of time before discovery of who’s been uncovering whom’s nakedness becomes public. Then you just need to say the Bible says nothing about divorce. It’s okay, nobody will bother to look it up. Intellectuals will scratch their heads—why didn’t somebody tell us religion actually motivated people?

Universities (consider the name!) used to be places where the value of all subjects was acknowledged. Of course, where there’s knowledge there’s money to be made. Once you’ve gone to the dark side, there’s no coming back. Departments that don’t earn mammon must go the way of the mammoth. Times have become so hard it’a almost like schools want to open Religion Departments just so they have something to shut down. We’ve got to keep those fields that are actually important going. Never mind if your funding depends on a government increasingly elected on the basis of perceived religious faith. Since the Prosperity Gospel is now in vogue, economic departments are always a safe investment. Slap a copy of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn and follow the crowds to DC. Good thing none of this matters, otherwise me might be in real trouble.

Last Rites

Last night at 9:40 p.m., my last class at Rutgers University ended. I began a teaching career in higher education back in 1992 when I was still younger than most of my students (that was in a seminary). Despite the difficulties of that setting, I had lowly dreams of a reasonable teaching post in a small college where good teaching was emphasized and serious research was allowed. It was never to be. Now, facing an exciting career move, it feels like a giddy run suddenly played out. The finish line crossed halfway through the race. Higher education simply never made room for the likes of me. Students have frequently commented on how they like my courses and find me a congenial instructor and wonder why no full-time positions ever emerged. My answer has always been that Religious Studies is the one field where religious discrimination is legal and regularly practiced. Denominational schools are permitted to hire on the basis of faith—I have been declined more than one position because I was not the right brand of religion. State schools are afraid of the field.

State universities, where I ultimately ended up, are very cagey about Religious Studies. I’ve known otherwise highly educated individuals who suppose that such departments are glorified Sunday Schools or Catechisms. They always seem surprised, when a religiously motivated person decides to become a mass murderer on the basis of conviction, that universities don’t know more about religions. It is, however, a dying field. Religion in America has been hijacked by the NeoCon camp. Over the years I’ve had mainstream Christian students explain to me why they are not really “Christian” since they assume that the title goes with conservative political and social values. To my humble eyes, it appears the battle may have been already lost. State schools fear interference with the establishment clause while NeoCons plow ahead to mandate a state church. It is the religious makeover of America.

I will miss teaching, but it has been a punishing career. My years at Nashotah House were filled with abusive situations and unrealistic expectations. Since then I have never had a full-time teaching post. In some cases I have spent more time driving to campus than I spent in the classroom. It is time to launch on a new career direction—even my previous editing experience was under the shadow of a conservative religious outlook. I have told many students over the years that teaching careers are not what they used to be. I have many horror stories to back me up. That doesn’t mean that a tear or two didn’t fall as I left my last classroom after nearly twenty years in the biz. It has been an education to me, and I hope a few students among the hundreds I’ve taught out there feel that it has been the same for them.



Religion has a bad name among many intellectuals. Hailing from the misty period of superstition in a “demon haunted world,” religion seems to be a quaint hold-over from less enlightened times. Academics, for whom respectability is everything, generally keep a decorous distance from religion as the intellectually suspect field indulged in by the weak-minded. Then something enormous happens; terrorists, fueled by religious fervor, decide to kill many innocent victims. Or a religious guru leads followers into the jungle where they all commit ritual suicide. Or a group of zealots purchase heavy armaments and stockpile them in a Texas hideout to await the Second Coming. The next autumn the university want ads are filled with openings for specialists in this or that religion. Until the next budget crunch comes along.

An unfortunate aspect of this situation is that many deans and administrators make the equation of the study of religion with the promotion of a religion. Why populate a university faculty with superstitious religious sorts when a good secular economist will bring in more practical, if less transcendent, rewards? How often do administrators survey their religious studies faculty to ensure that level-headed, academic treatment of the subject matter is offered? How can we expect to move ahead if those empowered to assure an educated student clientele continually apply the brakes in religious studies departments?

I am no economist. This much is evident by my pay scale. Nevertheless, each year when I return to the multiple campuses that are my temporary homes, I notice the details. New furniture in classrooms and libraries, freshly painted and redecorated facilities. Often, entirely new buildings that were not there the semester before. There was a day when such things were known as window-dressing. I attended Edinburgh University for my doctorate. There were campus buildings that dated from the late middle ages. Classrooms often had mismatched furniture and blackboards rather than fancy projectors and smart-ports. And the educational experience was authentic. The religion faculty was thriving and universally well regarded. I’m no economist, but with fundamentalists already holding a match to the fuse about to light up a Quran, I have a feeling already of what I’ll be seeing in the want ads of next year’s university hiring season.

The Hardest Job

Being a religionist is the world’s hardest job. That’s because you are trying to peddle something that everyone gets for free – their own religious opinion. No other professional field has such universal competition. From the time our parents mutter their first bedtime prayers to us, we begin to become masters of religion. With an entrenchment deeper than any wisdom tooth, we know, on a sub-atomic level, that we are right. We consult lawyers about the law and physicians about aches and pains, but on the level of religion, we already know we are right. We seek houses of worship that agree with our way of looking at things, and if the minister strays too far from our views, we go shopping again. Never try to make a career out of studying religion – it is a dead-end street.

I bristle whenever someone calls me a “theologian.” I am not. I have spent my life studying religion, sometimes participating in it, sometimes sitting back and watching it, but always analyzing it. Theologians deal with abstract concepts that can never be verified or falsified. The unquantifiable is their realm, and their rarefied debates seldom touch those of us of less exalted mental energy. And they are also never wrong. Those of us in religious studies watch how people’s religious outlooks impinge on the real world. Put your tin cup on the sidewalk in front of you. Everyone knows the answers already.

For some 25 years I have been specializing in religious studies, and I still assert that it is the most important, yet neglected academic field in the humanities. Twice I have been released from a living in the field by religious folk with less theological acumen than Cal Meacham. (If you don’t recognize the reference please educate yourself!) Not even eight years of a brutal Bush administration could convince university folk that the study of religion should be given priority. The most powerful nation on earth run by a recycled fundamentalist, and we don’t care to understand, thank you. Everyone is an expert. As we watch religious leaders of “foreign” nations posture with their weapons and rhetoric, we can sit back and be assured that even if they start a nuclear war, we were right about religion all along.

Better burn than learn

Better burn than learn