All the Tea

I’ve been reading a lot about China lately.  Political scientists have been interested in its economic growth for some time and it has rivaled the GDP of the United States in such a way that it’s an open question as to which is the larger.  With so many things to keep track of in daily life, I’m loathe to add poli sci to the list, but I’ve always found history fascinating.  China has long been the target of Christian missionaries.  Finding a culture that had developed quite differently, in some sense socially distant, they were anxious to make them in their own image.  China had its own religious heritage of folk traditions, Confucian beliefs, and Taoism (as well as Buddhism and Islam), and Christianity’s claim of being the only true religion caused considerable social turmoil.  One such event was the Taiping Rebellion in the nineteenth century.

Image credit: Wu Youru, via Wikimedia Commons

A complaint of evangelical pastors, even in the United States, after Billy Graham had come through town was that local people, all riled up on revivalism, had unrealistic expectations for what their local churches could do.  Viewing this from a different angle, the issue was that one outlook on Scripture could lead to consequences that others didn’t understand.  The same thing applies to Taiping.  Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, had read his Bible (the activity encouraged by missionaries) and became convinced he was the brother of Jesus Christ.  He set about trying to establish what is called the Heavenly Kingdom.  This clashed with the government of China during the Qing Dynasty.  Eventually foreign powers even got involved.  The end result was between ten and thirty million deaths.  That’s right, ten to thirty million.

Religious ideas are powerful.  This is one reason that repressive governments often try to outlaw religions.  Other governments (including some not too far from here) use religions for political ends.  True believers are great followers.  I first learned about the Taiping Rebellion only relatively recently.  I’ve been reading snippets about China for several years now.  Its economic power may well be greater than that of the country in which I grew up.  Perspectives are shifting.  Vast numbers of people die because of religious conflicts.  If you’re one of them the real tragedy is that, in Stalinistic terms, you become simply a statistic.  There’s a reason authoritarian governments try to keep the opium from the hands of the people.  I’m no political scientist, but history reveals much about religion and its discontents.

Spirituality Sampler

ManSeeksGodSometimes you read a book and wonder if somehow the author got into your head and fished around for material. Although I’m not Jewish, at least not that I know of, I found Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine to be uncannily familiar at points. Not that I’ve ever been a journalist, nor have I had more than a few hundred people read anything I’ve written, but somehow I just couldn’t shake the underlying connectivity. For those of you unfortunate enough not to have read it, Man Seeks God is Weiner’s spiritual journey through various religions, seeking his God. Born culturally Jewish, Weiner never really resonated with the religious aspect until the last chapter of the book. In between, however, he shows a true pioneer spirit and tries diverse faiths, some of which are not for the fainthearted. As fits the postmodern period, he’s an authentic, intentional spiritual shopper. And he provides many laughs along the way.

Such a book must be difficult to write. There’s a lot of baring of the soul, and even a little baring of the body, at times. Weiner begins with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Yes, it’s based on love. He then travels to Nepal to pursue Buddhist meditation, followed by a stint with the Franciscans in the Bronx. The only one of the “big five” he doesn’t sample is Hinduism. That might have thrown a speed-bump into his ending, though, to be fair. He makes no claims of comprehensiveness. At this point the story takes a turn toward decidedly exotic selections in the cafe of spirituality. I couldn’t read his account of the Raëlians without snorting aloud once or twice on the bus. Taoism takes Weiner to China and into a distinctly more philosophical frame of mind. He explores Wicca and Shamanism, which may be more closely related than he supposes, before coming home to Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism.

Spiritual seeking is as mandatory as breathing for some people. Eric Weiner is one of those teetering on the edge of active exploration and the ability to shut out the questions, if only temporarily. Reading his confessions, it’s clear that he’s a rational, intelligent man. He made it through decades without really feeling the need for religion. When the ineffable pressed itself onto him, however, he turned to the mystical traditions. I was warned, in conservative Grove City College’s religion department, to be very careful of mysticism. The professor was dry-eyed serious as he said that seeking direct experience of God would generally lead to heresy. So there it was, in plain sight. Doctrine has precedence over the truth. Long ago someone smarter than us figured it all out. Our job? Just follow their path. I have a feeling that Weiner, having had some unexplained experiences of his own, might disagree. Sometimes you have to take out a personal ad in the spiritual scandal-sheets to get an idea what the divine really is.

Beyond Measure

Thinking back to my first course in World Religions, I recollect learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism for the first time. It is likely that Taoism was also mentioned, but I had to do a ton of research before I taught the course for the first time at Oshkosh. I remembered learning nothing about Sikhism or Shinto, not to mention Jainism or any host of religions boasting smaller numbers, by gosh. Now that I’m in the business of commissioning books on world religions, I have come into a quandary. As I know from experience, those who teach world religions are faced with a classic case of TMI: too much information. These religions I’ve mentioned only begin to scratch the vast surface of human religious expression, while your typical semester is only 14 weeks in duration. How do we cover all the smaller religions, some of which may have even a million or more adherents, and may be, at times, geared toward violent behavior? There’s simply no way.

This is where the quagmire grows thickest—are “major religions” quantified by numbers alone? From comments of readers of this blog it is quite clear that Christianity is no uniform religion. The differences go deeper than Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox. Most of us follow rather idiosyncratic blends of various religions we’ve experienced. It is not unusual for a Christian to practice yoga or to engage in meditation. And there are thousands of smaller religions as well, and the beliefs are deeply embedded in the lives of those who hold them. A good example would be Native American religions. There isn’t just one. Various tribes held their own beliefs and yet try to find a textbook that covers the differences between them. (Ah, but publishers are bound by the need to sell many copies to make such books profitable, and what professor is going to have the time to parse out different belief systems of these small, sometimes powerless groups?)

It is the curse of categorization. In our free market economy bigger is always better. Religions, on the other hand, do not always concern themselves with winning the most tricks. The Zoroastrians, who gave us the concepts of Heaven and Hell and much else that became standard theology in the monotheistic religions, continue to exist. In small numbers. So small that, as a religion major, I didn’t really learn about them until I began teaching classes exploring the origins of our modern religious concepts. When the modern eye assesses the importance of something, it does so by crunching the numbers. Religions have been our human means of seeking the truth since civilization began, perhaps even before. Often numbers and truth just don’t align.