Archive for the 'religion' Category

“We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

I admire Obama’s speech in Cairo yesterday. The quote above was one of my favorite moments, though not the most important in the speech by any means. His gestures toward cooperation, mutual understanding and respect and his ability to speak to his audience, using terms of importance to them and addressing issues of importance to them were most impressive.

Sticking points are still there for me: The distinction between wars of choice (Iraq) and of necessity (Afghanistan) is facile. All wars are wars of choice. And his statements on nuclear weapons are all hard to swallow given the overwhelming size of our arsenal. The analogue to his statement “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other” doesn’t hold for our nuclear policy – we seek precisely to impose on others a vision of how that technology is used that the US will likely be the last to embrace.

For better commentary than mine, however, see Andrew Sullivan’s response, David Brooks, and as usual, useful reports from the News Hour with some American and world Muslim reaction.

I can’t help but notice, however, a major player in Obama’s speech:

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradiction between development and tradition.

Progress is invoked throughout the speech — Obama’s faith in progress seems paired to his faith that mutual understanding leads to a better world. Progress, though, is defined vaguely or not at all. What happens when Obama confidently asserts this idea? Is it clear at all that there is no contradiction between development and tradition?  He supplies examples of Japan and South Korea, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai – but aren’t these mostly shining examples of a combination between development and tradition precisely because tradition has not, in these places, strongly put the question to fast-paced economic development and acquisitiveness? I think he vastly oversimplifies.

I need to find out more about how American law makes it hard for Muslims to practice zakat, but might this stand as an example of how American-style progress and tradition have been incompatible?

If there’s hope to negotiate well between tradition and progress there must be dialogue on the substance of ‘progress’ and any faith placed in it.  This seems to happen somewhat in Obama’s treatment of equality for women in the speech. To advocate at once an unconditional promotion of education and to recognize that a woman’s choice to cover her hair need make her in no sense less equal shows a hint of a dialogue between traditions on what sorts of progress are really good. Exposing the American faith in ‘progress’ to the critique of Islamic traditions would be a really good thing and would give hope for a cooperative and peaceful future even better that an undefined hope in this ideal.

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Questions for community

A recent exchange with roses brought the idea of this post to my mind.  In our exchange, roses raised the idea of the faith community. In part of my response I asked some questions about this community. I’m interested in fleshing these out as an item of independent interest to me, only peripherally related to the other discussion. (Roses originally meant something more like the idea of faith, and here I’m riffing on something that came up in our dialogue, not ripping her position.)

I want to propose a set of questions that any community should be able to answer. I poked around for resources on a theory of community, and found only this, so if anyone knows of a better resource let me know. (Alasdair MacIntyre‘s After Virtue is in the queue, and will hopefully soon make an appearance in some posts. In the meantime, let me just say that I know I’m woefully uninformed.)

I take it as axiomatic that any notion of community involves boundary, a sense of who’s in and who’s not, and that this need not be hostilely exclusive, but is necessary for a community’s self-definition to be coherent and not vacuous. (So “I am a citizen, not of Athens, nor of Greece, but of the whole world” is incorrect if Socrates wants citizenship to reference involvement in a community.)

Finally, since terminology like ‘the faith community’ or ‘the math community’ is pretty well established and yet not what I want to describe, let’s do what we do in math when the terminology well runs dry and coin ‘strong community’ or, better, ‘community in the strong sense.’

Any community in the strong sense should be able to positively and substantively answer the following questions:

  1. How is community membership defined? What defines the community’s shared identity?
  2. How and where are social networks between members created and used? (Here we need real interaction, preferably but not exclusively physical, face-to-face interaction.)
  3. What commitments are expected of community members? More particularly, what responsibilities to they have to one another? (Real, meaningful mutual obligation is necessary for community in the strong sense.)
  4. What behavioral norms are expected of the members?
  5. What symbols, rituals, habits or language characterize the community?

Lest it seem like I’m cooking these up to end up with church as the only community in the strong sense, take as examples some subsets of the math community: the community as a whole, the dynamical systems (here, DS) community, the community of my department. On question 1: membership is defined around shared expertise, and the dynamical systems community is more like a community in the strong sense than the math community. For question 2: conferences (the yearly Penn State-Maryland cycle for the DS community), and local seminars, colloquia and afternoon tea for the department. For question 3: writing letters, giving talks, writing reviews for MathSciNet, refereeing journals, attending seminars, answering questions — all more pronounced at the more specific DS level than at the general math community level — and normal department requirements. On 4: cooperation, friendliness, professionalism, participation lightly characterize the DS community and much more heavily the department. And yes, for 5, there are rituals and habits. We all applaud twice after a talk, once when the speaker concludes, once after the question time, prompted by the obligatory “if there are no further questions, let’s thank our speaker again.” A (minor) symbol: no one puts their own name on a theorem; you only self-reference with an initial, M. or perhaps M—. (It’s truly remarkable to me how pervasive this bit of symbolic humility is.) Each department surely has its own little habits, and it’s clear that a common language not shared by the outsider characterizes math as a whole, it’s subfields even more strongly. (Technical language, yes, but other usages as well — ‘community in the strong sense’ is itself somewhat a tongue-in-cheek reference to such language.) These aren’t strongly formative things, but they are definitely indicative of close and initiated involvement in the community.

Conclusion: There is probably no such thing as ‘the math community’ in the strong sense as it totally fails on 2 and only answers the rest weakly.  The DS community has a much stronger claim to such a distinction, and a healthy department could very reasonably be community in the strong sense. What abut the faith community? I think there’s even less reason to believe there is a ‘faith community’ in the strong sense than that there is a ‘math community.’ Individual faith traditions, denominations or sub-confessions therein and local congregations could all exhibit community in the strong sense increasingly well. Those of these that I belong to, however, do not always (often?) do so terribly well.

A proposal: the word ‘community’ is very popular in church usage. But in Christianity, where community is not just descriptive of something we like when we have it, but where strong community is constitutive of the faith itself, maybe we should reserve the word only for something more like community in the strong sense, or our attempts to attain it.

Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: I

I just returned from a trip to Jerusalem. It was very interesting to compare the relative aesthetics of the three major holy sites.

The Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall is austere. It echoes the surrounding landscape of sandstone and sparse brush perfectly. The plaza surrounding the wall is clean and well-ordered, much like the Jewish Quarter of the city (this is in serious contrast to the Muslim and Christian Quarters, and the Armenian Quarter to a lesser extent). The austerity and sparseness is fitting; the whole point of the site is what is not there.  

There is no ornamentation to the wall itself. The ornamentation is the people: the Ultra-Orthodox men in their variations of dress — black or brown, jackets, vests, some in stockings,  the wide flat-brimmed black hats or the sable-fur shtreimels. The dress of the women is announces their identity more subtly, but their presence, in varying styles of head-covering, ornaments the plaza as well. Hearing the women sing together on Shabbat evening was my favorite part of the experience.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock complex, located on the Temple Mount (for Jews) or Haram al-Sharif (for Muslims) is powerful and impressive. It was a Muslim holy week when I was there and I was unable to enter, so I can only speak to the impression from afar. Still, the beauty and power of the complex are apparent from all over the city. The gold dome shining in the sun is the most noteworthy feature, but in the end I think I was most impressed by the size and spaciousness. Its footprint on a map of the old city alone is remarkable. And, even seen from afar, the spaciousness of the complex is amazing, particularly after wandering through the twisted and cramped streets of the rest of the city.

(I wonder if the impression here is the same as that St. Peter’s square in Rome used to have before Mussolini tore down the maze of streets and houses surrounding the square to build the Via della Conciliazione.)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The aesthetic of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is … well, let’s face it people, it’s just weird. Take the shrine at the sepulchre itself: covered by a Romanesque dome, the shrine itself is a sooty color, caged partly with steel structural supports — damaged at one point by fire and never fully repaired. The front is decorated with huge fake candles topped by incandescent light bulbs, several stations for lighting and quickly extinguishing (for later use back home, I think) incense and candles, myriad hanging oil lamps, and an array of small portraits of Christ and his disciples that look (to me) like decoration for small porcelain plates.  Inside, the style is sort of cramped and overwrought — a mix of Baroque-looking silverwork and iconography. Overhead in the inner chapel (where there is room for maybe four or five people at a time) every square inch of space is taken up by what must be thirty to forty oil lamps. And behind the shrine is the small Coptic chapel, where the curtains are covered with thick, clear, protective plastic. 

Other parts of the church are certainly beautiful, especially the Catholikon dome over the main nave. The altars on Golgotha are very nice as well, though clearly uncoordinated (the Roman Catholic altar is a 16th century gift of Ferdinand de Medici, the mosaic above it is from 1937, the Greek Orthodox altar is ornate silverwork and iconography). The plan of the church as a whole is a jumble of altars, chapels and monastery facilities. And much of the place is dirty and poorly kept up. Ladders, lumber, metal bars and other disused construction materials litter the less-used spaces.

This has a lot to do, of course, with the joint administration of the church by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian churches under the Status quo and the difficulties this presents for administering the place. The conjunction of classical Roman Catholic art and architecture with the (to me) stranger bits of RC decoration that surround special places of veneration, with the overabundance and (to be honest) kitchiness of Orthodox decoration, with the contributions of the Armenians and the (obviously less well-funded) Ethiopians and Copts makes for a very strange, sometimes confusing, sometimes appealing aesthetic.