Book Review: Fields of Blood (Armstrong)

Fields of BloodFor many people living in the West, an assumption exists that religion is inherently violent. After all, they say, just look at the evidence: religion has caused wars, the Crusades, terrorism, religion has made people hate and kill others for nothing more than the ideas that were in their heads. According to this view, religions are not only necessarily violent, but they are responsible for much (if not all) of the violence in recorded human history. However, an explanation of the history of violence is not so simple, argues Karen Armstrong in her latest book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 512 pages). According to Armstrong, though violence is an unfortunate reality of human history, evil and warfare are not necessarily religious in nature nor does violence always arise from religion. In the impressive and exhaustive tome that is Fields of Blood, Armstrong traces the relationship between religion and the history of violence, arguing that “We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in world.” Continue reading

Ultimate Reality in Chinese Religion

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on “Conceptions of the Ultimate”, the manner in which world religions understand the divine. Today’s reflection engages the perspective of Livia Kohn on ultimate reality in Chinese religion.
Kong Fuzi (Confucius)

Kong Fuzi (Confucius)

While finding Kohn’s treatment of the complexities and uniqueness of Chinese religions insightful, I was again struck by the important role of texts in the development and practice of the religions this course has considered. This reflection seeks to note the central role that texts and textual appeals seem to play in Chinese religions, as alluded to throughout Kohn’s essay. The essay begins by noting that ultimate reality is often considered in philosophical, practical, and mythical ways (10), and that through these lenses religious claims about the resolution of the human predicament are made (11). In the Christian tradition at least, philosophical, mythical, and (though to a somewhat lesser extent) practical doctrines and exhortations are almost always recorded and appealed to within the context of a text (at least the ones that are influential in the long-run). This paradigm seems to hold true for Chinese religions as well, with Daoist texts and Confucian sages functioning as the best sources for thinking about Ultimate Reality in the Chinese context (12-13). Kohn also directs us toward considering the problem of language in conceiving of Chinese religions. Not only are there no terms that correlate to the idea of “ultimate reality” (11), but the language that can be used to point towards that idea is confronted by the paradox of Chinese thought, where “If it’s the Dao, you cannot see it; if you can see it, it’s not that Dao” (12). For practioners of Chinese religion, the experience of ridding oneself of passions, emotions, and individual consciousness and seeking to align one’s conscience with the order of the cosmos appears to serve as the path for realization the “Ultimates,” the pluriform ways in which the “unreal, invisible, and intangible” ultimate may be experienced (31). Continue reading

Book Review: Religion in Human Evolution (Bellah)

Religion in Human EvolutionRobert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution stands as magnum opus of breathtaking proportions. Developed from the Merlin Donald’s work on cultural evolution, Karl Jasper’s insights on the axial age, and drawing upon a range of historical, anthropological, and biological sources, Bellah traces the evolution of religion within human culture from its origins in primordial play to the theoretical turns of the Axial Age. Central to this argument is that nothing is left behind during the evolution from episodic to theoretical culture through the mimetic and mythic. As a result of this massive study, Bellah argues that the evolution of human religion, which culminated in theoretical religious discourse in axial cultures and refigured preceding mimetic and mythic culture, continues to influence human religion and culture today. Bellah’s latest monograph stands as in-depth treatment of the evolution of human culture that is a must read for those involved in the study of the history and sociology of religions. Continue reading