Report

The Sages and the Spirit (Winter 2004 Trust Magazine article)

  • February 01, 2004
  • By Sam Hughes

It wasn't until the 1992 Los Angeles riots that Donald E. Miller, Ph.D., looked into his own backyard and found religion.

Not that he hadn't already devoted considerable time and thought to the subject of religion and culture. As a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Southern California, Miller was immersed in it. But for the most part, he had been focusing on other firestorms--such as the Armenian genocide, whose survivors he had interviewed and whose oral history he had written. 

Then came the Los Angeles riots, stemming from such social concerns as race, police brutality and poverty. But Miller noticed something else at work: the presence of those who wore the cloth. It wasn't just that inner-city clergy had the trust of the aggrieved residents. They seemed to understand what was going on better than anyone else and interpreted events for the news media. Their efforts underlined for him the vital role of religion in society. 

Afterward Miller decided to examine the role of the clergy (including those from suburban churches) in the city's recovery. His report caught the attention of the James Irvine Foundation, which in 1996 helped establish the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC under Miller's direction. The Center conducts research on faith-based community organization and development, strengthens the ties between religious and secular institutions, offers community groups common ground on campus to meet and talk about their problems, and fosters cooperation among denominations that, in the past, have not worked together. While Los Angeles remains the Center's “primary laboratory” for research, its scope is international--Miller, for example, is engaged in a four-year project on the global spread of Pentecostalism that has taken him to 14 different countries. 

Two years ago, the Trusts selected the Center as one of its 10 Centers of Excellence in religion, providing $2.4 million to launch an ambitious program of interdisciplinary research. Today the Center's agenda includes bringing together scholars--more than 50 so far--who had been working in relative isolation across such broad range of disciplines as political science, history, social work, public policy and anthropology. 

“We help faculty develop significant conversations with one another and to some extent help them make connections back to the community when they want to do research there,” says Miller. 

The 10 Centers of Excellence in religion are located at major universities, and each examines religion through a slightly different thematic lens. And their influence goes beyond the walls of the academy, since they have a civic component that reaches out to policymakers, journalists and the public. All, in fact, contribute to what might be called a scholarly religious revival--which is not necessarily tied to personal religious convictions. As the director of one Center put it, when asked about his own religious background: “I believe in the data.” 

It was thought to be a tenet of the Modern Age: Sooner or later, religion would be consigned to the ash-heap of history in favor of something a little more . . . rational. In the academy, whose intellectual foundations are built on the secular assumptions of the Enlightenment and positivism's observable, fact-based approach to knowledge, the very subject was seen as a curious, almost laughable relic of the past.

“[W]hen higher education adopted the European model of the university, it took over its way of studying religion, which was as positivistic as its way of studying other subjects,” noted Huston Smith in his 2000 book, Why Religion Matters. The philosopher Auguste Co “had laid down the line: Religion belonged to the childhood of the human race. It is good to know facts about childhood, but retention of its outlook shows that you are childish yourself.” Those early prejudices, Smith added, “remain in place.”

Those prejudices, however, turned out to be childishly short-sighted. Not only did the intense flame of religious impulse fail to burn out. In many parts of the world, it has been fanned into a conflagration. 

“There has been an enormous explosion of religious passions and movements across the world,” says Peter L. Berger, Ph.D., author of The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics and director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, another Center of Excellence. Having long since discarded his own early assumptions about the inevitability of religious decline--for the simple reason that “the evidence against it is really massive”--Berger argues convincingly that religion is both an “enormously important” animating force throughout the world and a vital subject of academic inquiry. 

“Disillusionment with Enlightenment rationalism stalks the modern university at the dawn of a new millennium,” wrote Luis Lugo, Ph.D., director of the Pew Trusts' Religion program, in a 1997 white paper. “The loss of faith in the secular ideologies and assumptions that have reigned supreme in the academy is palpable.” The goal of the Religion program's projects, he added, has been to “help religion break out of its cultural isolation, its ‘God ghetto,' so that it can make the kind of contribution that the academy and society so desperately need.” 

Any lingering doubts about the need to study religion seriously went up in the flames erupting from the World Trade Center. 

“September 11 had a tremendous impact on academia's engagement with religion,” says Lugo, who has recently taken on the directorship of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

“It is now a cliché to say that September 11 was a wake-up call, but it was something like that,” adds Jay Rosen, Ph.D., chair of journalism at New York University, home to his innovative Web journal The Revealer: A New Web Guide to Religion and the Media, a project of NYU's Center for Religion and the Media. 

“And there are intellectual consequences to an event of such magnitude. It should have been apparent long before that day that religion and democracy must learn to live together without either over-awing the other.” 

The Centers of Excellence initiative “comes at a very propitious moment,” says Diane Winston, Ph.D., the Trusts' program officer in that area. “More and more Americans realize that the secularization model is problematic. And with the growth of radical Islam, the internecine struggles between Hindus and Muslims in India, between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East--not to mention the debates over stem-cell research, euthanasia, abortion, parent-school tuition vouchers--it's obvious that religion is very much a part of the modern world. Religious values and behavior are fundamental to society, whether we're talking about the United States, the Middle East or developing countries in Africa and Latin America. 

“We thought it would raise the initiative's profile to have the study of religion be at major research universities,” she adds. “If others could see what we were doing, they might be encouraged to follow the model. We saw this as a way of making universities our partners.” 

Since 1997, the program has given $23 million to the Centers through their universities, which had to meet strict criteria. Each initially had to pony up at least one dollar for every two of Trusts' support, place the Center at a central campus location, and pledge to raise a $10-million endowment. So far, they have raised a total of $45 million. 

God and the devil, it is said, both reside in the details. Given the rich tapestry of organized religion, scholars have an abundance of patterns to examine and knotted threads to peruse. 

“One of the ideas behind the Centers is that they should have very different agendas and be doing different things,” says Winston. “That's why Boston University is doing religion and international relations; Missouri is doing religion, the professions and the public; and so on. As we began to fund the Centers and see what the possibilities were, we began to see that it would be more strategic to become more specialized.” 

 At NYU's Center for Religion and the Media, scholars are examining the ways in which different media have been used to promulgate religious messages. The sheer range is dizzying: Jihadist videotapes, televangelism, the fax machine by the grave of Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Islamic calligraphy and interactive Web sites--plus religious paintings, music and public performances. This year alone, notes Faye Ginsburg, Ph.D., the David B. Kriser Professor of Anthropology who co-directs NYU's Center, interdisciplinary working groups will be focusing on “The Islamic Public Sphere,” “Jews, Media and Religion,” and “Media, Religion and Human Rights.” The working groups will also take part in a “bridging” seminar whose theme is “Confession, Testimony, Witnessing.” 

“Before anyone thought about the media as essential to an informed public and a healthy polity, the means of communication were understood to extend the faith and bring more people to God,” says NYU's Rosen. He cites as an example the Protestant Reformation, which would not have spread without the printing press. “Certain things only become thinkable when a new medium appears to alter the terms of exchange among human beings, and this has always been so for religious ideas and movements. On top of that, advances in communication are often seen in explicitly religious terms, as when Samuel Morse asked of the telegraph, ‘What hath God wrought?'” 

At BU's Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, the projects under way include a cross-national study of modern Islam; an examination of traditional Jewish and Muslim schools that use the language of tolerance in their curriculum; and a study of European secularity. 

“The United States is much more religious than Western Europe,” says Director Peter Berger. “In Western Europe, they look at the United States as the exception in its religiosity. My position would be that the United States is exceptional in a number of ways, but not in this. The big exception is Western Europe. They think America is very peculiar. Well, it may be, but not in terms of religion.” 

Like many countries, Berger argues, the United States is, metaphorically speaking, a nation of "Indians" ruled by "Swedes." "If you look at the data, India is one of the most religious nations in the world," he explains. "If you take three steps in India, you fall across four gods. Sweden, on the other hand, is one of the most secular nations in the world.

"In America, the cultural elite is largely 'Swedish,' and the people are, speaking metaphorically, 'Indians.' Many socio-political conflicts over the last four decades had a lot to do with the 'Indians' resenting the 'Swedes.'"

One such conflict is the 1963 Supreme Court decision regarding prayer in public schools, a subject that has not always been treated very respectfully by the nation's news media--another bastion of secular "Swedes." (The minds of journalists, writes Huston Smith, "have been forged in the academy and shaped by its secular hammerings.")

As a journalism professor, says NYU's Rosen, he has been "struck by how relentlessly secular and a-religious the culture of the newsroom is, except of course where it concerns the 'religion' of professional journalism itself. For example, nothing is more ridiculous to your typical hard-bitten journalist than a 'true believer' in any realm.

"All the places where religious treatments and themes and events meet the gears of the media complex and thus 'appear' to the wider public are the important areas of investigation," Rosen adds. "Because one of the most simplistic and misleading assumptions a liberal democracy makes about religion is that it can be safely confined and defined as a private matter--between you and your god, so to speak."

The public side of religion is being probed by the University of Virginia's Center on Religion and Democracy (CoRD), which is investigating such subjects as: how religion helps or detracts from developing a national identity and purpose; how religion encourages or discourages people from participating in civic life; and how religious denominations and special-interest groups are involved in the rough-and-tumble of democratic policymaking.

"Democracy may not be the most efficient form of governance, but it is the most humane," says James Hunter, Ph.D., CoRD's director. "And religion has had much the same role in the creation of democratic governance as it has in other world affairs. It was a source of high ideals and strong common virtues, but it has also been a source of exclusion and disagreement, and it remains so today." The mission of his Center, he adds, "is to explore this enduring enigma--not only in America but as it plays out in the world."

John Witte Jr., J.D., director of Emory University's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion, has been grinding his twin lenses of law and religion for the better part of two decades. As a self-described "avid and eclectic reader of history," he notes that the history of the West is riven by "clashes and collaborations" between what he calls "the structural and the spiritual"--law and religion, church and state. (He also points out that when the first Christian universities were founded in the West nearly a millennium ago, "the faculties of law and of religion stood at the center of the university, along with the faculty of medicine.")

"The binocular of law and religion brings into focus whole vistas of historical learning and living that just cannot be seen through the monocular of law or the monocular of religion alone," says Witte. Although they represent "distinct spheres and sciences of human life," he adds, "they exist in dialectical interaction, constantly crossing over and cross-fertilizing each other." Law gives religious lives and communities their structure--"the order and orthodoxy that they need to survive and to flourish in society"--while the "inner morality" of religion gives legal processes and norms the "sanctity and authority they need to command obedience and respect."

Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Ethics at Emory and director of its Law and Religion Program, had already directed four Trusts-supported projects for that program by the time the Center came into existence in 2000. Those projects dealt with "some of the cardinal issues of our identities as persons and peoples," he says, such as law, religion and society; and democracy, human rights and rule of law. He also wrote a seminal book, From Sacrament to Contract: The Transformation of the Western Family, while serving on the board of the Public Religion Project at the University of Chicago in the late 1990s.

"The Western tradition teaches that marriage is at once a contractual, religious, social and natural association," he explains, "and that in order to survive and flourish, this institution must be governed both externally by legal authorities and internally by moral authorities. The modern lesson in this is that we must resist the temptation to reduce marriage to a single perspective, or to a single forum." In fact, he argues, marriage requires "multiple forums and multiple laws to be governed adequately," and American religious communities need to "think more seriously about restoring and reforming their own bodies of religious law on marriage, divorce and sexuality, instead of simply acquiescing in state laws."

The Emory Center's first project--on Sex, Marriage and Family and the Religions of the Book--was "something of a natural extension and expansion" of the work he began in From Sacrament to Contract. Drawing on what he calls "the wisdom of Judaism, Christianity and Islam for their enduring insights," the project produced a series of public forums and an international conference with 80 speakers and will ultimately yield 30 new books. (Among them: "John Calvin on Sex, Marriage and Family Life"; "Covenant Marriage in Comparative Perspective"; "The Modern American Family in Interdisciplinary Perspective"; and "Sex, Marriage and Family in the World Religions: A Critical Reader.")

"In modern days of globalization, with all its promises and perils, it is absolutely essential to understand other persons and peoples, and the spirits and structures that guide them," he says. "I do not think it parochial or irresponsible to focus deeply on the Western Christian tradition. So much has been done in the past, and so much has been forgotten and needs to be retrieved and reconstructed. But I have learned much from Jewish and Muslim texts and colleagues and from the study of non-Western Christian and non-Christian cultures."

In interviews conducted by the Center, a number of the Law and Religion Program's Fellows connected with the project talked about their research, goals and insights. One was Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Ph.D., Candler Professor of Law and author of Islamic Family Law in a Changing World. His research focuses on, among other things, forced marriage for Indian subcontinent immigrants in Britain and the ghastly question of "honor killings," in which women are murdered by members of their own family for real or alleged sexual impropriety.

"As a practicing Muslim, I need to reconcile being a Muslim and being a human-rights advocate, especially the rights of women, which is a major problem in the historical Islamic tradition," says An-Nai'im. He argues for an "internal discourse within Islamic communities to promote understandings of Islam that protect the rights of women and religious minorities, as well as other issues that exist within the tradition.

"It's not that Islam itself is responsible for violence," he adds, "but the way Islamic family law has evolved creates that possibility in people's socialization of men, socialization of women, in social institutions and attitudes."

Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D., Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory, traces what he calls the "rejection" of the human body in Christianity and discusses its implications as well as some of the steps that could be taken to remedy it:

"There is no real despising of the body anywhere in the New Testament," he says. "Ambivalence, yes; rejection, no. It is in the second century that we begin to see a widespread rejection of the body, mainly through various forms of dualism and asceticism. . . . The earliest of these are written only some 90 years after Paul, yet are a quantum leap past Paul. How did this happen?"

As a theologian, Johnson says, he has been interested "not only in identifying why the body is lost, but in asking how we can begin to recover it"; and as a Scripture scholar, he was "convinced there are some resources in the Bible that can enable Christians to think in more positive ways about the sexual body."

For instance, the idea that humans are created in the image of God: "From Philo of Alexandria on, interpreters have asked: 'What in humans represents the image?' The answer is always in terms of the mind or the soul or the spirit. The body is left out. What if we were to think of God as spirit who can only manifest God's self through body? What if, tentatively, we thought of the world as God's body? How does such an imaginative exercise help us begin to think in a different way about being ensouled bodies, inspirited bodies? We might conclude that we're not really bodies without spirit--but neither can we be spirit without bodies. This also enables us to think about incarnation in a different way, how God enters into our bodies."

Given that about half the world's "ensouled bodies" belong to women, the phenomenon of "women claiming their voice as subjects--[not] simply to be the objects of male analysis--has been profoundly revolutionary," Johnson says. "All prior Christian theology about sex has been written about men. All rules about sex have been devised by men. We need to begin to listen to women's bodies, listen to women's experience. This is part of how we start over. Males can at least pretend to detach from the sexual body, but this is not an option for women who bear babies.

"If we're going to learn, we're going to have to learn together, not as males telling women what's going on," Johnson continues. He criticizes the Pope for not hearing the point by saying that artificial birth control is a form of men exploiting women for the sake of pleasure "Women have reasons of their own for wanting to practice birth control. Similarly, patterns of abuse of women within the church are so systemic that they need to be named."

The Emory Center's current three-year project, just under way, is The Child in Law, Religion and Society. According to Witte, it will study the "rites and rights attached to birthing and naming, baptism and circumcision, education and discipline," as well as stages in a child's physical, emotional, sexual, moral and spiritual formation--and the "rituals and ordeals and the rights and responsibilities that attach to each."

Child-abuse and rape, child poverty and homelessness, juvenile delinquency and violence, illegitimacy and infanticide--all of those harsh realities will be examined, but so will "the mystery of the child--that combination of innocence and imagination, acuity and candor, empathy and healing, sharing and caring that uniquely become a child." Viewed through the prisms of law, theology and the humanities--and drawing on the wisdom of Christianity, Judaism and the Enlightenment--it will also place "the American discussion of the child in an emerging global conversation."

"I like to let each participant in a new project play to his or her specialty, have them open their scholarly world and frontier for us and then build a responsible architecture that holds these multiple specialties together," Witte explains. "We are still in the intellectual hunting and gathering phase, but so far the hunting has been extraordinarily good."

At a Missouri psychiatric hospital, a patient who thought he was dying repeatedly tried, with great difficulty, to turn in his bed to face east. "For hours, the staff attempted to straighten him out, until a Muslim doctor explained that the patient was trying to face Mecca, as Muslims are taught to do when they are dying," explains Jill Raitt, Ph.D., professor emerita and director of the University of Missouri's Center on Religion, the Professions and the Public. "Medical professionals could better understand and so better treat their patients if they had some training in various religious behaviors and beliefs that their patients may bring with them into the hospital or treatment room."

Her Center, she says, has two goals: "to help professionals become aware of their attitudes toward religion and to give them the kind of information about religions, especially of immigrant peoples, that will help them to serve their clients and patients more effectively."

This Center's theme deals with an issue that has emerged only recently--seen vividly in the surge in complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by employees aggrieved that their religious beliefs are not honored in the workplace. "The idea for that Center wouldn't have seemed as important in 1995 as it did in 2002," when it was created, says the Trusts' Winston.

"The idea that a foundation wants to come in and say, 'Hey, we'll help you develop this area of research,' is very attractive," she says, adding that the Trusts' long involvement in religion programs has given it a "good sense of what's in the air": "We have our finger in the wind. For that reason, the Centers--especially when the program started in 1998--was a very savvy idea that's only become more so in the intervening six years. In fact, we've learned that there's a real hunger in the university community for these kinds of interdisciplinary experiments."

Sam Hughes is senior editor at The Pennsylvania Gazette, the alumni magazine at the University of Pennsylvania.