Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Transformative Rituals

Dimitris Xygalatas suggests here, in the final section of his book, The Burning Saints, that rituals can be deeply transformative. In this case, a person suffering from a mood disorder is cured by virtue of her participation in a traditional fire-walking ritual in the town of Agia Eleni in Northern Greece. Agia Eleni is one of five villages that celebrate the tradition of the Anastenaria, a group of Orthodox Christians who practice a fire-walking ritual. These rituals are performed at a konaki, a place where icons and other religious objects are stored and venerated. This passage is evocative of an important excerpt from Durkheim's classic, The Elementary Forms of Religious Ideas, where he wrote: “the real function of religion is not to make us think, to enrich our knowledge…but rather, it is to make us act, to aid us to live. The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a man who is stronger. He feels within him more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Thoughts on Death and Immortality

Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th century philosopher and theologian, discusses the modern idea of the soul and immortality in this excerpt from his 1830 book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality. Feuerbach was the original “materialist” in that he felt human existence to be subsumed in the larger existence of nature and society. Philosophical anthropology, the philosophy of the existence and experience of personhood, remained a key theme across all of his work. Feuerbach thought that modern Christianity’s notion of the soul and its immortality was errant. His attempt to ground human existence in the natural world could be seen as one of the earliest attempts to overcome the mind-body dualism that had become entrenched in European religion, through Christianity, and European philosophy, through Descartes. Given Feuerbach’s perspective, a focus on materiality and environment cannot be separate from a philosophical anthropology that supports or denies their significance.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On Freedom, Pencils and Material Religion

Jean-Pierre Warnier, reporting from Paris, offers some reflections on Charlie Hebdo and the burgeoning Je Suis Charlie movement. David Morgan builds on Warnier’s comments by considering the humble pencil as means and motive of the events in Paris. What both bring to the forefront is the role that materiality, and, particularly, material religion, play in this confrontation with and affirmation of the democratic process. At issue are many serious issues: the rights and privileges of divergent groups, and their divergent commitments, in pluralistic societies, the proper balance of respect and transparency between those of different communities, and the proper response to attenuate the necessary frictions that will always exist whenever people of different backgrounds choose to live side-by-side in democratic states. Hopefully, in celebrating Charlie we can celebrate the freedom of speech, a bedrock institution for flourishing democracies, without celebrating the sparks that fly when critics choose to depict the prophet Muhammad, an indecorous act, at the very least, but not something to be responded to with violence and terror, not in this day and age, and certainly not in Paris.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Immaterial Religion – Yves Klein’s Ex-voto to St Rita of Cascia

Jessica Hughes discusses the details and aesthetic significance of a votive offering that artist Yves Klein made to St. Rita of Cascia. While art has always played an ineliminable role in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it seems that Klein was particularly sensitive to the entanglement of votive offering, economic sacrifice, and the experiential dimensions of ritual. In many of Klein's works, it would seem that the subsumption of art into religion has been inverted.