Monthly Archives: February 2009

Voracious curiosity

That’s one of the best, most fitting slogans of any of the 125+ graduate liberal studies programs across North America.  Here is how they tell the story of their program at Hamline University in St. Paul:

The Graduate School of Liberal Studies promotes the ideals and values of liberal arts learning. It encourages meaningful dialogue and inquiry across disciplinary boundaries, enabling students to gain a deeper understanding of the human cultural heritage and the issues of contemporary life. The Graduate School of Liberal Studies also prepares students who wish to specialize in creative writing for adults or for children and young adults and to teach writing at the college level.


A conversation with Nimrod Luz

In the Fall 2008 issue, Nimrod Luz presented a portion of his work on the sociology of religion.  In “Darwin, Sociology, and the Sacred in Modernity,” he reflected on the pilgrims who pray at a small shrine in Galilee as a way of resisting more than a generation of sociological thought about religion.

1) Your piece is from a lecture you gave while visiting the Indiana University South Bend campus on a Fulbright, yet it reads almost like a journal entry to yourself. It seems to be an expression and explanation of your work and your beliefs. Was it originally written for yourself, or were you intending to reach out to a particular audience. If so, who?

This piece has its origin in a Darwin’s day annual lecture at IU South Bend. Each year, the department of sociology and anthropology celebrates luz-head-shot-2009Darwin’s birthday by gathering a panel of speakers to talk about various related issues. In 2008, while I was a Fulbright Scholar-in- Residence there, I was asked to share my views on the compatibility of science and religion and the Darwinian aspects of this relationship. I leaped at the opportunity to talk about these matters as I have been working on the role of religion and fundamentalism in everyday life. Indeed, I wrote it as an informal lecture rather than an overly rigorous one. It was designed for the general public and not just students of the field.

2) For whom do you think sociologists study religious fundamentalism?

This is an intriguing and typically ignored question. For whom do we work as intellectuals? Who do we serve? Off the cuff I would say for our own private interest and our own intellectual concerns. On a more serious note, I study fundamentalism because it is an important social and political phenomenon and as such it must be on our table. I am not taking the role of a mediator between those ‘crazy religious people’ and us, ‘honorable and reasonable sons of the Enlightenment’. Today, the common understanding among Westerners is that the term fundamentalist is synonymous to Islamists. I would like to broaden and deepen this understanding through studies that produce and promote a more inclusive approach that calls for a growing awareness of the desecularization of the world – the entire world and not just certain parts of it.

3) Some faiths are not as open to questions about the faith, while others rely on questions to deepen knowledge and understanding of the divine. How can social science, and the questions it offers, benefit religions – if at all?

I am not sure I agree with the way this question was phrased. Faiths are belief structures adhered to by people and not metaphysical beings. Therefore we are dealing with the way they approach their lives. When people feel threatened or under attack they typically do not react in an open and philosophical manner but rather in a very primordial and humorless fashion. I think of the Roman Catholic inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, or the Hindu extremists groups such as RSS, VHP, or the Barnaj Dal as cases in point for aggressive response to social or political threats. We therefore should ask ourselves if aggression is more inherent in certain faiths than in others and my answer is always, NO! The advent of Islam in the 7th to 11th centuries and the conquest of the Middle East was far less violent than the callous Spanish or the cold-blooded English conquests of the Americas. Can we infer anything about Islam and Christianity from these examples? Does this mean that Islam is more reflexive and has a deeper understanding of the divine than others? Surely not! Our role as social scientists is to do the best we can to describe and analyze as impartial and objectively as we can what ever is there in front of us. By pursuing a less antagonistic and condescending approach to faith and its role in contemporary politics, we may contribute to a better understanding of the way people and communities act, react, and interact under different and ever changing circumstances. I am not sure we can benefit religions per se. But we can certainly be helpful to contemporary societies by developing a deeper understanding to the ways religious groups act and approach key issues.

4) What roles do you envision science and religion taking in a post-modern world’s efforts to rid itself of Social Darwinism? Will they be opposing or is there an intersection possible?

At the dawn of the third millennium our gravest problem, as I see it, is the growing scarcity of elementary and vital resources (land, water, air, food, oil…), a state of things that can be loosely defined and read as unsustainability. This is the outcome of a continuous demographic decline and the hegemony of neo liberal style consumerism, which by now resonates and influence people around the globe. I see academia together with charismatic religious leaders as natural agents for promoting a more responsible role of human beings and a more committed approach to our environment. Centers of sustainability, such as was recently established by Prof, Mike Keen at IU South Bend, are on their way to become the locations where communities can be informed and educated regarding these issues and the way to work towards sustainable solutions. This work need be (indeed must be) in sync with religious figures and leaders at local, regional, national, and global scale thus enabling the message to permeate and disseminate deep and wide. Imagine if you will, the Pope, or an Islamic leader, the Dalai Lama or an influential pastor addressing the issue of consumerism and promoting the understanding that humans should move from a simple creed of ‘thou shell inherit the earth’ to ‘thou shell be responsible for the planet’.

5) As you know, Confluence highlights interdisciplinary work. How has interdisciplinary study challenged or enhanced your work?

I find this question particularly alluring as I am usually challenged with more rigid disciplinary approaches or scholars who look at my work as a non disciplinary hybrid. My work has always been interdisciplinary to the core ever since I started my own intellectual voyage and submitted my first papers and manuscripts. I grew up as a geographer who is interested in the past (i.e. historical geography), and my work was always highly connected to material culture (archeology by another name). As my work has matured and become more and more focused around contemporary issues of the Middle East I have acquainted myself with methods and theories drawn from cultural studies, anthropology and ethnography. So, for me personally interdisciplinary work has always been the only way I could express myself and conduct my research and writing. I think that if universities were less archaic and bureaucratic institutions they would have long left behind the divisions within humanities and social sciences, creating space for more nuanced and cross-disciplinary work. The reason we do not go through that change has to do with our role as teachers and marketing of our disciplinary ‘products’ and ‘expertise’ to our customers: the state as a funding agency and our students. But if one thinks of the big changes and intellectual breakthroughs within academia one must admit that by and large they were the outcome of non conventional thinkers who could be easily defined as inter and multi disciplinary scholars.

6) What upcoming work can we expect to see in publication in the near future?

I am currently working on a book that deals with culture and urbanism in the historical Middle East. I am also working on my sacred places project which explores Palestinian sacred sites in Israel and I think may be of interest to Confluence readers.

Interview by Krista Bailey.

Akhmatova on the need to speak

There are a number of translations available on the web of Anna Akhmatova’s prose introduction to “Requiem,” a sequence of poems that take place during the worst of Stalin’s oppressions of his political opponents. I’ll cobble together a rough one here based on clues provided by the others. She describes a moment when someone on the street realizes that she is the writer Akhmatova:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov purges, I stood each day for seventeen months in the visitors’ line outside the Leningrad prison. One day someone recognized me there. A woman standing near me in the line was startled to hear my name; she shook herself free of the dull, heavy weight of standing in that line, suffering more than enough each day and fearing worse. She spoke to me – she whispered, we all whispered there:

“Can you describe this?” And I said that I could. Then something like a smile passed over what once had been her face.

What could more plainly demonstrate our need to speak the meaning of our lives and to be aided by others who can help speak it. To witness and have the help of other witnesses. People love to figure out the pattern of their lives – at least until it’s beaten out of them, worn out of them – and they love to speak it.

Speech and community are implied here. I see from the dictionary that alienation comes from a Latin word meaning other. You are made into the other, you are cast out, you are locked away, you are thrown out of the community – you are outside the circle of speech and meaning. Your identity vanishes. The psychological weight is immense. No wonder even in a prosperous country people become so angry when they realize their voice hardly matters.

Contributed by Ken Smith.