Do you believe in ghosts?

•September 18, 2010 • 3 Comments

Lately, during the many academic conversations one seems to have in graduate school, the question I like to ask my friends and new acquaintances is: “do you believe in ghosts?”

The question seems like one of those queries that you are supposed to avoid, not only during dinner conversations, but around anyone but your closest friend. The question, at least for me, felt deeply personal and uncomfortable simultaneously. You don’t just ask anyone that question. Even after a couple years of studying “ghosts,” asking the question still makes me uncomfortable. Ever the intellectual taboo-breaker, perhaps that is exactly one of the reasons I like to ask the question.

Since I have become fairly comfortable describing my academic work as “religion and ghosts,” I am often the person asked the question. At one point, amusingly, one of Margaret’s friends, upon hearing I studied “ghosts,” mistook (much to her bemusement) me to be a “ghost-hunter.” She seemed rather disappointed when I said that I wasn’t exactly a mirror-image of the Syfy show. I kind of got the feeling that she felt “ghost-hunters” were loony and that she would have enjoyed the possibility of Margaret dating such a crazy person.

One of the reasons I like to ask the question is that everyone’s response is very personal. No one I’ve talked to can simply leave the answer as a simple ‘no’ or ‘yes.’ Thankfully! I love hearing stories, qualifications, thoughts, and skepticism about ghosts. There is something so intriguing about the unique particularity in how each of us respond to the question (or even the topic). That Margaret’s friend instantly seemed to convey that ghost-believers were crazy lunatics is just one such revealing answer. For this friend, believing in ghosts was not just wrong, but, indeed, purely irrational.

Finding that I am increasingly asked the question, one would think that my answers would become increasingly polished. I’ve certainly revised my response(s). I wouldn’t call any of them more polished, though. All along, a certain discomfort over the topic remains. And I study the field of ghosts! First, my answer was no (with qualifications). Then it was no (but open to the possibility). Then it was a yes (but a qualification that it was a literary/psychological yes). From one perspective, such a “progression” of responses might appear to simply be a “progression” toward insanity.

And yet, from another perspective, it is hardly a “progression” at all. It is not as though I have had any vivid experiences of ghosts. I have not gained any new empirical evidence. Instead, my answers constantly shift because I find my inability to express what I mean infinitely frustrating. Haunting, one might say.

Many people I’ve talked to have many very interesting personal ghost stories to tell. And many surprising people, over the course of history have passionately believed in ghosts. For my Christian readers, John Wesley, anyone? In my case, though, I have no ghost stories. In our scientific, strip-mined age, this lack of empirical evidence is what exactly gets branded as “evidence” for irrationality. And yet, with all of my qualifications, it is because of the desolation of this devastated temporal landscape we find ourselves in, that I now answer the question with an affirmative. Perhaps that is the deepest irony at play here. The ghost(s) that haunts the scientific mindset arose from the very tombstoneless grave that the scientific mindset attempted to bury all previous ghosts.

That is why I now respond with a yes, among many other reasons. I have no empirical evidence. No ghost stories. Just the (haunting) desire to re-enchant a “natural” wasteland. And I don’t mean just the world, the self, or our stories. I mean all three, really haunting within every relationship. Ghosts are not simply gnostic projections of the mind, literary metaphors, nor objects in the world. Remember, ghosts have always been liminal creatures, creatures of boundaries, one of the reasons why I think the question “do you believe in ghosts?” both a) makes us so uncomfortable and b) is so difficult to answer.

Which is exactly why I want your answers! Forgoing the standard discussion questions, please (that means each and every one of you that is reading this post right now – call it a personal favor to me), just answer one “simple” question. Just for one moment, let’s forgo the dinner etiquette, shall we?

Do you believe in ghosts?


In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 4 (Finale)

•September 10, 2010 • 2 Comments

Or, Ruminations on the Claremont School of Theology University Project

As promised, the last post in my blog series about religious pluralism will be about Claremont School of Theology’s (CST) newly unveiled University Project. For those not in the know, the University Project (UP) is the name given to a wide range of CST’s institutional goals for the next decade or so. These goals generally center around school expansion, as CST hopes to grow enough in size to transform into a full university.

Perhaps the most controversial (and exciting) element of the UP is the intent for CST to become one of the first multireligious centers for practical religious education.  While the project has been in the making for over a year, most recently it was announced (to the media at a press conference) that certain practical goals have been met, namely that CST has entered into a relationship with both the Academy for Jewish Religion, California and the Center for Advanced Islamic Scholarship. This will allow, among other things, cross-registration by students at the three schools in order to encourage further inter-religious dialogue.

For more information, please refer to CST’s description of the University Project and the LA Times article on the University Project. One of my friends, Eka Tupamahu, also wrote a very thoughtful, favorable reflection upon the University Project that is well worth reading.

After my more abstract musings on religious pluralism in my previous posts, I wanted to consider some more practical issues of religious pluralism at play in how the University Project has been lived out so far.

Up to this point, CST has done many worthwhile things in the name of the University Project. Administrators have been clear that one of the central points of the UP is to cultivate compassion and live toward a world of peace. In other words, pluralism on campus is not just a weak tolerance, nor is it just empty theory. While I am skeptical of making religious pluralism just about moral outcomes (i.e. religious dialogue is just about working together on constructing a better world), I think practical outcomes are a necessary element for successful interfaith dialogue. After all, there is suffering aplenty in this world of ours.

Because of criticism from the right, CST has been increasingly clear that the UP will not result in a blended concoction of faiths. While, perhaps, overemphasized, I think it is very important (in light of my previous reflections) that the inherent differences in the religious stories we tell do not simply get removed or ignored. Religious differences in our stories open up the very possibility of religious and moral dialogue. While it might be tempting to remove all the wrinkles in our complicated tapestry, so-to-speak, so that we can live toward great moral accomplishments unimpeded, we should remember with caution that removing difference would violently destroy any such a possibility for a better world. CST has, rightly, resisted this urge.

On the other hand, the danger of overemphasizing the value of difference is the tendency to enshrine particular differences as artifacts to be maintained in pristine condition, artifacts to be held in museums, behind bullet-proof glass, breathing recycled air, to be admired, but not touched. There is nothing more deadly to living religions than stale air. After all, stories live, they change, they transform. No religion, no story, has a pure, perfect form, not in the present, past or future. In order to live fully within a pluralistic environment, one has to put one’s own, admittedly fragile, religious stories up to the danger of dialogue. Certainly, there is no greater risk than the threat of transformation. And yet, there is no greater hope. In regards to CST, I am hopeful on this front, simply because students with different religious stories to tell in close proximity of each other will find it difficult not to engage each other. The trick will be that CST will have to maintain the value of difference without trapping such difference within cages of glass.

However, in light of all of these reflections on religious pluralism, I have many questions about the University Project. I don’t generally have answers for these questions, and often they are problems exactly because the answers are elusive.

First, within the scope of the University Project, I want to inquire as to the place of the multireligious, or the so-called “hybrid” religious. In the end, would Yann Martel’s Pi be welcome at CST? So far, it has seemed to me that, like the religious leaders in Life of Pi, staff and students here simply do not know how to encounter multireligious individuals. I’ll be open about the fact that this is a very personal issue for me; after all, I am a multireligious individual myself. I have often felt as though many here at CST are ashamed or uncomfortable with my multireligious identity. I feel as though I have to be very vocal about both my Buddhist and Christian identities, or they are both ignored or awkwardly talked-around. Even when I am vocal, folks here often quickly change the subject. Despite the fact I am one of the few individuals who practices a non-Abrahamic religion at a school that is attempting to become a fully inter-religious seminary, I feel as though there have been no attempts to draw upon my religious background to further the growth of the school. When I approach staff (in particular, although students at times, as well) about helping out in the growth of the UP, as a multireligious individual and as a Buddhist, I am often awkwardly shooed away.

My guess is that many (most?) at CST simply don’t know what to do with multireligious individuals – perhaps there would be more active engagement with my religious stories here if I was just Buddhist. Do I (and other multireligious individuals) unsettle because I live between the acceptable (read: safe) boundaries of religious identity? Is it only ok to dialogue with the religious other when they are easily identifiable as a religious other in a particular group? Do I serve as a blatant and uncomfortable reminder to others that we all live multireligious lives? I don’t know. Regardless, I will admit, despite my excitement for the University Project, this element of my experience at CST has hurt me more than anything else. CST needs to sort out (on the institutional and personal level) how to encounter multireligious individuals ethically – I certainly won’t be the only one in the future history of the University Project.

Second, on a related, but also very different topic, I wonder how CST will construct the University Project to welcome individuals from religions that are not officially “recognized” as religious traditions as well as the non-religious. One student asked at convocation whether non-religious individuals would be welcome in the UP. President Campbell said yes. Still, as several polls have shown, the non-religious are the most commonly vilified “religious” group in America. Religious identity, even religiously pluralistic identity, is often identified in contrast to the non-religious. That is a serious problem. CST will have to do much to put strength behind President Campbell’s yes. A verbalized affirmative is not enough; the non-religious must be fully welcome at this pluralistic table of ours.

Beyond that, however, as I mentioned above, CST will also need to discover how it can welcome people that are not officially “recognized” as within religious traditions, namely the ‘great faiths.’ After all, the whole concept of the ‘great faiths’ (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, occasionally a few others) was a 19th century Western Christian construction designed to either  a) illustrate the superiority of Christianity, b) show a universal moral whole by watering down difference, or c) legitimate certain stories while delegitimating others (or a mixture of the two). While comparative religion (as a discipline) can survive these damaging origins, in practice here, the University Project cannot remain within those unethical beginnings.

Not all religions have the same structure. So far, CST has expanded the UP by reaching out to other clergy training centers. What about religions that do not have clergy training centers, or that do not have clergy, period? What about religions that have often been wrongfully excluded from interreligious dialogue as non-religions (or, worse, anti-religions), such as Native American traditions and/or Wiccan traditions? The list could be expanded to near-infinity. And certainly the difficulties of adjustment abound. Still, as Derrida might have said, justice knows no bounds. If the UP only welcomes the ‘great faiths’ to the table of interreligious dialogue, and only on Christian terms (i.e. the need for clergy, clergy training centers, etc.), it will only serve to further worsen the damage that some interreligious dialogue has done in the past by excluding groups as non-religious. I do not claim that such an expansion of the interreligious table will be easy. And yet, I do claim it is necessary.

My last point I want to highlight is that so far (unfortunately) the UP has been incredibly top-down in construction. I am mournful about the fact that, for the most part, students here are an untapped resource. I do not think I speak beyond myself in saying that nearly all of us are very excited about the future of the University Project. Still, as far as I know, students have had little to no voice in the development, future or implementation of the University Project.

If I could sum up this unsettling problem in a few words, I would say this: Claremont treats its students like clientele rather than partners in justice. Certainly, there is money involved, and yes, we, as students, are still learning. It is understandable that there is a hierarchy here. I am open about that fact. The problem is that the hierarchy is simply too sheer. It is a problem when students’ voices are not trusted, or worse, are ignored. It is a problem when the UP is generally constructed above our heads, where we have no input, and we have no knowledge about developments until after the fact. It is a problem that I often feel we have no say in the future of the UP even though we are fully invested in it and we are part of it. It is a problem that I feel that the student body had more voice about policy decisions, implementation, and the future of the institution at my undergraduate college. Perhaps the most damning fact is that at the very press conference that announced the University Project publicly to the press, students were not welcome. (EDIT: Some) Staff and faculty were present at the announcement– but not one single, token student. Instead, students were relegated to a nearby classroom where they could watch the press conference through tele-link. (EDIT: Since this post, I have learned that the University Project committee has one student representative, one student was present at the press conference and two student representatives sit on the board of trustees. While this mitigates my concern somewhat, I want to be clear that I remain deeply frustrated about (what I feel to be) the general inability for student voices to be heard on campus. Communication (between the administration and students, between the student representatives and students, etc.) is clearly still a problem).

I do not believe that there is malicious intent behind these actions. No, I think it is just a (dangerous) misconception of the student body that leads to these actions. I feel as though CST functions as though the University Project is just a product to be marketed to the student body. From that perspective, we are not partners in that project. Yes, students here could be more active, less apathetic. But the student body is not just student life, something to be pushed to the fringes of university life as a whole. Simply put (and this goes well beyond the the University Project), I do not feel as though the student voice here is viewed as essential to the future of the university. And that is a problem.

If the University Project is going to work, if hope is to be more than hope, there must be trust and empowerment. CST needs to let students be more than just a consumer of a product. Invite students to press conferences. Rather than sell the school to us, let us sell the school. Empower student voices to be heard. I’ll confess that I do not know much about the inner workings of the University Project in the administration, but find ways of placing students in that process. If there are committee meetings (even board meetings) related to this process, make sure a student or two is present at each step. On one hand, it will be a teaching experience for us as students. On the other hand, I think we would surprise the institution at exactly what we could do when we were empowered to speak and live fully.

I am very hopeful about the future. It would be unwise to criticize the University Project too much in its infancy for being underdeveloped. At this point, it is no surprise that theory is ahead of practice, that the student body, faculty and staff are all still predominantly Christian (all of which, to reflect a fully broad pluralism, must change with time), nor that the official language at CST is still fairly singularly Christian. Time will do much to the future development of the university. With all of that said, however, like any future, this particular hopeful future will need some work.

There is much to be hopeful about. Other issues, like the cases of multireligious, non-religious, and non-officially religious individuals, will take a desire for full dialogue and creative, imaginative transformation. Changing how students are viewed on campus will take a difficult change of mindset, both in terms of the students and the administration. After all, the University Project must be a collaborative project if it is to find success. In a world of broken dialogue and dreams, there can be no doubt that projects like this one are absolutely necessary. With all of that in mind, can I but help to look to the open, multiplicitous future with hope, ever active hope?

For this week, open to discussion:

1) How might the UP overcome the Christian tendency in inter-religious dialogue to only include the so-called ‘great’ faiths?

2) How do you find yourself navigating the difficult ground between maintaining the value of difference without entombing any particular difference in a frozen crypt for the sake of its safety? Or am I wrong that religious differences and religious transformation are equally important in inter-religious dialogue?

3) Any general or specific thoughts you might have on the University Project and/or my reflections on the University Project.

In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 3

•August 11, 2010 • 2 Comments

This post is a little more on schedule, although I’ll delay patting myself on the back until I get into a successful groove. With luck, my upcoming classes won’t derail me.

My last post explored the various reasons for why religious pluralism has become fairly unpopular. Obviously, my posts have generally explored the academic unpopularity of religious pluralism. However, judging from recent news events (Qur’an burnings, protests against Mosques and Islamic Centers), the common American distaste for religious pluralism is a popular topic as well.

Such a rejection of religious pluralism, both in the academic and popular spheres (allow me the fictitious separation for the moment), however, is unwarranted. My first post argued that religious pluralism is an inescapable fact. Below I will outline five of the reasons why I believe that religious pluralism should be a cherished fact.

1.Toleration – While toleration is a weak political goal to desire by itself, clearly the societies of today have much to learn from respecting difference in others. Obviously toleration has its limits. It cannot be allowed to devolve into ethical relativism. Nor is it an excuse for individuals to live in solipsistic, communally-unengaged worlds. While an overemphasized virtue of democratic societies, alone often valued for the wrong reasons, as one gift among many within religious pluralism, toleration becomes a contextual virtue to be cherished.

2.Honesty – I’ll confess, I almost wrote ‘consistency’ here. But let’s be honest, I say somewhat sardonically, I would not have meant consistency as it is typically used. Consistency is another overemphasized virtue of our (post)modern society, particularly (I personally find) among us younger generations. Since I believe that everyone (necessarily) lives a contradictory life within contradictory stories, consistency between stories is an impossible goal, and not the good kind. Still, there is a certain kind of consistency, let’s call it relational honesty, in living within the story of religious pluralism. As I wrote before, everyone lives contradictory stories, so expecting others to live within a singular narrative even while oneself does not is simply dishonest. Call it a (post)modern rendition of the Golden Rule.

3. Engagement – The dimension of religious pluralism that interests me the most is probably rhetorical religious pluralism, that is, that our different religious stories are worth sharing with each other. That is one of the reasons why tolerance by itself is not enough. If we all have different stories to share, there is always a reason to listen to the other. And not just as a passive tolerant. Instead, religious pluralism encourages people to actively engage others’ stories. There are always new stories to hear, to learn. As a personal aside, that is one of the reasons I became interested in studying (and teaching) religion at a college. Religious studies is one of the few fields (unlike, say, Chemistry) where every student in the class has a story worth contributing. There is something special about being a professor in a classroom and still learning everyday from one’s students.

4. Transformation – To some, this might appear to be an obvious byproduct of actively listening to others’ stories. If one honestly engages the other, one cannot help but be transformed in relationship with that other. I do not mean to drastically separate the two. Regardless, for someone who can often hear without listening (say, like the writer of this blog), a reminder is necessary. As an engaged listener to every other, I have a responsibility to be transformed from every conversation. Not necessarily to the other’s point of view. Again, religious pluralism is not religious relativism. Instead, it is within actively engaging the other that the possibility for something new is born, both in the other and in oneself. Call it transformation. Or, perhaps, call it hope.

5. Dialogue – If one does not deny the fact of the multiplicity of religious narratives (both in others and in the self), one might wonder if (in an ideal world), such a multiplicity is to be desired. After all, the previous four points merely uphold the value of religious pluralism in a world that is already religiously pluralistic. I think, however, that one can go further. Many narratives are often beneficial to life. They function, in a somewhat democratic fashion, to keep any particular narrative in check, constantly challenging each other in a nexus of contradictions. If one’s commitment to fundamentalist Christianity calls one to burn a Qur’an, perhaps one’s commitment to American ideals like religious freedom will keep such a call in check. Many (obviously not all) problems in this world occur because people smooth over the ‘wrinkles’ in their value-laden narratives. Differences are not to be overcome, but lived within.

Obviously, this is not a call to indecisiveness. Benefiting from the dialogue of many different contradictory narratives does not necessarily mean that one should become frozen in doubt, stretched out in infinite directions over an infinite space. Our finiteness is to be cherished, a responsibility, but not (yet) a burden. In order to live, one must respond, one must choose. But these choices are not made alone. In communities, we have many stories to draw upon, many wells to drink from. Even within the complexity of the self, there are more stories to rely upon than we often know. Perhaps, again, this is a call to listen. A call not to deny the value of sharing our stories.

As one can see, these values of religious pluralism overlap. This fact is not surprising. Every tapestry has its unique folds, its distinct tears. Next time, I’ll turn to another pluralistic tapestry, a weaving-in-process, and reflect upon Claremont School of Theology’s newly announced University Project.

For this week, open to discussion:

1) Can any of the above reasons for religious pluralism be taken too far? How so?

2) What are some other reasons to value religious pluralism? Or to be wary about it?

3) How does this discussion, in your mind, connect to recent news items (like Qur’an burnings, Mosque/Islamic Center protests, etc.)?

In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 2

•August 4, 2010 • 3 Comments

Quite an overdue post, eh? This summer has been quite hectic – guests, thesis research, xbox 360. Ok… I’ll admit, emphasis on the xbox 360. With luck, this post will start a new batch of regular posts. But hey, a grad student can relax from time to time, right? Or at least enjoy multiple modes of story-sharing?

Speaking of multiple modes of story-sharing, as I recall, my last post was a general defense of religious pluralism. I argued that religious pluralism (many religious stories are worth sharing) is an inescapable fact. Such, of course, is terrible news for religious exclusivists, as they rather make their living out of the desired survival of a single religious narrative.  Religious pluralism is certainly not gospel to religious exclusivists (pun intended).

Still, at first glance, anyone could embrace the fact of religious pluralism mournfully. Perhaps it not just bad news for the religious exclusivist, but bad news for us all. The cynical response, so to speak – the (malicious) cosmos makes religious pluralism an inescapable fact, and yet, only as a ploy to make us suffer in our singular desire to live one story among many.

Before I get more into why I think an optimistic response is much more appropriate to religious pluralism (i.e. we should cheerfully embrace the fact that we tell many religious stories), I think further background exploration would be helpful. Specifically, why has religious pluralism lost its popularity? While many different points could be made, I would like to highlight two specific dimensions in the faltering of religious pluralism.

The first is that religious pluralism has often fallen into religious relativism.  Many have heard of the mountain metaphor.  Religions are like mountains; some religious pluralists claim that each one of us, in our religious journey, climbs our own independent mountain. Each religion is an accurate tale, just local to the particular person.

Even if one avoids religious relativism by claiming that not all religions lead up a mountain (only some), such an account of religious diversity ultimately leads to a lack of engagement between people, or in other words, religious solipsism. If I have my own mountain, so to speak, why should I care about your mountain? Do I have any reason to learn about your religious stories? Do I have any reason to story-share?

The second is that religious pluralism has often been mistaken for religious inclusivism (which, however,  is often the fault of religious pluralists like John Hick). Religious inclusivism is the claim that in the end, there is only one religious story. We all tell it. In other words, to continue the well-worn mountain metaphor, there is only one mountain (perhaps many paths up it, perhaps not), and somehow we just think there are many different mountains. We simply deceive ourselves when we believe that the different religions are different stories – really we walk the same paths.

To the extent that religious pluralism is mistaken for religious inclusivism, it suffers some real problems; religious incluvisism has rightly been rejected. Like the many mountains, one mountain damages the reasons for religious story-sharing. If we all walk the same paths, and we already know them, why would we bother telling each other what we already know?

Worse, religious inclusivism imperialistically erases the (very real) differences between the religious stories we tell, often in the name of the religion of the religious inclusivist.  Karl Rahner, for example, a famous Catholic theologian, claimed that there were many “anonymous Christians” among the world, presumably even anonymous to themselves. If one reduces every religious other, every other story, to the same, the value of other stories has been violently decimated.

The (common) mountain metaphor itself suffers from many problems. Why privilege ascent over decent? Why describe religions as singular hikes and/or journeys? Why presume that religions are defined by a goal (reaching the top)?  In many ways, the mountain metaphor itself, while it can be helpful to explain, functions inclusively, reducing the complexity of many religions to one mold. That is one of the reasons I hesitate in defining religious narratives more than my general definition: value-laden stories.

Obviously, however, I believe these shortcomings can be overcome. Religious pluralism is distinct from religious inclusivism. One can construct a theory of religious pluralism that encourages religious dialogue. I should be open about one fact, however.  For me, theories of religions take a back seat to questions of value. As such, if we are to tell a story about religions, the ultimate goal should be upholding the value of story-sharing. So far I have argued that many religious narratives are the fact of life (even individual life), and I have taken a brief detour through the history of religious theory.  Next time, I’ll turn to why living and sharing in a world of abundant stories should be cherished and cultivated. With luck, I’ll wrap up this series with Part 4, a reflection on the University Project, an experiment in religious pluralism (in my very own backyard at CST). You know, if the many stories of the xbox don’t steal me away.

For this week, open to discussion:

1) What metaphors do you find apt for describing religious narratives?

2) Is there a value in an account of religious diversity beyond tolerance? What is the value (if any) of religious dialogue?

3) Is there a viable way of separating religious pluralism from religious inclusivism? Can we uphold the value of sharing many stories without reducing them to a singular expression?

In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 1

•June 1, 2010 • 1 Comment

I’ve been surprised over my first year in religious studies graduate school to discover that religious pluralism is no longer a popular position. Obviously there are a multiplicity of theories of religious pluralism. Generally speaking, by religious pluralism, I simply mean here the stance that a plenitude (if not all) of religious stories are worth sharing. One could add more nuance to such a position, but that will do for now.

For all the stereotypes that scholars are liberal corrupters of the tradition, it might seem odd that so many religious scholars have come to reject religious pluralism. Typically, this has taken the form of a (re)affirmation of religious exclusivism (one religious story is only worth sharing). One scholar recently told me that religious exclusivism was the only ethical position. I was taken aback. Call me traditional (I say with my tongue in my cheek), but I still firmly believe that condemning others to eternal torment is hardly ethical.

Obviously, there are limits to religious pluralism. If a form of religious pluralism demands ethical or religious relativism, that form of religious pluralism should be rejected as untenable. However, I believe it is wrong to assume that every form of religious pluralism entails some weak form of relativism.

I’ll confess, I have a lot at stake in my passion for religious pluralism. After all, I claim to be a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Christian. I don’t believe I do injustice to either religious tradition by living within religious multiplicity. In fact, as a few recent pew studies have shown, a surprising amount of Americans practice multiple religions (somewhere around 40%!).

However, I’ll go even further, even perhaps do a bit of violence to my position, and claim that religious pluralism is, in a sense, exclusivistic. By that, I do not mean that one should be a religious pluralist. On the contrary, there is no should about it. Instead, it is my contention that religious pluralism is inescapable. We all practice, live and share multiple religious stories. In this sense, religious exclusivists cannot help but condemn themselves to hell.

It is a problematic mistake to follow the Western assumption that religions are only the so-called “Great Faiths,” (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, occasionally a couple of others). Not only does this do violence to the multitude of religious traditions one might name that get excluded (Native American religious traditions, just to name ‘one’ example),  but it radically reduces the nature of religion itself. I don’t believe that the modern, Western preference for the “spiritual, not religious” identification has resulted because of inherent value in the word “spiritual.” On the contrary, I think it is a revolt against the modern tendency to reduce religion to a narrow category that could never encompass the religious practices of any particular individual.

I am often disturbed by the scholarly proclivity to talk about Marxism as a quasi-religion. It is common practice to say that someone follows a sport as though it were a religion. I am uncomfortable with these tendencies because they establish a normative boundary for what a religion must be (which often looks like Christianity), and then exclude other practices/stories not desired to be religious as non-religious. Obviously, such a normative argumentative process is rather circular. However, beyond that, it simply denies the fact of life.

The fact of life, a fact that continually returns to haunt us, no matter how much we reject it, is that we are all religious pluralities. One’s identity consists of the dis/coherent multiplicity of religious stories we live within. We cannot escape the fact that we draw meaning from multiple stories that have roots in multiple religious traditions. These traditions are not just the narrow conceptions we hold of the ‘great faiths,’ but also find expression in a multiplicity of cultural strands in music, literature, sports, even collections. After all, I confess, I can be rather religious about my library.

So why would a self-avowed post-Marxist like myself, defend “shopping cart spirituality” a phrase that is typically used to describe American religious practices by the media and scholarship (typically with a great deal of elitist disdain). Obviously, I do not hope to commodify religious traditions. However, I do believe that intentionally cultivating a rich identity of religious multiplicity from the bare religious pluralistic facts that make us up is desirable. In other words, the intent to “pick and choose” among religious traditions is not something that should be chided or criticized without further thought. To this ethical side of religious pluralism, I will turn next time.

For this week, open to discussion:

1) How might you describe your own process of navigating religious identity, particularly in light of discussions of religious pluralism?

2) Can we construct a concept of religion without it normatively excluding some religious stories? What would such a story of religion sound like?

3) What has been your experience of religious pluralism? Am I wrong in my claim that religious pluralism is a basic fact of existence? What about religious exclusivism?

Thinking Phantom Realities

•May 19, 2010 • 1 Comment

When I was a child, ghost stories scared me silly. As my family can attest, I avoided all scary movies. I even had recurring nightmares from the horror-comedy Clue. As such, my turn to the image of the ghost over the past few years has come as a surprise to many (including myself).

So, for the inaugural post to Phantom Realities (an ironic reference to Ludwig Feuerbach), I wanted to explore four (of many) possible reasons for my unexpected recent attraction to ghost stories. I imagine that all four themes will recur (as nightmares?) throughout the future tales and reflections I hope to share on my blog in the future.

When one speaks about ghosts, one can…

#1 Speak of pain and hope – Perhaps my initial reason for becoming interested in the image of the ghost is my prior interest in trauma studies and the ethical call to justice. I say “and” because I believe the two mutually entail each other. It is our suffering that calls us to justice. It is justice that gives us hope in the face of suffering. I think ghost stories often conjure up such an image. Ghosts often haunt because of the violence and loss suffered in the past. Something must be done. One should start with listening.

#2 Speak of the reality of stories – What is real? After the modern reduction of reality to a flat scientific portrait, I search for more breadth in order to discover the reality of literature, music, film. The humanities cannot just gain meaning by being derivatives of the rather crude/reductionistic scientific worldview. Instead, the humanities must find worth in a certain kind of supernaturality.

I don’t have a problem with science. I am simply disturbed by the authoritative dominance of the scientific portrait of reality. In modern parlance, ghosts are clearly supernatural. In my practice of deconstruction, could there be a better way to problematize the borders of traditional ontology than to tell supernatural stories as if they were natural? Or, put another way, to think phantoms realities, to think phantom realities?

So, ultimately, do I believe in ghosts? Yes. Yes, I do.

#3 Speak stories – Who can talk about ghosts without talking about ghost stories? How did such a ghost come to haunt this place? How can we talk about the trauma suffered here? Ghost stories are always uniquely elaborate tales. When I talk about the meaning of the world, of life, of existence, I don’t want to talk about definitions or concepts. Instead, let’s tell a story. Rather, let’s not just tell one. Let’s tell many.

#4 Speak of (failed) exorcisms – Every ghost story begins with trauma. Perhaps one of the most interesting ghost stories is the story about the word “ghost.” Despite the scientific, positivistic turn in the modern Western world, a common belief in ghosts persists. Movies, music, literature all abound with ghost stories. Most studies have shown over the past decade or so that roughly 33-50% of Americans believe in ghosts (in the standard ontological sense). One can only imagine, keeping in mind my second point, how many Americans believe ghosts are real (in the full breadth of the word).

And what makes a better ghost story than a ghost story about ghost stories? Why do Americans constantly deny the supernatural, and yet, live in a world so immersed in ghost stories? Quite the detective story. Even I could not avoid the horror stories I so desperately tried to evade in my childhood. Ghosts have a habit of re-presenting themselves against our will.

My following posts will discuss ghosts, albeit often not in name. In fact, for the most part, phantoms will be constantly in the background, haunting the foreground of this blog. Instead, I will write about everything that falls under the ever-expansive umbrella ‘culture.’ Politics, music, literature, etc., are all fair game. Expect the posts to be shorter and less technical (than my former blog posts). Even this post was more technical and abstract than I had originally hoped; call it the groundwork for a multitude of implicit and explicit ghost stories to come. I hope to post on a weekly basis (at least over the summer).

Most of all, though, I hope this blog to be a conversation, not a monologue. The best stories are always shared. Consider this a public forum. I will typically end all of my posts with a call to discussion. Please feel free to respond to each post (or comments) in your own creative way. You can even move beyond any particular call to discussion. I look forward to future shared stories.

For this week, open to discussion:

1) share a ghost story – I’d love to hear a favorite you’ve heard/read/seen.
2) what do you find compelling about the image of the ghost?
3) what do you find terrifying about the image of the ghost? Or dangerous?