Our last lecture was about ethnography. It was enlightening to be able to learn about this type of study after doing a congregation visit myself. I really appreciate all of the different stages of ethnography and how each form of ethnography generates its own results and conclusions. This was especially interesting given that the congregation visit presentations were on the class following the lecture. It made me appreciate the dedication and effort that goes into observing a religious organization by an ethnographer. We only visited a single congregational service at our assigned congregation and from that wrote an essay and did a presentation. After learning about the process that ethnographers go through it seems funny to think that we can go to a congregational service and somehow leave with a good understanding of the people and the tradition. Ethnographer or sociologist spend months even years with a group before drawing conclusions or writing about them. I also appreciate the connectedness of the entire process. An ethnographer isn’t a judgmental observer instead they participate to an extent and respect and partner with their subjects which seems incredibly transparent and refreshing especially given the religious biases inherent in nearly all observers. Additionally, it seems difficult for me to comprehend the level of analysis and depth that ethnographers are able to gather, as a religious studies major, these types of ‘site visits’ have been a regular occurrence in my life. Each time is nearly the same process, and I leave feeling fairly satisfied with my knowledge of the tradition and what is happening within the congregation. However, learning that an ethnographer spends years observing congregations was shocking!
This week’s reading was by Professor Spickard and was about understanding catholic worker house masses. The prevalence of charity in the article reminded me of my time studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria. As students, we were required to do a good deal of volunteering and a part of that volunteering was through a Catholic organization called Caritas. Their reach extended to nearly all realms of charity and was at a state level. As a student volunteer, I did activities like cooking dinner for a children’s shelter as well as serving food at a shelter for refugees and homeless Austrians. I see similarities in values and practices with the organization discussed in this article. This reading brought up so many questions for me, like is there something about Catholicism in particular that allows for charity originations or acts of charity to be commonplace? Or do we see it in our daily lives so prevalently because of the sheer volume and reach of the Catholic Church? With just over a billion Roman Catholics in the world, it isn’t surprising to conclude the prevalence is because of sheer number of adherents, but is there something else?
It was also interesting to learn that this Catholic group which was in the realm of radical Catholicism had a relatively traditional mass. The type of mass that you could find all over the world in a Catholic church. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of traditional practices coupled with the types of progressive activities they were involved in. It’s a testament to being able to being able to do good in the world and interpret religion for the benefit of others.
It was interesting that during the last class we were able to dip our toes into pagan traditions through the jigsaw assignment. In the research I did for my capstone project I explored goddess traditions to make a case for women being at the center of medicine through these healing deities. It was fascinating to see the modern traditions associated with goddesses and again I saw the same pattern of empowerment as is the case with Wicca/witchcraft. I also appreciated that the article I read (Dragonfest) not only detailed the way that women were empowered through the religion but also the ways that patriarchy and gender roles were being combated to aid in the empowerment of women. It also made me consider how much of this is was idealized. How many practitioners weren’t just having fun with the “magic” of it all. It seems like a tradition that is involved in that level of social justice would be larger or gather more attention especially given our modern circumstances. But, instead, it is a relatively small group which leads me to believe that there is another level to this that I cannot see. I would assume either 1. Much of the concepts and beliefs are idealized and at a ground level things are different 2. The connotation of witchcraft is so counterculture to our American Christianity that groups like these are and will continue to be marginalized.
This past weekend I did a congregation visit. While I was parking in the church lot, I received a bunch of unfriendly stares. As I walked in I could hear a group behind me say “who is that?” It made me begin to understand the categories that McGuire outlined early on in our readings. It was interesting to contrast, right away, the experience I had at the denominational organization vs the sectarian one. But it also gave me an interesting view of the free market of religion in America. This group for example was relatively small, it is truly interesting to think about the uniqueness of a few people with similar beliefs coming together and starting a church. Here, a bunch of similarly stand-offish type of people all found each other. This is something that people in Europe wouldn’t necessarily do. This could explain the diversity of Christian religion in America that isn’t seen in European countries.
Additionally, having grown up Catholic, these congregation visits have proven to be incredibly enlightening. The umbrella term of Christianity was something that I have always been comfortable with as a catch all for all denominations as well as Catholicism. However, it seems nearly impossible to see any commonality between the two during my past congregation visits. I’m glad to have been able to understand that distinction. However, it’s important to note that the distinction is an environment/culture difference while the theology of values might be the same they aren’t something that can be observed during a congregation visit alone.
Last week we read chapter eight from McGuire. McGuire and Spickard, in this chapter, talk about pluralism saying that when people are surrounded by different practices and beliefs they will in turn question their own. Furthermore, modern societies “brings together many people with many different views, and …expect them to behave civilly towards each other with toleration for difference.” (288) This made me think of modern politics and the discussions surrounding topics like immigration. Pluralism in religion seems comparable to pluralism in regards to political views. California for example, we have large immigrant populations as well as diversity in general and as a state we tend to be more liberal on issues surrounding immigration. Whereas we might see trends of states with low immigrant populations have opposite stances on immigration. And while I recognize this isn’t always the case (e.g. Texas), it has some of the same tones. Diversity forces us to challenge our perceptions of people, religion, etc. but as McGuire and Spickard makes a case the alternative, not challenging our own views, led to lack of freedom. “That same firm sense of tradition and community, however, also gravely restricted individual freedom: Choices of marriage partners, occupations, leisure-time activities, and political options were all controlled, sometimes subtly and often overtly.” (283) It was interesting to think of the decline in religion in terms of positive results. Often, the connotation of the loss of religion is a loss of some type of moral set of ideals, but instead this chapter frames the implications that other narratives might have on an individual level. Implications of individual freedom and tolerance of different views and practices.
Last week in class we watched a film that followed the lives of a few individuals inside of a religious organization. It really aided to highlight the point that we have been learning about; that individual experiences within a religion are unique and cannot be generalized. The reasons people join religious organizations are varied, but this is not to say that generalizations cannot be made. As we discussed after the film, the people whose lives were followed seemed to use religion as a coping mechanism for many things occurring in their life. Things that may have been beyond their control. Equally important to note is that theywouldn’t necessarily define their religiosity that way, it was an outside observation.
This made me think about vulnerability in general. When people are, vulnerable or experiencing a hardship, it seems like an opportunity for change. A form of change is through joining religious organizations. But furthermore, I thought about cultic traditions and those that might pose dangerous or exploitive lifestyle changes. It must be easier, through individual conflicts or lack of control to enter something like a cult compared to people who might be more settled or have internal senses of purpose. It must be extremely difficult at that point to ween from clinging to a religion/organization that provides answers to those problems. This is an extreme example but through the film I began to understand the ways that a sense of conflict or lack of purpose can create an environment that becomes a catalyst for wholehearted belief and devotion.
This past week in class we heard about the various religious organizations in Redlands. What was interesting to me was that there were really no common themes, each was unique and had its own personality. It was also interesting that doctrine and sermons weren’t the focal point of the presentations, instead the distinctive features of the congregation, architecture and design were emphasized. We often used words like friendly, welcoming, community etc. to describe the environment of the place instead of the worship. In a way, it was more important to understand the environment, especially in the variation of Christian traditions because it gave an insight into the type of people who are drawn to these congregations to being with.
A theme that I did see, however, was everyone who presented seemed to relate their visit to their own personal religious experiences. It’s an easy and comfortable framework to build, but it made me reflect on the value of doing so. By relating the visit to something familiar we brush off the need to reflect upon it. I have noticed this within myself and I realized why the assignment was to visit a place unlike the tradition we practice or are familiar with. However, I also recognize how difficult that is, as Christianity in almost all forms will have similarities and most of the United States is Christian.
It was in these presentations that the importance of categorizing religions was emphasized. In the McGuire reading we learned all about categories and denominations and the nuances of classifying a religious institution. It was in the subtleties of religions like Catholicism and Episcopalismthat knowing the distinctions and differences was crucially important.
We’ve heard presentations from an assortment of religious traditions and sociological perspectives and approaches to studying those religions in class this week. It has made me really question if religions can ever be truly generalized. I never realized how much variety there can be within any given religion. Also, the people themselves are within so many stages of life as well as stages of their religiosity
I myself have had very stagnant religiosity. I was born into the religion that I currently consider myself a part of. I went to a school that practiced that same religion and my entire family is a part of that faith. I guess for me the idea of converting and having a fluid religious experience seems extremely foreign. For that reason, the in-class presentations have been so enlightening and have taught me so much about variation and change within the religious spectrum. It leads me to a greater appreciation for religions as a whole. A metaphor for religion that has come to mind is higher education. Saying you have a college degree could mean a hundred different things, like saying you’re religious. If you have a college degree it could be in art, biology, English, etc. It could mean you studied online or it could mean you went to a large state school or a small liberal arts institution. It could also imply that you took three years to obtain that degree or ten. The same seems true with religion. Saying you’re religious or even saying you’re Jewish or Christian doesn’t really provide a clear idea of who you are. Religion is so broad and there is so much variation even within a particular group that it seems near impossible to make generalizations.
This week my group is presenting onTradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism by Lynn Davidman. The theme of lineage appeared multiple time throughout the course of this book. Women were seeking out Judaism as a way to connect with their roots and thereby felt empowered through their inert connection because of their ancestry. This theme isn’t unique to this book, nor is it unique at all. I am currently reading The Life of Milarepaand The Life of the Buddha and the same theme of lineage runs throughout. Also, it is present in the bible with the laundry list of lineages from Moses to Jesus! I wonder what this importance of lineage is? Why do so many religious stories begin with ancestry? This seems strange to me because I have been exposed to so much choice in my life. American religious movements that I study in my major haven’t been around long enough for an ancestry within to form. I guess that is the point, those people that do have that intrinsic connection to a religious organization that stems back centuries have a special tie to it.
This makes me think about the contrast between established religions like Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. that have had hundreds to thousands of years to create webs of connections throughout humanity and newer religions organizations that have not created those ties. And if this emphasis on lineage is valid (as it keeps appearing over and over again) then there is no way I can see a demise in these traditions. So, while we see an increase in “spirituality” and a decrease in adherence, I’m curious to know if it’s just new religious movements that should be scared for their future? Especially when taking into account things like Hansen’s law of third-generation and similar types of “reconnection” that is possible within the world’s oldest religions. So while we might witness downward trends in numbers in all religious organizations, it makes sense to me that if those numbers ever did increase they might be for religions that have “roots”?
What stood out to me the most in the Chaves reading was the rise in spirituality while belief in God stayed relatively the same. What I took from this is that, people are not any less religious, they are just categorizing themselves differently. Terminology is important here because the term religious has a specific definition whereas spiritual is not as concrete.
Just this weekend I was speaking to an older woman, who was having a conversation with her daughter. The conversation was about religion and her daughter says, “mom you’re not religious, when’s the last time you went to church?” this claim caught the women off guard. She was shocked that her daughter would question her beliefs. She responded with “Just because I don’t go to church doesn’t mean I don’t have faith. I consider myself to be more spiritual than religious.”. BINGO I said to myself. Here was the Chaves reading, and our class conversations come to life. Was this just an extreme coincidence that someone would be having this conversation during me studying this topic or was it that I am now more aware of this distinction and the terminology?
In class, we talked about the idea of “if that’s religion, than I want nothing to do with it” Which makes sense to me, especially considering the shifting political climate that has happened in the past few decades. As religious institutions draw clear boundaries and align themselves politically, members will drop off. Like the example with the Catholic Church condemning contraceptives. It makes me wonder if the future of religious institutions looks more similar to businesses than to our previous conceived notions of a church. Either way, religious institutions and religious individuals are making choices, and when people are faced with leaving a religious institution, it doesn’t seem to be because of a change of faith but instead a change of politics?