Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion

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Required Bible courses? Given its importance and influence, schools should require all students to study the Bible in some depth, but we do not favor required Bible courses as the way of accomplishing this end, in part because this comes a little too close to privileging the Jewish and Christian traditions. Educators should incorporate some study of the Bible into appropriate world history and literature courses at contextually appropriate places —though, as we've argued, natural inclusion doesn't get us very far.

The ideal, once again, is to incorporate the Bible into a religion course in which it would be studied with other sacred scriptures.

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When the Wake County schools in Raleigh, North Carolina, began offering high school Bible courses several years ago, they required that each of the high schools also offer world religions courses. We find considerable merit in elective Bible courses but believe they should be supplemented in the curriculum by courses in other world religions that give all students the opportunity to study their own traditions—and convey to them the sense that their religions are taken seriously.

As important as it is for students to understand the Bible, a course on the Bible and its influence will not educate them about religion generally. Just as there is more to history than American history, so there is more to religion than the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity. Schools must take seriously other religious traditions, and one way to do this is through a course in world religions.

Diversity and depth. There is, of course, an inevitable neutrality problem with any world religions course, for there is not time in the school day to be fair to all religions. There are also educational tensions here. The religions of the world are not minor variations on a theme, easily captured in short lists of basic beliefs or values.

Moreover, some religions have been—and continue to be— more influential than others and, as a result, are more important to study on educational grounds. Neutrality and breadth must be balanced with relevance and depth. We suggest that in a year-long course students should explore a few religious traditions in some depth—with, perhaps, a cursory survey of other religions to give them some sense of breadth.

No doubt Christianity should be one of the religions studied because of its deep influence on American institutions and on the beliefs and values of many students. Neutrality requires that it not be privileged, however, in at least two senses.

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Second, schools must teach students about several religions that contrast in marked ways to Christianity. Schools should include at least one non-Western religion in the course, and if a substantial number of students come from a particular minority tradition, it would be good to include that religion in the mix. Indeed, it is important to acknowledge and study the exploding religious diversity of American culture; most urban schools will have students who are members of many of the world's religions.

The many dimensions of religion. In Chapter 2 we cited Ninian Smart's taxonomy of the seven dimensions of religion: doctrine; myth or narrative; moral and legal teachings; ritual; religious experience; social institutions; and art. Different religious traditions give different weight to these various dimensions of religion. For many Christians, especially conservative Protestants, salvation hinges on what one believes. Indeed, from the beginning, Christianity defined itself in terms of creeds, and required orthodoxy , or right belief.

So, for example, Jews are to keep the commandments, observe the rituals, and sustain tradition. It is often said that one is a believing Christian, a practicing Jew. In other religious traditions, ritual, mystical encounters with the Transcendent, philosophical reflection, art and the experience of beauty, or living in harmony with nature may be central.

It is important both that students appreciate these differences and that teachers not impose their own conception of what is or should be normative in religion on other traditions, but convey to students each religion's own conception of what is normative. Internal diversity. Of course, every religious tradition comes in different varieties.

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For some Christians salvation hinges on what one believes; for others it is found in mystical union with God; for yet others, in liberating the oppressed. The term Hinduism suggests a unity that obscures a bewildering diversity of myths and rituals, beliefs and values, institutions and theologies. Although one can trace the legacy of distinguishable Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions in China, Chinese religion has long been an amalgam of them. Acknowledging these differences is important, in part because students will sometimes not recognize their own traditions in the simplified versions of them they will encounter in the classroom.

The Educational Framework

As we saw in our discussion of the Bible, students must also appreciate something of the diversity of meaning that scriptures have in different traditions. Of course, not all religions have written scriptures; much African and Native American religion does not—though many of these traditions have stories and myths, orally transmitted, that function as scripture.

Whereas Western religions have a closed canon, most Eastern religions Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese and Japanese religions do not, but draw on a wide array of scriptures of varying degrees of influence at different times and places. The authority of canonical scriptures has given a measure of unity to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that is not typical of other traditions. Even among Western religions, there are significant differences in how scripture is understood, however.

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For example, within Islam the Qur'an is understood much as Christ is understood in the Christian tradition—as the immediate revelation of God. By contrast, Christians typically understand the New Testament as being once removed from God, bearing witness to the revelation of God in Christ. Moreover, the Qur'an is not to be translated, but read and recited in Arabic; again Christianity has no parallel.

It is important to remember, of course, that sacred texts are not as central to all religions as they are to Western religions. Other religions may better be approached through art or ritual or tradition. Development and progress. Historically, one can't understand Christianity apart from its development through the church fathers, the medieval synthesis of theology and Greek philosophy, the Reformation, and the development of modern liberal Christianity and conservative reassertions of orthodoxy.

Christians often regard Judaism primarily as a precursor to Christianity, which ignores the transforming impact of rabbinic teaching canonized in the Talmud , and its development in response to Greek philosophy and modernity. Of course, when the question of development is posed as a question of progress , it becomes controversial—and very important for students to understand.

Religious liberals accept the idea of religious progress: through experience, reflection, and scholarship we can acquire greater insight into God and reality and reform our religious traditions. Conservatives often believe, by contrast, the truth was given once and for all in the past, and the only kind of reformation that is possible is dispensing with later accretions and distortions and returning to the original revelation.

Civic Religion

Needless to say, different traditions have understood God in very different ways. There is the obvious difference between monotheistic, animistic, and polytheistic conceptions of divinity. Whereas the Western religions have traditionally understood God as personal, Eastern religions have more commonly held an impersonal or mystical conception of God as Nirvana, Brahman, the Tao. Of course, mysticism is not utterly foreign to the West, and constant debate has occurred over the extent to which personal language can be applied to God. Conservatives, by contrast, often find liberal demythologizing of God-talk to be dangerously unscriptural.

How literally we take scriptural language about God determines whether it is appropriate to use masculine pronouns for God—another matter of some controversy. Again, the point is that conceptions of God are quite different in different traditions; it won't do to say as teachers sometimes do that deep down all religions worship the same God. They don't—or, at least, the claim that they do is deeply controversial. Religion from the outside and the inside.

It is important, once again, to sustain some kind of balance in approaching religion. We've argued that scripture must be put in historical and linguistic context, using the resources of secular scholarship. Some comparative study of what is common to religions and what is distinctive about each, in turn, is both interesting and important.

What can be said about how religions come into existence, develop, and relate to one another? But, of course, one major purpose of studying religion is to acquire some sense of how the world looks from within those traditions. Here, as we argued in Chapter 2, the goal is to nurture an informed empathy , an imaginative understanding of the world as seen through the eyes of people in different religious traditions. In such study, they should be allowed to speak for themselves, using the conceptual resources of their own traditions, to make sense of their own religion, lives, and the world.

Consequently, a good course in world religions should use—and balance—both primary sources scripture, theology, art, film, and literature drawn from within religious traditions, and secondary sources perhaps textbooks that approach various religious traditions from the outside. The importance of religion lies not just in its historical influence but in the implications of living religion for how we think about the world and live our lives. As we noted in Chapter 2, for most of history religion pervaded all of life. People in other times and cultures haven't divided the world up as we do.

Indeed, religion is a modern Western word that we have come to use to categorize ideas and institutions in strikingly new and different ways Smith, Beginning in the 17th century, Western intellectuals gradually distinguished religion from politics, economics, history, morality, and science, secularizing our ways of conceiving these disciplines. Contemporary public education teaches students that secular ways of experiencing the world are normative, that the modern secular worldview goes without saying.

Of course, in cases in which the logic of arguments and evidence is exclusively secular and is often defined by scientific method , students come to understand religious claims as matters of seemingly blind faith. This is a peculiarly modern, Western view, and one point of a good religion course should be to examine this claim.

After all, in all cultures, and for most of human history, it was reasonable to understand the world religiously. There are many ways of defining faith and reason, but we might put the problem this way: because we teach students so little about religion, we teach them, in effect, to accept the adequacy of secular ways of thinking about life and the world uncritically, as a matter of faith Nord, , pp. We have argued that it is essential to enlarge the curricular discussion to include religious voices if students are to be truly educated—that is, if they are to be able to think critically or reasonably about their lives and what they learn elsewhere in their coursework.

We would have students learn something about several different religious ways of making sense of the major, religiously contested issues addressed in the curriculum: the origins of the world; the meaning of history; the meaning of America; justice; sexuality and the family; abortion; and morality—that is, those issues we address in Chapters 3 through 9 of this book.

Students should learn enough about religion to enable them to understand, and participate in, our ongoing cultural discussion of these issues. One task of a religion course must be to explore the relationship between religious and secular ways of making sense of the world. This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Abstract While consciousness has been examined extensively in its different aspects, like in philosophy, psychiatry, neurophysiology, neuroplasticity, etc.

Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion
Mystic Mechanics: An Anatomy of American Civil Religion

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