Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why We Must Understand Chinese Philosophy

Wikipedia Commons
Most American know little about Chinese philosophy. They know little beyond the idea that Confucianism is based on five relationships and Doism has something to do with nature.

In addition, few philosophy departments in the top universities even have a regular faculty member who teaches Chinese philosophy.  Of course, you can find a lot of Greek philosophy.

But, according to Bryan W. Van Norden, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor at Yale-NUS College, understanding Chinese thought is a matter of urgency.  He outlines three reasons in an terrific essay for The Conversation called, Why the US doesn’t understand Chinese thought – and must.
  1. China's economy could become the largest in the world by 2030. We should understand the philosophical and religious framework of a country with so much influence  because, notes Professor Norden, "traditional philosophy is of continuing relevance in China." 
  2. Chinese philosophy has lot to offer. For example, Confucian ethics can "provide a deeper understanding of ethical issues regarding the family and can even inform policy recommendations."
  3. Finally, Professor Norden argues that we need more cultural diversity in our philosophy departments. They are too Euro-centric in focus. They should diversify into Asia and consider feminist, indigenous American, Islamic, Latin American and South Asian philosophies.
Just as one might need to understand the Judeo-Christian background of the Untied States in order to understand some of the political policy, one should understand the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist philosophies that inform Chinese policy.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Who are the Yazidis: Resources

Yazidis are followers of an ancient religion that has some similarities to Islam but is different. Many of their beliefs derive from Christianity and followers revere both the Quran and the Bible.

Most Yadizis live in northern Iraq, Syria, Georgia, Armenia, and northwestern Iran. They number in the hundreds of thousands.

Yazidis believe in reincarnation and in an all powerful being called Yasdan who is never worshiped directly. Instead, Yazidis worship spirits that emanate from Yasdan, like the Peacock Angel, known as Malak Taus, who is considered to be the greatest of these sprits. The peacock was an important symbol in early Christianity because its flesh does not seem to decay.

Yazidis lived alongside Christians for centuries and, according to Gerard Russell in his book, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, worked together against their Muslim overlords and sometimes would covert to each other's religion.

Many people mistakenly call the Yazidis devil worshippers. That's because Malak Taus, the Peacock Angel to whom Yazidis pray five times a day, has another name, "Shaytan," which means "devil worshipper" in Arabic.

Some Yazidi festivals like the sacrifice of bull, which is supposed to bring fertility in the spring and rain in the winter, involves reverence of  a Sheik named "Shams" which reassembles the name of  the ancient Assyrian sun god,  Shamash. King Hammurabi invoked Shamash's name when he wrote his great law code.

In December, Yazidis fast for three days and then have a feast called Eid al-Swam. The sun figures in this feast as it does in the sacrifice of the bull. When the sun did not appear in ancient times, three days of fast led God to restore it.

The Yazidi faith is a mystery religion and clergy are reluctant to reveal inner messages. While this secrecy has helped keep them safe in the past, it has made it difficult for historians to learn a lot about the faith.

Extremist Sunnis like ISIL persecute the Yazidi because they believe the Yazidi name derives from an unpopular Umayyad caliph. But, according to the BBC Magazine Monitor,  modern research shows that their name really has nothing to do with the second caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty. 

Fighters for the Islamic State have bought, sold, and raped thousands of Yazidi women.  They kidnapped young boys and indoctrinated them with ISIS beliefs. Over half a million Yazidi have been displaced from their homes and those that remain live in terrible refugee camps.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What Faith are You? Belief-O-Matic Knows

Do you know which faith is most compatible with your religious beliefs?

Belief-O-Matic does. Just create an account, answer the questions, and Belief-O-Matic will tell you which faith is most compatible.  It's a fun activity for students when we begin our World Religions class.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Washington Metro Area Teachers Participate in Week-Long Religious Literacy Workshop

The National Council of Social Studies recently recognized the importance of teaching about religion in public schools and published a set of guidelines. It’s the first national education association in the country to publish such guidelines.

Teachers involved in writing those guidelines began this summer to develop
workshops to help teachers become more literate about religion.

Chris Murray, Jr, a public-school teacher in Montgomery County in Maryland who teaches a course about religion, offered a workshop to Washington, DC area teachers in late June.

I attended the five day workshop along with almost 40 other teachers, mostly from Maryland and the District of Columbia. Only a few taught history or religion. I saw math and biology teachers, elementary and middle school teachers and even one school counselor.

This was not a typical teacher workshop. It was an amazing immersion into the world of religion!

State Department policy experts and journalists who cover religion talked to us one morning. Time Magazine writer,  Elizabeth Dias and Religion & Ethics Newsweekly correspondent, Kim Lawton, explained that covering religion was not really a narrow assignment because almost every story has a religious angle.

We saw a PBS documentary one afternoon about the Christian right and gay rights called "For The Bible Tells Me So." It featured Gene Robinson, the first Anglican gay bishop. The filmmaker, Daniel Karslake, and the bishop himself, answered questions about the film. They suggested that gay rights had improved in the years since the film. Bishop Robinson had to wear a bullet proof vest when he was ordained in 2003.
Photo by Chris Murray
We learned about Islam at Georgetown University. Dr. Susan Douglas reviewed Islamic history and "hot button" issues like Sharia law and the meaning of jihad. In the afternoon, another professor discussed the many meanings of caste in South Asia. She helped us to think about caste as not just religious but rather as a combination of religious, cultural and political influences.

The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church offered us some interesting black history. Built in the Gothic Revival style, it sits in northwest Washington, DC incongruously between two tall modern glass and concrete structures. It is the oldest black church in Washington, and was founded in 1872.  It held funerals for famous black leaders like abolitionist Frederick Douglas and civil rights activist, Rosa Parks. Many presidents including Obama addressed the congregation.
Photo: Public Domain
The highlight of week were the site visits on Thursday and Friday. We visited five sites on Thursday--Washington Hebrew Congregation, DC Sikh gurdwara, Washington National Cathedral, Soka Gakka International Buddhist Center, and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Murray told us that the tour was a little like the Interfaith Unity Walk which takes place every September and starts at the Washington Hebrew Congregation like we did on Thursday.

The DC Sikh Gurdwara was perhaps the most interesting, maybe because it was so different from the other sites.
Upon entering the gurdwara, we  had to remove our shoes and wear a head covering. Sikh men all wear turbans. The gurdwara had scarves for the women and bandanas for the men.

We gathered in the prayer hall and took part in langar, a Sikh tradition that you’ll see at any gurdwara around the world. Langar is a vegetarian meal that is funded by worshippers and volunteers. We ate rice and chick peas, and samosas.

After the langar, a panel of young Sikh students answered questions and a Sikh teenager showed us how to tie a turban.
Most of the questions for the panel revolved around the turban. For example, do women wear turbans? (some do, but not all) Do you sleep with your turban? (no) And do you swim with your turban? (yes)

The teenagers also dispelled some common misconceptions about Sikhism explaining that their faith is not a combination of Islam and Hinduism, but a separate faith tradition. They also noted that Sikhs  are almost the only people who wear a turban.

The week ended with a visit to the Diaynet Center of America in Lanham, Maryland. It's a huge mosque built by the Turkish embassy and finished just a few years ago. In addition to the mosque, it includes a Turkish bath and a gymnasium.  We got to observe prayer inside the mosque. Chris Murray captured some of it in the clip below.
It was an amazing week with terrific scholars and speakers and visits to eight religious sites. For those of us who teach religion, it offered new resources that will enhance our teaching and for those who do not teach religion, it offered an engaging course in religious literacy.

You can view our itinerary here and the biographies of our speakers here. And if you are a Washington area teacher and interested in the course, follow Chris Murray on twitter for updates on course offerings for next year.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Leonard Cohen Recites the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is probably one of most well-known Tibetan Buddhist texts in the West.

It describes the stages of death from a Tibetan's point of view. These stages include the period at the moment of death and the 49 day interval before rebirth.

The book was composed by a monk in the 8th century and is often recited today by a lama (Buddhist spiritual leader) to a recently deceased person in order to help him understand his experiences and gain enlightenment.

 Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter and poet, recites the Tibetan Book of the Dead in this 50 minute video.

I found the video on Open Culture and they summarize the video like this:
The film gives us an intimate look at this ceremony, performed after the death of a villager—with its intricate rituals and ancient, unbound, hand-printed text of the book—and touches on the tricky political issues of Buddhist practice in largely Chinese-controlled Tibet. In this first installment above, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life, the Dalai Lama weighs in with his own views on life and death (at 33:22).

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Women and Islam: Resources from GMU

George Mason University's Center for History and News Media has some great resources on the role of women in Islam.

Two lessons include suras (chapters) from the Qur’an that deal with women. One "details a variety of legal rights and restrictions for Muslims in the realm of marriage, inheritance, and other male-female relationships" and  the other "is known for its many verses extolling modesty in women, as well as detailing aspects of ideal marriage."

Monday, June 19, 2017

An InfoGuide on Child Marriage

Each year over 142 million girls are forced to marry before they are eighteen, and five million before they are fifteen.

Child marriage exists around the world in the Middle East, South Asia, and in North and South Africa.

It cuts across culture and religion. It is an abuse of human rights on a huge scale.

The Council on Foreign Relations reviews this issue with a comprehensive InfoGuide that includes the short video overview below.

What drives child marriage?

According to the Council, "poverty, cultural norms, and the low societal value of women and girls" are the primary forces behind child marriage. For example, girls are not considered wage earners in many cultures so they are married off early.

Patriarchy also accounts for early marriage. In some societies girls are married off early to maximize their childbearing potential.

Religion in some cultures allow early marriage. In Ethiopia, for example, child marriage is embedded in some Orthodox Christian cultures and in some Muslim countries, a conservative interpretation of the Quran allows girls to marry when they reach puberty.

What is the cost child marriage?

The Council on Foreign Relations outlines at least four big problems.

The practice harms girls' health because it makes them more vulnerable to childbirth complications and it isolates them from their families and peers.

In addition, girls are often deprived of education and mired in poverty.

The Council on Foreign Relations  includes profiles of the major countries involved in child marriage--India, Ethiopia, Niger, Afghanistan, and Guatemala and offers ways to combat it.

The essay  also includes interesting graphics and images.

Why We Must Understand Chinese Philosophy

Wikipedia Commons Most American know little about Chinese philosophy. They know little beyond the idea that Confucianism is based on fiv...