Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Religious Studies: Miracles and Magic

There are a couple of kinds of religious studies departments in American Academe, and they mostly aren't on friendly terms with each other. One version, which I will call the Bible School version, is basically concerned with producing exponents of the faith - preachers and ministers. Students are expected to be believers and practitioners, and are instructed in the details of the faith so as to reinforce and defend the religion. Some comparison of religious points of view may be presented, but essentially only for purposes of defense of the faith. Indoctrination is central.

A second type of religious studies, prominent in the prestigious private universities, is focussed on the study of religion as a human institution. Scholars may or may not be believers, but they are usually expected to be critical and analytical in their approach. One place where this approach collides with the Bible School approach is in the consideration of the miraculous.

Most religions contain elements that could be described as magical or miraculous: gods and other spirits take an active part in goings on on Earth, speak to their adherents, prescribe and proscribe behaviors, and intervene frequently in human business. The analytical and skeptical tend to look askance at such doings, and frequently interpret them as myth or symbol. Here is Wendy Doninger, analyzing symbolism in the Mahabharata:

Unlike dogs and Nishadas, ogres and antigods cannot represent themselves because, in my humble opinion, they do not exist; they are imaginary constructions. Therefore they are purely symbolic, and the question is, What do they symbolize? Later in Indian history, they are often said to symbolize various groups of human beings: tribal peoples, 50 foreigners, low castes, Dravidians, South Indians, or Muslims. Various Hindus have named various actual human tribes after ogres and antigods and other mythical beasts (such as Asuras and Nagas), and others have glossed ogres such as the ogress Hidimbi, who marries the human hero Bhima, in the Mahabharata, or the Naga princess Ulupi, who marries Arjuna, as symbolic of tribal people who marry into Kshatriya families...

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 245). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

This sort of thing, whether applied to the various Catholic miracles, those of the Old Testament, or some other religion, can offend the faithful.