Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kenneth G. MacHendrick: Evil in World Religions at the University of Manitoba (2002-2008) -- An Introduction and Provocation

Evil in World Religions at the University of Manitoba (2002-2008): An Introduction and Provocation
by Kenneth G. MacKendrick
Golem: Journal of Religion and Monsters


[8] I was once told that there are things that are good to think and there are things that are bad to think. Theodicy is bad to think. When theologians seek to engage in inter-religious dialogue about theodicy we end up with a bizarre phenomenon: non-Christian religious adherents begin to talk like Christians. In other words, theodicy seems to be a conceptual bundle that resists being addressed from outside the terminology that surrounds it. Not always, but often enough. I arrived at a hypothesis: theodicy is a colonizing philosophical and theological problem. It is as if the problem of theodicy works to prevent lexical and conceptual dexterity, shutting down and closing debate rather than opening it up, looping inwardly in spirals of unassailable and incoherent assumptions. Worth noting, this phenomenon makes sense if we understand the link between religious language and cultic praxis: religious thought is ground in its own ritual performance and at times resists translation into propositionally differentiated speech (Habermas 2002; 2008). Any form of analysis that is ground in the particularities of ritual experience cannot avoid the quagmire of a solipsistic view and a certain degree of ineluctability. I don’t think this has to do with any kind of ineffability; rather, religious “belief” is primarily performative. This notion is brilliantly captured in Johannes Wolfart’s “If I were a Lutheran, what would I do?” (2003) and Malcolm Ruel’s “Christians as Believers” (1997). In other words, when others try to engage the issue, understanding in a communicative sense can not but fail – there can only be an attempt to mirror the ritual display of the theologian performing theodicy. Theodicy as ritual, yes. When seen in this way, theodicy, contrary to what many philosophers of religion might say about it, is a philosophical problem that discourages innovative and active research. Its narcissistic qualities baffle rather than enlighten. I would even suggest that the scholarly emphasis on theodicy could be better understood through the lens of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s theorization of the ideologies of desire (1996).

[9] As a side note: at this point I had not yet realized that “world religions” could also be construed as a colonial project, this insight would come with my reading of Hans Kippenberg (2002), Russell McCutcheon (2003), and Tomoko Masuzawa (2005). Although this complexity perhaps implies that this kind of course should not be offered at all, I still have high hopes that the study of evil and the study of world religions can be formulated and reformulated in productive and legitimate ways.

[10] In 2003 I had been hired as an Instructor again. I accepted the offer to repeat the course and set out to avoid the colonization of “evil in world religions” by the fabula of theodicy. The problem was simple: I had no idea how to avoid the problem. Almost all of the writings on evil and religion are related in one way or another to the problem of theodicy. Even those who try to shift the burden from the concept of evil to the issue of suffering do not really displace the theological emphasis. If anything they only intensify it (none of the writings on suffering that I surveyed delved into the realm of the sociology of pain). Despite this, the second time around I was wiser and more cautious. I prepared well in advance to find material that would be suitable. I selected three texts: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (2002), Bram Stoker, Dracula (2003), and again, Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1994). Although Arendt’s book does not deal with religion, its emphasis on the demands of justice in the face of the new criminality of genocide fit my interests well. In addition to these three texts I used a reading package with supplemental essays. The reading package included nine essays on sati from a variety of disciplines and three essays on religious ethics in Japan. I considered using David Parkin’s Anthropology of Evil (1991) but found that too many of the contributions seemed improvised, as if the contributors found themselves obligated to talk about something they didn’t have much to say about. It is a valuable contribution to the field and admittedly it resonates with my aims here and the ambiguity that adheres to the idea of evil in relation to the study of religion.

[11] Not having an extensive background in anthropology put me at a bit of a disadvantage when using Mary Douglas’s text. Playing catch up with her analysis was a challenge but I found the notion of pollution and taboo to work wonderfully well when seeking to establish some sort of cross-cultural conception of “evil” that did not simply reflect Christian theological interests. I turned to the novel Dracula because it seemed to me that a lot of what Douglas was talking about resonated deeply with the text and, at the very least, it would provide a fictional test case for assignments. The idea for using Dracula came from Darlene Juschka, who had used it as a required text at the University of Toronto for an introductory course on the Phenomenon of Religion. Dracula, it turns out, is very good to think. After all, we often identify both Dracula and Adolph Eichmann as evil, yet there is a dramatic difference in our explanation for why they are considered evil differs.

[12] Sati became a case study concerning issues of sacrifice, the feminine, fundamentalism, and secular politics. The chasm between how sati is introduced in many world religions texts and its complicated political and religious entwinement with colonial attitudes and practices proved to be instructive in many ways, especially in illustrating how the bodies of women are often identified as obstructions to masculine enlightenment and thus denigrated or destroyed (see also Beers 1992; Eilberg-Schwartz and Doniger 1995). For a time I considered focusing the entire course on misogyny and representations of the feminine. I also used the film Seven Samurai to emphasize the difference between rituals of purification and principled ethical systems, noting that in the modern world widespread legitimacy is only granted to ethical or moral systems. This notion was supported by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. All of this material worked fairly well. I felt as though things were going better, although I was not entirely sure why this constellation was working.

[13] In 2004 I used the following course description: The course introduces students to perspectives on evil in selected world religions. Readings have been divided by topic rather than tradition, suggesting that cross-cultural themes emerge in light of the subject matter of this course. Themes to be examined include: purity and pollution, the monstrous, sex and gender, social trauma, and genocide. The first section begins with the anthropological work of Mary Douglas. Douglas’s comparative approach introduces the notion of “danger” which is (possibly) at the heart of many ancient and modern notions of “evil.” Additional illustrations of the significance and relevance of notions of purity and impurity will be discussed in relation to Zoroastrianism, Maori cannibalism, and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The second section will delve into western conceptions of the monstrous. In this section readings will suggest a similarity between the horrific and the holy, and between the unknown and the familiar. The discussion will largely focus on monsters (e.g. Leviathan, Dracula) in western religious traditions. The third section examines notions of the horrific and gender. In particular, the ancient and modern cross-cultural association of sexuality and the feminine with corruption and death. Writings concerning motherhood and sati in India will be discussed along with Buddhist notions of celibacy and the feminine. The fourth section focuses on contemporary Japanese popular / historical culture, Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai in particular. Medieval Shinto concepts of purity and impurity will be discussed and the way in which Japanese history has been cinematically re-written to fit within a more Confucian ethical system. This will be situated alongside a study of the military defeat of the American South. The last section deals with genocide in the 20th century. The class will be reading parts of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. The roots of European anti-Semitism will be examined as well as her famous phrase “the banality of evil” in the context of the modern practice of genocide. Modern concepts regarding justice and moral philosophy will also be discussed.

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