Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Charles Farhadian discusses the importance of studying world religions, and reflects on what we can gain by learning to see life from another perspective.
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Jurgen Habermas just couldn’t deny it, even after wishing it to be otherwise. What captured his attention in his lifelong intellectual journey was the persistence of religion. Habermas’ term, “post-secular” (also used by Charles Taylor), conveyed his recognition that both religion and secularism were gaining ground. In his appraisal of religion Habermas argued, in fact, that religions help us to look beyond ourselves for rescue, from ourselves, our human predicament, and even our natural world. In Habermas’ words, “Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”
Where I live, in Santa Barbara, a town with less than 100,000 residents, lie a plethora of religions, beyond the beach and mountain culture that attracts people from around the world to surf, paddle board, kayak, bike, and hike. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Church of Scientology, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious traditions have a brick-and-mortar presence that contributes to the Mediterranean architectural landscape.
Furthermore, religious conversion is happening in every direction. Catholics are becoming Pentecostals and then moving to historical Protestant churches. Mainline Protestants are leaving their churches and entering a stream of Hinduism. Some university students are becoming Muslim or members of a Buddhist path. In Santa Barbara, for instance, the Shia Muslim population, the majority of whom trace the history of their immigration to the post-1979 demise of the Shah of Iran, is larger than the Sunni Muslim population. However Shia tend to shy away from the communal Friday prayers. While an elderly World War Two generation of Japanese make up the assembly of Amitabha Buddhist worshipers, Soka Gokkai and zen meditation is populated by converts. Beyond the surf are also ad hoc religious movements that seamlessly blend elements of these many formalized religious traditions.
One of the most significant Hindu temples in North America is located just down the road, a few miles from the iconic beaches of Malibu. The local Vedanta Society consists mostly of American converts, some who were leaders in their mainline Protestant churches but eventually left due to the vapid spirituality they encountered. Greek Orthodox believers worship at Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church. The Antiochian Orthodox church, which has attracted numerous American converts, sits across the street from a Roman Catholic parish, which serves a mostly Hispanic population. The history of Antiochian Orthodox church here is unique in that the church started when the 900-member Campus Crusade movement at University of California Santa Barbara converted en masse into Eastern Orthodoxy. What’s the religious make up of your city?
If you were to dig a bit deeper into these religious assemblies, you would discover that these religions are connected to larger movements that orient believers in several directions at once: to one another, to the natural world, to the Divine, and to a global networks that often span the globe. These orientations provide people with new meaning and direction, motivation and self-understanding. Beyond the surf in Santa Barbara lie religious assemblies oriented through its teaching and learning toward Europe (e.g., Vatican), the Middle East (e.g., Mecca), East Asia (e.g., Japan and China), and South Asia (e.g., India). For this reason, learning about the religions of the world helps us to engage our own localities more deeply as well as to appreciate the global realities represented through these religious traditions.
Charles E. Farhadian (PhD, Boston University) is professor of world religions and Christian mission at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is the editor of Introducing World Christianity and Christian Worship Worldwide and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. He has done fieldwork in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where he has investigated themes of worship, social history, and nation making.