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Tove Nicolaisen’s Hindus May 26, 2020

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Tove Nicolaisen’s collaboration with Halldis Breidlid, In the beginning was the Story, has given me useful Tupperware for my academic kitchen since I met it as a teacher for hire about ten years ago. So when I learned that I was to teach Hinduism next semester, the first thing I did was order her new book Hindus.

This is what tupperware looks like these days. Also, sourdough.

It is a marvellous dive into the world of Hinduism, touching all the aspects of lived religion you could ask for: art, ritual, history, text, music, as well as of course the compulsory stories. I now feel well prepared to sit down and plan Autumn’s lessons.

Most people writing on Hinduism are actually experts in a tiny corner of that particular cosmos. It would be churlish to claim you could summarise millenia in a four-afternoon book. At some point we all have to throw up our hands and admit that if the religious and literary genius that wrote the Mahabarata couldn’t get it down to less that ten thousand pages, we are unlikely to catch the essence of that epic in a short chapter without seriously compromising its message. All introductory books are more thorough in some regions and less so than others.

The unique character of this book is that Nicolaisen’s specialism is in Hindu children (which is the title of her 2013 doctorate) so although she may not know the ins and outs of the Upanishad textual makeup, she knows a great deal about how Norwegian Hindu children see their religion, and the quotations she includes give the prose valuable colour.

The second context to my reading of this book is Simone Weil. I decided to read as much of her work before summer as I could, and am currently on her notebooks. I will be telling more about this experience later, but for now suffice to say that her regular references to the Upanishads (long quotations and sanscrit terms) made me hungry to know more about Hindu philosophy.

That was the only disappointment I had reading this book. The philosophical and theological statements were often delivered by children, which was sweet but hardly representative of the best of the tradition. There was almost no sign of the profound and lifechanging thoughts found by giants of philosophy such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and of course Simone Weil.

This disappointment was both theoretical and editorial. The choice not to go too deeply into Hindu thought was obviously editorial, and we can respect these choices. The world would be a boring place if all the books we read were shaped by the choices we would have made. But the theoretical problem was more difficult to swallow: Nicolaisen thinks we can deal with postcolonialism with more knowledge.

She devotes a wonderful chapter at the end to school and orientalism, and whilst it contains a pointed and nuanced discussion of the way Hinduism has been negatively identified in religious studies, in terms of what it lacks rather than what it is (in a way that echoes Audun Toft’s discussion of Islam), but doesn’t identify science itself as the problem. It is the positive knowledge og oriental religions that was the problem. These thinkers really did know their stuff, but they used that knowledge to serve colonial government, in much the same way as knowledge about religious organisations was crucial for the administration of state lockdown during our current crisis.

As I say, all introductory books have to make some sacrifices, but I suspect the contrast in this case was particularly clear because the philosophy behind the book was itself so nuanced concerning issues such as constructing reality, identity and discourse. For example on page 285, she writes

It is far to assume that the summarised thinking – or discourse – is to be understood as a reflection of religious reality. At the same time, it contributes to defining pupils’ understanding of religious reality because that is how it is often spoken of in school. (my translation)

For me, Postcolonialism is at its strongest when a particular European set of philosophical terms and techniques (such as discourse analysis and the social construction of reality) are used to understand a thought system that itself contains similar approaches to the data in hand. If nothing else, ancient Hindu texts at the very least discussed issues of hermeneutics and the philosophy of language, and their modern counterparts do the same (I started to re-listen to the History of Philosophy in India podcast just to check this, and recommend the book/podcast combo). The postcolonial approach does not lack knowledge, it distributes the perfectly accurate knowledge so that the reader learns to think with the European approaches, but about the exotic Hindu objects of thought.

And that is why I continue to be fascinated by the distribution of method in Religious Studies.

Tove Nicolaisen (2018) Hinduer, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget (in Norwegian)

Metacognition in RE May 22, 2020

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I’ve been reading a lot of books about teaching religion the past six years or so. This one actually comes from my home county of Devon so it immediately peaked my curiosity, and I was able to imagine vividly the empirical cases it described, even though I haven’t lived there since 1996.

The reason I love this one is that it takes both its subjects very seriously. So much work on teaching religion and ethics (mine included) is largely about religion and ethics with a pedagogical tail. This book engages with education as a field of study, specifically the central and important field of metacognition. I don’t want to go too deeply into it (the authors draw on the work of Flavell) but the basic idea is that pupils learn better when they are experts in learning. So they have to learn their subject alongside practising and reflecting on learning skills and themselves as learners.

While applauding the book’s approach, I was also struck by an important insight they bring to the table: Studying religion both benefits from pupils’ metacognition and feeds into it. So just as we all know children need to know about learning in order to get better at a subject, much of their deepseated convictions are philosophical material and may well be

religiously coloured. Religion is a global phenomenon, and may influence any area of human life. Schools are special cases of this because (1) religions are also knowledge-producing phenomena; and (2) European schools are all riffing on ecclesiastic and monastic culture.

This was particularly welcome to me because the Norwegian government recently decided that in the MA in education that is now the requirement for all starting teachers, the education element has include about 25% religious studies and ethics. This is a lot, and some might say too much. My immediate assumption was that there were two motivations for this based on religion in Norway – a Christian heritage and multireligious present – and two based on educational thought – ethics and thought (theory, logic, clarity). Happily the heritage argument was forgotten, but the thought argument was too. This struck me as a shame because if students are to understand some of the central thinkers in education, such as Dewey, Bakhtin, Foucault and Wittgenstein, then they would do well to have a grounding in philosophy and religious studies.

High Bickington school in Devon, only just not connected to the church

I think this book is getting at something along these lines. Naturally, it’ll be important for any teaching interested in metacognitive reflection to engage with the religious and philosophical traditions encouched in the syllabus and incarnated in religious groups present in school. The book describes different ways to do that, and they are often psychagogical techniques: mapping one’s own worldview, placing oneself on metacognitive scales, and discussing one’s own standpoint in sensitive groups.

All this is as I say to be applauded, but the use of psychagogical technology for cognitive benefit does give me pause. How deep should a teacher’s incursions into a pupil’s psychological makeup go and to what end? In a knowledge society, when does our legitimate and noble search for truth dissolve into the practice of carving out a new information proletariate? To what extent are pupils being asked to change who they are because of parameters set by political decisions and teacher caprice? None of this is especially black and white territory.

And although I was certainly enthused by the book’s academic advances, I remain wary that this is one further way of teaching children to seek the truth as a controlled and goal-driven exercise. Even the joy of discovery and the ecstasy of enlightenment have to be planned, logical, cool, and measured. I wonder whether there is a place in our schools for uncurbed, passionate and bacchanalian learning that delights in instruction wherever it can be found, splashing in wisdom and dancing in its light.

Shirley Larkin, Rob Freathy, Jonathan Doney, Giles Freathy (2019) Metacognition, Worldviews and Religious Education: A Practical Guide for Teachers, London: Routledge.

Eco on how to write a thesis May 21, 2020

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Because everyone who writes a thesis should get an office

The original is actually from the year of my birth, and it’s interesting to note which elements have aged. The chapter on how to treat final formatting and your typist obviously has only antiquary value, but I find myself still arguing with our Italian academic after I’ve put the book down. We have very different attitudes to footnotes, even though I am still embarrassed by the choices I made in my own thesis (to which Eco would perhaps have been kinder). He considers the Author-date system a largely good innovation, although doesn’t see how it can work if you are treating prerevolutionary materials. It was of course this that stranded my bibliographical inner discussion. I still don’t really know how I was to deal with a text that brings theorists and narratives, ancient and modern, into discussion with each other.

I can do no better, however, than the editors of the English translation (by Farina and Farina) who dispensed with recommendations for their back cover and merely delivered a series of quotations. I have always admired Eco more for his ambition and style than for his philosophical insight (although I am now tempted to revisit his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (which made it into the bibliography of my MA thesis of 2003)) and there are some jewels in here with which I may decorate my office if I can only find a calligrapher.

“But I learned from that episode that if I wanted to do research, as a matter of principle I should not exclude any source. This is what I call academic humility. Maybe this is hypocritical because it actually requires pride rather than humility, but do not linger on moral questions: whether pride or humility, practice it.” (page 144)

“But usually works that do not affably explains the terms they use (and that rely instead on winks and nods) reveal authors who are more insecure than those who make every reference and every step explicit. If you read the great scientists or the great critics you will see that, with a few exceptions, they are quite clear and are not ashamed of explaining things well.” (page 145)

“…approach two or three of the most general critical texts immediately, just to get an idea of the background against which your author moves. Then approach the original author directly, and always try to understand exactly what he [sic] says. Afterward, explore the rest of the critical literature. Finally, return to examine the author in the light of the newly acquired ideas.” (page 104)

You are not Proust” (page 147)

Write everything that comes into your head, but only in the first draft. You may notice that you get carried away with your inspiration, and you lose track of the center of your topic. In this case, you can remove the parenthetical sentences and the digressions, or you can put each in a note or an appendix … . Your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset, not to show the breadth of your knowledge.” (page 151, emphasis original).

Thank you Mr. Eco. God rest your soul.

Eco, Umberto (2015) [original 1977] How to Write a Thesis. Translated by CM Farina and G Farina, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

Discussing that reading May 21, 2020

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I’ve decided to revive this blog because I’m getting old and I worry that my reading disappears into the quicksand of memories never to return. So I’ll put the reading list in the corner and attempt to scribble down some reflections on whatever I read. I miss conversation, but the main reason to do this is to record and reflect on the voices with which my internal monologue is briefly incarnated.

It’s going to be extremely eclectic though: I teach religious studies, worldview and ethics to teachers, but I dabble in the pedagogy, epistemology and history of it all too so pretty much everything is relevant.

So let the games begin!

Ben de la Mare, 1938-2009 November 6, 2009

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I just got news that my dear friend and some time chaplain Revd. Ben de la Mare passed away last week, on the 29th October. I am in no position to tell his life story – I only met him in 1997 – but I do know that he had been a priest for most of his life, previously as chaplain in Oxford (where he met his wife, Clare Stancliffe), and most recently as a chaplain at Collingwood college and priest in charge in St Oswald’s, Durham. (more…)

Nærhetsetikk November 20, 2008

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Here comes the Presentation for today’s teaching, in pdf and powerpoint formats.

1st Sunday after Trinity May 19, 2008

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Here come this week’s readings. Hope to say something a bit earlier this week. Sorry for jumping over Corpus Christi: I’m not that ambitious!

OK, some comments in lieu of a sermon.

I’m told that my local flower shop makes a lot of money in summer, and it’s difficult to see why. If I was attempting to charm my wife or win a heart this week, I would feel completely upstaged by the apple and cherry. It’s the blossom season in Fredrikstad, and there’s no reason to hoard flowers. No reason to take them or  argue over them. They’re extravagantly lavished by every street I walk in.

That’s basically what the week’s readings are all about: the abundance of life, and the corresponding evils of pettiness. And if there is one verse worth meditating on among these, I would say it’s probably from the Psalm: Turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life in your ways.

It’s a natural step from last week’s apophatic readings that taught us not to know. This week we are told what it is we don’t know: what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him. We do not know the abundance of life, we can’t see where God’s generosity stops.

This is what Paul is trying to drill into his churches: everything is yours! Why are you in a panic to fill requirements? Why are you frenetically seeking after knowledge? There is space for madness and foolishness and ignorance in God’s holiness: you are already full of God! Hence the Christian tradition’s negative theology as regards entry requirements – not by works, not by ritual, not by spiritual experience, not by knowledge.

And this is what Christ is using to drive his sermon on not resisting evil. We do not resist evil because that evil is essentially based on a stingy economy of desire and lack. People require us to carry their goods because they don’t manage to. But we do. We have all the time and all the strength in the world, because we have its Creator. There are plenty of cheeks to go around! So don’t grasp after belongings, don’t harvest right up to the edge of the field, as if you were worried whether God will provide this year. Don’t be petty.

Be perfect, you are God’s temple already. Christ is risen, death is defeated. Everything is yours, because you are already complete, as God is complete. So share it around, and don’t bother grasping for it. It’s already yours, and you can’t possess it in any deeper sense than that.

Now I thought of some other illustrations earlier, but they’ve gone from my mind at the mo. A kind of political version of this has been written by John Milbank, based on a rather shaky reading of Agamben, called “Paul and Biopolitics”. But it’s famous for being inscrutable, so take some time over it if you read it.

The Government of Self and Others March 12, 2008

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sunniva_and_foucault.jpgAs soon as my daughter’s finished with this book, I’ll be reading it. It looks good.