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Reading Religion

Indigenous Religions: A Companion edited by Graham Harvey (Cassell Academic) Readings in Indigenous Religions edited by Graham Harvey (Continuum) One story is never enough. We do not gain full understanding, let alone wisdom, the first time we hear or do something - however powerful it or our engagement might be. We might not even remember something we are told or observe only once. Certainly we are unlikely to appreciate all the nuances of one telling or performing. Even performing in a play or telling a story might not alert us to all the possibilities and potentialities that ripple outwards, subtly or dramatically affecting other hearers or performers or tellers of tales. In one sense, this book is a sequel to a collection of articles by gifted scholars which I was privileged to edit (Harvey 2000). In another sense this is a companion volume, chapters here engaging in potent dia­logue with chapters in the previous book. Yet again, parts of this book are foundational - sometimes even ancestral - to the other, as for example where they inspired or authorized chapters in the other work.

This collection of Readings includes some `classic' texts in the study of indigenous religions. It also contains more recent scholarly works that not only inform about indigenous religions but, more importantly - and more interestingly - elucidate ways of knowing and researching. These Readings are intended to widen and deepen debates initiated or developed in Indi­genous Religions: A Companion, and important in the study of indigenous and other religions. Such debates are not only concerned with descriptive detail, but also with improving methodologies by which the meanings and implications of such descriptions might be better understood and dis­cussed. These Readings exemplify recent developments and suggest further possibilities. The study of indigenous religions is no longer the preserve of one academic discipline, nor is it undertaken by one methodology. Thus, not all the scholarly writing here arises within the study of religions, but all of it is of value in that discipline.

Meanwhile, recent methodological developments intersect with the increasing availability of significant indigenous writings which enrich engagement, for example, by providing narratives more like `traditional' modes of discourse or performance. Religion, like music, seduces those who would stand back and observe at a distance, tempts them to tap their feet and hum along. Some get drawn in and find themselves dancing to the rhythm, responding with body, mind, and soul. Others withdraw only to find themselves whistling a refrain later. This is how it should be, how it always should have been. Religious activities, like music, expect vigorous and passionate involvement, and make disengagement equivalent to mis­understanding. Just as a previous project (Ralls MacLeod and Harvey 2001) included a CD as an attempt to provoke a somewhat more sensitive and sensual engagement, so this book includes two excerpts from indi­genous creative fiction.

There are, of course, plenty of other texts that might have been included or that might be vital to the study of indigenous religions. Many of these are referred to in chapters or the editorial notes that preface them.


Structure and themes

Indigenous Religions: A Companion is divided into three parts entitled Persons, Powers and Gifts. These relate to the outworking of `existential postulates' or principles that inform many (if not all) indigenous world­views, and `highlight the vitality of human expressiveness' (Morrison 1992: 202-3). Those generative principles (Person, Power, Gift) have been of varying significance for, and the subject of varying degrees of attention by, academics. The fact that they are integral to one another in the for­mation of particular lifeways made it difficult to decide where to place each chapter in the previous volume. It also requires readers to make connections across the (as always) permeable boundaries implied by the structure. The present volume of Readings adds a further layer of com­plexity by encouraging readers to see the connections between material in two volumes. Further notes on how that might be done are offered below.

While some of the chapters here reflect on the concepts Person, Power, Gift in relation to particular indigenous worldviews and lifeways, a new set of themes arises from them to structure this book. Chapters are divided into four parts labelled Ontology, Performance, Knowledge, Land. Clearly these are only signposts to one matter that is central to the chapters within each section. For example, since persons are required to perform cere­monies in particular places, known in particular ways, so it should be obvious that chapters discussing the construction of persons might discuss not only Ontology but also Performance, Knowledge and/or Land. Simi­larly, to perform is to engage in relationship and to know one's place in the scheme of things. And so on. It is difficult to know, after the fact, whether any particular chapter was included because it focuses on a particular theme or whether the themes became clear only as the chapters were placed side by side. This difficulty reinforces the arbitrary nature of the bound­aries suggested by the division of the book into four parts. However, just so long as readers recognize these facts, we can proceed by considering matters to which the signposts point. (More detailed introductions to the significance of each chapter are provided in linked introductory notes.)

Part I includes four chapters under the general heading `Ontology'. These provide four different perspectives - neither necessarily opposing nor agreeing with one another - on the construction of persons, commu­nities, and/or cosmos in particular indigenous societies. In doing so they are also vital to the reconsideration of the ontology or meaning of `religion' as an academic concept and as lived reality. Does `religion' refer to a discrete aspect of life in which people internalize ideas (as `beliefs' or `knowledge') relevant to some putative otherworldly realm? Does the discourse of religion require use of words like `supernatural' or `spiritual' to refer to a realm essentially separate from the `mundane' realm of everyday life? Or is religion a facet of the continuously ongoing con­struction of persons and personal (whether individual or dividual) identity? Of course, these are not absolute alternatives: even for those religionists for whom the `natural' is of less religious significance than the `supernatural', religion is still about the construction of relationships and relational per­sons. However, it is certainly true that the academic study of religions has been skewed by the centrality of theological discourse about belief, spiri­tuality, and the divine origins of grace (or Gift). In various ways these four chapters ground attention to indigenous worldviews in the relational nexus of particular lifeways and their daily lived realities.

Part II pays greater attention to religious activities under the heading of Performance. In a broad sense everything we do is performance. The identification of religious performance as a special category - ritual - has generated considerable debate, but little of it has been as exciting as recent moves to reconnect such activities with other forms of performance. The first chapter bridges the divide between this and the previous part. The balance between description, reflection, and theorizing varies in and between the five chapters (and might be further energized by reference to other works or chapters by the authors). The performances with which these chapters engage include divination, healing, world- and kinship­renewal (perhaps the same thing), shamanry, and magic. These bald labels cannot do justice to the richness of the debate, or to the careful critical

reflection on terms that might be either misleadingly alien or valuable in scholarly but not local communities. Clearly there is much to debate here.

Part III concerns indigenous knowledges. Partly in order to demonstrate the diversity of modes in which knowledges are relevant (although, even so, only a small sample of the possibilities are evident here), four of the six chapters relate to Maori knowledge. Traditional knowledge informs con­temporary oratory, relationships (including attempts to heal them), lit­erature, and legislation. The latter is represented by copies of the Treaty upon which present-day political, economic, and social relationships are enabled and constrained in New Zealand. However, it is prefaced by the previous attempted Declaration of Independence to demonstrate that indigenous knowledge demands sovereign expressions of self-presentation and self-worth. The theme is continued by the inclusion of a programmatic elaboration of a contemporary indigenous vision or ideology. The section concludes with another kind of vision, not only because it relates to Aboriginal (and Euro-) Australia, but also because it pays further attention to the expression and construction of indigenous knowledge in art.

Part IV may be brief, containing only two chapters, but it is of con­siderable importance. Discussions of land - variously construed as ecology, environment, subsistence, sovereignty, cosmology, geomentality, and others - have generated a vast literature. The very language of `indigeneity' demands attentive consideration of land. In no way is it implied that the chapters included here are sufficient or even representative of all that might be said. They certainly raise some important issues, and they point beyond themselves not only to the important books from which they are extracted, but also to other important books that they cite. And there is more.

Both chapters pay attention to the relationships of power inherent in any discourse about land. Even when neighbouring indigenous peoples meet, the sovereignty and ecology of living in places can be contentious. But, far and above such fraught dynamics, the world is now thoroughly colonized following European expansion. It is further permeated by `globalization'. In recent years, academia has faced up to the polemics inherent in its ancestral assertions of `objectivity'. Realizing that this too is a construction of relationship - and one that has been central to colonization - has inspired a wealth of debate about more respectful and more engaged means of research and discourse. In many ways, it is these new moves in academia that are of most importance in the various chapters included in this book. While each chapter can be read for what it says about facets of indigenous religiosity, a central motive for inclusion has been their various contributions to the de- and re-construction of academia.

Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion by Paul J. Griffiths (Oxford University Press) What social conditions and intellectual practices are necessary in order for religious cultures to flourish? Paul Griffiths finds the answer in "religious reading"‑ the kind of reading in which a religious believer allows his or her mind to be furnished and his or her heart instructed by a sacred text, understood in the light of an authoritative tradition. Memorization and recitation, lectio divina, legal and exegetical commentary, scholasticism, and a host of related practices fall under this rubric. Griffiths offers two case studies of religious reading, focusing on pedagogical practices and the use of literacy. The first considers four Sanskrit Buddhist commentaries and anthologies of ancient India. The second chooses four writings of the Church Fathers of Roman Africa. In each case, Griffiths attempts to show what religious reading was like‑what its tools were, what genres it produced, how it was donein this place and time.

In examining and analyzing these practices, Griffiths develops a picture of the intellectual and moral commitments involved in being a religious person. Religion, in his view, is not just a coloration of human experience or merely the "depth dimension" of human culture. It is something very specific and very demanding. It entails obligations, including the obligation to submit one's own conscience and sensibilities to a rule of faith found in a particular community and a particular authoritative tradition. It requires information (about key doctrines and symbols) and skill (for the competent use of religious texts, artifacts, and practices). Griffiths favorably contrasts the practices and pedagogies of traditional religious cultures with those of our own fragmented and secularized culture and insists that religious reading should be preserved. He concludes with the controversial proposal that the modern university should make room for traditional scholastics.

Paul J. Griffiths is Professor of the Philosophy of Religion in the University of Chicago's Divinity School. Born in England, he was educated first in theology and then in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy at Oxford University. Having lived in the United States since 1980, he has studied Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin and has taught at the University of Notre Dame.


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