Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Easter at the Norwich Cathedral

May 7th, 2011 · No Comments

On my second day of volunteering at the Norwich Cathedral egg hunt, I was signed up to work with Susanne, another volunteer. She turned out to be a lovely woman, and while we went around delivering Cadbury’s finest chocolate eggs, we chatted about an assortment of things. I learned that she has two daughters, both of whom studied abroad in the States while they were getting their degrees. It was nice to talk to a British “soccer/football mom”. Working with her made me realize that although I have gotten to meet British students and teachers, I haven’t interacted very much with adults outside of academia. There is an entire generation of people we are missing out on. I wonder if that would have been different had the program involved a home stay family.

On a different note, this day was very exciting because our supervisor, Juliet, took us on a tour of the upper level of the Cathedral. This section is not open to the public or even to most members of the church, so it was a great privilege to be invited. We got to walk right underneath the big stain glass windows, so close that I could touch it. We also walked right onto the organ.

As we walked along each wall of the Cathedral, Stephenie and Juliet explained the significance of a lot of the architecture and some of the more intricate designs. There were carvings in the wall, most of them dated, and we made a game of trying to find the earliest ones. It’s rather mind boggling to think of all that history wrapped up in one building.

Date: 13/4

Supervisor: Juliet Corbett

Hours:10-3 (5)

Total Hours: 9

Tags: 2010 Sarah

A Jew running an Easter egg hunt?

April 28th, 2011 · No Comments

Picture taken by Stephenie McGucken

A few weeks ago I received an email from Stephenie McGucken asking if I was interested in volunteering for the Norwich Cathedral’s Easter activities. I immediately replied YES. Who turns down an opportunity involving candy? Even though I myself am Jewish, a good portion of my family is Christian and we have an Easter egg hunt every year. I always had fun and I enjoy working with kids so I thought it would be a nice way to earn my volunteer hours. Although the experience turned out to be a little different than I expected, it was a positive one nonetheless.

We began by setting up the crafts table for the kids (and by we I mean Stephenie, Jess, Jamie and I). They were given Easter bunnies to color in and were able to build and decorate their own little paper Easter baskets for collecting eggs. My next job was to guide guests from the entrance of the Cathedral to story time which was the first activity station. This got a little tricky when the woman who was supposed to be working the station went missing for a few minutes. This meant that I had to be the fill in story teller.

As can be imagined, I felt more than a little uncomfortable reading a story about the resurrection of Jesus. It felt wrong to be telling a story which I don’t believe in. It seemed to me a lot like brainwashing. I realize that every religion, even my own, has its own collection of stories that it teaches to young children, but I still felt uncomfortable reading to the children. So I made the decision to politely decline to read should the situation come up again, and I moved on to the egg hunt.

Later on in the day, I mentioned to the priest that I had felt a bit awkward about being Jewish and volunteering to help with the Easter festivities. We had a really interesting discussion on the benefits of participating in other religion’s traditions. For while I had some difficulty reading the Easter book, it did help me to gain a better understanding of Christian beliefs. I know it sounds corny, but understanding really is the first step towards tolerance.

Date: 12/04/11

Time: 10-2

Hours: 4 Total: 4

Supervisor: Juliet Corbett

Tags: 2010 Sarah

Church, State, and Lottery

March 24th, 2011 · No Comments

Wow, what an amazing couple of days it has been weather-wise! Walking to the New Hope Christian Centre this evening was an absolute joy. With the sun out, a nice breeze, and barely a cloud in sight, I could have walked another two or three miles without complaint.

Arriving at kids’ club, I was told we were going to be doing a “focus group” with the kids. This meant sitting them in a circle and asking them some questions about how the club was and what they wanted to see done differently, while filming their answers. The filmed responses would then be sent to the government in the hopes of receiving a grant for Community Action Norwich. The grant would go towards improving community programs in Lakenham like the kids’ club. I wonder now if the questionnaires the kids filled out the other week had something to do with this grant as well, but I did not think then to ask. What I was thinking: “How in the world are we going to get these kids to sit and talk for five or ten minutes?”

It proved quite difficult to get the kids to sit and talk for five or ten minutes. Despite being promised biscuits at the end and being allowed to sit on bean bag chairs (which for some reason they love) there was still chaos when the questions were asked. Duane got through all the questions, and he hopefully got the footage he needed. However, at no point was only one person talking. Also, he got some very unhelpful, not-serious answers. I do not think suggestions like “make school two hours a day for three days a week” or “lets start a pyromaniac club and play with fire” were exactly what we were looking for.

Some interesting information did come out of the questions. For one, none of the kids do homework, despite being assigned it. Hearing this really makes one question the reliance on homework in these kinds of communities. In addition, it sheds light on the environment these kids are coming from. On a similar note, nearly every kid said they would spend all their time on Facebook were it not for the kids club. Whether these kids should be on Facebook is one thing, but its sad to think what little structure there is for them.

Facebook could be monitored by the government

Image obtained from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/5046447/Facebook-could-be-monitored-by-the-government.html

When the “focus group” finished, there was a snack and a game of manhunt.

After the kids left for the evening, I asked Duane about the grant the group was applying for. Apparently, the UK government must give a certain amount of revenue from the Lottery to community charities around the country. It is this money that Community Action Norwich is applying for. Duane said there is some controversy among the Christian community in the UK as to whether Christian organizations should apply for the funds. Since it comes from a morally questionable source, and draws money from poor communities disproportionally, money from the Lottery is seen by some to be unacceptable. However, Duane argued that as long as the money is going to come from these communities when many play in the Lottery, it should go back to them in some way. Community Action Norwich is one way to do that. In addition, he said some recent research found that almost all government funded projects in the UK involves some money obtained through the Lottery. If one does not accept money directly from the Lottery on moral grounds, one must, by extension, accept nothing from the government.

I agree with Duane’s arguments concerning the lottery issue, but am more skeptical about issues concerning Christian organizations receiving government financial assistance. If an organization takes government money, it arguably should not endorse specific religious views. I highly doubt anyone would disagree with anything that goes on at the kids’ club, as I’ve never seen any proselytizing. However, if a kid asked a spiritual question, or a similar opportunity arose, I wonder what would happen. If the group acted in an explicitly Christian manner, and was receiving government funding, I would expect and respect taxpayers with divergent views to be upset about it in the same way I would not want my tax dollars going towards a group that spread beliefs about another religion. However, I also would not want the group to be constrained to speak on the account of government money. If those in a Christian or other religious group can never talk about their faith, the group, in my opinion, loses much of its identity and purpose, if not all of it. This conundrum is why I am skeptical of the Faith-Based Initiative program in the United States. While not unconstitutional in my opinion, the program provides an argument for why there should be separation between the institutions of church and state (key word-institution, I think “separation of church and state” gets thrown around and misused way too often, but thats a whole other story)

However, maybe getting funding from a Lottery may be somewhat of a solution. Unlike paying taxes, buying a lottery ticket is voluntary. If you do so, you are making an active decision and are agreeing to wherever that money will go. As long as lottery ticket buyers know their money might go to a religious charity, I do not see the problems that I listed above.

For more information about the UK lottery, visit http://www.national-lottery.co.uk/player/p/goodcausesandwinners.ftl

Volunteered on 24/03/2011

From 18:00-20:00

2 Hours: Total of 18 Hours

New Hope Christian Centre

Supervisor: Duane Elkins

Tags: 2010 Andrew

The Beauty of Religious Spaces

September 22nd, 2010 · 1 Comment

As I and many others have mentioned in previous posts, examining religion and religious life in London has been a big part of our course. Central to increasing our knowledge and understanding of a number of religions has been visiting the various houses of worship. We have visited a few churches, a mosque, a mandir, and a synagogue. We have gone into these institutions with varying levels of welcome, and we have observed a variety of rituals, customs, and traditions.

Beauty has also been a recurring theme in the course. Almost all of the houses of worship that we visited had put serious thought and effort into the beautification of their buildings. The only exception was the mosque, but I think it is ok to assume that this was due to the financial circumstances of the community than lack of desire or appreciation for a beautiful space. In addition to all being beautiful, these spaces were all aesthetically very unique. The Mandir was extremely ornate, but not to the point of tackiness or fussiness. All of the stone and teak carvings were well executed and the building as a whole had a feel of luxury to it. The synagogue was a more simple, paired down building, but even as a more streamlined space, it still packed ample visual drama in the floor to ceiling red and gold mosaic behind the ark and tall, dramatic stained glass windows, which unfortunately had to be obscured by anti-terrorism curtains.

Comparing St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, aesthetically, St. Paul’s is the clear winner. Westminster Abbey is cluttered with tombs and plaques and statues, it is mostly dark and parts do look kind of shabby. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a place of great historical significance and cultural value, I’m not denying that, but on looks alone…. ehhh. St. Paul’s on the other hand, is light, airy, and spacious. It has a regal, elegant exterior and strikes a nice profile. The mosaics on the ceiling close to the WWII memorial were exceptional. As John explained to us, the tesserae had been set in at a specific angle, not flat against the wall, so that the sunlight reflects off of them just enough to allow them to glint and glitter. Perhaps over stepping here, but I think the visual atmosphere, the aesthetics of the particular houses of worship, reflect something of the character of the congregations who pray there.

Tags: 2010 Rachel · Uncategorized

Try as I might, I can’t think of a clever name for this RELIGION BLOG…

September 21st, 2010 · No Comments

Religion is something I always felt I should know more about, and this time in London has been an interesting opportunity to do so. I particularly enjoyed visiting the Hindu Mandir. Part of this is because I had never been to a Hindu temple before, and part was because, I think, of its presentation.

The volunteers at the Mandir were very kind and helpful, and I really enjoyed the Hinduism exhibit there. They assume, it seems, that most people who come to the temple do not know anything about Hinduism, and they are probably right. I didn’t really know much at all, aside from a few little details I have picked up over the years. I thought the exhibit was educational without being boring or preachy, and I thought it gave me a good perspective on Hinduism before the temple service. I think it is because of this attitude of openness that I enjoyed the Mandir the most.

I also enjoyed visiting the synagogue. I already knew some things about Judaism, but I still appreciated the crash course he gave us. I also really liked looking around a synagogue because I have only ever been in one once before. I think I benefitted from the interaction with our “guide” because he was interesting and earnest, and it seemed like he really enjoys teaching people about the synagogue. Plus, he’s had a lot of practice since school kids come there frequently for tours.

I loved the Christian buildings we went to, but we weren’t really there to learn about religion. With the cathedrals, abbeys, and churches, the tours were mainly geared towards the architecture and history of the buildings and the people buried there, rather than towards the actual religious ceremonies that take place there. At Westminster Abbey, we did learn a little about the royal ceremonies that occur and we did get to see Evensong at St. Paul’s, but, because the branches of Christianity are generally very well known about, it seemed as if the actual religious aspects of the churches were viewed as less interesting. It seems like the churches in London have become more secular than anything. They are burial places for great people and memorial sites for war heroes and the like.

The only religious building I was somewhat dissatisfied with was the mosque. This is not meant to disparage our guide or the religion in any way, but it seemed to me as if we were not welcome there. And maybe that’s completely fair. I certainly “didn’t belong” at the mosque, though I did my best to be respectful and non-threatening. But I don’t know much about the culture, so what I interpreted as stand-offish, defensive, or unwelcoming behavior may not be entirely accurate. I do wish we had gotten to learn a little more, though, because I still feel as if I don’t know as much about Islam as I would like. I did learn a little- and what I learned was very interesting- but it was mostly a refresher course, I felt.

I still feel like I need to learn more about religion in order to be a fully enlightened individual. I don’t like to be judgmental, especially without knowing all the facts, so I think I would definitely benefit from further study on the subject. But I’m glad we were at least exposed to these places of worship so that I can have a firmer grasp on the basics of these religions and so I can take stock of what I still need to learn.

Tags: 2010 Jessica

Finding Common Ground in a City With Many Relgions

September 21st, 2010 · No Comments

One of the most surprising and fascinating aspects of London for me was how international the city is.  In most parts of town, when walking around looking for lunch, we are easily able to find restaurants serving food from five or six different cultures.  In the East End, a single building was used as a church, then a synagogue, and now a mosque.  Walking down the street, I have heard a number of different languages spoken, some that I do not even recognize.  Perhaps the most fascinating opportunity we were given to explore the multi-cultural aspect of London was the chance to visit places of worship belonging to a number of different religious groups in London.  I found it especially interesting that to observe the ways in which the religious groups attempt to bridge the gaps that inevitably exist in such a multi-cultural, multi-faith city.

The fact that most of our guides mentioned involvement in interfaith projects demonstrates that London’s various religious communities are all dealing with living in a multicultural cities by engaging and trying to understand on another (at least partially).  I find it interesting that only the churches that we visited did not describe involvement in interfaith organizations.  I am fairly sure that Christians actually do participate.  However, all of the other religious groups are minorities in London, and it is likely that Christian groups (and specifically Anglicans) do not feel a need to advertise their involvement to visitors because they do not assume automatically that their visitors are from different religious backgrounds from their own.  For minority groups, I think that talking about this involvement to visitors is an important way to express common ground by expressing connections with other groups that the visitors probably associate with or belong to.  At the Hindu mandir, our guide also talked about a number of famous leaders from other religious groups who have visited the Mandir (again I think, to find common ground with us).

When we visited a mosque, as our guide told us about Islam he constantly pointed out similarities with Christianity and Judaism.  Although these similarities are accurate, he clearly stressed them, because assuming that we came from Jewish or Christian backgrounds, he wanted us to be able to appreciate Islam by relating it to our own traditions.  Although the effort probably could have been carried out better, and probably the specific tensions currently surrounding perceptions of Islam, the community at the Mosque clearly makes an effort daily to break down barriers.

Ultimately, I think that by welcoming us in to their worship space learn about their religions, all of the minority groups that we visited expressed a commitment to breaking down some of the barriers with other religious groups.

The Mandir that we visited (from the Mandir’s website)

Tags: 2010 Emily · Uncategorized

My Two Cents/Pence on Religion in England

September 20th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Most of you have been writing about the secular nature of churches in England, how they don’t really seem like a spiritual community, and how it is a bit disturbing that all of them come with cafes and gift shops.  While I agree with these thoughts, I don’t think that it is necessarily all bad, and I think that we need to consider that we are not seeing the entire picture.

I think that the secularism of the Anglican Church particularly stands out against our visits to the Mandir and the mosque.  At these places of worship, people go to pray every day and there are spiritual ceremonies every day as well.  They each have schools, child care centers, and service projects that reach out to the community.  I can see where we might wonder why we are not seeing the Anglican Church step up to its role as a spiritual and community leader, but remember that we discussed in our first ever class meeting how in these minority communities, religion is very much one and the same with culture, especially in Islam.  The difficulties they have assimilating into English culture are due in large part to religion.  Religious teachings and traditions have become well ingrained cultural traditions.  Anglicanism is a relatively new religion in comparison with Hindu and Islam, and does not play the role of being one and the same with culture like it does in the other communities.  And when you are the majority community racially, religiously, politically etc…it doesn’t need to be.

the Mandir, courtesy of it’s website mandir.org

The second point I wanted to make in this post is that Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s do remember their function as places of worship.  I was on the Westminster Abbey tour with the science group.  We were there at noon, and at that time an announcement came on that called for a moment of silence.  John reminded us that we were in a church, not a museum, and I noticed that nearly everyone visiting the Abbey at that time, tourists included, was respectful of this moment.  I also attended Evensong at St. Paul’s and thought that it was a beautiful and moving experience.  I think that they balance their two roles as best as they can, and hey, if my church had a café, I would use it.  Speaking of places of worship that balance spirituality and tourism, look at Vatican City.  No one can argue that this is not a deeply meaningful and spiritual place; Catholics journey from miles around to hear the Pope speak on Christmas, or at any other time of the year really, but it is also a huge attraction, complete with guided tours through St. Peters and rampant pick pocketing.

photo credit: Google Images

photo credit: Google Images.  All of these buildings were too big and beautiful for me to take a good picture of them myself.

Finally, the fact remains that we have not been to any small Anglican parishes in specific residential neighborhoods of London.  I’m sure that there are religious Anglicans in London who do go to church every Sunday and whose churches run community service projects and functions, but, similar to your local church at home, which also attracts no visitors, these churches probably don’t have history such as the Battle of Hastings and the Great Fire of London surrounding them.  We definitely are not seeing the whole picture here, which is why I cannot join in lamenting and expressing disappointment in places like Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s, or the Anglican Church in general.

Tags: 2010 Kaitlin

Everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology in London

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

This is a very long post because I am really, really excited about it. If you don’t feel like reading the entire thing, the part that is relevant to England is just in the section labeled “analysis” at the bottom.

While several other people from our group were off being awesome and seeing the Pope yesterday (I’m still really jealous), there was a scientology protest on Tottenham Court right across the street from the Scientology clinic, complete with V for Vendetta masks, megaphones, picket signs, and a lot of bizarre internet references. This is pretty much a dream for someone like me because it combines angry protestors, really odd subcultures, and a religion that allegedly contains aliens. (I know, right?! Better than Bedlam with psych wards, cannibals, and feminism). So I got a chance to talk to the scientologists inside the clinic for a while, and then I talked to a few of the protestors across the street, one of whom was a rogue scientologist. He termed himself a “squirrel,” which is a person who still believes in the axioms of scientology but has disconnected himself from the establishment.

Anyway, I’m not sure how familiar most people are with scientology. I already knew a lot of the social issues surrounding it because of media coverage, but I’ve never gotten an account of the belief system from an actual scientologist. I’ll give a rundown of the things I thought were important:

Part 1: The woman I spoke to inside the clinic was a little odd, but perfectly happy to talk to me, show me informational films, and give me free literature. She did not attempt to sell me anything, give me a diagnostics test that would tell me I was depressed and should pay her a bunch of money, or otherwise brainwash me. I asked her what she thought about the press coverage of scientology and the allegations that it’s exploitative, and she genuinely didn’t seem to have any knowledge of abuse to people within the church or a pyramid scheme going on. So I’m going to assume she was a believer rather than a person at the head of the church making a ton of money.

According to what she told me, L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of Scientology, but only a man rather than a prophet. He has written all the scriptures (which are read at services on Sundays just like many other religions), the main one being The Thesis of Dianetics. He also wrotes the prayers. I found this interesting because every religion I’ve ever studied has holy scriptures directly from God(s) or a prophet and then some have other important documents written and axioms written by men.

When I asked her about her conversion, she said that she never converted because Scientology is supposed to be addition rather than a superseder of other religions. She was also Catholic and often attended Catholic masses when she was with her parents. This means that scientologists do not officially evangelize. Scientology is also apolitical apparently, no official stances on abortion.

I also asked her about the religion itself. Firstly, no aliens, apparently (disappointing). No mention of Xenu. Thetans, she said, are basically an equivalent to the soul except rather than saying you have a soul/thetan, the soul/thetan is you. There is a trinity of self composed of mind, body, and soul/thetan. The thetan returns after your death, so Scientology is a religion of reincarnation. There are eight dynamics of life which become increasingly broad: self, family and all things sex related, group/friends/community, mankind, living things, physical universe, spiritual self, and infinity/supreme being. This was another detail that struck me as extremely weird because it was the only mention she ever made of God in her whole explanation. There is a whole we-are-all-connected-Lion-King motif with the dynamics, which is very familiar, but the main emphasis she placed on her explanation was self help. Scientology is supposed to allow you to rid the negative energy from your life. It focuses heavily on L. Ron Hubbard’s idea that the mind regulates the body, so believers go to counseling sessions where they work on different aspects of their life (communication, relationships, hostilities of life), and they ascend to different levels as they improve. You are also supposed to study. Scientology offers courses for personal betterment (you have to pay for them because there is no government funding) and you can study to become ordained, in which case you study under a superior and also ascend levels of awareness. A lot of hierarchy going on. They’re especially antidrug because they want to focus on the mind, and drugs are bodily and act as toxins.

If I had to simplify it, I would say she was focusing on psychological self help with spiritual axioms.

Part 2: The protestors outside were equally odd and equally happy to talk to me (They invited me to the pub after about an hour but my stranger danger blinker was buzzing). They are part of an internet based organization called Anonymous, which has taken Guy Fawkes from V for Vendetta as their mascot. They wear the masks so as not to be followed/sued by Scientologists. I could write a whole paper on the internet subculture surrounding this protest, but this post is already way too long. I talked to two of the few people not wearing masks, one of whom was a well researched protestor and the other a Scientologist that broke away from the church. Major issues they had:

  1. Pyramid scheme – Scientology is organized so that people have to pay massive amounts for counseling to ascend to the next OT (operating thetan, don’t worry, I’ll get to an explanation) level. They can only get free counseling if they agree to volunteer for the church in which case they’re working for insanely low wages, and if they decide to leave the church they must pay for all the counseling they’ve ever had in lump sum.
  2. The church abuses people by denying them access to medicine they need. Lisa McPherson is an example they mentioned of a woman who died. However, they place people on strong regiments of Scientology vitamins, which make them more money.
  3. Scientology can label any person as an SP (supressive person) or negative influence on someone within the church. If a superior labels your family member as an SP (this can be for anything, like suggesting that Scientology may be dangerous), you can no longer talk to that person.

While the woman inside said L. Ron Hubbard wrote science fiction to fund his research on the nature of man, the non-Scientologist protestor said the sci fi discredited him. The woman inside said that the church was involved with charitable works for the community and participated in interfaith organizations, but the man outside said that all Scientology’s charitable works were minimal for publicity or self-serving. An example he used was Narconon, a program in which Scientologists provide free counseling and drug rehabilitation, which allows them to pull in more people.

Anonymous Scientology Protest, London

Picture taken from http://www.altogetherdigital.com/20080210/anonymous-vs-scientology-strange-goings-on-in-london/ (Coverage of another Scientology protest in London)

Part 3: This is about the guy who referred to himself as a “squirrel,” a Scientologist against the establishment. He told me a lot more about the way OT levels work because he had risen several levels through counseling before leaving. Thetans are not just personal souls; they’re also energy from different life forces that float around on earth and sometimes attaches to people without either being’s knowledge. Counseling allows you to cleanse yourself of thetans. He actually experienced an exorcism of a thetan as powerful as himself (he said he couldn’t believe that he was controlling his body and she wasn’t) who came back to visit him several days later. He said that he never believed Xenu, an alien in the Scientologist narrative who sent a bunch of thetans to earth’s volcanoes; he understood the story strictly as a metaphor. He did still believe in the axioms, and mention one: “Life is a static capable of postulates and considerations.”

Analysis: I can see why Scientology is so attractive to so many people. It has commonalities with a lot of different religions. The levels of awareness and cleansing are similar to levels of enlightenment in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. The 8 dynamics are a familiar hierarchy, and the eighth dynamic infinity/the supreme being. which encompasses everything else, also hearkens back to other religions. For instance, Islam and Judaism focus so much on the infiniteness of God that they are aniconic. You cannot depict God or speak of God without special ritual so that you are not in danger of quantifying God. The trinity of mind, body, and soul seems awefully similar to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit trinity we find in Christianity. Plus, the idea of a thetan, when we compare it to a soul, doesn’t really sound farfetched at all. Yogic Hinduism focuses on releasing negative energy akin to parasitic thetans. Muslims perform ritual purifying before every prayer. The focus on study, the fact that believers are supposed to take courses, is pretty similar to studying the Torah for bar mitvah or the Bible for confirmation.

It’s also very attractive because it reiterates a lot of popular sentiment about psychology and self help. There is already an issue with the overpresecription of drugs because drug companies have so much influence over doctors. Scientology reiterates the fear of overmedication. Western society is also a society obsessed with psychology. More people than ever see therapists. Depression has invaded so thoroughly that it is used a synonym for sadness. A religion that revolves around self help fulfills a need. Also, the fact that Scientology is a spiritual form of self-help with very little emphasis on God might be very practical for the English in particular. The census we saw notes that many English consider themselves spiritual, but do not believe in God.

The attractive part of the religion of Scientology makes the establishment of Scientology extremely terrifying because everything the protestors named had a seemingly reasonable counterpoint. Scientology could be a money making scheme, or it could be that scientology needs money to operate just like any other religious establish needs membership fees and donations to operate. Scientology does not receive government funding in England because it does not pass the means test so maybe it needs even more money (The protestors told me that the Scientology church in England gets around this by registering under Australia which has no means test, but I unfortunately can’t find any research on it). Scientology could be brainwashing people by having superiors hover over them, excommunicating their relatives, and denying them medical attention, or they could just be providing mentors and trying not to overmedicate people. Obviously, there is something wrong with an establishment that abuses people, but from the inside it’s very difficult to define abuse.

We also have to separate the religion from the establishment and look for the good. The “squirrel” I talked to felt deep spiritual benefit from belief in the 8 dynamics, counseling for communication skills, and the release of thetans and energy. None of the stories or axioms he talked about were any siller than a virgin birth, a man whose head is replaced by an elephant’s, or Muhammad splitting the moon. They’re just myths (I mean stories within a tradition, not false accounts) that create a discourse for a belief system. When I asked a man at the Hindu temple why there was a statue of Krishna and not Vishnu, he told me it was because they were the same, and that every god in the temple was a different avenue to the same God, just like there are many different Tube routes back to Tottenham Court (his analogy, not mine). Hokey, yes, but I love this sentiment because it reminds us that tolerance should extend to any path that benefits people. That does not mean we should tolerate an abusive establishment. The protestors told me that unlike America, England defines Scientology as a religion, giving them special legal rights to practice. But it does mean that we shouldn’t dismiss individuals who believe in the Scientology as wackos, especially since the its definition as a religion depends not just on its legitimacy as a belief system but the legitimacy of the establishment that endorses it.

So in summary, we should all respect each other and be friends (Please tell me if you read that entire thing, that my thesis came out to more than that).

A source recommended to me by the protestors:

Sikh comedian’s explanation of Scientology. Recommended by the “squirrel”

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Paradise on Earth

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

One of the things that has truly surprised me during our time in London and in our readings over the summer was the lack of a widespread religious sentiment and a growing secular way of thinking. Visiting the different places of worship for me has been very enriching. I sincerely enjoyed hearing about the way different roles of various institutions in their communities. Despite this growing secular sentiment, it was evident to me that faith is still an important key to Englishness. Sure, we may not have had the same treatment at the Christian institutions we visited, but we weren’t at the parish church where they would have stressed the other parts of Christianity outside of the famous dead people.

At the mandir, mosque, and synagogue, I did learn something about other faith communities, all of which I wasn’t that familiar with. Familiar with Christian outreach, it was interesting to hear the way other faiths volunteer and conduct outreach. I was also intrigued by the amount of history each guide mentioned; at the mandir, there was a specific exhibit to help you understand the history and beliefs of Hinduism. At the mosque, the guide spent more time on the basic principles, whereas at the synagogue it was much more history heavy, which I enjoyed (despite the slight mix up with who declared the crusades and who ordered Richard’s). Yet, they all stressed the importance of the community and what they did for the community. At the end of each tour, I felt that I had been where a faith was active and thriving- counteracting the general arguments we had encountered.

Before I talk about my favorite experience, I’m going to go off on a bit of rant/tangent. (Nothing unusual, you’re probably thinking.) While Christianity is undeniably not as much on the forefront as it once was (I sometimes forget I’m not in the Middle Ages where the church was as influential as those in political power and grotesques littered the cathedral for unknown reasons), it is still playing an important role in England. How? Most noticeably, the concerts we’ve attended. Sure, they haven’t been lectures in Christianity, but they have brought people into a church where they were witnessing a faith community. You don’t necessarily have to have a lecture about the religion’s history when you are there in order to spark an interest. Sometimes a few trips for concerts or to be a tourist will spark an interest and prompt someone to ask a question that leads to a serious discussion. Yes, it would have been nice to have left any of the churches/cathedrals with a pamphlet on basic Christianity, but because those audiences (presumably) weren’t there to learn about Christianity, a pamphlet may have been more alienating than encouraging.

Okay, so my favorite experience and what it taught me. Hands down, my favorite has been (no surprises) Westminster Abbey. (This may change as I’m hoping to get over to St. Bartholomew the Great tomorrow; it’s a medieval parish church.) Why when it didn’t actually teach me about Christianity or the abbey that I didn’t know? One, because it inspired my faith through the sweeping architecture and stained glass. For me, those are more impressive and awe-inspiring than St. Paul’s (in its present Wren-wrecked – okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh-state) could ever dare to be. Two, because as a medievalist, I was able to participate in a long-standing tradition: the pilgrimage. Throughout history, people have visited sites throughout the world for many reasons. At Westminster Abbey, everything I love was combined into one place: my faith, grotesques, cosmati, saints, Chaucer, Gothic architecture, etc. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. True I wasn’t there to pay my respects to Edward per se, but I can’t deny seeing the tomb of such an important figure didn’t give me chills (even though it’s been really messed up and reassembled incorrectly). I didn’t necessarily have to learn anything about Christianity to have an incredible experience. Yet, to say I didn’t learn anything is mistaken. I did, but I learned more about the position of the Church of England. It is clearly in decline, but the abbey is doing what it can given its monumental dual-purpose (protect priceless art and architecture while spreading its Christian message).

Westminster Abbey Cloister

I’m sure some of us would argue that it is up to these major institutions to take the lead in revitalizing Anglicanism, and to some extent Christianity, in England. However, because Westminster Abbey stands for so much more than just Christianity (whether this is a good or bad thing is up for debate), it is important for some of the parish churches to be more vocal on these issues. For Westminster Abbey (and to some extent St. Paul’s) to take a major stand is a conflict of interests, a problem that lays at the heart of its problems rises: should it risk alienating the audience that helps it survive in order to promote its beliefs? It shouldn’t compromise its faith (and I don’t think it does; it does remain closed for services on Sundays as well as hosts small prayers and services throughout the day/week) in order to protect its architecture, nor should it compromise its architecture to protect its faith. They go hand-in-hand in many regards. Without either, you lose part of the abbey. If there was ever a lose-lose, impossible to win situation, double-edged sword, etc, this was it!

I’m hoping as I visit other major medieval cathedrals, a solution to the Christianity vs. tourism problem will become evident, but for now Westminster Abbey will have to be simply (as its Cloister represented for its medieval monks) my paradise on earth.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Churches and Cathedrals

Children of the Enlightenment

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

So, like many other people, I have noticed the difference in educational programming at the Anglican churches that we’ve visited versus the other religious centers that we’ve seen. At Westminster Abbey I enjoyed the history and all of the famous people buried there (I looked down to discover that I was standing on David Lloyd George’s grave–sorry!), and at St. Paul’s Cathedral I admired Sir Christopher Wren’s gorgeous design and thought of the five hundred stairs that awaited me. So many people have commented on this lately, but I think that Mary Kate is right when she says that we have a valuable opportunity to look at and discuss Christianity in Britain in terms of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.

In the course of my research for our walking tour, I stumbled across an interesting opinion on the de-Christianization of the British, and it had nothing to do with immigration or the emergence of other religions. In the introduction to his book A Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald comments that the baby boomers were the last generation to attend church regularly, but that Christianity had been on the decline for much longer than that. MacDonald argued that science was to blame–as more and more scientific developments were made, especially in terms of medical discoveries and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it became more and more difficult for people to balance this new information with Christian beliefs, and scientific ideas began to take precedence.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense to me. As the imperial capital of the world for so many years, England was the place where so many new ideas and discoveries originated. This country, and especially London, has hosted radicals and revolutionaries in terms of politics, art, and science. If scientific ideas were going to take hold anywhere, it makes sense for it to be here. Based on what I’ve learned of the 1960s, I can also understand why the baby boomers really started moving away from religion. The Anglican Church was traditional and belonged to their parents’ generation, and the sixties were about youth making their own mark and breaking away from tradition. Religion may very well have been a partial victim of the sixties.

I’m not saying that Christianity is still a tired religion–in my experience, there has been a definite move to adapt the religion to changing times and to attract more followers. But it seems that this isn’t going so well in Europe, and one of the reasons may be the perceived gap between religious leaders and the public. To me, the fact that Cardinal Kasper called England a “Third World country” immediately  before the Pope’s arrival shows amazing insensitivity to the cosmopolitan make-up of Britain’s population and ignorance as to how to reach out to people. He certainly did not do the Pope any favors in this already contested visit.

This seems to speak to what our guide at the East London Mosque was saying about the need for different religious groups to understand each other. In this case, Christian leaders perhaps need to learn how to better relate to a widely secular public, especially by not distancing them with offensive remarks. In terms of wider, inter-religious understanding, I admired our guide’s willingness to admit that education is necessary on the part of both Muslims and non-Muslims. But I was puzzled that he seemed to resist the opportunity to engage us on that level. I felt that he stereotyped us as ignorant Americans, and that we missed the opportunity for a good dialogue on some very important issues.

The religions that we’ve engaged with during the past month are all tolerant religions, but it seems to be that people need to follow their own teachings a bit better, both in terms of learning about other religions and in terms of relating to people who supposedly belong to the Church of England.

Tags: 2010 Holly · Churches and Cathedrals