Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

Ronald Suny on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide

Suny jacketToday marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning on April 24, 1915, up to 1.5 million Armenians would die in massacres at the hands of the Ottoman government. The executions took place during and after WWI, targeting able-bodied males, and sending women, children, and the infirm on death marches into the Syrian desert. And yet, as Armenians around the world commemorate the anniversary, and numerous nations offer condolences to the descendents of the victims, the use of the term “genocide” to describe these atrocities has been politically fraught. Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman empire, has taken a stance of denial; Obama stopped short of using the term, with Israel seeming to follow his lead. Ronald Suny, author of the new book “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”, argues that the fact of the Armenian Genocide is indisputable. In his op ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Suny writes about the “cost of Turkey’s genocide denial”:

…governments that fail to accept and confront the harsh consequences of historical truth are giving comfort to ultranationalist and anti-democratic forces that threaten liberty and democracy in Turkey.

Read his full New York Times op ed here, and his piece in The Daily Beast, in which he discusses the term “genocide” and its application. Suny recently took time to answer questions about the genocide, his book, and the inherent difficulty in explaining events that remain for many—at least emotionally—inexplicable.

What was the status of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire before the Genocide began in 1915? Did the government openly discriminate against them?

RS: The roughly two million Armenians in the Empire were distinct — religiously distinct, as Christians in a majority Muslim society, as well as culturally and linguistically distinct in many cases. Most of them were peasants and townspeople in the six provinces of eastern Anatolia, often living in homogeneous villages and sections of towns, and occasionally dominated larger rural and urban areas. The most influential and prosperous Armenians lived in the imperial capital, Istanbul (Constantinople), where their visibility made them the target of both official and popular resentment. But they of course were Ottomans, so they were part of this society. Many Armenians even spoke Turkish and not Armenian and so forth, but at least you could identify who they were – they went to different churches and clubs, etc., and they lived in concentrated areas. At a certain point, resentment developed against Armenians who were better off, more closely tied to Europe, and better educated. Then as the propaganda about Armenians and Greeks, another Christian minority, developed suggesting they were linked to foreigners, that they were threat to the Empire, etc., more and more people begin to turn against them. So eventually fear, anger, and resentment became hatred.

The Assyrians are also part of your book – were they seen as a distinct group from the Armenians at that time?

RS: They saw themselves as distinct groups, but the Assyrians, who as another Monophysite Christian group, were often identified with Armenians. Some of them were part of ermeni millet, the official Armenian community, and they were also perceived to have links with foreigners. So the Assyrians were somewhat outcasts, both in Persia and in the Ottoman Empire, and they also suffered tremendously.

Why did the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire perceive the Armenians and Assyrians as a threat, and why they chose such an extreme approach to handle them?

RS: That is the central question of this book. There is a tendency on the part of some scholars – particularly Armenians – not to try to explain the genocide because – “why do you need to explain it? These are Turks, this is what they do, and this is the kind of regime it was.” Or, slightly more sophisticated – “oh, it’s Christians and Muslims – they are inevitably in conflict.” Or — “it’s clashes of nationalism.” Now for me, religion, nationalism, the nature of Turkish culture, Ottoman society, the state – all of these are the questions to be asked, not the answers. That is, they need to be investigated. The way I would explain this genocide, and I think it has relevance for other kinds of ethnic cleansings and mass killings, is that the regime developed what I call an “affective disposition” – that is, an emotional understanding of who the enemy was. They constructed the Armenians as an existential threat to the Ottoman Empire and to the Turkish nation, what they conceived as the Turkish nation at that time. I try to explain the origins of this affective disposition – this mental universe – in which emotion, fear, anger, and resentment combined to create an image of Armenians. Armenians originally had been thought of as a loyal part of the empire, but by 1878 they became an instrument of certain foreign powers to intervene in the Ottoman regime and internal policy — the Ottomans began to see them as a threat.

Remind us what happened in 1878.

RS: This was the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Russians beat the Turks, and they were going to enforce reforms on the Ottoman Empire, and that was the beginning of the new “Armenian question” that continued right up to the war. Now, some people would say “well, you don’t need to go into emotions – it was a perfectly strategic, rational choice. The Armenians were actually a threat in World War I, and the Turks decided to get rid of them for national security reasons.” My view is that’s an insufficient explanation. Why did they see them as a threat? A threat is always a perception. It’s about emotion, it’s about understanding, feeling, sentiment, and construction – both cognitive and emotional construction. I’m taking a step backwards to see how they got into the position that they could imagine people this way and then carry out the worst possible kinds of things. I’m bringing emotion into it.

By some accounts, Armenians sided with Russia at the beginning of World War I —was that something the Ottomans could point to that the Armenians were a threat?

RS: This is the problem. You can’t say the Armenians sided with Russia. That is what the Ottomans would say, and they perceived that. So there are people who try to justify what the Ottomans did to the Armenians by saying they were with the enemy. What I try to show in the book is that the overwhelming majority of Ottoman Armenians wanted to stay in the Empire and attempted to prove to the Turks that they were loyal, but they also wanted reforms to protect them and allow them to prosper. They wanted Kurdish predations against Armenians to be contained, for example. The Ottoman government was opposed to these reforms, but ultimately had to agree to them in February 1914. When the war came, though, they used the first opportunity to get rid of them. I’ll give you an example. As the Ottomans are going to war, they mobilize the population. Hundreds and thousands of young Armenian men are drafted and join the Ottoman army. A few desert and go over to the Russian side. Some prominent leaders go over to the Russian side. The Russians form Armenian voluntary units on the Caucasian side against the Ottomans, but the Turks see this as treachery and demobilize hundreds of thousands of Armenian soldiers, take their weapons and uniforms away, turn them into labor battalions, and eventually murder them. So it’s a very different thing. It’s not that there wasn’t sympathy among some for Russia, but there was also no particular love for Russia. Russians didn’t like the Armenian nationalist revolutionaries any more than the Turks did so they were persecuting them as well. The Armenians were in an unfortunate position – in Persia, in Russia, and in Turkey. They were like the Kurds today.

How did they try to prove their loyalty?

RS: They mobilized their young men to fight in the army, they raised money for hospitals and aid to the government, they spoke in favor of the war effort, and many other things. They told them – we’re loyal, don’t push us into opposition. But there was an imbalance of agency. You see this today in the Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. One side has more power and has more cards to play: the Israelis in the case of Palestine, the Armenians in the case of the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict, and the Ottomans in 1915. The Armenians had what I’d call a dilemma of the damned. As they were being constructed as the enemy, there was very little they could do. And then they were disarmed, their leaders were arrested, they were systematically deported, and many hundreds of thousands were murdered.

The Ottoman Turks mobilized the population, in a completely chaotic and disorganized way, and there was dislocation, food shortages, soldiers marching hundreds of miles to get to the front. They were inadequately equipped, and huge numbers of desertions took place. There were half a million deserters, Muslims as well as Christians and others. Many of those deserters would either pillage villages for food, rape women, or clash with the army, and the Ottoman government claimed these were Armenian revolts. A lot of soldiers deserted, and it was general chaos.

To what extent did ordinary people participate or was it mostly carried out by special military forces?

RS: Genocides are ordered from the top: secret orders go out that say “take care of these people” (start the deportations), but we don’t have very good records on that. The orders bring about massacres, and in a systematic way. In the Armenian genocide, the deportations and massacres were often carried out by nomadic Kurds, Circassians (or, Cherkess, as they’re also called), Chechens — many of them refugees from the Caucasus or the Balkans, so called mujahedeen, other refugees who were to be settled in the Armenian villages, and ordinary people, even women. We have reports of women cutting down people so there is some popular participation.

One problem I have is – how much did the Ottomans understand what they were doing, and how much did they believe in it? There were some Ottoman governors who refused to carry out the killings and the deportations. And there were Turks and Kurds who took Armenian refugees into their homes, sometimes forcibly making women part of their harem or family, converting them to Islam. But others believed in the necessity of the massacre. You can now access intelligence reports, and certain commanders were sending reports of Armenian insurrections. Some scholars have read these reports — a kind of new, sophisticated denialism — and taken the Ottomans at their word that there really was a revolt. While there were individual moments of resistance, as at Van or Musa Dagh, because they were being attacked. there was no coordinated, general insurrection of Armenians during the war.

Were the Chechens and Circassians specially sought out for the killings or were they already living in the Empire?

RS: There had always been clashes between Kurds and Circassians and Armenians about land so there was a base of hostilities and tensions. The Ottoman government would often recruit them into special organizations, which hired them as well as criminals and others into gangs, and these people carried out a lot of massacres. The Kurds today, in the Republic of Turkey, are one major group who recognize the genocide, who have apologized for what they did, who believe they were used by the Turks, and they are trying to make up for that now. For example, in the city of Diyarbakır where my grandmother is from, the local Kurds have opened churches and talk about living in the land together with Armenians.

So the Kurds have tried reconciliation?

RS: Yes, because they also feel persecuted by the Turks. Kurdish discourse is something like “they had you for breakfast, and they’re going to have us for dinner.” I really think Turkey is the country to watch. Something’s happening there, and we don’t know where it will go. We don’t know where Russia or Armenia will go either.

Armenians began to view themselves as a nation during this period – how did the genocide contribute to that process? What caused the growing sense of a nation?

RS: I’m a constructivist — I believe that nations are creations of human beings. At a certain point people begin to think of themselves as a nation rather than a religious group or other identity, and this happened for the Armenians in the 19th century. Turks began to think this way a bit later, more in the 20th century, and Kurds even later than that. The genocide happened at a time when some people were thinking in this nationalist idiom, but simultaneously, many others were thinking of themselves as Ottomans, with special Armenian characteristics. Armenian nationalism in a sense won the day in World War I, and the post-war period, until, of course, the Soviets took over the Armenian republic, and nationalism became an alien ideology that couldn’t be expressed openly. It then became the ideology of the diaspora.

Yes, the Armenian genocide was just that, says Ronald Suny’s new book

Suny jacketApril 24th marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century, though lesser-known, and more contested than other crimes against humanity that followed. Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide claims that the massacres did indeed constitute genocide, and chronicles the human catastrophe through eyewitness accounts and archival documents. The end result is a deeply researched narrative history of how and why the atrocities were committed. The Sunday Times writes, “Suny is admirably dispassionate in explaining the particular circumstances that led the Ottoman government to embark on a policy of mass extermination…”

Check out this video where Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, gives an overview of the genocide’s history, Turkey’s denial, and his own Armenian family’s experience:

Christopher Bail on anti-Muslim sentiment

In this clip from the documentary aftertheshooting.com, sociologist and author Christopher Bail discusses whether the sea change in American public opinion about Islam over the past few years may have contributed to the recent murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His recent book, Terrified, employs computer analytics techniques to show how anti-Muslim organizations have gained visibility in the public sphere. In this clip, Bail speaks with a close friend of one of the victims. You can watch the entire documentary here.

Last month, Bail spoke with Paul Rosenberg at Salon about his innovative new methodology for studying how fear is fostered in the broader cultural landscape. He was interviewed about the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings in the Guardian earlier this year.

The Failure of Islamic Democracy, by John Owen, author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM: Six Lessons from the West’s Past — Op-Ed Original

The Failure of Islamic Democracy
By John M. Owen IV

The recent jihadist horrors in France, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria have lured our attention away from political conditions in the Middle East that indirectly helped produce them. In Turkey and Egypt “Islamic democracy” failed in 2014, and that failure will likely have long and deep repercussions for the entire region.

From northwest Africa to South Asia, majorities of Muslims routinely tell pollsters that they believe their country should either adopt literal Sharia, law derived from Islam’s holy texts, or at least follow the principles of those texts. The secularism that authoritarian Muslims imposed on their peoples from the 1920s through the 1970s is simply not popular over this vast region.

At the same time, the late Arab Spring made clear that Middle Eastern Muslims want governments that are accountable to them. The only resolution for most countries in the region, then, is some kind of Islamic democracy.

The very phrase “Islamic democracy” seems incoherent the Western ear, and indeed any Islamic democracy could not be liberal, in the individualist and secularist sense that we mean by that term today.

What, then, is Islamic democracy? Since it took power in 2002, Turkey’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party has invited the world to watch it build just such a system (although its leaders insist on the term “conservative democracy”). The early years of AK Party government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked promising, as the economy grew, negotiations with Kurdish separatists progressed, and Turkey even moved toward membership in the European Union. The AK Party fairly won several elections.

The unraveling began in 2013 with a crackdown on protests, and in 2014 it continued with corruption charges against Erdoğan allies, media censorship, politicization of the judiciary, and arrests of political rivals. Elected President in August after twelve years as Prime Minister, Erdoğan has made clear his determination to expand the powers of that office.

Then there is Egypt. Its stirring 2011 revolution ousted the authoritarian secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, and free elections in 2012 produced an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and an Islamist majority in parliament. Openly admiring of the Turkish model, the new Egypt was poised to exemplify an Arab Islamic democracy.

But in November 2012 Morsi assumed extraordinary powers. Mounting public protests against Morsi’s power grab were followed by his ouster by Egypt’s military in July 2013, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In 2014 al-Sisi ran nearly unopposed for President, and while in office he has suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. Egypt appears where it was before 2011, only with a different former army general in charge.

Turkey’s Erdoğan has bested his opponents; Egypt’s Morsi was destroyed by his. But in both countries the experiment with Islamic democracy has failed. Each elected leader confronted powerful elites and large segments of the public who did not trust him to remain a democrat. Relations deteriorated, factions polarized, and both countries are settling into sultanism.

These depressing stories are not only about Turkey and Egypt. They are about the future of Islamic democracy itself. For nearly a century the entire Middle East has been passing through a legitimacy crisis, or a struggle over the best way to order society. The West and other regions have passed through legitimacy crises of their own in past centuries – most recently, the twentieth-century struggle between communism and liberal democracy. Prolonged spasms like these scramble political loyalties and generate unrest, revolution, and foreign interventions.

In the Muslims’ current crisis the original contenders in the struggle were secularism, pioneered by Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic; and Islamism, formulated by thinkers such as the Sunni Hassan al-Banna and the Shia Ruhollah Khomeini. Many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, journalists, and politicians lately have touted Islamic democracy as a hybrid solution to this long struggle.

Western history shows that long international ideological contests are played out in the policies and performances of real countries. And they end only when a large, influential state that exemplifies one contending ideology manifestly outperforms large states exemplifying the alternative ideologies.

Consider the Cold War, a struggle between the liberal democracy and communism that played out in the competition between the United States and Soviet Union. By the 1980s America’s economic, technological, and military superiority was clear. Societal elites the world over concluded that communism did not work after all. Country after country abandoned state socialism, and liberal democracy enjoyed a period of predominance over much of the globe.

In 2011 and 2012 it appeared that the Middle East was heading for a similar resolution, with Turkey showing the superiority of Islamic democracy, Egypt following its example, and elites in neighboring societies adopting this new hybrid regime as the wave of the future. As 2015 begins, things look nearly the opposite. Tunisia, which recently held fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power, provides some hope. But if history is a good guide, Tunisia is too small and peripheral to be an exemplar or inspire imitation.

We can continue to argue over whether the retreat of Islamic democracy was inevitable or caused by other factors. We can argue over whether Islamic democracy’s time has passed, or not yet arrived. What is clear is that the Middle East’s legitimacy crisis continues, with an end no longer in sight.

John M. Owen IV is Professor of Politics, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, at the University of Virginia and author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM.

Robert Wuthnow – Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State Winner of the 2014 Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize, Texas State Historical Association

Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State is the winner of the 2014 Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize. The Tullis Memorial Prize is awarded annually to the best book in Texas published during the calendar year. The presentation of a $2000 prize and certificate will be made at the Association’s annual meeting in March, 2015. More general information on the award can be found, here.

Congratulations to Robert Wunthnow!

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Rough Country:
How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State

Robert Wuthnow

Robert E. Buswell Jr. & Donald S. Lopez Jr.- The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism Winner of the 2015 Dartmouth Medal, Reference and User Services Association of the American Library Association

On Sunday, February 1, 2015 at the ALA Midwinter Conference in Chicago, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism won the 2015 Dartmouth Medal for most outstanding reference work. The award will be presented at the ALA Annual Conference this June in San Francisco.

The Dartmouth Medal selection committee was very impressed with The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. “As its description states, ‘With more than 5,000 entries totaling over a million words, this is the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of Buddhism ever produced in English. It is also the first to cover terms from all of the canonical Buddhist languages and traditions: Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.” The members of the committee found the book to be a true meisterwerk—scholarly yet accessible, exhaustive, yet usable.” As one member put it, “if you can apply the word ‘elegant’ to a reference work, this would be the book.” We expect inquirers in religion and culture at all levels from the merely curious to the scholarly to benefit from this dictionary.” More information about the award can be found, here.

Congratulations to Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.!


 

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The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
Robert E. Buswell Jr. & Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Happy birthday, Gita

001_Davis_figEvery great living religious work must have had a birth, but not many celebrate their birthdays. The Bhagavad Gita, a classic Hindu scripture, does. This year Hindus are celebrating the Gita Jayanti today, December 2.

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The Bhagavad Gita records a conversation on the battlefield of Kurukshetra between two figures, Krishna and Arjuna, just before the start of a great eighteen-day battle. The warrior Arjuna is distraught over the prospect of fighting against his relatives and teachers, and Krishna seeks to persuade him to engage in the upcoming battle. The discussion deals not just with the propriety of war, but also with the ethical dilemmas, the religious practices, and the philosophical issues that concerned Indian elites at the time of its composition. And we are told in the Mahabharata, the massive epic poem of which the Bhagavad Gita is a small portion, that their dialogue took place on the eleventh day of the waxing moon in the lunar month of Marghashirsha. This year, that day falls on December 2 of our solar calendar.When I visited Kurukshetra in 2011 for the Gita Jayanti, a local official told me with great confidence that the Gita was celebrating its 5103rd birthday. That would make the Gita 5106 years old today. Textual historians are more circumspect. According to current scholarship, the Bhagavad Gita was composed in the century or two before or after the time of Christ. But scholarly skepticism does not diminish the observances that mark the birth and life of this classic text.Around the world, in Singapore or Malaysia, the United Kingdom or the United States, wherever Hindus have come to live, the Gita Jayanti is celebrated. Most often it is a modest festival. It may consist entirely of a collective recitation of the seven-hundred verses of the Bhagavad Gita text. Some communities organize competitions for children in Gita recitation. One group, the Swadhyay Parivar, arranges for young people to give speeches on the philosophy of the Gita. According to its website, 2.2 million children participated last year. For the International Society of Krishna Consciousness devotees, recitation of the text is combined with distribution of copies of the Gita, as translated by the founder of ISKCON, Swami Prabhupada.Nowhere is the Gita Jayanti celebrated with greater élan than in Kuruksetra, a small pilgrimage town in the state of Haryana, where according to tradition the Gita took birth. Since 1989, the Kurukshetra Development Board has organized and promoted the celebration of Gita Jayanti as part of a larger five-day Kurukshetra Festival. In addition to recitations and discourses on the work, Kurukshetra hosts a procession of musician and holy men, cultural performances in several great tents, political leaders being felicitated, fireworks, an enormous crafts fair of over five hundred displays from throughout India, and a lovely Deep Daan, where hundreds of dainty clay oil-lamps are set afloat at nightfall in the water-tank at the center of town. My teenaged friend Akash Rana writes that he and his friends are “enjoying too much” the festival this year, with the dances of all the different states and the spicy foods from all around India. He wishes I could be there.Like many great religious works, the Bhagavad Gita has lived a long and varied life since its time of birth. Readings and recitation, translations and commentaries have reinscribed this classical Sanskrit work into new currents and disputes for two millennia. Medieval Brahmin scholars and Krishna devotees, British colonial scholars and German Romantics, globe-trotting Hindu gurus and Indian anticolonial freedom fighters, and modern spiritual seekers in India and around the world have all kept the work alive through their own dialogues with the Gita. In celebrating the birthday of the Bhagavad Gita today, we can also celebrate this long interpretive history.


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This is a guest post by Richard H. Davis, professor of religion at Bard College and author of The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography.

Confucianism as a World Religion takes home the 2014 Best Book Award, Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association

j10017[1]We are delighted to learn that Anna Sun’s book Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities has been named winner of the 2014 Best Book Award, Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association.

The book was earlier reviewed by Andrew Stuart Abel in the American Journal of Sociology: “Confucianism as a World Religion is destined to become a classic, especially in Confucian studies and comparative religion. . . . [T]his text is likely to be very popular in graduate seminars on comparative religion, Confucianism, and the sociology of religion. More of an introduction to Confucianism may be necessary for a full understanding of what Sun is up to, but this book is certainly one of the most important English-language texts on Confucianism.”

This award “honors a book that makes an outstanding contribution to the sociology of religion.” You can read more about this award and others given by the Sociology of Religion Section of ASA here: http://www.asanet.org/sections/religion_awards.cfm

Princeton University Press’s #NewBooks for this week

Books released during the week of October 6, 2014
The <i>Bhagavad Gita</i>: A Biography<br>Richard H. Davis The Bhagavad Gita:
A Biography
Richard H. Davis


“This is an exciting book about an exciting book, namely, the Bhagavad Gita, a text in which Hinduism comes closest to possessing a universal scripture. Davis traces the varying course of its semantic trajectory through history with erudite clarity. A must-read for anyone interested in the Gita.”–Arvind Sharma, author of Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography
Biomolecular Feedback Systems<br>Domitilla Del Vecchio & Richard M. Murray Biomolecular Feedback Systems
Domitilla Del Vecchio & Richard M. Murray


“This is an excellent compendium of the most important techniques and results in the application of feedback and control to biomolecular systems. Biomolecular Feedback Systems is very timely, and a must-read for students and researchers.”–Ernesto Estrada, University of Strathclyde
Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition<br>Thane K. Pratt & Bruce M. Beehler<br>Illustrated by John C. Anderton & Szabolcs Kókay Birds of New Guinea:
Second Edition
Thane K. Pratt & Bruce M. Beehler
Illustrated by John C. Anderton & Szabolcs Kókay


Praise for the first edition:”This book is not only indispensable to any bird-watcher visiting New Guinea and the adjacent islands, but, owing to the wealth of its information, it will be of great interest to anyone who is seriously interested in birds.”–American Scientist
Birds of Western Africa: Second Edition<br>Nik Borrow & Ron Demey Birds of Western Africa:
Second Edition
Nik Borrow & Ron Demey


Praise for the first edition:”Invaluable for serious birders and scientists working in or visiting the area. It would also make an excellent addition to a collection of field guides for home or office use.”–Condor
The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life<br>Kurt Lampe The Birth of Hedonism:
The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life
Kurt Lampe


“The Cyrenaics were the earliest philosophical hedonists. Evidence for their views is limited, but Kurt Lampe combines expert historical scholarship and imaginative sympathy to offer a compelling account of what they believed, what it might have been like to inhabit their worldview, and why it matters today. His itinerary takes him in the end to Walter Pater, who offered late Victorians the profound experience and attractions of a ‘new Cyrenaicism.’ This is a learned and important book, in which Lampe, like Pater, brings aspects of a lost Greek philosophical past to life.”–Charles Martindale, University of Bristol and University of York
Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America<br>Christopher S. Parker & Matt A. Barreto<br>With a new afterword by the authors Change They Can’t Believe In:
The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America
Christopher S. Parker & Matt A. Barreto
With a new afterword by the authors


“A scathing analysis of the Tea Party movement, linking it in spirit to the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. Taking today’s conservative populists to be dangerous and their ideas self-incriminating, the authors speculate that Tea Party supporters may perceive of social change as subversion. Based on research and interviews, they suggest racism, desire for social dominance . . . drives the Tea Party.”–Publishers Weekly
The Fourth Pig<br>Naomi Mitchison<br>With a new introduction by Marina Warner The Fourth Pig
Naomi Mitchison
With a new introduction by Marina Warner


“At her best, Naomi Mitchison is forthright and witty, writes with brio and passion and lucidity, and conveys a huge appetite for life, for people, for new adventures, and for breaking through barriers.”–From the introduction by Marina Warner
Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy<br>Joshua Billings Genealogy of the Tragic:
Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy
Joshua Billings


“There is no body of work as important for understanding the idea of the tragic as German Idealism, which fundamentally changed modernity’s notions of tragedy. I can think of no better guide to these formidable writings than Joshua Billings, who takes the reader through them with clarity, deep knowledge, and revelatory exposition. A great achievement, this is a book that scholars and students of tragedy have needed for years.”–Simon Goldhill, University of Cambridge
The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy<br>Michael Pettis<br>With a new preface by the author The Great Rebalancing:
Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy
Michael Pettis
With a new preface by the author


“[Michael Pettis is] a brilliant economic thinker.”–Edward Chancellor, Wall Street Journal
How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method<br>G. Polya<br>With a foreword by John Conway How to Solve It:
A New Aspect of Mathematical Method
G. Polya
With a foreword by John Conway


“Every prospective teacher should read it. In particular, graduate students will find it invaluable. The traditional mathematics professor who reads a paper before one of the Mathematical Societies might also learn something from the book: ‘He writes a, he says b, he means c; but it should be d.'”–E. T. Bell, Mathematical Monthly
Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam<br>Jon D. Levenson Inheriting Abraham:
The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Jon D. Levenson


“[T]he figure of Abraham has more often been a battleground than a meeting place. This is the brilliantly elaborated theme of Levenson’s book, which retells the Abraham story while examining the use made of Abraham in later Jewish, Christian, and (to a lesser extent) Muslim thought.”–Adam Kirsch, New York Review of Books
Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America's Largest Church<br>Timothy Matovina Latino Catholicism:
Transformation in America’s Largest Church
Timothy Matovina

“Matovina gives a detailed examination of the different pastoral approaches that have been adopted to deal with the influx of Latino immigrants, with some advocating the need to assimilate quickly to American ways and others preferring to focus on preserving the religious and cultural heritage that the immigrants have brought with them. . . . Matovina’s book should be mandatory reading for all bishops, clergy, and lay leaders, and for anyone else who wants to understand the future of American Catholicism.”–Michael Sean Winters, New Republic
The Life of Roman Republicanism<br>Joy Connolly The Life of Roman Republicanism
Joy Connolly


“As a demonstration of how reading Roman literature becomes absorbing political argument, this book succeeds brilliantly. Joy Connolly possesses a keen mind and her approach is informed by an astonishing stock of contemporary intellectual perspectives. She is also a deeply imaginative reader with a gift for explaining complex ideas lucidly and compellingly. I learned a great deal from this book: about Hannah Arendt and Philip Pettit as well as about Cicero, Sallust, and Horace.”—Andrew Feldherr, Princeton University
The Meaning of Relativity: Including the Relativistic Theory of the Non-Symmetric Field (Fifth Edition)<br>Albert Einstein<br>With a new introduction by Brian Greene The Meaning of Relativity:
Including the Relativistic Theory of the Non-Symmetric Field (Fifth Edition)
Albert Einstein
With a new introduction by Brian Greene


“A condensed unified presentation intended for one who has already gone through a standard text and digested the mechanics of tensor theory and the physical basis of relativity. Einstein’s little book then serves as an excellent tying-together of loose ends and as a broad survey of the subject.”–Physics Today
Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine<br>Lital Levy Poetic Trespass:
Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine
Lital Levy


“This is a work of immense accomplishment dedicated to understanding what it means to write in two languages about a condition of life that is, at once, both shared and separate. Lital Levy’s critical speculations are careful and courageous as her beautiful prose moves back and forth across the borderline of Israel/Palestine, forging a way of moving toward a solidarity built of sorrow and survival, failure and hope. Read Poetic Trespass and reflect anew on the ethical and poetic possibilities of a translational dialogue in a star-crossed region.”–Homi Bhabha, Harvard University
Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest<br>Andrew Needham Power Lines:
Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest
Andrew Needham


“Rarely does a work of history unite so many seemingly disconnected fields of inquiry in such new and exciting ways. Masterfully interweaving urban, Native American, and environmental history, Power Lines is a sobering assessment of Phoenix’s expansive postwar development. The legacies of the region’s coal-powered history continue to shape contemporary politics, spaces, and our shared environmental future, making Power Lines as timely as it is insightful.”–Ned Blackhawk, Yale University
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter<br>Richard P. Feynman<br>With a new introduction by A. Zee QED:
The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
Richard P. Feynman
With a new introduction by A. Zee


“Physics Nobelist Feynman simply cannot help being original. In this quirky, fascinating book, he explains to laymen the quantum theory of light, a theory to which he made decisive contributions.”–The New Yorker
The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction<br>James M. McPherson<br>With a new preface by the author The Struggle for Equality:
Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction
James M. McPherson
With a new preface by the author


“Must surely be assigned an important place in the literature of the history of ideas and of race relations in the United States.”–The Times Literary Supplement
Theories of International Politics and Zombies: Revived Edition<br>Daniel W. Drezner Theories of International Politics and Zombies:
Revived Edition
Daniel W. Drezner


“Drezner . . . comes up with an intriguing intellectual conceit to explain various schools of international political theory. He imagines a world overrun with zombies and considers the likely responses of national governments, the U.N and other international organizations, and nongovernment organizations (NGOs). . . . This slim book is an imaginative and very helpful way to introduce its subject–who knew international relations could be this much fun?”–Publishers Weekly
Theory of Stellar Atmospheres: An Introduction to Astrophysical Non-equilibrium Quantitative Spectroscopic Analysis<br>Ivan Hubeny & Dimitri Mihalas Theory of Stellar Atmospheres:
An Introduction to Astrophysical Non-equilibrium Quantitative Spectroscopic Analysis
Ivan Hubeny & Dimitri Mihalas


“This eagerly anticipated book is an excellent guide for anyone interested in radiation transport in astrophysics, as well as for those wanting to make detailed analyses of astrophysical spectra. Comprehensive, lucid, and stimulating, Theory of Stellar Atmospheres is ideal for students and scientists alike.”–Bengt Gustafsson, Uppsala University
Told Again: Old Tales Told Again<br>Walter de la Mare<br>With a new introduction by Philip Pullman<br>Illustrated by A. H. Watson Told Again:
Old Tales Told Again
Walter de la Mare
With a new introduction by Philip Pullman
Illustrated by A. H. Watson


Praise for previous editions: “Walter de la Mare has given the familiar old tales so much sparkle and humor and romance that they are like new stories.”–Horn Book Magazine
The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future<br>Richard B. Alley<br>With a new preface by the author The Two-Mile Time Machine:
Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future
Richard B. Alley
With a new preface by the author


“Although not all scientists will agree with Alley’s conclusions, [this] engaging book–a brilliant combination of scientific thriller, memoir and environmental science–provides instructive glimpses into our climatic past and global future . . . “–Publisher’s Weekly
Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman<br>Jeremy Adelman Worldly Philosopher:
The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
Jeremy Adelman


“[A] biography worthy of the man. Adelman brilliantly and beautifully brings Hirschman to life, giving us an unforgettable portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary intellectuals. . . . [M]agnificent.”–Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker

Religon News Service interviews Robert Wuthnow, author of Rough Country

RoughCountryRobert Wuthnow’s book Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State explains how Texas’ religion has played, and will continue to play an important role in the shaping of our lives. Religion News Service recently sat down to chat with Wuthnow about the importance of the Lone Star state and its influence in politics, understanding the religious right, and balancing American fundamentalism.

Religion News Service: Give me one good reason that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country?

Wuthnow:The first reason is politics. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor, is gearing up for another run at becoming President. Ted Cruz has made more news than any junior senator from his party in recent history. Former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works significantly contributed to the Tea Party’s national success. These leaders credit religion with guiding their policies and furthering their careers.

Second, understanding the Religious Right requires understanding Texas religion. The story that features Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson misses a lot. Texas reveals a longer and more complicated trajectory. The Texas story includes prominent conservative preachers favoring Barry Goldwater in 1964, mobilizing opposition to abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973, supporting Gerald Ford in 1976, giving Ronald Reagan a platform in 1980, and organizing the “bubba vote” for George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Third, the history of American fundamentalism is lopsided without Texas. The standard narrative focuses on northern developments with a few offshoots in the Deep South and Southern California. The Texas story brings the Scofield Bible, dispensational theology, the political activism of fundamentalist J. Frank Norris, and conflicts within the powerful Southern Baptist Convention into clearer focus. Twice as many evangelicals and fundamentalists live in Texas than in any other state.

For the of rest Wuthnow’s interview, click here.

 

The first reason is politics. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor, is gearing up for another run at becoming President. Ted Cruz has made more news than any junior senator from his party in recent history. Former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works significantly contributed to the Tea Party’s national success. These leaders credit religion with guiding their policies and furthering their careers. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
Give me three good reasons that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
RNS: Give me three good reasons that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
RNS: Give me three good reasons that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
The first reason is politics. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor, is gearing up for another run at becoming President. Ted Cruz has made more news than any junior senator from his party in recent history. Former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works significantly contributed to the Tea Party’s national success. These leaders credit religion with guiding their policies and furthering their careers. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf

Anna Suns’ Confucianism as a World Religion wins award at 2014 American Academy of Religion Book Awards

Every year the American Academy of Religion (AAR) recognizes “new scholarly publications that make significant contributions to the study of religion,” and awards “books that affect decisively how religion is examined, understood, and interpreted.”

We are proud to announce that Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities by Anna Sun has won the 2014 AAR Best First Book in the History of Religions award.  Sun will receive this award at the AAR Annual Meeting on November 23rd.

Again, congratulations to Anna Sun on a remarkable achievement!


bookjacket

Confucianism as a World Religion:
Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities
Anna Sun
Winner of the 2014 Best Book Award, Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association
Winner of the 2014 Best First Book in the History of Religions Award, American Academy of Religion
One of Choice‘s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013