WILLIAMSTOWN -- This month, First Congregational Church is devoting its weekly Sunday "Second Hour" program to a series of presentations on Eastern religions.
The first presentation, which took place on Jan. 6, covered religions and cultures in China. This Sunday's program will discuss the invention of Japanese religions, and the Jan. 27 program will focus on identifying and distinguishing religion in India.
"What specifically inspired this series of programs was a planning within our "Second Hour at the Meeting House" program that we wanted to try to speak to and reflect on the Asian religious traditions," said moderator Charles Fox. "In 2012, we spent considerable time reflecting on the three main Western traditions, the so-called Abrahamic traditions. To do something like this was our long-term intention.
"Last year's programs were like a religion 101 -- old testament 101, new testament 101, Koran 101, Judaism 101. We'd planned to have a series of programs on the Eastern traditions, but schedule-wise it took us until 2013.
"One of our primary goals and hopes is that we might be able to have a more clear-headed insight into the special qualities of the Eastern spiritual traditions. The issue gets complicated when you start looking at Eastern religions because the reality is that the whole concept of religion is a Western cultural invention that arises in the Christian, and somewhat Jewish, tradition. It's an invention that arises early, but gains momentum in the 18th-19th century, and during that period of time, you get the first invention of a whole host of religions which the practitioners of those religions never knew existed."
The modern idea of religion, Fox explains, was a Western import.
"Before the 18th century, no one in India knew that they were practicing Hinduism or Sikhism, or any other number of sub-categories, or Buddhism. All of those terms, with that peculiar ‘-ism' marker attached to them, are representative of a Western cultural interpretive process being imposed upon those Eastern regions and their religious practices. Indeed, many people continue to debate whether there is any such thing as Confucianism, or raise the question, can there be a religion without a god, as, for example, certain segments of Buddhism are atheistic."
While this fact may be common knowledge in scholarly circles, according to Fox, it is decidedly not common knowledge in lay circles.
"There's been something that one cultural anthropologist has described as a ‘pizza effect' -- pizza was invented in New York City by Italian-Americans, and only subsequently imported back to Italy where it became all the rage. Hinduism and Buddhism were invented in European cultures, and then imported back into those cultures, and were embraced by practitioners who had never thought of themselves before as being practitioners of that type of religion."
The Jan. 6 program on religions and cultures in China was run by Professor Sam Crane of Williams College. Roughly 25 people attended his talk on Confucianism and Daoism.
"When we start thinking about religion in places like China and Japan and India, what happens is that the experience of religion in those places should really cause us to think about how we define what a religion is," said Crane. "Because religions there don't necessarily look like religions here, but they might serve the same sort of social and cultural purposes. So, here we think of religions of having a certain kind of church, clergy ... being institutionalized in certain ways. Often, religions in Asia don't have that same kind of institutional profile. So, with Daoism, you'll find Daoist temples and the like, but they don't have a strong organizational basis like the Catholic church in the U.S. But Daoist temples fulfill the religious functions of providing meaning and solace in people's lives, precisely the way that religions here do."
Professor Crane has a book coming out this year titled, "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Dao: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life."
"For me, because I study ancient Chinese philosophy, every day is a good day to think about it. I'm glad it emerged as an interest now at the church," said Crane.
"Eastern traditions do not have inherently the kind of exclusivity that is for us very basic to our understanding of the practice of religion in the West," said Fox. "For example, it is inconceivable to anyone in the West that one could be a Muslim and Christian at the same time. But in China, it's totally conceivable to be Confucian and Daoist. Or in Japan to be Buddhist and Shinto. There's no contradiction for them. So we want to encourage some insight into that non-exclusivity, non-dogmatic division of religion that is so characteristic of the Western tradition, and whatever insight that might provide us, open ourselves up as practitioners of the Christian tradition to a more sympathetic sense of the experience of religion in the Asian world."
This Sunday, Jan. 13, Jason Josephson will talk about "The Invention of Religion in Japan," which also happens to be the title of his recently published book.
"When Western imperialism shows up in Japan in the 19th century, Westerners bring with them these ideas of religion based on their own experience, which is not the understanding of religion which exists in Japan," said Crane. "But the Western concept has an effect on how religion is understood in Japan."
Professor Crane will return to give the final presentation of the series on Sunday, Jan. 27.
"My presentation will center around Hinduism, which again, we use this one word Hinduism to try to summarize a vast and open-ended religious and cultural field," said Crane. "Underneath that term Hinduism, there are a lot of different variations and forms that religious practice can take: Who you want to worship, which of the various gods ... you can move around. There's not a singular ‘here is God, here is Jesus, he's the one we have to follow.' There's a whole panoply of gods, and you can mix and match them -- and people do. There are certain commonalities, obviously, the same universe of belief, but different expressions of that belief, so Hinduism takes on various forms."
All programs in this series begin at 11:15 on Sunday morning in the Fellowship Hall at the rear of the First Congregational Church. The public is invited to join this exploration of the Asian religious traditions.