Samhain play Well, I’m kinda more and more becoming aware that the study of religion can be a no-win or even a lose-lose situation. (And yes, I have – presumably – completed my written comprehensive exams, so I’m looking forward to blogtharsis again.) My primary objective in my work is to encourage anyone who listens to me or reads what I write to rethink certain conceptions, conventions, and whatever, and obviously, doing this in “religion” is to tread in some dangerous waters. If I were a so-called secularist, which I most emphatically am not, as anyone who knows me and who reads this blog is fully aware, I wouldn’t care that this is a minefield. I’d simply say my piece, denounce those who damn me as a heretic or a liberal or whatever else anyone might want to call me, and move on to the next thing.But that’s not why I study religion. I’m not trying to simply secularize old “religious” holidays or explain away anything of my own, or anyone else’s tradition. I do not make my starting point the social, human nature of religious faith and practice, although it is absolutely this. I assume this. But I start more from the other side, that religion as such is the experience and search for the sacred in life as much as, if not more than, it is anything else.

But this is precisely where we (those of us “in the guild”) get in trouble. When I talk or teach or write about the Christmas holiday, for example, and draw out the history of social transformation of this ancient holy day and criticize contemporary participation in the Christmas festival as not being particularly “Christian” and certainly not very “biblical,” I get accused of secularizing a genuine Christian holiday in a way that offends Christians by robbing it of everything that is Christian about it on the one hand and promoting the social and commercial carnivalism on the other. I’m not doing either. I’m assuming from the start that the Christian holiday was a day that marked off, for the faithful, remembrance and recollection by those who shared the Christian identity of one of its foundational stories, and that while the story itself is usually well known through cultural preservation of it, its meaning has been lost. It’s been lost for a long time. In pointing out the social and carnival nature of the Christmas season, I’m not championing it; I’m pointing out the phenomenon, from a historical and mnemonic perspective, that has overshadowed the sacred nature of Christmas, and criticizing it from the same perspective and arguing that the Nativity story, understood in its own context of the first century, challenges the very thing that Christmas has become.

Today, obviously, is Halloween, or, as it was once known, All Hallow’s Eve. I get it here too. On what used to be a day/night observed to “scare off” the demonic and protect the Saints and places of God by spooking the evil away (literally, scaring the hell out of the spirit world), we now have it that the night is, in good social carnival fashion, the very opposite, when we raise hell just for the hell of it. Instead of remembering the sacred aspect of Halloween, many Christians prefer to avoid it all together as a glorification of evil, a notion to which I’m kinda sympathetic, but when I start working with this as religious phenomena, I’m accused of trivializing evil rather than recognize the vestiges of anything sacred in it. So I’m trivializing evil here, but the same routine vis-a-vis Christmas leads to trivializing the sacred, and usually by the same crowd of critics.

I think the most irksome thing is the accusations of academics and professors who try to sensitively treat aspects of religion as being arrogant know-it-alls who seem to setting themselves up to play God. Perhaps, but goshdarnit, we are professors, and we do profess to know something that isn’t usually “in the public domain,” so to speak. But when folks in our guild of academic religionists, theologians, and, heck, even pastors, come to conclusions that challenge what other people hold dear and which are ends in themselves, I have to say it sure as heck is not the professors who act like the arrogant SOB know-it-alls picking fights, or not only us.

What it comes down to is that there are a lot of people who psychologically can’t handle it very well when someone tells them they’re wrong, or rather the particular perspective or understanding of something religious that has been a part of their life for years, and my approach, especially in the sensitive souls of my students, is to avoid doing so as much as possible. Like I said, the sacred is the starting point; it’s human relation, interaction, and so on with the sacred that makes the study and teaching of religion worthwhile, and we all have different experiences with the sacred. For folks in this category, because my “mission” is to stir things up, like any self-respecting academic, please know that I’d rather not bug you, because I’m sure I’d be nothing but trouble for anyone who already thinks they’ve got it all together. But for those who, like me, are disappointed with the desacralization of our religious heritage, I would hope that we academics, professors, and “know-it-alls” can be allies here, not adversaries.

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