Over at Profbanks.com Jessica Banks has talked about how she got into the field of Religious Studies, so that seemed like a good excuse for me to do the same thing.
I was raised Catholic. And was relatively knowledgable about it (albiet from a confessional point of view) in the best intellectual traditions of that faith. Through a combination of instinct and my high school involvement in theatre I had drifted pretty far into the liberal side of Catholicism, but when I went to college still considered myself faithful (I was confirmed with the Confirmation name of Genesius; patron of actors).
I was in those distant days of the early 2000s still commited to the idea that I would pursue a career in the theatre, and then I took my first philosophy class “CHINESE PHILOSOPHY” with Dr. Stephen Eskildsen. I had read the odd book on popularized Zen or what claimed to be Daoism, and it sounded like it would be interesting. I deeply enjoyed the perspectives I was exposed to, and so, since I needed a minor, and Dr. Eskildsen was much more a scholar of Chinese religion than philosophy I took up Religious Studies as a minor. When I realized that I did not want to pursue theatre it became my major.
My deconversion from Catholicism to unaffiliated happened sometime after my third year of undergraduate study. I remember that I switched my “Religious Views” from the pure joke of “Yes, I can see Religion from here,” to “It’s like math.” This was actually a coyly expressed theoretical position on religion. That each religion, like mathematics, was a world of internal logic that supported itself and given features of the system may or may not map to anything in the real world. This isn’t how I view religion now, but it was an important perspective for me as I spent a year in China, and then moved back to the US, and then started grad school.
Graduate School was a big shock. It was, for me, about assaulting my preconcieved notions of the conceptual boundaries, and busting the historicity of Western historical myths about Asian religions. Now that I have a masters in Religion, unlike in undergrad, I don’t know what religion is. But I know that social phenomena are worth studying, including those that fall under the religion label.
I worry about how Western scholarship of foreign cultures can be performed without being a form of Orientalism where the Other is really a construction of scholar that exists to justify Western perspectives. Nevertheless I feel that it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. I think the various “religious” cultures of Chinese history are worth study. Especially study that puts perscribed doctrines in the periphery in order to center on institutional history and ritual culture.
At another, more basic level, I will always be the geek who loves stories about supernormal beings like nagas, Transcendents, Bodhisattvas, ghosts, and so on. That was always a big part of the draw of “religion” for me, that it was where the “magic” stuff is. And even today that’s true. I spent some time at a highly modernized Buddhist Temple in Taipei, Dharma Drum Mountain, and they still chant the Heart Sutra, which tells of how Guanyin awakened to the emptiness of all Dharmas, and spoke the great Perfection of Wisdom Spell. The merit from this virtuous chant is dedicated to the liberation of beings in the six realms of existence.
So that’s it for right now. I definitely want to get into more of the stuff touched on in here, in addition to comic and game stuff.