ACADEMIC WRITING: ON SCHOLARSHIP

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My interests (religion, spirituality, secularism, culture and social science) take me through a wide variety of literature. From self-help and personal narratives written by leaders and teacher of various traditions, to analyses and essays written by the academics that study them, not to mention sacred texts. All of these genres have their own distinct styles. The style of academic writing is off-putting to many, which is unfortunate as, in my opinion, the vast majority of Americans desperately need intellectual stimulation and challenge.

I argue that factors in academia have made academic writing cumbersome and perhaps take away from its primary purpose: to make new connections between existing ideas and create new knowledge. My background is anthropology and it is from this field I draw from most, though I see much of the same trends occurring in other social sciences as well as in religion and philosophy.

Citing the work of others is an essential writing tool for supporting claims, providing diverse perspectives for a well-rounded discussion, connecting thoughts to the wider field of study, and confronting the antithesis of one’s argument. But is seems the emphasis has shifted from utilizing citations as a writing tool to utilizing them as the means to prove and exhibit the writer’s level of scholarship. In today’s system, academics must continually prove their scholarship to get published by academic journals and presses, which is essential to career advancement. The unintentional and unfortunate result is that the focus of academic writing becomes establishing the author’s scholarship rather than contributing to an academic discipline by creating new knowledge or new ways of understanding.

This flawed system has been discussed by those it effects: academics. An acceptable solution has not been presented yet, though there are many (often controversial) attempts underway to revamp academia. Unfortunately, I do not have the cure-all answer. But I do suggest that academic publishers give more weight to the ideas presented than the extent the author can cite other academics. Do not misunderstand, I find scholarship to be an important part of academic writing, especially in establishing the caliber of the author. I simply argue for the criteria by which works are evaluated to be reprioritized, for the weight given to these criteria to be re-delegated. I am confident that this would allow for more innovative writing and perhaps expand readership. Authors could then write pieces of interest to not only other academics but to the educated and curious public as well.

 

NEW AGE: SCATTERED SEEDS TO A LIFE OF ITS OWN

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New Age is full of old ideas, but the construct surrounding these ideas and the way followers link them are novel compared to conventional understandings of religion. Scholars identify the birth of New Age in ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture. Some scholars stop here, dubbing New Age nothing more than rebellion against organized religion. New Age ideas had to be already present in individuals prior to its supposed birth in the ‘60s. At that time only scattered seeds. I am of the opinion that the activism and social movements that characterize these decades, gave movement to New Age ideas. These ideas became increasingly common and then became a distinctive institution, taking on a life of their own. (Whether New Age can be defined as a movement however is still debated by scholars.)

While the ‘60s and ‘70s decades may have provided the spark that graduated New Age from a set of ideas to a distinguishable field of thought, other factors such as globalization and secularism create an environment where New Age is desirable and can grow and thrive. The advancement of technology and the resultant shrinking of our world brings more diversity into people’s daily lives. The pluralist outlook New Age materials often encourage is conducive to our diverse world. Where organized religions today are commandeered for power driven agendas and building boundaries, pluralism works to make peaceful connections across boundaries. Similarly, what I feel is an increasing dissatisfaction with a purely secular life pushes many to seek the divine in their daily lives. They look beyond a secular life to something more. Our present circumstances, especially those in Western secular society, are conducive to New Age phenomena. The continuing and increasingly prevalent factors discussed here have given New Age ideas a foothold in society. These ideas no longer exist solely in individual followers but have a life of their own.

 

 

 

 

COMING TO A SPIRITUAL LIFE THROUGH CRISIS

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What is it about crisis that propels people into a more spiritually mindful life? When people have been shook down to their foundations, they look for the divine in their ramshackle lives to build themselves back up again. It seems natural that when things in one’s ‘mundane’ life are faltering, to look deeper to the divine for purpose, strength or hope. Even when the crisis is self-created through one’s own mistakes, spiritual or religious foundations are an avenue for recourse. One makes a mistake causing upheaval in their own or another’s life and regrets this. This next thing to do is take refuge in one’s beliefs and decide how to responsibly repair the damage done. And finally, refrain from making the same mistake. When the upheaval is out of one’s control, taking refuge in a spiritual life becomes even more central to navigating the crisis.

Some see this natural reaction becoming a startling trend. That religion is becoming a ‘feel-good fill-up station’. Some argue that rather than focusing on the worship of the divine, religion and spiritual traditions are simply the means by which followers find happiness. Where once religion served the divine, it now serves the followers. I am of the opinion that religion and spirituality can and should facilitate both worship of the divine source and purpose-filled, morally responsible lives for followers. Perhaps the emphasis between these two elements has shifted over time, but neither is lost. Religion and spiritual traditions can deliver on both fronts.

Crisis works to bring us back to worship and a spiritually mindful life in two ways: by giving perspective on what is most important in life, and by forcing change. These two things often go hand in hand and are not mutually exclusive. The change in our mundane lives may not only compel us to take refuge in existing beliefs or practices, but change and develop those beliefs and practices with the new perspective one has gained through the crisis at hand. This has been noted among New Agers and followers of alternative spiritualities. Currie identifies crisis as a necessary stage of spiritual transformation among members of a Florida New Age center. According to Currie, “… after experiencing some disenchantment with their beliefs, practitioners typically experienced a life crisis that was not spiritual in nature. Some examples of these crises include the death of a family member, financial difficulty (i.e., bankruptcy), a severe medical condition (i.e., cancer), divorce or ending a relationship, substance abuse (i.e., alcoholism), loss of a job, the onset of depression, and relocation” (2009, 36-37). These are the things in ‘mundane’ life that uproot us, force us to gain new perspective and look deeper, or perhaps look in new places altogether in order to build anew. While taking refuge in spirituality, the reprioritization that takes place to deal with the crises in our ‘mundane’ lives may extend to aspects in our spiritual life, sparking a new spiritual path and a new chapter in the spiritual journey.

Currie, Sean E. Sacred Selves: An ethnographic study of narratives and community practices at a spiritual center. Tampa, FL, USA: University of South Florida, Department of Sociology, Master’s Thesis, 2009.

FAITH COMMUNITIES

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On Sunday my church had a conversation about community. The discussion began with sharing positive experiences about belonging to a community, any type of community. Many of those brought up were secular groups relating to employment or profession, interests or hobbies and school groups such as one’s graduating class. We discussed what made these communities enjoyable to be a part of. Then the discussion moved to our church community (an Episcopal church rather small in membership). We worked to identify benefits or essential elements of our community. Some of the qualities that came up were: acceptance, forgiveness, love, support, faith, presence of the Holy Spirit and a feeling of family. Some of these elements may be found in (secular) hobby or professional groups. But I would argue that many would be uncommon outside of a faith community.

It has been argued that religion was more central in societies of the past because it was the main source of community. But as time went on, other secular groups came about to fulfill community based needs. This argument is often employed to explain the decrease in religious participation through the past decades. But it seems to me that people still have many needs that can be met almost exclusively by communities of faith. Secular communities cannot address some of people’s most vital needs. And yet the pews are empty. If faith communities are the only place some needs can be fulfilled, then people are going without. And probably having a rough time of it too, which means they do not have much confidence to come back or try new churches, further exacerbating the problem.

It is the up to people of faith to invite and bring people to church. To be gracious and welcoming, to share all the benefits of being part of a faith community. Whether it be church, temple or study group, people are missing out on what these faith communities have to offer: acceptance, forgiveness, divine presence in one another and love. Who couldn’t use a bit more of that?