Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

Experiences of a pilgrim in dialogue

Twenty years ago in 1991 Jerry filmed and conducted a documentary Pilgrims in Dialogue, on interfaith dialogue in three separate places in Asia – Sri Lanka, Philippines and Japan. Since then he has worked in TV in Taiwan making many programs which promote religious exchange and understanding. Here he recounts some of his experiences from his years in dialogue.


Friday, 03 May 2013 13:29

Focus Response: Father Jacques Duraud, SJ on 'My God?'

Father Jacques Duraud made this reflection on his own faith in response to the eRenlai focus on faith and god in April this year. How do you conceive of faith and god, or even of a world without belief? Feel free to share with us!

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 28 May 2013 17:18

The Taiwanese Experience: Adjusting to life on the other side of the world

In this video we talk to Roberto Villasante, a Spanish Christian living in Taiwan and learning Chinese, about his insights into Taiwanese culture, how it differs from the West, and what he misses most about home.


Sunday, 01 December 2013 19:15

In Search of Utopia

As observed in the mass media and our own personal experience, the Earth's habitat is facing an unprecedented crisis. We clearly realize that the problems and disasters caused by global warming cannot be avoided by any country: one infectious disease after another quickly spreads across national borders, acid rain floats over the seas, even China's sandstorms affect Taiwan. When humankind causes an imbalance in the natural order created by other species, the retribution always ends up coming back and affecting humankind. Never in human history has humankind realised, the way we do today, just how inextricably connected all life on this planet is, forming one big symbiotic entity.


Wednesday, 04 September 2013 10:59

A Modern Transposition of the Saint-John Apocalypse

Chinese ink, color pencils, a schoolboy's quill and some paper were the only materials used by the French artist Gaston-Louis Marchal to perform a 78,4 square meter drawing.
This gives place to 84 paper panels that are used as squares for a tapestry.
With graphic computing techniques, this tapestry has been transformed into vast and noticeable frescoes visible in the church of Our Lady of Hope in Castres.


Monday, 01 July 2013 13:06

Goodbye, my dear sister

 

I have been thinking for a long time how to start this article. What tone of voice can I use to remember you, my dearest sister?

I’ll start from the day when you resolutely decided to leave us.

It was the summer of 2009, I am a little bit fuzzy on the exact date. September 18th? September 20th? It seems like something that happened very long ago. A few days before, I had come back from the disaster area of the Morakot Typhoon. At that time, my only thoughts were of getting home, I wasn’t aware that it was all an omen of you leaving.


Tuesday, 25 June 2013 11:19

After the Quake: Rituals in North Western Sichuan


Rituals organize and symbolize a way of living together. Through the enactment of rituals, a community expresses its fear, its solidarity and its longings. In traditional societies, performing rituals enables people to organize time and space into a meaningful universe, to renew their commitment to the group to which they belong, and to cement an alliance among them, with nature and with the supernatural.
The variety of ritual forms is astounding. It reflects the richness of cultural forms, artworks and humane inventiveness. Among the ethnic minorities who, all together, account for almost ten percent of China's population, those living in the southwest may offer the widest repertoire of ritual performances. Caring for the souls of the dead, exorcising ghosts so as to cure illnesses, rejoicing at marriages, New Year or at harvest time. The four rituals mentioned here all take place in Sichuan province, among people of Yi, Qiang and Ersu ethnic origins.


Monday, 24 June 2013 15:16

The Evolution of Rituals


Rituals and celebrations have always been a source of fascination for me. Despite growing up in Spain, my brother and I were raised by atheist parents and didn't undergo many of the common rites of passage that Spanish children did. I remember fierce little arguments with my classmates at primary school who would claim I had no name, since I hadn't undergone baptism. In Spain, not being baptised and, later on, confirmed was quite unusual for a child. There are usually large parties and celebrations involved with confirmation and I distinctly remember my friends excitedly looking forward to the gifts and the food. Though I never really envied them as such, it did occasionally make me feel left out, because, as a child, who doesn't want to have parties and receive gifts?


Tuesday, 18 June 2013 16:09

A Centre for the Middle Country

The Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies (TBC) opened in 1998 and is located on the campus of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. 

In this interview with Father Thierry Meynard SJ, director of TBC, we learn of his story leading up to being named director, his thoughts on the importance of learning about China, and a detailed explanation of the services that the Centre provides.

Programs and contact: http://www.thebeijingcenter.org/


Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:34

Gender and Weddings in Taiwan

Red candles, ceremonial cannons, fresh flowers, everybody coming together to celebrate, but with all the throwing of fans (the bride throws a fan on the ground to represent that she's leaving her youthful temper behind her), the bride's mother throwing water at the bride's departing car (spilled water can't be retrieved, which signifies that the daughter should not go back to her old house just like the water can't be unpoured) and walking over broken tiles (which represents overcoming the past and expelling evil deities), the bride can't help but be a little overwhelmed. "Rites" are a kind of standard or a restriction, if a wedding is supposed to be for both the bride and the groom, then why are all the restrictions during the marriage rite imposed on the woman?

Translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart



Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:26

Keening: Taiwan's Professional Mourners

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photos courtesy of Liu Junnan and Wang Zhengxiang

When did keening become so forced?

A Mei: 'There was always someone there saying: Now you should cry... You can't cry now...My brother and I often got mixed up, "Do we have to cry now? Or not cry?".
                                                                                                                 -Seven Days in Heaven (2010)

The film, Seven Days in Heaven (Fuhou Qiri) from the short story of the same name, describes the experiences of A Mei, the female protagonist who has been working in the city for many years, on her return to her rural hometown for her father's funeral. There was a montage in the film with a lively Spanish dance track playing in the background, in which the 'keening' during the funeral preparation process is satirized – at one point A Mei hasn't finished eating, and later hasn't finished brushing her teeth, but hears the call "the girl should come and cry", and she has to don her mourning clothes and sprint to the altar to cry – in a very memorable scene. This scene must have made a lot of Taiwanese watching laugh (at least that is what happened with my friends and I), not just because of the comi-tragic sorry figure she cut, but also because we've all had similar – even if not quite as dramatic – experiences and sentiments.

Funerals, always touch on death and separation. Being grief-stricken or crying, is a natural emotional and physiological reaction; however, having to cry or 'keen' under the strictures of a pre-formulated ritual, is hard to think of as 'natural'.

How old is traditional? How new is modern?

In Taiwanese funerals the time to cry is appointed and when that time comes you have to cry, even if you have to fake it, and it's a loud keening wail – this is an element of Taiwanese funeral culture which is often criticized as a corrupt practice. When watching Seven Days in Heaven, A Mei's embarrassment, and the laughter of the audience, reflects the distance that people nowadays feel towards funeral rites.

For the past 20 or so years, a trend towards modernization in funerals has gathered momentum; the customs surrounding the funeral rites, often seen as esoteric were rebranded under the new moniker 'the study of life and death' (a field of study in the Chinese speaking world: shengsixue), advocated in the context of Metaphysics. A milestone in this trend has been the regulatory impact of the 'Mortuary Service Administration Act' promulgated by the Taiwanese government at the end of 2002, an act that states its purpose as essentially advocating conforming funeral customs to reflect the demands of a modern society.

If one compares the funeral model listed under the Citizen Ceremonies' Model ratified by the government in 1970 and similar models offered by funeral businesses today, one discovers that there's not much difference – clearly we haven't completely gotten rid of the old, and welcomed in a new way of doing things, but rather we've adapted and reinterpreted some of the finer details. So, before we rush to accept the traditional/modern dichotomy, perhaps we should ask ourselves what is this tradition that we are talking about? How old is it really? And what about the meaning of it should be reformed?

The shift from secular to religious funerals

To continue the example of keening, let's do a bit of historical research.

Normally people from Han culture think of funeral rites as pertaining to three separate traditions, the Confucian school, Buddhism and Daoism, at the same time, different characteristics sprang up in different localities. The fact that a funeral rite is called a rite () implies that it not only a religious activity; comparing the Confucian, the Buddhist and the Daoist traditions, the relationship between rites () and the Confucianism is much older and much deeper.

Very early on, China already had the concepts of ghosts, deities and ancestor worship, however, from the time of Confucius and Mencius, the rites, although they took their origin in belief and sacrificial rituals, developed by Confucian intellectuals from the rites of Zhou has always been secular, the main thrust of which was concerned with governing the behaviour of man. Confucianism tends to a belief that improving one's own sense of morality can give order to society, and allow one to accept one's place in life; they didn't feel the need search for consolation in imagining ghosts or deities. Therefore, the funeral rites and customs Confucianism advocated didn't include religious mysticism, but rather they reflected the 'normal' social order and social contract.

Pursuing harmony and rationality in this world, cannot ease the primal terror that people feel when faced with death, and this pursuit is unable to answer people's questions or speak to their imaginings of the afterlife. The narrative of life and death in Confucian thinking, advocating the ideas of putting the service of man before the service of spirits and that of keeping a respectful distance from ghosts and deities, is not enough to satisfy these questions; so, as Buddhism, which had come from elsewhere, and the home-grown Daoism came to fruition in the Wei, Jin and North-South dynasties, the system of rites surrounding funerals associated with Confucianism became intertwined with those of Buddhism and Daoism; with the changes in the way people think about the world, the secular Confucian orthodoxy has gradually become less dominant, under attack as it was from modern ways of thinking; supernatural religious belief was able to come to the fore in funeral rituals, revealing even more clearly the shift towards thinking from a religious perspective.

哭喪04Restraining Grief, a Thousand Year Old Ritual

However, in the midst of this trend, keening is considered an example of a more 'classic' ritual.

As the Chinese equivalent to "I'm sorry for your loss", which translates roughly as "Restrain your grief, so that you can adapt to the loss", which people today still use regularly, can attest to, the main tenet by which the Confucian system of rites deals with crying or keening during the mourning period emphasizes mediating grief by controlling one's physiological reactions. The passage 'Questions about Mourning Rites'in the Classic of Rites (Li Ji) is an early record that, even in the case of mourning for parents, the mourning period shouldn't last more than three years, the purpose of this is in the hope that people will gradually be able to exercise emotional restraint, and return to their customary life in society. This current of thought continued until after the Song (960–1279) and the Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, when Confucian scholars gradually compiled Family Rites wherein the role of crying as a stage in funeral rites was laid down more clearly in writing, this included instructions like the following: on the death of a relative or a friend, you cry loudly (the person is dead so you can cry); throughout the period when one is offering sacrifices for the dead, one can cry if one feels sad (there's no appointed time for crying, when grief comes one may cry); but once the body has been interred, during the 'Enshrining the Spirit' ritual, one can only cry in the morning and in the evening (crying at dawn and at dusk); after a year of mourning, one should stop crying – this is where the idea of appointing the times when one could and could not cry came from in part.

As well as this, keening in this context, isn't simply 'crying', but rather it involves singing a keening song (dirge). From the perspective of the Han people, the folk keening dirges can be sung in several different ways, some are freestyle with no limitations on content, others, however, have words, but most are sung by women, such as wives and daughters on the death of an elder; during the funeral rites of the Zhuang, the Yi and the Jingpo peoples, all minority ethnic groups from the South West of China, one can always find rituals which fuse dance and keening dirges to express and relieve grief.

Can grief-stricken keening be carried out by proxy?

We can say for sure that keening is a part of a funeral culture with a long history, and it had a rich significance, and not a negative one, so is it right to label keening as a aberrant practice?

In the film Seven Days in Heaven, as well as the 'genuinely' filial daughter, A Mei, who feels bewildered by the keening ritual in the process of the funeral, there is also another classic role associated with crying: the 'fake' filial daughter A Qin, who keens professionally. In the film, A Qin is a larger than life career keener who can turn her tears on and off at the drop of a hat; the idea behind this character comes from the Chinese expression for a professional keener 'Xiaonvbaiqin'(孝女白琴 literally: filial daughter Baiqin), which formed a part of Taiwanese funeral processions (zhentou 陣頭) ten or twenty years ago. Somehow, compared to the relatives of the dead not knowing how to cry, spending money to hiring a perfect stranger who is in this profession to keep up appearances for them by 'performing' grief, seems a lot harder to reconcile with the practice of 'rites', but in Taiwan, this phenomenon has really taken off.

In fact, as well as "Filial Daughter Baiqin", another element of the parade tradition (zhentou 陣頭) with which Taiwanese readers will be familiar is the part called "Five sons cry at a tomb" (Wuzikumu 五子哭墓), these all play a part in "orthodox" Taiwanese funeral customs: the latter takes its origin in a Hoklo folktale; the former, on the other hand, is derived from the character 'Filial Daughter Baiqiong' in the 1970s' Taiwanese popular classic puppet theatre The Great Confucian Knight-Errant of Yunzhou (雲州大儒俠) – so these are all relatively "new traditions", so to speak. That's not to say that these more performative examples of keening don't have an element of filial piety or that they don't count as an expression of grief; however if one really goes back through historical records it becomes clear that these performances were actually invented by Taiwanese funeral homes – another relatively "new tradition" which only really started to become popular from the 1960s onwards.

 Because of its close connection with the rise of local funeral home companies, most of the professionals performing as"Filial Daughter Baiqin" normally work for relatively small organizations, often with staff shortages, and they're often responsible for weddings and other celebrations in addition to funerals - working in a variety of different roles, not just in the funeral sector, like performing as show girls on dance floats at weddings - a common sight at local weddings, celebrations and sometimes even funerals. For that very reason, the "Filial daughter Baiqin" profession is one of the most denigrated within Taiwan's contemporary funeral cultural industry, indirectly reinforcing people's negative impressions of this keening custom at funerals.

Overcoming the diametric opposition between "traditional" and "modern"

From another perspective, however, no matter if it's the services performed by the undertaker, the"Five sons crying at the tomb" (Wuzikumu) or "Filial daughter Baiqin", given that the structure of society has changed over time, the way funerals are held has adapted accordingly, making up for something that is now missing from our society (the popularization of funeral homes reflects the weakening of the bonds between people living in the same area and within families, as well as the scarcity of people familiar with rites; the rise of this kind of performative keening by professionals is not unlinked to the shrinking of families and the decline in the number of children), that reflects the psychology and demands of a bygone era. The custom does not take its origins in temples and it does not have a long history, but compared to the esoteric mysticism of the religious conception of rites, it is perhaps closer to the true essence of rites as they relate to the life of the ordinary man.

With the tide of modernization concerning funeral and burial customs, people have advocated freeing ourselves from the corrupt practices of traditional funeral customs and rites: they should be more solemn, there should be no loud mournful keening; they should be simplified and adapted to the times, there shouldn't be such extravagant decorations; one should follow religious practice, and not indulge in petty superstitions... however, these imagined "traditions" cannot be so easily homogenized, and one cannot break away from them simply by constructing modernity in opposition to them. Using the example of keening, we can even go far as to say that 'modernity' surfaces in order to resolve that which seems to be a contradiction or an aberration in any given society – here it would be the aberration would be the idea of a stranger being paid to mourn for one's relatives, but often in problematizing this aberration we flippantly iron out the creases in history, and simply thrust upon it the term 'tradition'. In this way we often remain ignorant to how the same practice, in this case keening, in a different time and place can change in the way it is carried out (i.e. from family members to professional keeners); and how this kind of aberration is a product of historic shifts within a society, and shouldn't simply be banished as a corrupt traditional practice.

Ghosts and deities remain outside of the grasp of human perception, and so judgement of whether something is good or bad is simply a product of our way of thinking and we shouldn't ignore the historical realities that lie behind apparent aberrations.

 

 

 


Tuesday, 28 May 2013 15:20

The extraordinary challenge of living an ordinary life

There are extraordinary moments in life. Moments of deep, soul-shaking happiness, moments of tremendous discovery, moments where the mountain we climb during the entirety of our existence suddenly offers us a glance of the richness of its landscape – valleys, clouds, streams and lofty peaks... There are also moments of extraordinary misery, when a beloved one disappears, when one's love is betrayed, when sickness is diagnosed, or when goals and dreams prove impossible to fulfill.


Monday, 08 April 2013 00:00

My God?

Taiwan is often cited as one of the most tolerant states in terms of religion so this month eRenlai decided to approach the topic of personal faith from a variety of perspectives, to examine the differences in beliefs that appear nominally the same, and the rich diversity behind umbrella terms like "Buddhism", "Atheist" or "Christian", which give the illusion of uniformity to our personal gods, or indeed our individual conception of the world.

First we look at how different people have come to their beliefs or lack of beliefs - whether through reason or by a more spiritual approach. We then look at what faith means for these people, whether it means living faith in a higher being or simply faith in human perception. Following on from this we examine the different ways that people, believers and non-believers conceive of the world around them, and how their faith or lack thereof goes to shape this; how they imagine god in terms of physical shape; how they interact with God; if their morality is shaped by their belief or lack of belief; and what it is like to be religious in Taiwan

Photo: Lu Kamiao

 

 

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:23

(Dis)belief in Taiwan

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the experience of people from different cultures of faith or lack of faith in Taiwan is explored.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:19

(I believe therefore) I'm moral

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we look at what role faith and religion has in the formation of our morality whether directly or indirectly, and whether or not morality goes beyond a utilitarian social contract.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:14

The form of (In)divinity

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we explore the different images people have of god, and how this changes with time and with the progression of our journey through life.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:09

Divine In(ter)action

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the way different people conceive of the way in which any god might interact with the world and with humans is explored as well as the different ways that people try and communicate with their god.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:04

Living (Dis)belief

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the trials and doubts undergone by those who have already committed themselves to a belief or life without belief.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 13:42

(Dis)ordered World

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we look at how different people structure their world in relation to or apart from their belief system, and the link between the two.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 13:39

I Believe(d)

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the personal journey that people living and working in Taipei undergo to determine whether or not they have faith is examined and discussed.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013 15:27

Preaching Tenderness

When you are playing Word Association I guess that "Papacy" usually does not trigger the response "Tenderness" - neither does "Tenderness" elicit the word "Papacy"...

Still, "Tenderness" was the central word in the homely pronounced by Pope Francis at his inaugural Mass on March 19. He repeated the theme several times, saying: "We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness! Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!"

Let me say something that will sound strange to many people: I think that Francis has learnt something about tenderness not only in his family and through his whole life (which is obviously the case) but also in St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits... Strange indeed! Most of the time, the Jesuits do not have the reputation to indulge in tenderness. Stern, rigid intellectuals – such goes the cliché even up until this day, and I must confess that sometimes the cliché is not without truth, at least in part... But I have found in many of my brothers a real, discreet and truly delicate tenderness. Let me recall here René-Claude Baud, a big, strong tower of a Jesuit whom I got to know during my noviciate in Lyons – Rene-Claude had spent most of his active life as a caregiver in the emergency room of a hospital, and the delicacy of his presence was a testimony to the humaneness he had fostered while confronted daily by the naked presence of Life and Death.

Ignatius and his first companions had not given to the Jesuits a more precise task than the one of "helping the souls" as they were fond of saying, when the Order was founded, in and around 1530-1540. Early in the history of the Jesuits, this general direction translated into tasks that have been called "ministries of consolation." "To console" was a master word for Ignatius: Console when you preach and confess, when you visit prisoners and sick people, when you reconcile enemies (those were indeed the first missions that the Jesuits embarked upon) and even – yes- when you teach...

There was a spiritual, even mystical foundation to this focus on consolation. The experience that the "Spiritual Exercises" (the spiritual guide for advancing in spiritual life) that Ignatius wanted to nurture was the one of the Consoling Christ, the one who comes to heal our most secret pains and mourning when one progressively opens up to his presence in our heart. When inviting meditation on the Resurrection, Ignatius asks the one doing the Exercises "to consider the office of consoling which Christ our Lord bears, and to compare how friends are accustomed to console friends." Deep, real, overwhelming, often unexpected consolation is indeed what the Spiritual Exercises are meant to bring to the soul. It comes with a refining and an enlargement not of our reason but rather of our emotions. Ignatius himself was a man of emotions, as testified to by his friends, who recalled him sitting on the roof of the Jesuit house in Rome at night and looking at the stars, tears rolling down his cheeks. One of his companions wrote: "From seeing a plant, foliage, a leaf, a flower, any fruit, from the consideration of a little worm or any other animal, he raised himself above the heavens." Tears of consolation were so abundant in Ignatius that he asked for the grace of not experiencing them anymore, fearing for his sight.

For sure, such an inspiration – which was actually very close to the spirit of St Francis of Assisi, a saint most dear to Ignatius – was often betrayed in the history of the Society of Jesus. But it always remained present, at times hidden like a spring under the ground. Pope Francis seems to me to have drawn from the spring, and now shares its water with the whole world. I rejoice deeply that what he is proclaiming first is nothing else than the centrality for life and faith of tenderness, and of heartfelt consolation.

Image source: Wikimedia


Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

Cup of tea, TV and religious dialogue

The plane on which religious dialogue occurs is too often conceived as occurring at a high level.  Leaders of faiths occasionally meet in public, be it in front of an audience or a camera.  Within a community, a church may come together with a mosque or temple as part of a festival.  At a lower level, it is not uncommon for neighbours of differing faiths to discuss matters of faith with each other.
 
Dialogue within the family is an additional part of the spectrum of religious dialogue that deserves attention.  The construction of family units can be incredibly diverse.  While several generations might live under one roof, it is not uncommon for family ties to stretch across countries and even between them.  Within the myriad of family dynamics that exist, there are a few key concepts that I wish to focus on.

Whether through choice or destiny, many of our closest bonds are with our family members.  Our family members are the ones who we see on a daily basis, the ones with whom we share the tribulations and triumphs of day-to-day life.  For most of us, the support, understanding and care provided by family members is the necessary foundation for a happy life.  Shared religious conviction can form much of the basis of this stability.  When family members have a faith in common, religious dialogue can almost appear to be a given.  However, when family members have different beliefs or varying levels of commitment, religious dialogue can become an issue.  In the close confines of the family, this can be particularly acute.

In recent decades, religious mobility has become increasingly common, both in Asia and across the world.  New religious movements (NRMs) continue to appear, either offering fresh interpretations of established beliefs or something altogether new.  And beyond the more organised NRMs, there are the nebulous sectors of new age beliefs, self help and spirituality, concepts that are expounded in books and seminars rather than in more established places of worship.

Not only do religions continue to innovate, people across the world are switching their religious allegiance or modifying their beliefs, often in the face of long-established family tradition.  This is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

Such lofty ideals do not necessarily filter down to day-to-day reality.  Conversions can cause schisms in the family.  When someone—be they parent or child—converts to a new religious belief, the rest of the family can be traumatised.  The faith of the convert, something that had always been taken for granted, has changed, calling many things into question.  When a member appears to have turned his back on his family, it can be as if they are cutting off the chance for dialogue, rejecting an important part of the family’s identity.  In many cases, this is true, especially when the convert conscientiously chooses to distance himself from his family.

[dropcap cap="T"]he reasons for converting are manifold.  The once common notion that members of NRMs had unhappy relationships with family members has been debunked.  There is just as much likelihood that the convert is from a happy family as from a troubled one.When someone adopts a new faith, it is not always an attack on his family.  [/dropcap]While the convert might be more content with his newly chosen faith, family members too can be happy that their kin has found a faith that suits him better.  However, such realisations can only be reached through discussion and demonstrating the love that the family members hold for each other, not an inherently easy task.
 
 
Intra-familial religious dialogue is not limited to circumstances where one family may have members of two or more religions.  Tension can arise when members share a faith but differ in the extent to which they adhere to the set beliefs or scripture.  Agreement on financial matters and reproductive health are fundamental to family stability.  If one member interprets (or ignores) his family’s faith on a matter such as these in a way that upsets or alienates other members then it can be unsettling.  For the family to continue to remain together, or at least do so fruitfully, dialogue must occur.  Where one point of view is taken as an absolute, either through doctrinal definition or mere tradition, then it can be difficult to find middle ground.  However, when the long-term well being of the family is at stake, these absolutes should be given a bit of leeway, at least in as much as it can help reach a point of understanding.

Religion can be a powerful force for bringing families together.  However, if the stability of a family’s religion is shaken by a member either not sharing the same level of devotion or leaving the faith, and possibly converting, then there is a risk of a serious breakdown occurring.  For there to be continued coexistence and hopefully a point of agreement, the members must come together through dialogue.  For members to challenge, and possibly change, long held (or in the case of converts, newly acquired) beliefs is no simple task.  But to help ensure the chances of the family’s ongoing happiness, this dialogue is essential.

 

Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

What is 'dialogue'?

The use of the word 'dialogue' is remarkably elastic. Does this mean that it should be abandoned in favour of a more rigorous concept? Actually, the flexibility of the term might stem from the variety of our experiences of exchange and communication, while finding within them some commonalities.

The very term dialogue introduces us into the field of verbal exchanges. Exchanges test knowledge; they check the agreement of stakeholders on the content of the knowledge they are supposed to share and in some cases they are testing the validity of knowledge itself. Knowledge may be of two kinds - either it refers to a given science such as physics, or else it refers to human beings considered in their nature and their social setting. In the first case, dialogical exchanges are at the same level of reality as those induced by mathematical formulas by which the progress of knowledge on the material world is ensured. In the second case, the truth is not primarily mathematical. The locus of truth is set into histories and cultures, a setting to which only dialogue gives access. Thus, dialogical exchange is no more a mechanical process, it centres on establishing relationships between "Others": verbal exchanges imply experiencing listening as a transformative process that cannot be separated from the one through which truth is reached.

[dropcap cap="I"]n other words, the determination of 'categories of truth' is intrinsically linked to that of dialogical styles. Let me suggest the way through which categories of truth may be associated with an array of dialogical styles:[/dropcap]- Dialogue understood as a logical exercise will generate propositions that are meant to be universally valid and part of a truth system based on the principle of non-contradiction. It does not differ fundamentally from the soliloquy that a scientist would lead with himself in order to determine the truth of a scientific demonstration.

- Dialogues within philosophical or theological schools work along similar principles except that the reference to 'universal' principles grounded on the natural light is replaced by a reference text - the one accepted by the school. The principle of non-contradiction is exercised within the reading of these texts.

- In contrast, the type of dialogue initiated and exemplified by Confucius’ Analects is first a dialogue of life which seeks to ensure that the disciple’s deeds coincide with his system of moral and cosmological beliefs. Dialogue is the gateway through which to match truth and life.

- The Gospel’s dialogical style is somehow similar to the preceding category, with the difference that the stress is put less on acquired wisdom than on the transformative process through which a decision is to be reached by the one who enters into a dialogue of life.

- We can group together several cultural and literary settings in which dialogue is meant to lead to enlightenment, as shown in the peculiar dialogical styles found in Zhuangzi, in Zen writings and in some Indian schools: the dialogue is pushed to a breaking point that challenges the principle of non-contradiction, bringing one of the participants to a sudden transformation of his consciousness or worldview.

- And there is of course the broad category that gathers variants of 'democratic dialogue', which applies not only to politics but to some models of inter-religious dialogue for example: the point here is that the process of listening is supposed to be mutually transformative for the partners once they enter an empathic understanding of the argument and experiences vis-à-vis the other, this in order to find a position on the basis of which to allow a common decision or, at the very least, ensure continued coexistence.

[dropcap cap="I"]n conclusion, true dialogue is always 'performative'. It does not merely determine one true position among all the ones championed; other procedures might lead to this result better than dialogue does. Instead, dialogue leads to a change in worldviews, practices and situations - and the depth of the change that dialogue generates is the real measure of the 'truth' it contributes in bringing to light.[/dropcap]

 

 

 

 

Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

The changing nature of inter-religious dialogue: A lesson from history

No matter the time or context, inter-religious dialogue is rarely a simple endeavour. Throughout history, occasions on which Christians and Muslims have met have unfortunately most often been ones of tension, conflict and misunderstanding - a situation which, in many places, is little improved today. And yet, more than one thousand years ago, in and around the currently volatile cities of Basra and Baghdad, Christians and Muslims lived side by side in a context where they were able to debate openly and defend their respective faiths, resulting in an awareness and understanding of each other’s traditions which is largely unparalleled in today’s world.
 
The period in question is that of the early ninth century C.E., barely two centuries after the expansion of the Islamic Empire, which by that point stretched from Southern Spain in the West to the borders of China in the East. In doing so, it incorporated a number of native Christian populations, who remained the majority for a number of centuries, and who provided essential skills to their Arab conquerors, with many Christians being employed as physicians, bureaucrats and translators. Indeed, under the patronage of the ruling caliphs, it was Christians who were responsible for transmitting Greek philosophical thought into Arabic and Islamic thinking. It is in this context that we find the first generation of Christian theologians who wrote in Arabic, and who were faced with explaining Christian beliefs and practices in a language closely intertwined with Islam and the Qur’an.
 

From the texts available to us, it is evident that Christians felt the need to defend a number of elements of their faith, one of the most fundamental being that of their expression of God as Trinity; that is to say Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For their Muslim counterparts, whose central tenet was that of tawhīd (declaring the oneness of God), the idea of the divine being as one God in three persons or hypostases was completely unthinkable.
At the same time that Christians were looking for ways to explain the Trinity to their Muslim neighbours, an internal Islamic debate was taking place, which centred on the nature of God and His ninety-nine ‘beautiful names’ (ʾasmāʾ allāh al-Ḥusnā). These names are considered to be the names of God revealed to Muhammad in the Qur’an, and are accordingly given as a list of nouns, such as; ‘The Living’, ‘The Knowing’, ‘The Wise’. Some Muslims began to question what these names actually meant, both semantically and metaphysically speaking. Were they purely nominal, that is to say were they simply empty terms which pointed to God Himself and therefore identical with Him? Or should they be conceived of as real meaningful characteristics or entities present alongside God? The Christian theologians, who were clearly deeply involved in Islamic society, witnessed this internal debate taking place and saw the opportunity to use it in order to explain the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that their Muslim counterparts might understand. The way they achieved this was to say that if Muslims accept that God is ‘speaking’ and ‘knowing’, then they must accept that He has ‘word’ and ‘life’. This, they state, is what the Christians mean when they talk about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: His ‘word’ is the Son and His ‘life’ the Holy Spirit. Whilst they did not succeed in persuading their opponents to accept the doctrine, the exchanges they experienced provides the twenty-first century reader with much to take away.
 
Although these representatives of the two faiths were engaged in polemic against one another, what one can see is that both groups are asking similar questions about the nature of God, and having very similar internal as well as external debates, even though the final outcomes are different. In the context of interfaith dialogue today, this observation is highly important.
 
Early attempts at inter-religious dialogue were geared towards finding common ground. The Second Vatican Council (1965) issued a declaration about Muslims, stating that it has respect for Islam and listing a number of common features between Christianity and Islam such as belief in one God and reverence towards Jesus. This highlighting of similarities, however, whilst being a positive first step, can only achieve so much. For as soon as members of different faiths reach a fundamental difference (for example, Jesus being the Word and Son of God for Christians, and no more than a human prophet for Muslims) those in 'dialogue' either come to an impasse or attempt to 'paper over the cracks', as it were, by ignoring fundamental and important differences between their two faiths.
 
Recently, however, a significant shift has been taking place, whereby dialogue increasingly involves recognising each other’s differences and accepting them. In order to do this one has to put oneself in the shoes of the other and understand their faith in its own terms, not looking in from the outside, or viewing the other as holding a distorted version of one's own beliefs. A huge part of this endeavour requires understanding how the other person came to hold a certain belief: the processes they went through, questions they asked, possibilities they dismissed, and so on. Only then do we begin to see that actually we are not that different at all: we are all trying to answer the same questions and achieve the same goals. And this is exactly what the Christian and Muslim scholars of ninth century Iraq were doing, genuinely attempting to understand the beliefs of the other. They may not have come to an agreement; yet their deep awareness and appreciation of one another allowed them to live side by side for centuries in relative harmony.
 
The message for us today, over a millennium later, is clear. Yes, we may ultimately have different beliefs, but at least in understanding another's journey we are able to be more accepting of his or her destination - something which is applicable to all faiths, societies and belief-systems.
 
 

 

Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Narrating religious experience in East Asia

Religions in East Asia today have undergone transformations similar to the ones happening in other parts of the world. No longer are religious creeds, affiliations and practices taken for intangible realities, be it in metropolis or in rural settlements. At the same time, stressing one’s religious identity can be a way to assert a person’s or a community’s set of cultural, ethnic or social features that once were going unchallenged.

The diversity of creeds and rituals is more and more striking, as new religious movements appear every day. Such diversity also affects traditional faiths and practices as they experience revival and changes induced by external influences. Looked at from a distance, the East Asian religious psyche experiences the tensions that can be noted in East Asian societies as a whole: a strong affinity with contemporary values and technologies mixes with a nostalgia for things past; individual fulfilment meets with a stress on community values and support; the quest for harmony and inner peace goes along with an unceasing curiosity for the hybrid, colourful and ever evolving post-modern culture.

Religious experience derives from and - at the same time - is translated into specific creeds and practices. The content of the faith professed induces fears, hopes, guilt, longings and similar feelings. Large or small-scale rituals nurture a sense of affiliation, exaltation or quieting down. These feelings in turn give their intensity to the creeds and rituals that have produced them. But religious experience is also translated into narratives of various kinds. Mythical tales, hagiographies, the story of one’s conversion, the enacting of certain rituals are all narratives, even if a Taoist ritual or a Catholic mass for instance can also be analysed from alternative angles. Sure enough, “narratives” are multi-layered. A Catholic mass for instance is composed of a set of different narratives – the ones induced by the liturgical readings, the recitation of the Credo (the narrative structure of which has become a topos of contemporary theology), the re-enactment of the last Supper that gives its structure and meaning to the ceremony as a whole. And the recording of a mass on the occasion of a priestly ordination for instance will make it a second-level narrative. In the same vein, an exorcism in far-away Liangshan (the Cool Mountains), Sichuan Province, is based on the recitation of a set of genealogies – those of the healer, of the family, of the ghost and even of the animal killed for the sacrifice - a practice that makes storytelling and ritual one and the same performance.

 
The East Asian way of narrating one’s religious experience might well turn around what it means to trespass boundaries – a risk and a chance to be run. The trespassing might have to do with the limits separating this world from the outer world, ordinary experiences from extraordinary ones; meditation from illumination, lay status from clerical dignity; narrative trespassing might also be a way of dealing with a variety of religious affiliations; it might challenge the religious, social and political boundaries. Rituals fix the rules through which the trespassing can take place while dealing with its social and institutional effects – they make the trespassing possible while deciding on the level of trespassing not to be trespassed... The recording of narrations and rituals is often meant to enhance their religious or social effects. At the same time, it might induce a temptation to categorize them into well-known genres and pre-conceived identities, such ignoring the fluidity observed on the field and in daily life. Linking creeds and rites into a consistent whole, “videotaping”, might paradoxically deny the space and role of the story that plays at the articulation between beliefs and rituals. However, when videotaping recognises its own status as a story within the long chain of stories told and retold, it does make the narrative rebound and it further concurs to the ultimate end of East Asian religious storytelling: allowing for the creed to be lived and experienced, and for the ritual to be re-enacted.


This is an excerpt of the book edited by Elise A. DeVido and Benoit Vermander, "Creeds, Rites and Videotapes, Narrating religious experiences in East Asia"

Buy the book at the eRenlai online bookstore

 

 

 

Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Idols and sutra-chanting in churches

We asked the Archbishop Shan-Chuan Hung S.V.D. about examples of religious dialogue in a local setting; after mentioning the meeting between a Taiwanese Cardinal and the Dalai Lama, where Catholicism was creating space for dialogue where the Dalai Lama had otherwise received a cold reception. This is Catholicism’s dialogue with the world.


Indeed dialogue does not come without difficulties. In August of last year his church in Yilan was celebrating its 50th year, the local temple’s sutra-chanting troupe brought some Tudigong idols to the pay their respects to the church. The following day there was accusations that we had been worshiping false idols. However the troupe had first joined in singing some hymns and indeed left before mass formally started. Cardinal Hong was very upset about them being criticised in the media and by some members of the parish as he felt that the sutra-chanters had genuinely wanted to congratulate.

If a Buddhist monk was sat calmly at the back of the room and we forced him to leave, that would mean that the church still didn’t treat all as equals. Jesus said: ‘I love benevolence more than sacrifice’. If they are willing to take part in our ceremonies, who says they won’t be capable of hearing the voice of God, of knowing him.
For me this situation is not a crisis, but a turning point, an opportunity for Christians to be re-educated. To appreciate the good hearts of others is a valuable life lesson. So Catholics should not try to cleanse the church of this type of activity and instead reflect and discuss, as this could be the match that lights the fire, releasing the flame of truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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