Author Archives: David Robertson

FASS Showcase: Religion, Philosophy and Ethics

Want to know what’s in R45, our brand new honours degree course on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics? Here’s Graham Harvey and Carolyn Price to give you a taster.

They discuss what students will gain from studying this degree – what skills will you develop? How might studying this qualification be valuable at work or elsewhere? Why are these good subjects to study together? We’ll also talk about the content of the modules, the connections between the Religious Studies and Philosophy modules, and how ethics fits in.

Exploring Immortality [Audio]

To mark the new BA (Hons) qualification in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (R45), Suzanne Newcombe and Carolyn Price discuss how researchers in Religious Studies and Philosophy investigate immortality.

Research into physical immortality is big business. Just try searching Google for the CEO of Apple Computers and biotech firm Genentech founded Calico (est. 2013). It’s a company backed by a billion dollars of investment which aims to ‘devise interventions that slow aging and counteract age‑related diseases.’ However, the potential of immortality raises significant ethical concerns.

Find out more – listen to their discussion (which includes a full transcription). And find out more about the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics degree here.

Global Catholicism and the Catholic Charismatic Movement

By Dr John Maiden

Last Friday (18 June) at Universita Ca’ Foscaria, Venice, along with scholars from Italy, France, United States and Australia, I was one of the presenters at a symposium on Charismatic Renewal and global Catholicism (full programme here). The panel to which I contributed, on global charisma, produced a fascinating discussion on the different ways of reading the origins and development of the movement.

On one hand, there is clearly an important organisational/institutional story to be told, which begins in the American Upper Midwest in 1967, and then, as Valentina Ciciliot explained, sees CCR undergo a process of ‘Romanization’, for example with the international gathering in Rome in 1975. On the other hand, when CCR is observed from the “margins” (e.g. Australia and England), the heterogeneity and “glocality” of the movement comes into clear sight. This is a movement which emerged from the late 1960s in a variety of different countries through convergences of various examples of spiritual ‘potential’ (e.g. the Legion of Mary, Cursillo, and various other sources of mysticism and communitarianism) and in response to various local contexts.

CCR remains a movement which is understudied, and this conference has helped to crystalize a range of research questions which can be advanced in the coming years. I’m very grateful to the organiser, Dr Valentina Ciciliot, for her leadership in bringing the symposium together (and in such a wonderful setting!).

An Economy of Gnosticism in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California, is the only place in the world today that all four gnostic religions are active. I recently had the chance to do some fieldwork there. Contemporary gnostic religions have had little attention from scholars. By “gnostic religions”, I mean, quite simply, groups who describe themselves as both “gnostic” and a “religion”. I’m sure many scholars will disagree with both of these designations, but it’s a complicated question and so I’ll address this in a future post. For now, the four groups I am talking about are the Ecclesia Gnostica, the Apostolic Johannite Church, the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Gnostic Movement of Samael Aun Weor.

If I were a certain kind of scholar, I might speculate that there is so much gnosticism in LA because Hollywood is the symbolic centre of the archonic media matrix where the illusory world of the demiurge is created. More prosaically, LA has long been a centre for religious innovation due to being multicultural, liberal and relatively cheap. People were going West in search of new ways of life long before the Hippies emerged from Haight-Ashbury to catalyse the spiritual revolution of the New Age movement. Moreover, contemporary gnostics mix esoteric ideas with Christianity, and so appeal much more to American Baby Boomers than to their relatively secularised European counterparts.

For example, the Ecclesia Gnostica performs a Gnostic Mass weekly in the Besant Lodge of the Theosophical Society, a converted silent movie theatre underneath the Hollywood sign. If you didn’t look closely at the portraits of Theosophical founders on the wall, or recognise the Jungian additions to the liturgy, you might not realise this wasn’t a regular Anglican ceremony. Services have been performed weekly by Bishop Stephan Hoeller, now aged 87, since 1977. Hoeller’s gnosticism is a formalisation of the ideas of depth psychologist Carl Jung, a process of reuniting with the divine aspect of the self.

While they have some associated groups, the Ecclesia Gnostica is largely confined to Los Angeles. This isn’t the case with the other groups. The Apostolic Johannite Church, for example, have a number of branches around North America, though they are currently strongest in Canada. They also focus on a liturgical mixture of Christian and esoteric traditions, though here the focus is more on a Rosicrucian rather than Jungian tradition. Interestingly, their presence in LA is not as strong as in other major US cities, probably because the Ecclesia Gnostica has been so successful there. The Apostolic Johannites are keen to stress their appreciation for and connection with the Ecclesia Gnostica, but this is not reciprocated.

The high degree of competition in the gnostic marketplace also affects the Gnostic Movement, a loosely connected constellation of groups stemming from the teachings of Columbian teacher Samael Aun Weor in the 1960s and early 1970s. Although relatively recent in comparison, and originating in Spanish-speaking areas, the Aun Weor groups have been the most successful in spreading internationally, with small but constant presence in many European countries. Last year, I undertook their First Chamber (a series of 33 introductory lectures) with a group in Edinburgh, which also deserves its own post. But in LA, these groups cater in the main to a Hispanic clientele, which is a large proportion of the population of this bilingual city. In Europe, most Gnostic Movement groups present the material in a form more appealing to a New Age or individualised spirituality discourse, though there is always a clear Christian aspect, and indeed there are some groups which perform the Gnostic Mass and dress in vestments just like the Ecclesia Gnostica (notably the Igreja Gnostica do Brazil). So perhaps the adaptive framing of the Gnostic Movement is the reason it has spread in the Americas and Europe, unlike the other contemporary gnostic religions.

The fourth and final example is least likely to be accepted as a gnostic religion, by scholars and the other groups, in large part as a result of its infamous founder, Aleister Crowley. Yet the Ordo Templi Orientis, or rather its ecclesiastical wing, the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, has many features in common with them: performance of the Gnostic Mass, roots in late Victorian occultism and claims of apostolic succession – that is, a direct lineage of bishops back to St Peter. The Pasadena branch, the Star Sapphire Lodge, put on public performances of Crowley’s version of the Gnostic Mass weekly. Yet, as with the Gnostic Movement, the modern OTO is more concerned with legitimising themselves among competing Thelemic groups through connections to their founder, rather than apostolic succession, as with the Ecclesia Gnostics and the Apostolic Johannites. However, it is clear that their use of sexual magic is as much of a problem, however, and there is open hostility towards the OTO and the Gnostic Movement from the apostolic gnostic religions.

Los Angeles, then, is a microcosm of contemporary gnostic religion. More, it is a microcosm of the complex genealogy of the term gnosticism with its Christian and esoteric usages, the influence of Jung and other perennialist scholars, and its selective but enduring charm.

2 Minutes Silence at Amsterdam Airport

By Marion Bowman

I’ve just been part of an interesting event at Amsterdam Airport.

From about 7.45pm there were announcements in a variety of European languages that at 20.00 there would be 2 minutes silence.

So the KLM staff at this Transfer area for example came out from behind their desks and stood in line just before 8. At 8, Last Post sounded over loudspeakers and most people did indeed just stop, then at the end of the 2 minutes the national anthem was played and some sang along.

I’ve had a few conversations with various KLM staff since and it was explained that this is the commemoration of the people of the Netherlands (and one person specifically said also all the Jewish people ) who died in WW2. Tomorrow there will be celebrations of the liberation but tonight is for remembering. All I spoke to – quite an age range – said it was important and moving, and actually even as an outsider, it was rather moving.

And as part of my last conversation when checking in at gate for Bristol flight, one of the group of 3 women asked if I was from UK and made the point that they were liberated by the British and the Canadians and they were very grateful!

All very fascinating!

Disciplines and Dialogues: the present and future of Yoga Studies

By Theo Wildcroft

It’s a busy time for yoga scholars and writers at the moment. Next week sees the UK launch of independent scholar Matthew Remski’s new book: Practice and all is coming: abuse, cult dynamics, and healing in yoga and beyond, and last week saw the combination of two significant academic events: the SOAS Yoga Studies Week , and a two-day reading workshop for a future Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, co-sponsored by SOAS and the Open University.

Sadly, it was a busy working week for me, so I missed much of the Yoga Studies Week, but it kicked off strongly with the Open University’s own Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O’Brien-Kop (SOAS), giving a lecture on new and interesting trends in yoga research. Apparently, my own research was highlighted, so I’m even sadder to have missed it! Other lectures I’d liked to have seen included Finnian Gerety (Brown University, USA), talking about sound and silence in yoga and meditation, Andrea Jain (Indiana University, USA) talking about yoga and neoliberalism, and Gudrun Bühnemann (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), whose work on yoga-related visual media is always fascinating.

Yoga Studies is a small but growing field, and highly interdisciplinary in nature, including Sanskritists and other philologists, Indologists, health scientists and the full range of arts, humanities, and social sciences found at your average Religious Studies conference! This means that Yoga Studies events are intellectually stimulating, but also a rare chance to hang out with friends one doesn’t see very often. The workshop was entitled Disciplines and Dialogue: The Future of Yoga and  Meditation Studies. The aim of the Handbook’s editors, Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O-Brien-Kop again, was to take each draft chapter and discuss it in turn in live peer review. I haven’t worked on a proposed text like this before, and it was a thoughtful and thought-provoking experience. Each chapter had a reader, separate from any blind peer reviewer already assigned. The reader summarised the chapter so far, with suggestions and comments, the writer responded, and then the group as a whole discussed how the chapter might evolve, and how it might sit within the greater volume. As the workshop title suggested, it was also a chance to have wider discussions about the field and future possibilities.

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Institutional Secrecy, Vatican Disclosure and Roman Catholic Priests’ Children

By Sarah Thomas

Are new and mass media nudging institutional secrecy into the open for a younger generation of Catholics? This is an interesting question to consider following the recent New York Times disclosure on 18th February this year; that the Roman Catholic Church has for years held a document containing a secret set of rules for priests who father children. Vatican spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti admitted to a New York Times journalist that “The Vatican has a secret set of rules for priests who break their vow of celibacy and father children…I can confirm that these guidelines exist…It is an internal document.” Gisotti went on to state that the document “requests” that the father leave priesthood to “assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child.” This disclosure is the first public acknowledgement by the Vatican that the Roman Catholic Church has an internal process for dealing with this most obvious transgression of the vow of priestly celibacy. Many biological children of priests (who have been trying to raise awareness about their existence by working with media outlets such as The Boston Globe since 2017), understandably feel it to be a ground-breaking moment.

It is also a particularly timely disclosure for my PhD research, that focuses on the phenomenon of Roman Catholic priests’ children and their use of new and mass media. I first became interested in this phenomenon as a research topic because, as a child of an RC priest myself, I began to notice patterns and themes emerging when listening to and reading about other priests’ children’s stories. These included priest’s children having experienced diverse forms of silencing behaviour from the Roman Catholic Church which caused isolation from their fathers – as well as from family, friends and communities – the same intention was behind: to keep the children hidden and unacknowledged.

My first contact with other priest’s children was through Coping International, an online support group for the children of Roman Catholic priests, run by Vincent Doyle, who is the son of a priest himself. Doyle has been an active campaigner for the rights of priests’ children since 2014. He was shown the Vatican’s internal document containing secret rules for priests with children two years ago during a meeting in Rome, called by Doyle to discuss the relevant issues and their impact. It was Doyle who worked with The New York Times to bring this recent disclosure to public attention, and other media outlets across the globe picked up the story immediately, causing this article to become one of the most widely reported stories initiated by a priest’s child so far.

What impact does this discovery have? The Roman Catholic Church’s much studied response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis highlights their predisposition to close ranks and maintain a wall of silence during times of scandal. There are of course very real differences with criminal behaviour and arguably the simple breaking of a promise, but are patterns of response likely to be the same? This secrecy has been the church’s attitude to priests’ children’s publicity so far, which is what makes the Vatican’s admission of this secret document so different and interesting.

Preliminary results from my twenty two interviews with Roman Catholic priests’ children point to the majority of them wanting change, and a de-stigmatising of the perception of them as objects of shameful transgressions. Comments on the Coping International closed Facebook page show how the majority of children active on the site welcomed The New York Times disclosure as an important milestone in their fight for recognition and acceptance.

While it would be naïve to think that one isolated media disclosure about Vatican guidelines will have any long lasting discernible effect on priests’ children’s lives (arguably the aspiration of Doyle and many members of Coping International), it nevertheless draws attention to a wider social movement that many more minority groups than priests’ children are involved with, one that involves resistance, small power shifts and just maybe the possibility of eventual change. There is an observable pattern of individuals coming together as critical mass, as seen with the #MeToo Campaign and other contemporary challenging of institutional authority from groups, where these groups use social and mass media to challenge power ‘horizontally’, rather than trying to engage with traditional ‘vertical’ power structures (as in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church). People are no longer remaining quiet because they are being told to from ‘above’. Being kept as isolated individuals can lead people to feel powerless, but being part of a critical mass leads people to believe they can affect change.

A phenomenon within and outside this, that sparked my initial question, is the increased use of social media generally – particularly by younger generations – to live life more publicly by regularly posting on new media outlets, as well as embracing the immediacy of email and other forms of digital communication. If this tendency towards openness and immediate communication is coupled with continued resistance to institutional authority, and the power of institutional secrecy is slowly diluted by a generational predilection for living life more openly – where individuals have the power to publicly post their own experiences without having to go through traditional institutional gatekeepers – then perhaps future generations of priests’ children will find current issues of shame and stigma melting away as institutional secrecy within the Catholic Church becomes unacceptable to younger generations of Catholics. After all, if a Vatican spokesperson unwittingly pinging an email across the pond can result in a worldwide disclosure for priests’ children, then surely anything is possible?

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New Degree | BA (Honours) Religion, Philosophy and Ethics

We are very pleased to announce that Religious Studies at the Open University has a brand new degree course, starting this autumn, in collaboration with Philosophy – the BA (Hons) in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics. While there has been a specialist Religious Studies route available in both the BA (Honours) Arts and Humanities and the BA (Honours) Social Sciences degrees, a named RS degree has been absent from the OU for a while, and it has been a long path to get one again. But this new degree underlines the relevance of the subject and the vitality of the department, and should ensure the subject remains central as the Open University continues the process of future proofing.

In this qualification you’ll explore human systems of thought and practice, both ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, in ways which allow you to engage with wide-ranging and often controversial issues affecting different cultures and societies. You’ll investigate a wide range of current questions and themes in these disciplines from both historical and contemporary perspectives. This includes the ethics of war, political justice, multiculturalism, religious nationalisms, the ‘sanctity of life’ and pilgrimage. In engaging with the core disciplines of religious studies and philosophy, you’ll develop critical skills and expertise in a range of key approaches and methodologies.

Key features of the course

  • Engage with key philosophical debates about ethical and other fundamental questions
  • Learn about the traditions of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism as they relate to various cultures and societies
  • Investigate selected classic and contemporary philosophers and a range of religious practices and beliefs.
  • Develop skills of critical analysis, empathy and communication relevant to a wide range of careers.

Find out more, including how to enroll to study with us, here: http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/qualifications/r45

Graham Harvey at the Counterpoint blog

Graham Harvey recently published a piece titled “Predators, Prey, and Snowdrops: Recognizing the Nature of the World” over at Counterpoint, a blog which aims to put differing systems of knowledge into conversation for the good of the planet:

Some Amazonian Indigenous people recognize two ways in which living beings relate to others, as predators and prey. More accurately, sometimes a being acts as a predator and sometimes they become prey. A hunter (human, jaguar, deity, cannibal, or other predator) sets out to find prey. But perhaps, somewhere along a forest path, they find themselves hunted. I’ve been thinking about these relations, off and on, for some time–inspired by reading the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Robin Wright, Laura Rival and other Amazonianists. Reading them alongside works by the philosophers Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers (who also read these Amazonianists) has led me to wonder what their observations tell us about the consumerism that marks ways of being human in late modernity or the Anthropocene–or whatever you like / dislike naming this era.

How are these predator/prey relationships helpful in grappling with our global culture and economy? Might the language of predator and prey enable us to see the workings of consumerist modernity more clearly? It certainly seems that sometimes we are preyed on or consumed by processes larger than ourselves. Extractive industries and aggressive marketing assault our world and ourselves. But we are not always victims. We also seek to capture and benefit from opportunities available to us. Even when threatened, we might actively rebel against those determined to turn what we cherish into commodities for further predation. We are not always limited as preyed-upon consumers.

Read the whole piece here.