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It's a Material World - Religion & Discovery Week 2018

Ahhh, Discovery Week! When 45 people set aside 7 days to come, learn and explore religion. It fills my heart to be honest.

A theme I talked about this year is the religion's material side. Western domination of the globe in recent centuries has allowed the West's most dominant religion (Protestant Christianity) to shape what we think "religion" is. Protestantism emphasizes beliefs & doctrines while leaving out (or sometimes denigrating) the material aspects of religion. This Protestant Lens makes religion not about things or about bodies but identifies its essence as immaterial (beliefs) and located inside the person (in your heart and mind, not on your body or in space). This is great for understanding Protestantism but distorts how you will see other we worked this year to move past this blinder. One religion that veers sharply from this Protestant Lens is Hinduism. There the murtis (blessed images) are understood to house divinity. A key practice is darshan, which means to see and be seen by the deities. Here you can visit and be in the presence of divinity, namely that of Krishan and Radha in the picture below.

Hindu murtis at the Hare Krishna temple

At the Zoroastrian temple, there are no statues but there is a fire urn that is sacred enough that one must cover one's head in its presence (and notice the No Admission sign near its base). Zoroastrians do not worship fire but consider it pure and light, both characteristics that define their god, Ahura Mazda. Priests will even wear shields over their mouths when saying prayers near the fire to ensure they do not spit into it inadvertently. Material, physical things can be pure but may also pollute or profane.

Fire Urn at the Toronto Zoroastrian Temple

In Islam, statues and even pictures are prohibited inside the mosque. But we like things, we crave visual beauty and so the language of Islam is employed physically and visually. Stylized writing from the Qur'an or other key Islamic sayings are used to cover the walls. The Qur'an provides oral and aural beauty via its rhyming lines, the force of its language, and the way it is chanted (not merely read, quietly and alone) but the language also serves as a focus for visual beauty as shown here. This valuing of the word means that even the physical text is treated with respect and never set on the floor.

Calligraphy in Toronto mosque

The Rastafari tradition lacks large structures or buildings and yet depends enormously on material aids. While visiting this Rasta shop, we encountered the physical objects that form the backbone of Rasta - music (Reggae) that teaches its doctrines and stirs emotions; flags and banners that highlight its key figures (such as Haile Selassie on the black ceiling banner); T-shirts that allow members of this small tradition to declare their allegiance, to recognize each other, and to know they're not alone; food (served at the back) which is vegetarian and all natural due to the tradition's emphasis on nature; and their own Bible version (the African Heritage Bible held by our host in the 2nd photo) with annotated passages that show the Bible's prophecies regarding Haile Selassie. Without the food, the clothes, the music, and the physical text, Rasta would be robbed of its very presence.

And finally, in Zen Buddhism, we find a tradition that leans more towards the Protestant view. The beautiful statues shown here serve only as visual cues, representing certain traits and habits to admire, rather than beings to worship. The statues are not seen to have any power on their own but their physical presence still lent a quality to the room. Moreover, we found another set of objects quite poignant - one meditative cushion had a lantern on it, some prayer beads and some other small items. It turned out one of the temple's members had recently died. These objects, placed on the cushion where the person had always sat, was a physical way to remember a friend who was no longer there (see 2nd photo).

Zen statues
Items marking a deceased member who typically meditated from this cushion

We are physical beings that inhabit and share physical space with material things. These items in our homes, around our necks, or worn over our hair structure space and our bodies, they tell others something about ourselves, they sanctify, and they serve as reminders of who we want to be and how we want to live.

This was but one of many, many things we learned in our week. Can't wait to see what the 2019 Discovery Week brings!

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