U of C course disempowers religious storms

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 31, 2005

If you thought Hurricane Katrina's assault on the U.S. Gulf Coast this week was devastating, or that this summer's storms in Asia, Europe, and Canada were appalling in their destruction of life and property, you haven't seen anything yet.

For at least these natural disasters brought the best out of folks, strangers helping strangers.

But there are other "storms" brewing which divide communities and peoples. Born in religious intolerance and fanaticism, these storms threaten to drown civilization in horror unimaginable. Mercy and love, the hallmarks of true religion, are washed away as weakness, while fear and hatred plunge the world into abysmal darkness.

Religion, the tidal rhythm of life, becomes instead the storm surge of death.

My simple response is to beg all peoples to cry out to God for a new heart.

But I am well aware that we live in a secular society where the mere hint of God-talk is dismissed as pathetic babblings.

Even from a secular perspective, however, there is at least one thing we all can do in the face of religious conflict: we can disempower the ignorance that drives it. We can take time to hear the other, to treasure the humanity in the other, to find points of commonality with the other that far outweigh the differences.

I was delighted, therefore, to learn that the University of Calgary (U of C) will be offering RELS 205, "The Nature of Religion," this fall in Cochrane, to be taught by local coffee companion Prof. Tinu Ruparell.

Tinu is a specialist in the comparative philosophy of religion. Some of you may already have a copy of Encountering Religion: An Introduction to the Religions of the World, a book he co-edited with Ian S. Markham (although for this course, he will be using Joseph Runzo's Global Philosophy of Religion).

According to the U. of C. announcement, the course will be an "academic study of religion through a consideration of themes and issues arising from the world's major religious traditions. Using a mixture of contemporary and classical sources – including scriptures, essays, literature and film – [Dr. Ruparell] will lead the class in a consideration of such topics as suffering and evil, mysticism and religious experience, faith and reason in 'post-modernity,' interreligious dialogue and truth, and constructions of religious identities."

Upon learning that Tinu would be teaching the course, I asked him why he thought studies like this are important in our religiously fractured world.

"Studying religion, whether it is one's own tradition or those of others, does at least two essential things," he said.

"Firstly, if done well – that is, with a sincere desire to learn and not merely defend –, beginning and continuing a conversation with a religious tradition is revelatory and transformative. Through such study one has the opportunity to see the world and oneself differently."

Tinu compares studying other religions to learning new languages.

"Through 'speaking' different religious traditions we learn to see the world through new concepts and practices, and because the nature of human beings is a central concern of the religions, we are also partly remade by these new ways and ideas," he said.

The second thing such studies do "is map the real similarities and differences within and between religious traditions. There is a lot of muddled thinking when it comes to religion," Tinu said, "and doing some serious, hard-headed study of what the traditions actually do say, exemplify, promote and disallow is now more important than ever."

To carry out this kind of study "requires a grounding in the specifics of how religions have developed and been manifested," Tinu added. "One needs to dig into the nitty-gritty details, the specifics of religion, if one is to avoid spouting inanities or parroting foolishness.

"Religion is simply too important for us not to be as fully informed and aware as we can be of its pivotal and ongoing role in human history."

I couldn't agree more.

Tinu will be teaching the course Wednesday evenings Sept. 14th – Dec. 7th at the Cochrane RancheHouse. For more information, phone the University of Calgary, Religious Studies Department, at (403) 220-6988.

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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