Tuesday, 22 November 2011

After a Discussion on James Elkins 'Strange Place..."

At the Scottish Interface event this year a few of us had a table discussion on James Elkins recent book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. We talked mostly about the introduction and a few definitions he offers for the terms 'spiritual' and 'religion'.

For any interested here are some of the ideas we bounced around.

For the purposes of his book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, Professor James Elkins defines spirituality as,

“…any system of belief that is private, subjective, largely or wholly incommunicable, often wordless, and sometimes even uncognized”

An alternative definition is presented for religion which, for the purposes of his book, is defined as,

“…a named, noncultic, major system of belief”

It may be helpful at first to analyze these two definitions before comparing them to that of a definition presented under the same terms within a biblical worldview.

1. Systems of belief

Both religion and spirituality are described as systems of belief. Elkins suggests such religious systems are, “the rituals, liturgies, catechisms, calendars, holy days, vestments, prayers, hymns and songs, homilies, obligations, sacraments, confessions and rows, mitzvahs, pilgrimages, credos and commandments, and sacred texts” . Such systems may be described as mostly liturgical and belong mainly to the traditions of Roman Catholicism .

In his introduction, Elkins includes the main corpus of western religious systems within his understanding of the “art world”. These include Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Protestantism although it his clear his central point of reference is Catholicism, perhaps reflecting his own personal experiences or those shared by students, artists and the wider communities of Chicago, U.S. and Cork, Ireland where he worked while writing the book. Other major religious systems of the eastern hemisphere such as Hinduism and Bahia are mostly ignored and not included within the book’s description of “art world”.

No definition of belief is offered. As such, the reader is free to interpret this term according to their own understanding and experience although the context in which it is used implied belief can be either private or public, personal or communal, conscious of uncognitive, rational or imagined.

2. Private and Public

In Elkin’s book, religion is described as public and social. In comparison, spirituality is described as private. As such, spirituality is something relating to personal beliefs and may not be shared by others. It may include the experience of prayer when performed in the privacy of your own home or kneeling quietly by your bed late at night. It may also describe the manner in which a boy feels about his pet dog. Such feelings are often private, incommunicable and non-communal or shared in equal measure.

By this definition, spirituality is not a communal experience and therefore does not apply to ceremonies of corporate worship and liturgy. In contrast he describes religion as “public and social” . That being the case, spirituality is not part of religion – a presupposition that Elkins seems to contradict in his later statement,

“Spirituality can be part of religion, but not it’s whole.”

Spirituality is described as the “foil” of religion , which may indicate a discordant relationship between the two. If we interpret foil as an entity to undo or oppose religion it confirms the view that spirituality can never be a part of religion. If, however, we understand foil to mean a wrapping or encasement (as in the foil wrapper of a chocolate bar) the meaning may indicate the opposite and religion is instead the centre of a the extended entity of spirituality that surrounds and encompasses religion.

4. Communicative and Wordless

Elkins description of religion incorporates the liturgical practices of hymns and songs, homilies, confessions, bows, credos, commandments and sacred texts. These liturgical practices are dependant on the written or spoken word as a device for communication between one and another. In comparison, his description of spirituality is “largely or wholly incommunicable, often wordless”. Here we may see the greatest contrast with the biblical understanding of spirituality which begins with the character of God as a being who communicates and even creates by his word. In Genesis 1 the Spirit of God is described as hovering above the waters before creation after which God speaks the creation into being. The Judeo-Christian system of belief is founded on the belief that God is both communal within himself and communicative with his creation. By the definition presented in Elkins’ book Christianity is a non-spiritual system of belief.

5. Cognitive and Non-Cognitive

Spirituality is also described as “sometimes even uncognized”. This may suggest that the spiritual person is unaware of their own system of belief. It may apply to an individual who is not conscious to the influence of media advertising on their choice of cereal in the morning. It may also describe the person who has unconsciously adopted certain behaviours, ideologies or rituals from their parents.

The term uncognized” suggests a non-rational or non-cerebral view of the world. As such, spirituality may be used to describe the feelings or emotions associated with rash decisions, a hunch or intuition.

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