When you think about religion, if you do, you may be tempted to think of it as an idea as old as humanity itself. What, after all, was the story of Adam and Eve conversing with God in the Garden of Eden if not a religious account? What, even before that in the book of Genesis, were the two accounts of creation (yes, there are two and they don't match very well) if not religious stories?
And yet Martin Shuster, chair of the Avila University Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, said at a town meeting about religion the other night at Avila that religion "is a fundamentally modern idea."
It's been only in the last couple of centuries that religion became separated out as a separate field or discipline that can be studied academically. Before that, he said, it was seen as simply ordinary life that didn't draw much of a distinction between what today we call secular and what we call, separately, sacred. We do know that religious studies didn't really become anything close to a formal discipline until the 19th Century, and that may have been the indication that religion finally was being seen as a separate field from what Shuster called just ordinary life.
Shuster was part of a panel (pictured here; Shuster is on the far right) Tuesday evening called "What Is Religious Understanding?" It featured half a dozen other scholars from around the country. The group has been engaged in a research project into religious understanding as part of a research grant funded by the Templeton Foundation.
Each scholar approached the subject from a different perspective, but each did it with respect for those who disagreed. This provided a good model for how people of faith should relate to one another. It was an interesting evening, despite a sound system at Avila's Whitfield Center that was simply terrible. (I bet Ron Slepitza, Avila's president, would welcome a donation to install a new system.)
But to me one of the most interesting observations of the evening was Shuster's contention that religion is a modern idea. It made me wish for a time machine that would let me talk with people from 1,000 or 2,000 years ago about their understanding, if any, of what religion meant to them.
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THE FUTURE OF THE POPE'S REFORMS
Can the reform efforts of Pope Francis succeed in the fact of stiff opposition? David Gibson of Religion News Services offers this response. A piece worth reading.