A History of Religion in 5 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses

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9780807033111: A History of Religion in 5 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses
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A leading scholar explores the importance of physical objects and sensory experience in the practice of religion.
 
Humans are needy. We need things: objects, keepsakes, stuff, tokens, knickknacks, bits and pieces, junk, and treasure. We carry special objects in our pockets and purses, and place them on shelves in our homes and offices. As commonplace as these objects are, they can also be extraordinary, as they allow us to connect with the world beyond our skin.
 
A History of Religion in 5½ Objects takes a fresh and much-needed approach to the study of that contentious yet vital area of human culture: religion. Arguing that religion must be understood in the first instance as deriving from rudimentary human experiences, from lived, embodied practices, S. Brent Plate asks us to put aside, for the moment, questions of belief and abstract ideas. Instead, beginning with the desirous, incomplete human body (symbolically evoked by “½”), he asks us to focus on five ordinary types of objects—stones, incense, drums, crosses, and bread—with which we connect in our pursuit of religious meaning and fulfillment.
 
As Plate considers each of these objects, he explores how the world’s religious traditions have put each of them to different uses throughout the millennia. We learn why incense is used by Hindus at a celebration of the goddess Durga in Banaras, by Muslims at a wedding ceremony in West Africa, and by Roman Catholics at a Mass in upstate New York. Crosses are key not only to Christianity but to many Native American traditions; in the symbolic mythology of Peru’s Misminay community, cruciform imagery stands for the general outlay of the cosmos. And stones, in the form of cairns, grave markers, and monuments, are connected with places of memory across the world.
 
A History of Religion in 5½ Objects is a celebration of the materiality of religious life. Plate moves our understanding of religion away from the current obsessions with God, fundamentalism, and science—and toward the rich depths of this world, this body, these things. Religion, it turns out, has as much to do with our bodies as our beliefs. Maybe even more.

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About the Author:

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Religion Dispatches. His books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

half. 1. Being one of the two equal parts
into which a thing is or may be divided.
Oxford English Dictionary

Less solace in these songs half-ourselves

& half-not.
— Colin Cheney,
“Half-Ourselves & Half-Not”

After making eight mostly successful movies, Federico Fellini set to work on . Since its release a half century ago, the surrealistic, self-reflexive motion picture has hit the tops of “all-time best” lists the world over. Fellini’s film within a film portrays a middle-aged filmmaker, Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni. Between love and lust, desire and creativity, Guido quests for something, but seems unsure exactly what that might be. His life is incomplete and he knows it. He gestures toward love, often lasciviously, but as the beautiful Claudia suggests, he doesn’t know how to love. Guido rhetorically queries her: “Could you choose one single thing, and be faithful to it? Could you make it the one thing that gives your life meaning . . . just because you believe in it? Could you do that?”  The apparent answer is no, at least in his case. But the quest remains, and Guido’s limited life persists. 
Two and a half decades later, Julian Barnes inserted what he called a “Parenthesis” between chapters 8 and 9 of his novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Equally as eccentric as Fellini’s film, Barnes’s fictional writings speculate on love, history, and artistic creation, meanwhile self-referentially questioning the author’s role in it all. The parenthetical half chapter asks what it means for two people to love each other and the effects that may or may not have on a “history of the world.” Among other felicitous phrasings, Barnes likens love to a “windscreen wiper across the eyeball.” Even so, he wonders whether love is a “useful mutation that helps the race survive.” Or maybe it is a luxury, some value-added option to our lives: unnecessary but persistent. Regardless, “we must believe in it, or we’re lost.” 
Two different works of art that examine love, desire, creativity, and the meaning of life, and both use “1/2” in their titles. What can this possibly mean? Is the half some extra value, like a baker’s dozen? Or does it reflect something taken away, as if it was supposed to be the ninth but part of it was lost, or never finished? The beginnings of an answer were laid out a long time ago.
Almost two and a half millennia before Fellini and Barnes, the philosopher Plato wrote a work known as the Symposium, another meditation on the nature of love. In the midst of the convivial conversations of the story, Aristophanes stands up and presents what is perhaps the first artistic, amorous exploration of the half. The ancient playwright waxes mythological as he tells a comic tale of human origins: The first creatures were different from us, doubled in form from our present appearances; they had spherical bodies, with four hands, four feet, one head with two faces, and two sets of genitals. Because of their multiple hands and feet, they could move quite fast, and as
such made a cartwheeled attack on the gods, which sent shock waves through the heavenly realms. Instead of killing the human creatures in retribution, the great Zeus decided to split them all in half so that they would be “diminished in strength and increased in numbers.” The result is the human body we each have today, living our lives as incomplete creatures, always looking for our other half. Love, the story suggests, completes us by coupling us, making us whole again with the perfect fit of another creature. 
Aristophanes’s halving is, I suspect, what Fellini and Barnes were after in their approaches to the topic of love. The “1/2” in their titles, and mine, stands as a symbol of our incomplete natures, the need for a human body to be made whole through relations with something outside itself. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” as John Donne’s seventeenth-century text declares. “Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Except that we get disconnected from our surroundings, from each other, from our gods, from the natural world, becoming floating islands. Our lives are half-lives, and we desire fulfillment, completion, wholeness. Aristophanes’s mythologizing intimates that a perfect fit exists, somewhere out there, for our half bodies. 
But this is not a book about finding a soul mate, one other human body that completes us. Many such books are readily available. This is about another kind of fullness, another kind of bonding for our coupling bodies, another kind of love. This is
about a religious love, though not necessarily the love of a god. 
This book tells the story of the human half body, such as we are, and some of the objects we connect with in our quest for religiously meaningful, fulfilling lives. Because, let’s face it, Aristophanes tells a nice tale, but another body doesn’t actually complete us. We humans may experience a few, fleeting moments of all-consuming, all-connecting ecstasy that grow rarer as life goes on, but we don’t, can’t, live in that state. We still need to eat and explore, to touch and talk, to breathe plant-produced oxygen and drink from one stage of nature’s water cycle. Moreover, our ability to love can be amazingly vast, well beyond directing our affections toward one other single creature. We love (and love is indeed the word) a very good meal, our children and their imaginary plays, the color orange just so at sunset, the feel of our cat’s fur as we pet it, a film that makes us laugh, a book that makes us cry. All these things too we love. They link us with a world beyond our own skin. Taken collectively, these experiences make us feel as if we are not one-half but one.
Beginning with our incomplete half body, the following chapters discuss five types of objects that humans have engaged and put to use in highly symbolic, sacred ways: stones, incense, drums, crosses, bread. These objects are ordinarily common, basic, profane. Profane stems from the Latin roots pro and fanus, meaning “outside the temple”; in other words, the deep meaning of the profane is not inherently negative, just everyday life: houses, trinkets, bakers, and post offices are all outside the temple. Such is the paradox of religious experience: the most ordinary things can become extraordinary. We often forget this, overlooking the commonplace because we’re trained to respond to mass media spectacles, expecting an overwhelming lightningbolt
transmission from on high. Or we do the opposite and believe that spiritual truths are to be found in some remote setting, far from the quotidian, in a pretense of utter silence and absence, usually a mountaintop, desert, or other spectacular natural setting. Situated in between these two extremes, the spiritual objects discussed here are things that many readers will come across in the course of the next twenty-four hours. Chances are, you will find them where you didn’t expect to find them, right
under your noses, at your fingertips, on the tips of your tongues.

Connectors: USB ports, HDMI cables, DVI outlets, VGA adapters, 110-volt three-prong plugs, 220-volt two-prong plugs. If you don’t have the right connectors, you can’t watch your highdefinition television, project your PowerPoint presentation, or use your hair dryer when traveling abroad. In the world of electronics much is incompatible, which makes it so nice when the right fit is found, when that crystal-clear connection is established and the show can go on.
We humans also plug in. Our bodies are a matrix of connecting points that, when used appropriately, allow us to relate to and draw breath, meaning, and inspiration from the environment around. James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar portrayed something like this, as the blue-being Na’vi had neural ponytails that directly jacked into the flora and fauna of their world, linking nervous systems across species. And we watched this bright new time-space in 3-D, thinking: “How cool is that?” Meanwhile, we forgot that we already have such connectors inherent in this very mortal coil.
The primary contact points between the self and the world are the sense organs: the mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and skin.* So vital are these to our being in the world that the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras once claimed, “Man is nothing but a bundle of sensations.” These sense connectors are the meeting places for us to experience the world, the comings and goings that flow through the organs and open our bodies to life itself. We plug in with them. The human body feels the world, engages the sights and sounds, tastes and smells of one’s setting, incorporating (literally, “bringing into the body”) the environment around. As the painter Paul Cézanne once claimed of his process, “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” Similarly, Diane Ackerman’s wonderful work A Natural History of the Senses explores many of these
connections: 
There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses. . . . Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste.
To become more than a half being, more than a drifting island, we use our senses, the primary place of communion with the physical world, including the communion with other human bodies. And each of the senses has their appropriate objects of connection. Apart from some striking synesthetic experiences, basil’s fragrance is not heard, a computer keyboard is not tasted, words on a page are not smelled. Proper connectors matter so that we can make sense of the objects in the world.
Because human experience and understanding is primarily a sensual bodily exercise, making a whole out of a half through the sense organs, religion itself is also deeply sensual. Ackerman doesn’t name it as such here, but the explorations and questings
she describes are the stuff from which religion is made. Religion is more about such quests and questions than any answers and arrivals. Too often religion is explained as a “set of beliefs,” which primarily exist in the thought processes of the brain. The answers, having been found, are guarded behind the fortress of the forehead. The quest is over, we’re all cleaned up, and life goes on. Religion, on this popular but ultimately misguided account, is about intellectual decisions regarding theism or atheism or polytheism, about correct thinking—orthodoxy (ortho, meaning “right” anddox, meaning “thinking”) with regard to prophets and scriptures, about theological treatises and the content of preachers’ sermons. Symbols, rituals, and bodies are believed to be merely secondary expressions of some primary intellectual order. But this is to put the proverbial cart before the horse.
There is no thinking without first sensing, no minds without their entanglement in bodies, no intellectual religion without felt religion as it is lived in streets and homes, temples and theaters. Long before intellectual, systematic thoughts arise in the cognitive workings of humans, long before abstract ideas emerge about deities who create and destroy, the senses actively receive and process information about the world and make meaning of it. Religion, being a prime human activity throughout history, is rooted in the body and in its sensual relations with the world. It always has been and always will be. We make sense out of the senses. This is the first true thing we can say about religion, because it is also the first true thing we can say about being human. We are sentient beings, and religion is sensuous. 
The prolific Romanian-born historian of religions Mircea Eliade thought long and hard about what makes certain activities, gatherings, objects, people, and beliefs “religious” and not just some other part of mundane existence. Reading across multiple languages, modern and ancient, Eliade articulated some of the most important ideas for the scholarly study of religion, and his influence still continues to be felt a quarter century after his death. While many aspects of religious experience (myths, rituals, and symbols most prominently) are found in most cultures and times, Eliade is also clear about the role of the senses in making and shaping religion: “Broadly speaking, there can be no religious experience without the intervention of the senses. . . . Throughout religious history, sensory activity has been used as a means of participating in the sacred and attaining to the divine.” Eliade goes on to examine anthropological and mythological accounts of shamans, magicians, and healers and how they undergo a profound reshaping of their sense perceptions in order to achieve their appointed vocation. The shaman does not see, smell, or hear like ordinary people but “through the strangely sharpened sense of the shaman, the sacred manifests itself.” Which is not unlike the role often ascribed to the artist and poet in secular societies, who offer new ways of seeing, new ways of being. The parallels between artists and shamans, poets and priests will be one of the underlying aspects of the following chapters.
While shamans are his prime examples, Eliade notes that all religious people experience the sacred primarily in and through the senses. This should be obvious to anyone who reflects for long on religion and how it happens: incense fills the nostrils of
a Krishna devotee in a temple in Vrindavan, India, letting him know he is in a sacred place; Muslim worshipers heed the muezzin’s amplified call to prayer from the minaret of a Moroccan mosque; a girl tastes bitter herbs at a Passover Seder in Brooklyn, reminding her of the harshness of her ancestors’ slavery in Egypt; a Greek Orthodox woman gazes reverently upon an ic...

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Book Description Beacon Press, United States, 2014. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English. Brand new Book. A leading scholar explores the importance of physical objects and sensory experience in the practice of religion. Humans are needy. We need things objects, keepsakes, stuff, tokens, knickknacks, bits and pieces, junk, and treasure. We carry special objects in our pockets and purses, and place them on shelves in our homes and offices. As commonplace as these objects are, they can also be extraordinary, as they allow us to connect with the world beyond our skin. A History of Religion in 51/2 Objects takes a fresh and much-needed approach to the study of that contentious yet vital area of human culture: religion. Arguing that religion must be understood in the first instance as deriving from rudimentary human experiences, from lived, embodied practices, S. Brent Plate asks us to put aside, for the moment, questions of belief and abstract ideas. Instead, beginning with the desirous, incomplete human body (symbolically evoked by "1/2"), he asks us to focus on five ordinary types of objects--stones, incense, drums, crosses, and bread--with which we connect in our pursuit of religious meaning and fulfillment. As Plate considers each of these objects, he explores how the world's religious traditions have put each of them to different uses throughout the millennia. We learn why incense is used by Hindus at a celebration of the goddess Durga in Banaras, by Muslims at a wedding ceremony in West Africa, and by Roman Catholics at a Mass in upstate New York. Crosses are key not only to Christianity but to many Native American traditions; in the symbolic mythology of Peru's Misminay community, cruciform imagery stands for the general outlay of the cosmos. And stones, in the form of cairns, grave markers, and monuments, are connected with places of memory across the world. A History of Religion in 51/2 Objects is a celebration of the materiality of religious life. Plate moves our understanding of religion away from the current obsessions with God, fundamentalism, and science--and toward the rich depths of this world, this body, these things. Religion, it turns out, has as much to do with our bodies as our beliefs. Maybe even more. Seller Inventory # NLF9780807033111

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Book Description Beacon Press, United States, 2014. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English. Brand new Book. A leading scholar explores the importance of physical objects and sensory experience in the practice of religion. Humans are needy. We need things objects, keepsakes, stuff, tokens, knickknacks, bits and pieces, junk, and treasure. We carry special objects in our pockets and purses, and place them on shelves in our homes and offices. As commonplace as these objects are, they can also be extraordinary, as they allow us to connect with the world beyond our skin. A History of Religion in 51/2 Objects takes a fresh and much-needed approach to the study of that contentious yet vital area of human culture: religion. Arguing that religion must be understood in the first instance as deriving from rudimentary human experiences, from lived, embodied practices, S. Brent Plate asks us to put aside, for the moment, questions of belief and abstract ideas. Instead, beginning with the desirous, incomplete human body (symbolically evoked by "1/2"), he asks us to focus on five ordinary types of objects--stones, incense, drums, crosses, and bread--with which we connect in our pursuit of religious meaning and fulfillment. As Plate considers each of these objects, he explores how the world's religious traditions have put each of them to different uses throughout the millennia. We learn why incense is used by Hindus at a celebration of the goddess Durga in Banaras, by Muslims at a wedding ceremony in West Africa, and by Roman Catholics at a Mass in upstate New York. Crosses are key not only to Christianity but to many Native American traditions; in the symbolic mythology of Peru's Misminay community, cruciform imagery stands for the general outlay of the cosmos. And stones, in the form of cairns, grave markers, and monuments, are connected with places of memory across the world. A History of Religion in 51/2 Objects is a celebration of the materiality of religious life. Plate moves our understanding of religion away from the current obsessions with God, fundamentalism, and science--and toward the rich depths of this world, this body, these things. Religion, it turns out, has as much to do with our bodies as our beliefs. Maybe even more. Seller Inventory # NLF9780807033111

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