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Ultimate Concerns

Ultimate Concerns features interviews and discussions with religion experts about their research. Insights from these discussions are applied to contemporary cultural and political questions. Topics are related to many different religions (such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) and methods of study (such as literary studies, history, theology, and philosophy). Ron Mourad, professor of religious studies at Albion College, hosts the show.
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Dialogues on Religion and Culture

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Feb 4, 2017

Are contemporary Americans who profit from the business of yoga appropriating Indian culture? Are they stealing its intellectual property or misrepresenting its religious traditions? We can’t answer these questions without understanding the origins of modern yoga. In this episode Peter Valdina argues that nineteenth-century Indian translations of the Yoga Sutra resulted from complex intercultural encounters that can’t be easily dismissed as mere cultural appropriation.

We start with the history of religion scholarship, print publication, and yoga in colonial India. Then we discuss the difference between xenophilia and cultural appropriation.  We consider the case of Kalivar Vedantavagis, a little-known nineteenth-century translator of the Yoga Sutra. We conclude with a discussion about contemporary yoga informed by the analysis of Kalivar’s translation.

Dec 13, 2016

Can we achieve our highest moral aspirations through political effort? Can we even expect significant, long-term moral improvement in government? If not, what kinds of community are most worthy of our time and energy? Peter Kaufman and I discuss these questions, drawing on the countercultural, pessimistic political theories of Saint Augustine and Giorgio Agamben.

The first part of the interview is about Augustine’s political theology. Kaufman argues that Augustine turned away from his own early political ambitions and became increasingly convinced that politics was fueled by a corrupting lust for domination. We discuss Augustine’s City of God, his comparison of Christians to pilgrims on a journey that led through but beyond “this wicked world,” and his attempts to create communities devoted to Christian love that remained in the world but not of the world.

In Part Two we discuss contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. We focus on Agamben’s suspicion of conventional political ideologies and his hopes for a new kind of community that would support the pursuit of individual creativity and authenticity. Kaufman draws on Agamben’s work to theorize how Augustine’s political pessimism might apply to a post-Christian society. We close by reflecting on a specific case: the Scholars Latino Initiative, which Kaufman founded in 2003.

More information about the Scholars Latino Initiative is available here: http://ncsli.unc.edu/ and here: http://shenandoahvalleysli.org

Peter Kaufman’s recent work on Augustine includes Incorrectly Political: Augustine and Thomas More (Notre Dame): http://undpress.nd.edu/books/P01117 and Augustine’s Leaders, forthcoming from Cascade Books.

Nov 17, 2016

What is causing contemporary Islamophobia and how should we think about it ethically and politically? This episode features Carl Ernst, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We discuss his book, Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. It's available here: https://www.amazon.com/Islamophobia-America-Intolerance-C-Ernst/dp/1137321881.

First, we discuss the spread of anti-Islamic propaganda groups over past 15 years. Some of them are tracked and profiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/anti-muslim. Christopher Bail analyzes others in his book, Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstreamhttps://www.amazon.com/Terrified-Anti-Muslim-Fringe-Organizations-Mainstream/dp/069117363X

We also explore several other explanations of Islamophobia. We discuss popular, nativist tendencies to blame social and economic problems on those perceived as cultural outsiders. Then we consider the role of the American government at the national and local levels. Finally, we speculate about anti-Islamic attitudes among the religiously unaffiliated.

Second, we discuss critics of the category of Islamophobia who claim that it’s a “politically correct” attempt to shut down meaningful debate about Islam, and we draw distinctions between Islamophobia and ethical criticism. In this section, Ernst refers to the work of his UNC colleague Charles Kurzman: http://kurzman.unc.edu/muslim-american-terrorism/.

Our third topic is how to respond to Islamophobia. We discuss the problematic strategy of idealizing Islam – Islamophilia. Then we turn to education, face-to-face human interaction, art, and satire. Ernst recommends novels by Muslim authors like The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Syrian-American author Mohja Kahf: https://www.amazon.com/Girl-Tangerine-Scarf-Novel/dp/0786715197.

And, fourth, we talk about two specific cases. First, we look back on a controversy at UNC about teaching parts of the Qur’an to first-year students in 2002. Ernst reflects on his involvement in the controversy and lessons he learned. Second, we talk about the rhetoric and policy proposals of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.

Additional music by audionautix.com (“Long Live Death” and “I Like Peanuts”)

Nov 3, 2016

Are we living in a virtual reality? If we are, what should we do about it? Jonathan Gold joins me on this episode to discuss how the first-millennium Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu might answer these questions.

We discuss Vasubandhu’s views about the hidden causes of the reality we experience and the mentally constructed nature of the world. We compare his position to the idea that we live in a computer-generated simulation, like the characters in the movie “The Matrix.” Then, we explore theoretical and practical implications of his view. If this world is a virtual reality, you might think that our efforts to understand it or act morally within it don’t matter. Gold’s analysis of Vasubandhu suggests that this is the wrong conclusion.

Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Paving-Great-Way-Vasubandhus-Philosophy/dp/0231168276

Additional music: Title - 12 Days of Christmas (Instrumental) - Jingle Punk; Free Music Archive; Creative Commons.

Oct 20, 2016

When Catholic theologians speak about God, what sources and what kinds of reasoning should they use? What role does faith play in the practice of theology? In this episode, I discuss these questions with Paul Griffiths, the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School. We also discuss broader questions about the rules and rationality of specialized languages like theology.

Griffiths argues that theology is reasoned discussion about God. Anyone with the relevant background knowledge, resources, and skills can practice it. Theology isn’t only a spiritual exercise for Christians.

How should Catholics answer questions about God? They need to discover what their authoritative sources like Scripture and traditional teaching say about those questions, to interpret those sources, and then to speculate about the best answer in light of them.

Although Catholic theologians trust distinctive sources, they can still communicate with speakers of other specialized languages (those used in other religions or science, for example). This possibility has important political and cultural implications.

The Practice of Catholic Theology: A Modest Proposal by Paul Griffiths is available here.

Additional music from audionautix.com, hymnpod.com, and opengoldbergvariations.org

Oct 6, 2016

What happens in heaven and hell? Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths discusses his speculations about the afterlife. Our conversation is based on his book, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Baylor, 2014). We move through four main topics and a conclusion.

We begin in part one with the Catholic story about death, the soul, and resurrection. Then we discuss four possible final destinies for human beings.

Part two is about heaven. We talk about what time, freedom, self-awareness and seeing God might be like in heaven.  Griffiths defends the idea that time in heaven could be a cycle rather than a straight line from past, to present, to future. He also speculates about how we might experience ourselves and freedom differently than we do in ordinary life on earth.

After that, we briefly discuss the claim that hell might be annihilation or nothingness, rather than a place of eternal physical torment. That’s part three.

Our topic in part four is the final destiny of non-human creatures, including angels, animals, and inanimate objects. Do angels have bodies? Are their final destinies different from human ones? Will heaven include animals, plants, and houses?

We close with a discussion of contemporary Christian speculations about the end of the world and the biblical book of Revelation.

Sep 22, 2016

Is the brain a “computer made of meat”? This is a modern idea associated with artificial intelligence research, neuroscience, linguistics, and the philosophy of mind. But in some ways the idea isn't new at all. The seventh-century Buddhist philosopher Dharmakirti developed a very sophisticated model of the mind that explained how beliefs and concepts could be caused by more basic sensations - making them somewhat like the outputs of a computational process. 

The episode features Dan Arnold, Associate Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. We discuss his book, Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind.

We focus on Arnold's comparison of contemporary philosopher Jerry Fodor and Dharmakirti, some objections that apply to both of their positions, and the limits of evolutionary explanations of religious beliefs.

Sep 6, 2016

People in popular media tend to discuss the Bible in one of two ways. Either they focus on new research that challenges traditional Jewish and Christian historical claims or they offer selective quotes to prove a theological or political point. Literary interpretations that pay attention to the whole of a biblical book and the agenda of its author, in contrast, are less common. I argue, drawing on my interview with Jocelyn McWhirter, that this kind of interpretation is hard to do, but it is important and can be persuasive in a way that the two methods just mentioned (historical criticism and proof-texting) usually cannot.

I interview McWhirter about her book, Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts. She argues that Luke presents Jesus and his disciples as rejected prophets to address several developments that were surprising to first-century Christians. First, the Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies of the Jews, but Jesus didn’t do that. Second, most mainstream Jews were rejecting Jesus rather than rallying behind him. Third, most converts to the Jesus movement were Gentiles – that is – non-Jews. Why were all these Gentiles following the long-awaited Jewish Messiah?  And fourth, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, which was supposed to be the Messiah’s power base.

We also discuss the field of biblical studies, differences between literary and historical approaches to the Bible, and what makes an understanding of Jesus more or less persuasive.

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