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.
An American Missionary in Wartime China
Robert McMullen was working as a Presbyterian missionary in eastern China when Japan invaded the country in 1937. His letters describing the chaotic period that followed are presented in a new book by Charles Bright and Joseph Ho. Its title is War and Occupation in China: The Letters of an American Missionary from Hangzhou, 1937-1938. I ask Bright and Ho about their book in this episode.
Who Created ISIS?
Christopher Davidson discusses his book, Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East. We talk about American and British covert operations in the Middle East, both historically and in contemporary conflicts. We focus particularly on Western support for fundamentalist Islamic political movements.
Vasudha Narayanan discusses how Hindu temples are transformed by the minority status of Hinduism in America. Temple practices preserve many traditions while also helping Hindus assimilate to American culture. We also discuss the idea of a "dialogue of action" between Hindu temples and other religious communities, which centers on shared service to the needy.
Yoga Remix 1800
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.
This Wicked World
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.
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 Mainstream: https://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”)
Funny, erudite, provocative
Congratulations to Ron Mourad for making a podcast that tackles advanced topics in an accessible way. His flashes of humor and good-natured dorkiness keep even the most esoteric conversations grounded in real human enthusiasm. Highly recommended!
Computers Made of Meat?
I listened to this in the morning and through about it all day. What more could you want from a podcast? Really high level discussion of the philosophy of consiousnessness. An excellent listen!
Ultimate Concerns: Rejected Prophets
I've enjoyed learing how authors are constructing their own arguments, often based on prior works...as if archeologists constructing a history, or detectives assembling a case.
Much better than religious podcasts with folks who state little more than
"In my heart of hearts, I believe this...."
Great insight to the religious academics and why they are important.