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As part of a broader turn in humanities scholarship toward emotion since the late 20th century, scholars of religion increasingly have explored how emotion has been a key component in the lives of religious Americans. The relation of emotion to religious ideas has been particularly important in this nascent scholarship. In exploring how emotions and religious ideas are intertwined, scholars have focused on emotions such as love, melancholy, fear, and anger, among others. However, for reasons having to do with the historiography of American religion, as well as with categories that have governed much academic study of religion in America, the feeling of emptiness, which is so crucial to understanding Buddhism, and other Asian religions, has been underestimated for its role in American religions. In America, the feeling of emptiness plays a central role in religious practice, community formation, and identity construction, among Christians (the religious majority) but also in other religious communities. This essay describes some of the ways in which the feeling of emptiness has been expressed in American religions, and in American culture more generally, comments on how it has been joined to certain ideas at various times, and suggests how it has played a central role in shaping relations between religious groups in a society where religion is disestablished. The approach here is eclectic, blending historical narrative with cultural analysis, and the essay proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. Focusing on the feeling of emptiness allows a fresh perspective on religious practice in America, prompts new questions about belief and community, and enables new lines of interpretation for the development of religious ideas in America. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religious communities in America have distinct ways in which they interpret the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual phenomenon. Religious persons often conceptualize it as an emotional experience of great value. Among Christians, it is important as a sign of an emptying of the self of immorality, distractions, and worldly clutter in preparation for being filled with the grace of God. Accordingly, Christians and others in America have developed spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating the feeling of emptiness and advancing it to a point where deep longing becomes deep fulfillment. Religious practices involving the body include fasting, which is emptying the body of food, and tears, which empty the body of fluids. Bloodletting is also a notable practice, and, for those who do not cut or otherwise make bloody sacrifice (including war and lynching), bloodletting nevertheless is revered as a model discipline of emptying. There are aspects of sexual practices and the performance of work that also are exercises in self-emptying. All such disciplines are expected to prompt and enrich the feeling of emptiness. The severe fast, the deep feeling of emptiness, the desperate longing, the distancing from God becomes, paradoxically, a drawing closer to God. From the earliest settlement of North America, white Europeans and their descendants constructed the emptiness of the land to match the emptiness of their souls. Americans claimed to feel space. They expressed the spiritual feeling of emptiness in ideas about North America as a barren desert, crying to be filled by colonists and their descendants. The Great American Desert, a fiction created in the early 19th century, was one way in which Americans continued to imagine space as empty and themselves, as God’s exceptional nation, as the agents of fullness. American fascination with millennialism was a valorization of the fullness of eternity over the emptiness of history. Millennial movements and communities in America felt time as they did space, and when American Christians felt historical time they felt its emptiness. Americans have constructed elaborate and richly detailed depictions of the end as they look forward to a time when empty time will become eternity, fullness. Christian groups in America, populated by persons who cultivate emptiness, have defined themselves largely by saying what they are not. Both persons and communities, invested in the feeling of emptiness, mark personal and collective boundaries not by projecting into the social world a pristine essence of doctrine so much as by pushing off from other groups. Committed to emptiness, there is little to project, so the construction of identity takes place as an identification of Others. Such a process sometimes leads to the demonization of others and the production of identity through the inventorying of enemies.
Festivals are periods of time, cut out from daily life, during which a group performs activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world. Festival names in Greece and Rome often express this close connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder, or they refer to a ritual activity that is characteristic for a festival. The basic ritual elements that underlie a specific festival scenario are similar in both cultures (as well as in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world): processions, sacrifices with ensuing banquets, and athletic and musical contests are most common and exist already in the festival descriptions in Homer, such as the New Moon festival on Ithaca in the Odyssey. Common festivals founded and expressed group identity, first and foremost on the city level, but also for smaller and larger groups, from the family and clan group to the tribe or the community of all Hellenes. Greek and Roman festivals were so similar in their basic forms that, during the Imperial epoch, cities in the eastern part of the Empire adopted Roman festivals despite the fact that Greek cities followed a lunar calendar, whereas Rome early on had introduced a luni-solar system. The one festival type absent from the Roman world, at least during the Republican epoch, was the mystery ritual that, typically through a one-time initiation ritual, founded groups that transcended a single city, as well as the limits of gender and social status.
During the Imperial epoch, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions, continuing and exploring innovations that had occurred already in Hellenistic times. An early development was ruler cult, developed in the Greek cities during Hellenistic times and adopted for the cult of Roman emperors, who exploited its potential to tie together a heterogeneous empire through shared cultic activities. The most important driving force was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its helpful manifestation and thus allowed the cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities also founded festivals in the memory of family members, and during the Imperial period, such foundations multiplied and gained in grandeur. The Imperial epoch also saw the extension of single festivals to events that lasted many days, if not an entire month and helped to shape the Christian festival calendar with its long festival periods.
Carol S. Anderson
The Buddhist teaching known in English as the four noble truths is most often understood as the single most important teaching of the historical buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who taught in northern India during the 5th century
The history of religion in the United States cannot be understood without attending to histories of race, gender, and sexuality. Since the 1960s, social and political movements for civil rights have ignited interest in the politics of identity, especially those tied to movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. These movements have in turn informed scholarly practice, not least by prompting the formation of new academic fields, such as Women’s Studies and African American studies, and new forms of analysis, such as intersectionality, critical race theory, and feminist and queer theory. These movements have transformed how scholars of religion in colonial North America and the United States approach intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.
From the colonial period to the present, these discourses of difference have shaped religious practice and belief. Religion has likewise shaped how people understand race, gender, and sexuality. The way that most people in the United States think about identity, especially in terms of race, gender, or sexuality, has a longer history forged out of encounters among European Christians, Native Americans, and people of African descent in the colonial world. European Christians brought with them a number of assumptions about the connection between civilization and Christian ideals of gender and sexuality. Many saw their role in the Americas as one of Christianization, a process that included not only religious but also sexual and cultural conversion, as these went hand in hand. Assumptions about religion and sexuality proved central to how European colonists understood the people they encountered as “heathens” or “pagans.” Religion likewise informed how they interpreted the enslavement of Africans, which was often justified through theological readings of the Bible. Native Americans and African Americans also drew upon religion to understand and to resist the violence of European colonialism and enslavement. In the modern United States, languages of religion, race, gender, and sexuality continue to inform one another as they define the boundaries of normative “modernity,” including the role of religion in politics and the relationship between religious versus secular arguments about race, gender, and sexuality.
The structures of the late medieval Church into which Martin Luther was born and within which he received his education and theological training were complicated, particularly in the German lands. German bishops were territorial princes as well as spiritual leaders. Only a minority of German dioceses fell within temporal territories, but in most cases dioceses spanned several territories and some territories included areas in two or more dioceses. Abbots and abbesses were also rulers of independent territories, many of which answered only to the pope. Germany’s prince-bishops had considerable political power, exemplified in the college of electors who selected the Holy Roman Emperor. Of these seven, four were temporal political rulers: the King of Bohemia, Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count of the Palatine, and the Duke of (Electoral) Saxony; but the remaining three were Germany’s three Archbishops: of Cologne, of Mainz, and of Trier. Although such high-ranking church posts were not hereditary, the candidates for most German bishoprics were required to come from the high nobility, and many bishoprics effectively passed down families, or alternated between two families. The Archbishopric of Magdeburg, for instance, was generally held by a scion of the families of the Electors of Saxony and of Brandenburg. In addition, temporal rulers could hold and exercise spiritual power. Thus in Wittenberg, the Elector of Saxony claimed spiritual jurisdiction over the castle church and later over the town, and this was ceded by the Archbishop. In consequence, long before the Reformation, bishops and rulers were vying for authority and sometimes for territory. Not all ecclesiastical power was mediated through bishops: the Abbesses of Essen and Quedlinburg, like some abbots held their jurisdiction directly from the Pope. The German churches which emerged in the course of the Reformation were deeply influenced by their local contexts and by the patterns of relationship between the bishops and temporal political authorities, which in turn shaped emerging Reformation church orders.
Bo Kristian Holm
In analyzing the role of gift and giving in Martin Luther’s theology, one almost inevitably has to deal with the contrast between Marcel Mauss’s description of archaic gift economy, where gifts and exchange are interconnected and gift exchange a total social fact, and Derrida’s critique of Mauss for talking of anything else but the gift, since only a gift uncontaminated by exchange deserves the proper name “gift.” Accordingly, any reading of Luther relating Luther’s theology to the reciprocity of giving seems, from the outset, to grasp anything but the cornerstone of his theology: the justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. Nevertheless, scholars in the early 21st century have been discussing Luther as a theologian of the gift. Some defend a position according to which Luther’s theology can only be rightly understood by maintaining that the divine gift is free and pure. Others argue that Luther’s mature theology allows for an integration of some kind of exchange as a vital part of the very doctrine of justification.
In both cases, social anthropological gift studies can function as a lens for highlighting the heart of Luther’s theology, either negatively by presenting the absolute opposite of Luther’s understanding of divine giving in justification and creation or positively by revealing the very heart of the same. The young Luther vehemently criticized a piety regulated by economic principles and understood divine righteousness in contrast to human principles for righteousness. However, he soon began integrating reciprocal aspects from the traditional definition of righteousness into his doctrine of justification. This was possible due to an emphasis on the divine self-giving, revealed in Christ and slowly elaborated to cover Luther’s understanding of the whole Trinity. In this move, Luther seemed to have been influenced by Roman popular philosophy, which was widespread in the late renaissance, but biblical passages emphasizing reciprocal justice also played an important role. Advocators for understanding Luther’s theology from the perspective of inter-human gift exchange will argue that Luther’s theology of the gift is intimately related to his use of the figure of communicatio idiomatum, which allows the giver to share his attributes with the receiver.
David J. Bartholomew
In many quarters God and chance are still seen as mutually exclusive alternatives. It is common to hear that ascribing anything to “chance” rules out God’s action.
Recent scientific developments have tended to reinforce that distinction. Quantum theory introduced an irreducible uncertainty at the atomic level by requiring that certain microscopic physical events were unpredictable in principle. This was followed by the biologists’ claim that mutations, on which evolution depends, were effectively random and hence that evolutionary development was undirected. The problem this posed to Christian apologists was put most forcibly by Jacques Monod when he asserted “Pure chance,… at the root of the stupendous edifice of evolution alone is the source of every innovation.”
Several attempts have been made to include chance within a theistic account. One, advocated by the intelligent design movement, is to contend that some biological structures are too complex to have originated in the way that evolutionary theory supposes and therefore that they must be attributed to God. Another is to suppose that God acts in an undetectable way at the quantum level without destroying the random appearance of what goes on there.
A third approach is to contend that chance is real and hence is a means by which God works. A key step in this argument is the recognition that chance and order are not mutually exclusive. Reality operates at a number of different levels of aggregation so that what is attributable to chance at one level emerges as near certainty at a higher level.
Further arguments, based on what is known as the anthropic principle, are also used to judge whether or not chance is sufficient to account for existence. These are critically evaluated.
Luther’s understanding of God saturates his oeuvre, and in turn, this understanding is saturated by his doctrine of the justification of the sinner. God is the sovereign source and origin of all that is, and Luther develops his understanding of God in a manner that tries to safeguard this position in such a way that the personal relationship to God becomes the focus point for all he says. The doctrine of God as creator and as savior is modeled in a parallel way in Luther, as he sees God as the source of everything positively in both contexts. God is the sole giver of the gifts that human life requires. As creator, God is omnipresent, omniscient, and sovereign. Nothing can determine God. God is accordingly also the only instance in reality that has free will. Everything else is dependent on God, God’s foreknowledge, and God’s predestination. It is possible to see Luther’s position as an attempt to offer the human being a reliable and trustworthy notion of God, someone he or she can cling to in times of despair and desolation. The only God who deserves to be God, who is trustworthy with regard to being able to provide a safe and reliable basis for human life, is the God who justifies the sinner because of God’s own righteousness. In contrast, a human who puts her trust in herself and her own works or merits makes herself a god and will not be able to stand justified coram deo in the last judgment.
Luther develops the idea about God’s hiddenness in different ways, most notably in his ideas about the hidden God in De servo arbitrio. But also in his notion of the theology of the Cross in the Heidelberg Disputation, and in other places where he writes about the masks of God, behind which God hides in order to do God’s work, we can see related or similar ideas. Thus, Luther develops an ambiguous element in his understanding of God.
Brent A. Strawn
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
The God of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is arguably one of the most fascinating deities in all religious literature: complex and multifaceted; prone to great acts of mercy and kindness, although not above brutal acts of punishment and wrath; consumed with care for the world and its inhabitants; capable of changing direction or mind; inexplicably in love with God’s people and deeply concerned with their ways in the world.
This robust picture of the character of God in the Old Testament emerges in the aggregate: from viewing the library of books that is the Old Testament as a whole and trying to reckon with their literary complexity at a higher order of reflection. Inordinate attention to specific parts of the Old Testament—this verse, say, or that one, especially when divorced and isolated from all others—can produce a completely different (mis)perception such as that found in some ungenerous estimations that see the God of the Old Testament as petty or unjust, vindictive or bloodthirsty, misogynistic or genocidal. Such estimations are as old as the second-century arch-heretic Marcion but are also found in works of more recent vintage.
Some—although certainly not all—of these negative descriptors can be applied to the God of the Old Testament in certain passages, but a portrait consisting solely of them will end up being little more than a caricature that will not hold up to close scrutiny because it systematically ignores every piece of contrary data found in the Bible. To be sure, accounting for what might be called “polarities” in God’s presentation (God’s love versus God’s wrath) is a challenging intellectual task, literarily as much as theologically. Not all readers are up to the job (witness Marcion). But this task must be engaged if one wishes to write a complete character description (not to mention analysis) of God from the biblical texts. Indeed, the complexity of any more fulsome portrait of God in the Old Testament—marked, for example, by tensions, a vast array of metaphors, and alternative presentations—should be one of the primary results of such an endeavor. The God of the Old Testament is, after all, first and foremost, according to the description above, complex and multifaceted.
The complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament is the direct result of the diversity of the Bible itself—a term that derives from a Greek plural, ta biblia, “the books.” Not only are the books of the Bible several and different at a synchronic level, but also they come from different periods and are themselves (that is, within each particular book) the result of long diachronic processes. This two-layered diversity that marks the Bible adds yet further difficulty to the task of describing God therein, even as it suggests that more than one approach can and must be (and has been) utilized in the attempt.
In the final analysis, it seems safe to say that the complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament has functioned not only to make this deity endlessly fascinating in the history of civilization but also to underscore—at some literary level, if nothing else—that the God of whom the texts speak is truly a divine character: not able to be captured, controlled, or managed by the human characters in the stories and not even by the sacred literature itself. Only a robust approach to the biblical literature that pays attention to both synchronic and diachronic aspects can hope to do justice to such a fascinating deity.
The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive.
The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion.
The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country.
The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium