Day 1: Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Yvonne Chireau, Associate Professor of Religion

"Material Religion: Aesthetics of Contemporary Black Spirituality"


Yvonne Chireau, Associate Professor of Religion
Yvonne used an historiographical approach to analyze how we have come to know about African and African-American religion by beginning with images of African religious figures from the 1400s. The pictorial representation of African religion from the same place and the same time can vary dramatically, from seemingly vulgar and visceral images that depict African Fetish Priests as stereotypically savage and uncivilized, covered in body and face paint, all the way to regal depictions of religious leaders in more stately, formalized attire and less animated postures. Through the former type of image, so common in religious depictions of African religion, the artist is perhaps attempting to make African religious experience anything but religious. The latter image of a stately leader in an upright and dignified posture is a representation of a Catholic from the first Catholic nation in Africa. These Catholic interpretations of African religious practices highlighted an inability to accurately understand even through mere representations or portrayals African religious experience.

The images from African religious traditions still appear throughout the Caribbean, Florida, and New York City and are associated with contemporary African-American religious practices. The continuity between African and African-American religious images and symbols requires that we explore more the influences on African-American religion. Only 4% of all African emigrants went to the U.S., so teasing apart cultural and religious influences on African-American religion can be sticky. Brazil, for example, was the site of about 38% of African emigration. Bob Fetter '53 pointed out that in Brazil, African religious traditions are very predominant and have large influences on the culture. In America, however, the direction of influence went the other way; Catholicism and other Christian traditions heavily influenced African-American religious traditions. The relatively low rate of Africans entering the U.S. created an interesting demographic setup that influenced African-American cultural evolution by making it more prone to other influences.

During the Great Revivals of the 1700s, large numbers of African-Americans converted to Christianity. Though they may have gone to the same churches as whites and worshipped under the guise of Christianity, it is clear that African-American Christianity was and is very different from white Christianity. By holding separate meetings and incorporating some practices from previous African and African-American traditions into their Christian practices, these African-Americans created a religion that became something very different from white Christianity. Yvonne pointed out that the ritual called the Shout, in which practicioners walk in a circle pattern -- harkening back to the circle imagery so ubiquitous in African cosmograms -- was similar to African rituals and has since become strongly associated with African-American Christianity.

So what did slaves get out of religious practices? Did religion offer any means of resistance?

Some people have argued that Christianity is particularly suited for slavery. Jesus' emphasis on validating subjugation in this world by positing domination in another world, it has been argued, created a Christian social order that allowed slavery. This empowerment of the poor is similar to the liberation theology that developed in Central and South America in the last century. However, few slave uprisings occurred among Christian slaves in America. Because of the ambiguity in Christian teachings, both non-action and overt actions of resistance could result from Christian religious teaching. That both uprisings against and silent enduring of slavery occurred among Christian slaves forces us to question whether religion had any influence at all on resistance. Though firm conclusions are impossible to come by, it seems that religious practice did have some influence on outward social rebellions, mostly precluding rebellions.

Here we must ask the broader question about the use of religion by practitioners for some other purposes. Did slaves use religious beliefs to resist their subjugators? How is religion being used today by our political leaders? The latter is a point Mark Wallace highlighted in his introduction to the seminar series when he pointed out that until 11 September 2001, religion had largely been on the decline, warranting Nietzsche's famous declaration that "God is dead" at the hand of humans. The idea of God, Nietzsche argued, had become culturally irrelevant. But what if religious belief can be used to invoke some moral action, used for some purpose?

If religion is used in such a way, how do practitioners, African-American slaves for example, shape and choose religious practices to use? Conjure, or Magic (often mistaken as Voodoo), is an Haitian religious practice that came to the U.S. through Louisiana. This aggressive form of religious practice was used for resistance motives because of its power to incite change and invoke revenge. Conjure, Yvonne has argued in Black Magic: African American Religion and the Conjuring Tradition (2003), was an insurrectionist practice that empowered people to fight back. African-Americans used Conjure, therefore, to incite conflict, to empower people disempowered by their government and society.

Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, Associate Professor of Spanish

"The Preferential Option for the Poor: Indigenous Inculturation of the Catholic Faith in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico"


Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, Associate Professor of Spanish
Chiapas, a region in southeastern Mexico, has largely been ignored because it is geographically out of the way and because it has so many indigenous people. In Mexico, 52 languages other than Spanish are spoken; in Chiapas, descendants of the Maya speak nine of them. The Chiapas region has become well known, however, because of the Zapatista rebellious movement that started there in 1994. In her talk, Aurora explored the interaction between religious belief and this sociopolitical uprising, asking specifically:

How has religion paved the way for the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas in 1994?

About Bartolome de las Casas

Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566) was a Dominican missionary and the first bishop of Chiapas. De las Casas was a proponent of indigenous freedom, an important stance because in doing so, de las Casas was rebelling against his own country and compatriots. He believed, however, that Indians were not made for the hard labor the Spaniards needed and wanted, so he supported African slavery. Gruesome images appeared in books by de las Casas, depicting Spain as a terrible ruler that killed people and stole their land. Spanish rule carried a double-edged sword, however. Spain's justification for being in the New World was evangelism, and they could only evangelize to those who were themselves fully ensouled people. However, in arguing against the enslavement of the Indigenous people, de las Casas had to argue that the Indigenous people were fully human and should therefore not be enslaved. By arguing that the Indigenous people were full humans, de las Casas supported their human rights but served them an injustice insofar as this therefore allowed the Spanish to continue taking land from the Indigenous people.

About Bishop Samuel Ruiz

Samuel Ruiz, Bishop of Chiapas from 1959-1999, began as a conservative bishop, but he realized immediately that he would be useless as a bishop unless he could learn some of the Indigenous languages of Chiapas. Early on the diocese was split into three dioceses, and Ruiz chose to stay in the highlands region. Ruiz had read Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the bases for liberation theology, and he was one of the youngest attendees to the Vatican council, which ended in 1965. The restructuring of the Catholic Church that came out of this meeting turned the Church into a structure regulated by bottom-up forces and not by top-down forces.

In the late 1960s, Ruiz and most other Central American bishops met and formed the idea of the Preferential Option for the Poor. In 1974, some bishops met and decided that the four problems that needed to be vitally solved were: (1) land, (2) education, (3) health, (4) culture. These grievances were sent to the Mexican government and published in multiple languages for all to read. Church leaders began going on fundraising tours to promote their social movements. By the 1980s and 1990s, Ruiz began working to promote interreligious dialogue and action by convening with Protestant leaders. In 1994, however, the Zapatista insurgency broke out. Ruiz met with the leaders multiple times, trying to preempt armed conflict, but the grievances suffered by the oppressed Indigenous people were too much for them to bear.

Indigenous children whose parents are members of the insurgency.
So how exactly did religion influence the development of the rebellious movements?

Ruiz was able to "inculturate" the indigenous religion into Catholicism, which allowed Catholicism to reach people. The Zapatista movement has been founded on affirming the legitimacy of the indigenous religion and reviving it in the here and now. Rather than looking to a charismatic leader, such as de las Casas -- or possibly a replacement of de las Casas in the form of Ruiz -- the people see themselves as the leaders. Through the inculturation, the intermingling of the indigenous religion with Christianity, mutual affirmation of the two practices has produced an empowered people.

Like Yvonne pointed out previously in her talk about African-American slave religion, Aurora highlighted the use of religion for outward social movements. Why are religion and violence so intimately linked? Perhaps the seeming subversiveness of religion stems from its simple requirement that all people have dignity?

Steven Hopkins, Associate Professor of Religion

"Religion Beyond Belief: Shared Sacred Shrines in Indo-Muslim South Asia"


Steven Hopkins, Associate Professor of Religion
Hindu temple singing is a type of religious singing that evokes an emotional response. In a temple ceremony, darsan -- seeing and being seen by the god -- is vital to religious experience. The darsan of the god-image blends with the devotional songs sung to the deity to create a multisensational religious experience that celebrates fully the material culture in which we live. Here, Steve argues, is religion beyond belief.

In the Hindu tradition, religious auspiciousness, shubha, can be transferred through space and time. There is some physicality to auspiciousness. The kolam, for example, is a pattern "painted" with rice powder each morning in front of a threshold. This liminal place is auspicious because it brings mixed energies and unites two spaces. The transience of the kolam, which gets tread upon, dusted away, and destroyed each day, highlights the transience of life. Daily creation of the kolam can be a contemplative practice. For those who see it, the kolam can be a mandala, a focus of contemplation.

Above, a kolam, painted with rice powder and adorned with camphor flames, in Trichy, South India, during Dipavali, the annual "festival of lights."

Despite the apparent physicality and iconic depictions of Hindu gods, aniconic images are important for creating a deep, intellectual response to the image of the gods. The nepsis (sobriety) that is the proper response for an Orthodox Christian to an Orthodox icon is similar to the response evoked by aniconic Hindu images, such as the Siva lingam. The Siva lingam is a non-sexual phallic icon held in a yonic cradle, representing the generative union of male and female.

A devotee prays with a puja thali, or bowl of offerings, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, South India.

The lingam highlights another interesting theme, the juxtaposition of opposing forces. Thresholds are auspicious at least in part because they bring together opposing forces, and Ganesh (the god of, among other things, thresholds) can both cause and lift obstacles. The lingam brings together seeming opposites, male and female. In some places, temples themselves are sites of clashing of opposing forces; a Muslim temple exists in the same building that was formerly a Hindu temple, and vice versa. In one calendar image, the goddess Durga destroys with her many-weaponed arms of a male enemy, all the while presenting a peaceful visage that stands in stark contrast to his wretching countenance.

A pregnant woman venerated as the goddess Lakshmi by her mother-in-law during the "bangle protection ceremony," Chennai, South India.

So with all these images floating around, where is the Divine? Simply put, the Divine is everywhere, in every person. Gazing -- taking darsan -- of a particularly powerful image or icon can send one into trance, and then that person becomes the icon. The transferability of auspiciousness and of religious power is apparent in many forms: gazing upon an image can make the viewer an icon, touching a pregnant woman can increase one's own fertility, simple interaction with the god whether through touch or through darsan can enliven one's experience. Religion isn't just belief; it's ritual and practice, and all the sensuality of living and dying.

About This Site

Alumni College gives the members of the Swarthmore community an opportunity for continuing education and for experiencing the remarkable quality of the current faculty. This year, Adam Roddy '06 offers his thoughts about the current theme, the future of religion in an age of conflict.

Adam Roddy '06

Adam Roddy '06 graduated as an Honors biology major and religion minor from Chattanooga, Tenn., and pursued both subjects throughout his college career. Write to him at

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