Four Thesis Ideas for Scholars and Students of Religion

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This article presents four thesis ideas that I believe are promising for students (and even scholars) of Religion Studies. I will also be considering these theses in my own work. One could also expand this list further, especially with some really promising frameworks that I think students would produce great work should they use them. I have in mind Gavin Flood’s framework of religious reading, David Chidester’s theory of triple mediation, and Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion, among others. The four I have presented here are as follows:

The Power of Origin Stories and Myths

Religion evidences the crucial formative and ideological role that origin stories and myths have within religious communities. Religions often tell stories of origin. Japan’s early emperors were given authority by the supreme goddess Amaterasu, from whom they are descendants. Chinese history begins with the legendary emperors Yao and Shun, regarded as the perfect examples of wisdom and authority. Israel’s history traces itself back to the patriarch Abraham and God’s chosen people who were brought out of slavery in Egypt by Moses and into a Promised Land. The city of Rome, which expanded into the empire that would come to dominate much of the known world of its time, was founded by the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus. Kim Jong-il, the second of the Kim rulers of North Korea, fashioned a creation myth to tell a story of his birth on Mt. Paektu, a location of great cultural and religious significance in Korean history. A similar event was presented by a local South African politician who tells a story of how he met a prophet on a mountain who authenticated his mission to fight the imperialists invading Southern African soil.

Origin myths and stories raise important questions for scholars and students of religion. Firstly, stories are powerful. Stories have a pull on human consciousness and they evoke emotions in their hearers. They provide justification for belief and can motivate human action in the world. Stories also do not invent themselves but are composed and shaped by time and within communities. But for what purpose were they told? What can we know of the writers and storytellers who first presented a story to an audience? Why do some stories win over others? Whose power and rule do these stories legitimize? And if they legitimize the rule of some, then who is left out and why?

The God of Black-Centric Theology

In post-apartheid, democratic South Africa there remains what appears to be an unresolved pain within the consciousness of many black persons. This pain manifests in the lives of some black persons, notably in their religious sensibilities.

In recent years, the debate on land expropriation without compensation has evidenced some sentiments that white South Africans do not belong lawfully and legitimately in the country or on the land that is currently in their possession. For some blacks, this territory was stolen by the white colonialists who arrived in the seventeenth century and who then expanded their presence in the land over the following centuries. This colonial project culminated in the oppressive legislation of apartheid which was abolished only 26 years ago. Since this system’s abolishment, South Africans across the racial and cultural spectrum have had to learn to live in a new and free society, although apartheid’s ominous legacy remains a reality in the present moment. Many black and coloured South Africans still find geographical, social, and economic alienation and discrimination a daily lived experience. It is possible (and is an area of possible academic investigation) that the black person’s repressing of this pain and trauma over historical injustice accounts for some of the recent rhetoric that when ill fate befalls a white person or community it is the result of divine justice. Ill fate, from this perspective, originates from a God who judges the sins of the white person and/or their ancestors who are responsible for the pain of blacks.

There are practical examples of this. The Black First Land First (BLF), a radical, socialist, black consciousness organization, who pursued an unsuccessful bid in the national elections, prays to the “black God” that fire breaks out on some white-owned farms. The BLF’s leader, Andile Mngxitama, Tweeted that his position on Jesus is that “Whites killed Jesus! I considered him a black revolutionary. How else would baby Jesus blend with blacks in Egypt if he was not black like us?” Lindsay Maasdorp, the spokesperson for this same organization, Tweeted that God and the ancestors are responding to white sin after he learned of the death of three white school pupils when a walkway collapsed onto them. The BLF also hosted a forum at Stellenbosch University under the title: “Why did God make me black?” Social media, notably Facebook and Twitter, evidence similar perspectives from some black persons celebrating the ill fate of white people. For example, the tragic Knysna fires of 2017, arguably South Africa’s worst natural disaster, were seen from one social media user as “a sign from the man above for white people to return the land.. God works in mysterious ways, right?” A few others agreed with him. Economic Freedom Front (EFF) leader Julius Malema referred to his party as the second coming of Jesus in his opposition to the African National Congress (ANC): “Say goodbye ANC, Jesus has arrived five years ago – that Jesus is the EFF.” In 2016, President Jacob Zuma said that the ANC will rule until Jesus Christ returns.

Examples likes these and many others like them evidence what one might refer to as a variegated black-centric theology in which there is a blend of African traditional beliefs with Christianity. Clearly biblical imagery, doctrine, and figures feature within this theology as Jesus Christ, sin, prayer, a judgmental God, a God who is angered at injustice, and so on, are part of this theology. This theology is connected with black experience and black pain, for it posits a God who is concerned with historical and present discrimination of black persons.

What can scholars and students of religion say about this theology? What underlies it? How many South Africans ascribe to it? Is it only black persons who share these sentiments? What does it say about the current state of South African society?

Alternative Spiritualities and Religions in South Africa

There seems little data on the presence of alternative religions in South Africa, which is unfortunate as many of us will come across South Africans who would fall into the category scholars call “alternative religion.”

Alternative religions have been studied far more extensively in other countries. Scholars of religion, particularly in North America, have noted the emergence of fascinating examples of such religions and spiritualities over the last fifty years, especially given the West’s fascination with space travel and the possibility of contacting extraterrestrial life. One finds, for example, a proliferation of UFO religions, such as Raelianism, which are predicated on human contact with extraterrestrial beings who impart advice, teachings, and knowledge to human beings, often through the medium of a selected human prophet or messenger. There are some striking alternative spiritualities, Jediism for example, which appropriate the mythologies of fictional universes presented in entertainment media such as Star Wars to provide answers to some of life’s deepest existential questions.

Do these feature at all in South Africa? Further, what might the status of the presence of paganisms, such as the New Age, Wicca, and Neo-Druidism, be in South Africa in the twenty-first century?

South African Civil Religion

Sociologist Robert Bellah famously observed a social phenomenon he called “American civil religion.” What is this?

American civil religion is a religion and theology that is distinct from any one specific religion but that is predicated on several accepted beliefs: the existence of God, an afterlife to come, the reward of virtue, the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance. Bellah argued that civil religion is informed by biblical and Christian images, symbols, and archetypes, such as Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. Bellah found these images of civil religion expressed vividly in the inauguration speeches of presidents. Speaking of John F. Kennedy, he says that

“He did not refer to any religion in particular. He did not refer to Jesus Christ, or to Moses, or to the Christian church; certainly he did not refer to the Catholic church. In fact, his only reference was to the concept of God, a word that almost all Americans can accept but that means so many different things to so many different people that it is almost an empty sign.”

Although civil religion is influenced by biblical archetypes, it is still its own thing. It has its “own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols.” It even has its own “scripture” such as in the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Declaration of Independence, all of which invoke notions of transcendence and supreme importance. Important “sacred” events would be the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln. These phenomena and many others like them, when taken together, is its own religion and theology.

One wonders how Bellah’s theory might be applied to the South African context as this country has certain parallels to the American case study: South Africa, like America, is overwhelming Christian, local politicians and presidents have also voiced their religious convictions in the public space, and almost certainly will some texts invoke notions of transcendence and supreme importance for South Africans. The five fundamental beliefs of civil religion (i.e. belief in the existence of God, an afterlife to come, the reward of virtue, the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance) would likely apply to most South Africans today.

For students and scholars of religion, this raises interesting questions as to the form, structure, and presence of a possible South African civil religion and the images and archetypes it draws sustenance from. How might a South African civil religion differ from the American version? Are there similarities? Promising avenues of research could be pursued in the articulation of South African civil religion.

Let me know your thoughts!

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