Friday, January 11, 2019


Similarly an unbeliever, I support Camille Paglia’s advocacy of comparative religion as a much-needed central focus of our educational system. 
In practice, though, some problems would surely arise. Once in class I attempted to clarify the Christian rite of baptism by likening it to customs of lustration, cleansing by water, in other parts of the world. One student. evidently an evangelical Christian, objected, saying that such parallels diminished the uniqueness of the Christian rite. Maybe she had a point.
Clearly, I would think, the appeal of Paglia’s enshrinement of comparative religion resides in the recognition of the special qualities distinguishing each faith. 
Still, efforts have been made to discern commonalities. A notable example of this universalizing effort is the Golden Rule, the principle of treating others as one's self would wish to be treated. It is a precept ostensibly adorning many religions and cultures. In some instances, the Golden Rule ranks as an ethic of reciprocity.
The maxim may figure as either a positive or negative injunction governing conduct:
• One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form).
• One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form).
• What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic or responsive form).
The germ of this idea had been detected in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, among others. Seemingly, the concept of the Rule appeared in the Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1754-1790 BCE. In a declaration of 1993, no less than 143 leaders encompassing many of the world's major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.”
Yet enthusiasm is not universal, for philosophers, notably Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, have challenged the rule on a variety of grounds. The most serious among these problems is its application. How does one know how others want to be treated? George Bernard Shaw advised, "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different.” For example, according to this standard masochists would treat others as they wished to be treated - no gain there. For their part, suicide bombers might well assume that others wished so to perish as well. 
There are many such problems. At all events, the Golden Rule only links religions (and other forms of belief) in terms of ethics. By contrast, and this the key point, religions diverge sharply in doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.
For an approach espousing distinctiveness, which I believe is correct, see Stephen Prothero’s superb book, God Is Not One, profiling eight major religions, and highlighting their distinctive characteristics. In this very important realm more really is more. And that is what in their very abundance religions have to give.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Review of Caradec, Dictionary of Gestures

I have long been interested in the semiotics of gestures, which may either accompany and augment oral utterances, or be employed autonomously. In general, the origins of gestures, such as the raised eyebrow and the insulting middle finger, are lost in the mists of time. Many, if not most of these ploys are limited to particular cultural areas, underlining the care one must use in traveling to foreign countries. 
Yet these generalizations are not always true. An example is the Vulcan Salute, introduced by the actor Leonard Nimoy in a Star Trek episode in 1967. It consists of an extended palm, with two fingers each joined so that a gap appears in the middle. The meaning is “long live and prosper.” Nimoy explains that he derived the gesture from an Orthodox Jewish ceremony he observed as a child. At all events the Vulcan Salute now enjoys world-wide recognition. This is an example of the migration of symbols. 
Another example of migration is the massive, India-originated repertory known as mudra. Adopted in Buddhism, it is widely understood today in much of Asia. 
Alas, you will not find either of these examples discussed in a book that purports to offer a comprehensive, International repertoire. While citations are culled from Italy, the Arab countries, and Japan, there is little to connect these isolated instances. The culture of reference is France - perhaps not surprising in an author whose main area of competence is French argot. The entries tend to be quite brief, affording little attention to earlier forerunners. The author neglects the rich visual material stemming from classical antiquity, comprising vase paintings, sculptures, and coins; material that has been magisterially covered in monographs by Gerhard Neumann (ancient Greece) and Richard Brilliant (Rome).
Whole bodies of material are ignored, such as the gestures of religious orders, the Freemasons, and the sign language of the deaf. There is also no consideration of gestures as pejoration, vehicles of prejudice if you will. While they are now disappearing, the limp wrist and “swishy” gait long existed as slurs against GLBT people.