When Heaven Freezes Over

Hotels and bars made out of ice have been common for a while — now a church is the latest project to get the cold treatment. In the Bavarian Forest, one congregation wants to build a place of worship out of 1,400 cubic meters of snow, just as their ancestors did 100 years ago.

Everything is in place in Mitterfirmiansreut for the mountain village’s biggest construction project in a century — everything, that is, but the snow. Because residents in the Bavarian village near the Czech border are planning to erect a full-size church made entirely out of snow, in homage to their ancestors who did the same thing 100 years ago.

Once completed, the church will be able to accommodate up to 190 people. The plans call for a sweeping design, with a main room 26 meters long and 6.5 meters high and a tower soaring 17 meters high. Inside there will be sculptures, an altar and pews — all made out of ice. In total, 1,400 cubic meters of snow will be needed.

Although the snow church doesn’t even exist yet, requests for weddings and baptisms have already been flooding in to Bernd Stiefvater. The 45-year-old restaurateur has worked with friends on plans for the church for two years. Some 200 people have since become involved in a booster club.

An Unusual Protest

Stiefvater wants the snow church to serve as a reminder of an extraordinary event in local history. At the beginning of the 20th century, a trip to Sunday mass for people living in the remote mountain village of Mitterfirmiansreut meant an arduous 90-minute walk to the neighboring town of Mauth. After their pleas for a church of their own fell on deaf ears, the villagers decided to mount an unusual protest during the Christmas season of 1911: They built their own church out of snow.

“For me this is a really touching story of how people of faith can achieve anything,” says Stiefvater. He wants the new version of the snow church to honor this commitment 100 years later. The planning and construction of the church will cost about €100,000 ($135,000), according to the booster club. The money for the church is coming from sponsors, and the organizers are hoping to win financial support from an EU program.

The plans for the snow church have been drawn up by architect Alfons Doeringer. “Nothing in this project is routine. There were no standards and no norms,” he says. Designs for the church’s vaulting shape were created in collaboration with structural engineers. Doeringer is very aware of the potential risks: “That is an extremely heavy mass of snow, and people will be underneath it.”

The architect says 20 centimeters of snow is needed before construction can begin, with the grand opening planned for Dec. 17. There will be concerts and prayers held in the church, as well as an ice sculpture exhibition from Jan. 22 to 28 and a market with traditional handicrafts on Feb. 12.

Interest in the project has been brisk, and Stiefvater says numerous tour groups have registered to visit the church. And if there is not enough snow in Mitterfirmiansreut this year?

“That is very unlikely,” says Stiefvater. “But then we would just build the church next winter.”

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Full article and photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,797988,00.html

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Vatican Rushes to Clarify Pope’s Comments in Book

The Vatican on Sunday rushed to clarify a recent interview by Pope Benedict XVI, in which the pontiff states for the first time that there may be some cases in which the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on condoms isn’t absolute.

The pope made the comments in a book-length interview over the summer with the German writer Peter Seewald that will be officially released this week. Mr. Seewald asked the pope about criticism of the Vatican’s perceived opposition to condom use to fight the spread of HIV-AIDS in Africa.

The pope’s response, while carefully couched, has ricocheted around the globe, reigniting one of the most tensely debated issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. To some, the interview signaled a radical shift in the Church’s approach to combating the spread of AIDS as well as an unprecedented departure from the Church’s long-time practice of condemning any form of condom use.

“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations’ AIDS relief agency based in Geneva. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”

The Vatican, however, played down the potential impact the remarks might have on church teaching. “The pope’s thinking certainly can’t be defined as a revolutionary shift,” said Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a lengthy statement issued on Sunday.

In the interview, the pope said condom use had become a “fixation” for some people, according to the English-language edition of the book viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The pope then added: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

In the interview, the pope noted that even in extreme scenarios such as male prostitution, condom use “is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” The pope added that the church remained opposed to any widespread use of condoms that “implies a banalization of sexuality.”

“The pope wasn’t taking a position on condoms in general,” Father Lombardi said. Instead, the pope “wanted to forcefully affirm that the problem of AIDS can’t be resolved merely through the distribution of condoms,” Father Lombardi said.

Father Lombardi acknowledged, however, that the pope had to “consider exceptional situations where the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to someone’s life.” Having “disordered” sex isn’t morally justified, Father Lombardi added, but the use of condoms in such situations can “reduce the danger of infection.”

For decades, the Vatican’s ban on condom’s appeared iron-clad, because church teaching rejects contraception. The rise of HIV in developing countries, however, has prompted many humanitarian aid agencies to press the Vatican to modify its opposition to condoms. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest providers of humanitarian aid in Africa, and some Catholic aid workers there have begun to simply ignore the Vatican’s rule.

Over the years, a handful of cardinals and one Vatican official in charge of health care have suggested that condom use could be condoned in extreme situations, such as when a woman asks her HIV-infected husband to wear a condom, because she cannot stop his advances.

“Benedict XVI has courageously given us an important contribution, clarifying and deepening a long-debated question. It’s an original contribution,” Father Lombardi said.

The pope himself stirred controversy in 2009 when he told reporters aboard a papal flight to Africa that condom use could “increase the problem” of HIV’s spread—a comment that many interpreted to mean that the pope considered condoms ineffective.

In the interview with Mr. Seewald, the pope says he felt “provoked” by the line of questioning aboard the papal flight, suggesting that his response was misinterpreted. He then reflects at length on the use of condoms to fight HIV, which he says is not the “moral solution, but … in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Mr. Seewald’s book, culled from a week of interviews at the papal summer residence in July, is a rare example of pope expressing candid views on some of the most challenging points in his pontificate. He likens the sex-abuse crisis to “the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything.”

When asked whether he ever thought of resigning in the wake of the crisis, the pontiff responds that “now is certainly not the time to resign,” saying he must “stand fast and endure the difficult situation.”

A moment later, however, the pontiff makes an unusual assertion: that popes aren’t bound under church law to serve until they die, as many canon lawyers have said. “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it,” the pope says.

Excerpts of the interview first appeared in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which sent advanced copies of its Sunday edition to reporters on Saturday.

Gianmaria Vian, L’Osservatore’s editor-in-chief, described the book as a “bomb,” adding that the pope had spoken with “great frankness” on a range of issues.

Stacy Meichtry, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704444304575628611227070080.html

Religious Persuasion

At first glance, the authors of “American Grace” would seem to suffer from very bad timing. Between the completion of their manuscript and its publication, the dispute over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan erupted, followed by the ­Koran-burning controversy, and somewhere along the way a New York cabdriver was stabbed, apparently for being a Muslim. All this gives a quaint air to their declaration, in the book’s first chapter, that “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” And it seems to render moot one of their main goals: to illuminate the source of this inter­faith ­tolerance.

Actually, though, the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension.

True, America’s tradition of peaceful religious coexistence is largely about harmony among Christian denominations, and so doesn’t speak directly to the question of Islam’s place in America. But it’s also true that there was a time when many American Protestants viewed Roman Catholics no more charitably than a certain Pentecostal preacher in Florida views Muslims. In the 19th century, a Massachusetts convent was destroyed by anti-Catholic rioters, and civil unrest in Philadelphia — set off by rumors that Catholics wanted to rid the public schools of Bibles — led to some two dozen deaths and the destruction of two churches.

The question of how this changed, how Protestants came to stress their commonality with Catholics, is, generically speaking, the question of the day: How do mutual fear, hostility and suspicion give way to amity, or at least tolerance? How do supposedly deep doctrinal chasms recede from view? The answers offered by Putnam and Campbell deserve the attention of everyone concerned about America’s future cohesion.

This is a big, multifaceted work, with scores of graphs, as well as narrative ­vignettes that put flesh on the book’s analytical skeleton. (A tour through the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch, for example, helps explain the power of state-of-the-art evangelism.) The topics covered range from the dynamics of conversion to the role in religion of gender, ethnicity and class to the question of how civically engaged believers are. (Putnam gained fame for his lament, in “Bowling Alone,” about the seeming decline of civic engagement.) But the dominant theme is, as the subtitle puts it, “How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

Putnam and Campbell pay particular attention to the past half-century, which has shown how fluid fault lines can be. In 1960, the marriage of a Protestant to a Catholic was often unwelcome on both sides of the aisle, and the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced intense Protestant skepticism. Today churchgoing Catholics and Protestants often feel as if they’re on the same team.

They tend toward conservatism on social issues, opposing a liberal coalition that includes lapsed Catholics, mainline Protestants of often modest devoutness and growing legions of the avowedly nonreligious. Putnam and Campbell write, “By the 2000s, how religious a person is had become more important as a political dividing line than which denomination he or she belonged to.”

This leads to a puzzle. If the devoutly religious increasingly constitute one big family, why aren’t Muslims a part of it? Why was the would-be 9/11 Koran burner not an atheist but a minister from an evangelical church (if, in fairness to mainstream evangelicals, an eccentric evangelical church)? Why are Newt Gingrich and other politicians who aim to harness fear of Muslims directing their message toward evangelicals with, apparently, some success?

The answer may lie in the final chapter. Here the authors explain the observation they started the book with: America’s religious diversity hasn’t generally involved much intolerance. Indeed, believers seem willing to bend basic doctrines in the name of interfaith amity. Most Christians, even most evangelical Christians, ­believe that non-Christians can go to heaven, notwithstanding the New Testament’s repeated assertions that Christ is the only path to the Kingdom of God.

The authors’ explanation for this bigheartedness is common-sensical: “Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don’t share their faith, and at least one ­extended-family member who fits that description. And who wants to tell friends or relatives that they’re going to hell — or even believe that a friend or relative is going to hell? More broadly: getting to know an adherent of an otherwise alien faith tends to humanize the aliens.

Obviously, there’s a chicken-and-egg ­issue here. Are we tolerant because of our diverse social networks, or do we have diverse social networks because we’re tolerant? Putnam and Campbell, aware of the problem, wield an analytical tool that, though not dispositive, is unusually subtle. They conducted surveys with the same large pool of people in consecutive years and tracked changes in both social milieus and attitudes. They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals — by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer,” to be exact — and gaining a non­religious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious.

In this view, a recipe for being viewed coolly is to be a religious group that is both small and geographically concentrated; that way, most Americans don’t have a chance to meet anyone from your group. This is the authors’ posited explanation for why Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims get particularly low feeling-­thermometer readings.

Of course, Muslims suffer from an additional problem. If most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims, they’ve seen some on TV — Osama bin Laden, for starters. That may help explain why, though 54 percent of evangelicals say non-Christians can go to heaven, only 35 percent say Muslims can.

Even so, the authors’ 2007 survey found that evangelicals, like mainline Protestants, viewed Muslims no more coolly than they viewed Buddhists. But black Protestants viewed Muslims more positively than they did Buddhists, perhaps, the authors point out, because many black Christians are acquainted with black Muslims.

The claim here isn’t that mere social contact is Miracle Glue. Drawing on longstanding social theory, the authors suggest that certain ingredients — sharing a goal, for example — make acquaintance more likely to bring affinity. Still, given that many Muslims are aligned with evangelicals and churchgoing Catholics on various social issues, that particular ingredient would seem to be in place; maybe the contact itself is what’s mainly lacking.

There are two basic schools of thought on religious strife. Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren’t the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination (like the perceived threat of Western cultural or political hegemony, or of worldwide Shariah).

Putnam and Campbell are closer to the second camp. Repeatedly, they show how fluid religious doctrine and practice are, how responsive to social and political context. In that sense, their subtitle is subtly misleading; this intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us. This view, though common in academia, is hardly gospel among the public at large. But it may turn out to be gospel in the literal sense of the term: good news.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “The Evolution of God” and the editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/books/review/Wright-t.html

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Welfare Kings

There is no precedent in Jewish history for a whole community devoting itself to Torah scholarship.

In Israel, where modernity coexists uneasily with tradition, hand-wringing about the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority is a national pastime. Cloistered in poor towns and neighborhoods, exempted from conscription into the military and surviving largely off government handouts, the black-hatted ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, have long vexed more secular Israelis. Now, in the wake of an Israeli Supreme Court decision, this perennial tension has escalated to new heights.

The immediate issue is a decades-old state policy of providing stipends to students who attend religious schools, called yeshivas. In June, the court declared those stipends illegal, citing discrimination against secular university students who don’t qualify for such assistance. Last month, however, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers introduced a bill to reinstate the stipend. “The state sees a great importance in encouraging Torah study,” says their proposal.

Opposition to the bill is fierce, as many Israelis believe that decades of welfare and draft exemptions have created a cycle of poverty and dependence among Haredim. “If they want to live in a ghetto, fine, but why should the state pay for it?” Yossi Sarid, a former education minister, told the Associated Press. The controversy has triggered street protests across Israel, and threatens to topple the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This year the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policy Studies released a report showing that unemployment among ultra-Orthodox men age 35-54 is 65% and has tripled over the past three decades. Voluntary unemployment has become the dominant lifestyle choice for Haredi men. And even if there was a desire to work, Haredi schools leave students unprepared to function in a modern economy. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox population is expected to double by 2022, to over one million.

While explaining the data to me recently, Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center asked, “When did Judaism become about not working?” The answer is a case study in unintended consequences.

Ultra-Orthodox men attend a Purim celebration in Jerusalem.

The story begins shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion excused 400 yeshiva students from serving in the army—thereby establishing a framework for relations between the state and the ultra-Orthodox. Although secular himself, Ben-Gurion was sensitive to the desire to revive Torah learning after the Holocaust destroyed the centers of Jewish scholarship in Eastern Europe. He also thought that, over the long term, most Israelis would become secular socialists like him.

That has proven mistaken, and today tens of thousands of yeshiva students qualify for draft exemptions. The law bars them from working, so an increasing number depend on public support. It’s socially and financially unsustainable, says Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Naeh. “We are trapped in a disaster.”

At the root of the disaster is the revolutionary idea that the study of Torah is a vocation. There is no precedent in pre-1948 Jewish history for an entire community devoting itself to Torah scholarship—and certainly no precedent for getting paid to do so.

“Torah study has always been for spiritual, not material, sustenance,” Zvi Zohar, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, tells me. Moreover, the notion that a man’s primary obligation is studying, and not providing for his family, is “diametrically opposed” to Jewish tradition, Mr. Zohar says. The Shulchan Aruch, for instance, an influential 16th-century legal code written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, states: “A respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.”

State-supported Torah study has also harmed the quality of Jewish thought, argues Mr. Naeh. Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has cut “learning off from life,” he wrote in a recent essay. As a result, the current generation of Torah scholars “is far from being one of the greatest . . . despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners.”

Solutions to the current impasse are in short supply, not least because the religious parties oppose any meaningful reforms and wield inordinate power in Israel’s parliamentary system. Asked what’s at stake if nothing changes, Mr. Ben-David doesn’t mince words: “We can survive against our neighbors, but this issue is existential. The ultra-Orthodox will soon be a huge minority, possibly a majority, and then what? Where will we find doctors, engineers, physicists and soldiers?” he says, his voice rising. “Who will defend this country?”

Mr. Goldstein is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703848204575608473772263624.html

The Rise of the Tao

Abbess Yin Xinhui in the Hall of the Jade Emperor on Mount Mao, built at a cost of $1.5 million.

YIN XINHUI reached the peak of Mount Yi and surveyed the chaos. The 47-year-old Taoist abbess was on a sacred mission: to consecrate a newly rebuilt temple to one of her religion’s most important deities, the Jade Emperor. But there were as yet no stairs, just a muddy path up to the pavilion, which sat on a rock outcropping 3,400 feet above a valley. A team of workers was busy laying stone steps, while others planted sod, trees and flowers. Inside the temple, a breeze blew through windows that were still without glass, while red paint flecked the stone floor.

The revival of ancient religious practices in China is partly about belief — and partly about money.

“Tomorrow,” she said slowly, calculating the logistics. “They don’t have much ready. . . .” Fortunately, a dozen of her nuns had followed her up the path. Dressed in white tunics and black trousers, their hair in topknots, the nuns enthusiastically began unpacking everything they would need for the next day’s ceremony: 15 sacred scriptures, three golden crowns, three bells, two cordless microphones, two lutes, a zither, a drum, a cymbal and a sword. Soon the nuns were plucking and strumming with the confidence of veteran performers. Others set up the altar and hung their temple’s banner outside, announcing that for the next few days, Abbess Yin’s exacting religious standards would hold sway on this mountain.

The temple she was to consecrate was born of more worldly concerns. Mount Yi is in a poor part of China, and Communist Party officials had hit upon tourism as a way to move forward. They fenced in the main mountain, built a road to the summit and declared it a scenic park. But few tourists were willing to pay for a chance to hike up a rocky mountain. Enter religion. China is in the midst of a religious revival, and people will pay to visit holy sites. So the local government set out to rebuild the temple, which was wrecked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, modestly rebuilt then torn down when the park was first constructed. Officials commissioned a 30-foot statue of the Jade Emperor, had it hauled to the peak and encased in the brilliant red pavilion. They then built a bell and a drum tower, as well as another set of halls devoted to minor deities.

All that was missing was a soul. For that, the temple had to be properly consecrated. The officials got in touch with Abbess Yin, widely regarded as a leading expert in Taoist ritual, and soon she was driving the 350 miles from her nunnery to Mount Yi.

As her rehearsals drew to a close, the abbess went over the next day’s schedule with a local official. All was in good shape, he said, except for one detail. Government officials were due to give speeches at 10:30 a.m. She would have to be finished by then, he said.

“No,” she replied. “Then it won’t be authentic. It takes four hours.” Could she start earlier and wrap up by then? No, the sun won’t be in the right position, she replied. The official peered up from the schedule and took a good look at her — who was this?

Abbess Yin smiled good-naturedly. At a little over five feet tall, she was solidly built, with a full, smooth face tanned from spending much of her life outdoors in the mountains. Her dress was always the same plain blue robe, and she did not wear jewelry or display other signs of wealth. She shunned electronics; her temple did not have a phone or Internet access. But over the past 20 years she had accomplished a remarkable feat, rebuilding her own nunnery on one of Taoism’s most important mountains. Unlike the temple here on Mount Yi — and hundreds of others across China — she had rejected tourism as a way to pay for the reconstruction of her nunnery, relying instead on donors who were drawn to her aura of earnest religiosity. She knew the real value of an authentic consecration ceremony and wasn’t about to back down.

The official tried again, emphasizing the government’s own rituals: “But they have planned to be here at 10:30. The speeches last 45 minutes, and then they have lunch. It is a banquet. It cannot be changed.”

She smiled again and nodded her head: no. An hour later the official returned with a proposal: the four-hour ceremony was long and tiring; what if the abbess took a break at 10:30 and let the officials give their speeches? They would cut ribbons for the photographers and leave for lunch, but the real ceremony wouldn’t end until Abbess Yin said so. She thought for a moment and then nodded: yes.

RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state’s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central government’s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.

Beneath this veneer of order lies a more freewheeling and sometimes chaotic reality. In recent months, the country has been scandalized by a Taoist priest who performed staged miracles — even though he was a top leader in the government-run China Taoist Association. His loose interpretation of the religion was hardly a secret: on his Web site he used to boast that he could stay underwater for two hours without breathing. Meanwhile, the government has made a conscious effort to open up. When technocratic Communists took control of China in the late 1970s, they allowed temples, churches and mosques to reopen after decades of forced closures, but Communist suspicion about religion persisted. That has slowly been replaced by a more laissez-faire attitude as authorities realize that most religious activity does not threaten Communist Party rule and may in fact be something of a buttress. In 2007, President Hu Jintao endorsed religious charities and their usefulness in solving social problems. The central government has also recently sponsored international conferences on Buddhism and Taoism. And local governments have welcomed temples — like the one on Mount Yi — as ways to raise money from tourism.

This does not mean that crackdowns do not take place. In 1999, the quasi-religious sect Falun Gong was banned after it staged a 10,000-person sit-down strike in front of the compound housing the government’s leadership in Beijing. That set off a year of protests that ended in scores of Falun Gong practitioners dying in police custody and the introduction of an overseas protest movement that continues today. In addition, where religion and ethnicity mix, like Tibet and Xinjiang, control is tight. Unsupervised churches continue to be closed. And for all the building and rebuilding, there are still far fewer places of worship than when the Communists took power in 1949 and the country had less than half the population, according to Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University professor who studies Chinese religion. “The ratio is still radically imbalanced,” Yang says. “But there’s now a large social space that makes it possible to believe in religion. There’s less problem believing.”

Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice, from Laotzu’s high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors, officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative. Although scholars once distinguished between “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism,” today most see the two strains as closely related. Taoist worshipers will often go to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple, or hire a clergy member to come to their home, to find help for a specific problem: illness and death or even school exams and business meetings. Usually the supplicant will pray to a deity, and the priest or nun will stage ceremonies to summon the god’s assistance. Many Taoists also engage in physical cultivation aimed at wellness and contemplation, like qigong breathing exercises or tai chi shadowboxing.

As China’s only indigenous religion, Taoism’s influence is found in everything from calligraphy and politics to medicine and poetry. In the sixth century, for example, Abbess Yin’s temple was home to Tao Hongjing, one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. For much of the past two millenniums, Taoism’s opposite has been Confucianism, the ideology of China’s ruling elite and the closest China has to a second homegrown religion. Where Confucianism emphasizes moderation, harmony and social structure, Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material success. Some rulers have tried to govern according to Taoism’s principle of wuwei, or nonaction, but by and large it is not strongly political and today exhibits none of the nationalism found among, say, India’s Hindu fundamentalists.

During China’s decline in the 19th and 20th centuries, Taoism also weakened. Bombarded by foreign ideas, Chinese began to look askance at Taoism’s unstructured beliefs. Unlike other major world religions, it lacks a Ten Commandments, Nicene Creed or Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith. There is no narrative comparable to Buddhism’s story of a prince who discovered that desire is suffering and sets out an eightfold path to enlightenment. And while religions like Christianity acquired cachet for their association with lands that became rich, Taoism was pegged as a relic of China’s backward past.

But like other elements of traditional Chinese culture, Taoism has been making a comeback, especially in the countryside, where its roots are deepest and Western influence is weaker. The number of temples has risen significantly: there are 5,000 today, up from 1,500 in 1997, according to government officials. Beijing, which had just one functioning Taoist temple in 2000, now has 10. The revival is not entirely an expression of piety; as on Mount Yi, the government is much more likely to tolerate temples that also fulfill a commercial role. For Taoists like Abbess Yin, the temptation is to turn their temples into adjuncts of the local tourism bureau. And private donors who have helped make the revival possible may also face a difficult choice: support religion or support the state.

Zhengzhou is one of China’s grittiest cities. An urban sprawl of 4.5 million, it owes its existence to the intersection of two railway lines and is now one of the country’s most important transport hubs. The south side is given over to furniture warehouses and markets for home furnishings and construction materials. One of the biggest markets is the five-story Phoenix City, with more than four million square feet of showrooms featuring real and knockoff Italian marble countertops, German faucets and American lawn furniture. Living in splendor on the roof of this mall like a hermit atop a mountain is one of China’s most dynamic and reclusive Taoist patrons, Zhu Tieyu.

Zhu is a short, wiry man of 50 who says he once threw a man off a bridge for the equivalent of five cents. “He owed me the money,” he recalled during a nighttime walk on the roof of Phoenix City. “And I did anything for money: bought anything, sold anything, dared to do anything.” But as he got older, he began to think more about growing up in the countryside and the rules that people lived by there. His mother, he said, deeply influenced him. She was uneducated but tried to follow Taoist precepts. “Taoist culture is noncompetitive and nonhurting of other people,” he says. “It teaches following the rules of nature.”

Once he started to pattern his life on Taoism, he says, he began to rise quickly in the business world. He says that by following his instincts and not forcing things — by knowing how to be patient and bide his time — he was able to excel. Besides Phoenix City, he now owns large tracts of land where he is developing office towers and apartment blocks. Although he is reticent to discuss his wealth or business operations, local news media say his company is worth more than $100 million and have crowned him “the king of building materials.” Articles almost invariably emphasize another aspect of Zhu: his eccentric behavior.

That comes from how he chooses to spend his wealth. Instead of buying imported German luxury cars or rare French wines, he has spent a large chunk of his fortune on Taoism. The roof of Phoenix City is now a 200,000-square-foot Taoist retreat, a complex of pine wood cabins, potted fruit trees and vine-covered trellises. It boasts a library, guesthouses and offices for a dozen full-time scholars, researchers and staff. His Henan Xinshan Taoist Culture Propagation Company has organized forums to discuss Taoism and backed efforts at rebuilding the religion’s philosophical side. He says he has spent $30 million on Taoist causes, a number that is hard to verify but plausible given the scope of his projects, including an office in Beijing and sponsorship of international conferences. His goal, he says, is to bring the philosophical grounding of his rural childhood into modern-day China.

Last year, Zhu invited several dozen European and North American scholars of Chinese religion on an all-expenses-paid trip to participate in a conference in Beijing. The group stayed in the luxurious China World Hotel and were bused to Henan province to visit Taoist sites. Demonstrating his political and financial muscle, Zhu arranged for the conference’s opening session to be held in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the Stalinesque conference center on Tiananmen Square. It is usually reserved for state events, but with the right connections and for the right price, it can be rented for private galas. In a taped address to participants, Zhu boasted that “I’ll spend any amount of money” on Taoism.

Zhu’s chief adviser, Li Jinkang, says the goal is to keep Taoism vital in an era when indigenous Chinese ideas are on the defensive. “Churches are everywhere. But traditional things are less so. So Chairman Zhu said: ‘What about our Taoism? Our Taoism is a really deep thing. If we don’t protect it, then what?’ ”

Balancing this desire with the imperatives of China’s political system is tricky. While the Communist Party has allowed religious groups to rebuild temples and proselytize, its own members are supposed to be good Marxists and shun religion. Like many big-business people, Zhu is also a party member. Two years ago, he became one of the first private business owners to set up a party branch in his company, earning him praise in the pages of the Communist Party’s official organ, People’s Daily. He has also established a party “school” — an indoctrination center for employees. His company’s Web site has a section extolling his party-building efforts and has a meeting room with a picture of Mao Zedong looking down from the wall. Although it might seem like an odd way to mix religion and politics, Taoism often deifies famous people; at least three Taoist temples in one part of China are dedicated to Chairman Mao.

Until recently, Zhu mostly ignored the contradiction, but he has become more cautious, emphasizing how he loved Taoist philosophy and playing down the religion. Still, Zhu continues to support conventional Taoism. His staff takes courses in a Taoist form of meditation called neigong, and he has sent staff members to document religious sites, like the supposed birthplace of Laotzu, who is worshiped as a god in Taoism. He also has close relations with folk-religious figures and plans to establish a “Taoist base” in the countryside to propagate Taoism. “The ancients were amazing,” Zhu says. “Taoism can save the world.”

WHEN ABBESS YIN started to rebuild her nunnery in 1991, she faced serious challenges. Her temple was located on Mount Mao, among low mountains and hills outside the eastern metropolis of Nanjing. It had been a center of Taoism from the fourth century until 1938, when Japanese troops burned some of the temple complex. As on Mount Yi, communist zealots completed the destruction in the 1960s. Her temple was so badly damaged that the forest reclaimed the land and only a few stones from the foundation could be found in the underbrush.

Unlike Mount Yi, Mount Mao is an extensive complex: six large temples with, altogether, about 100 priests and nuns. Just a 45-minute drive from Nanjing and two hours from Shanghai, it is a popular destination for day-trippers wanting to get out of the city. Even 20 years ago, when Abbess Yin arrived, tourism-fueled reconstruction was in full swing on Mount Mao. Two temples had escaped complete destruction, and priests began repairing them in the 1980s. The local government started charging admission, taking half the gate receipts. But the Taoists still got their share and plowed money back into reconstruction. More buildings meant higher ticket prices and more construction, a cycle typical of many religious sites. Although pilgrims began to avoid the temples because of the overt commercialism, tourists started to arrive in droves, bused in by tour companies that also got a cut of gate receipts. Last year, ticket sales topped $2.7 million.

Abbess Yin opted for another model. Trained in Taoist music, she set up a Taoist music troupe that toured the Yangtze River delta in a rickety old bus, stopping at communities that hired them to perform religious rituals. When I first met her in 1998, she used the money to rebuild one prayer hall on Mount Mao but refused to charge admission. Word of her seriousness began to spread around the region and abroad. Soon, her band of nuns were performing in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

More nuns began to join. In the Quanzhen school of Taoism, which Abbess Yi follows, Taoist clergy members live celibate lives in monasteries and nunneries, often in the mountains. (In the other school, known as Zhengyi, they may marry and tend to live at home, making house calls to perform ceremonies.) For Abbess Yin’s young nuns, her temple provided security and calm in a world that is increasingly complicated. “Here, I can participate in something profound,” said one nun who asked to be identified only as Taoist Huang. “The outside world has nothing like this.” For Abbess Yin, the young people are a chance to mold Taoists in the image of her master. “The only people who are worth having are older than 80 or younger than 20.”

Even now, Abbess Yin’s temple is low-key. There are no tourist attractions like cable cars, gift shops, teahouses or floodlit caves — and, unlike at most temples, still no admission fee. The atmosphere is also different. While in some temples, priests seem to spend most of their time hawking incense sticks or offering to tell people’s fortunes, her nuns are quiet and demure. Maybe this is why even in the 1990s, when her temple was reachable only by a dirt road, locals said it was ling — that it had spirit and was effective. In 1998, I saw a group of Taiwanese visitors abandon their bus and walk two miles to the temple so they could pray. “This is authentic,” one told me. “The nuns are real nuns, and it’s not just for show.”

With a growing reputation came donations. One reason that city people often underestimate Taoism is that its temples are mostly in the mountains, and its supporters rarely want to discuss their gifts. But one way to gauge its support is to look at the lists of benefactors, which are carved on stone tablets and set up in the back of the temple. In Abbess Yin’s temple, some tablets record 100,000 yuan ($15,000) donations, while others show 10,000 yuan gifts. But even those making just 100 yuan contributions get their names in stone. With the donations came the current plan to build the $1.5 million Jade Emperor Hall halfway up the mountain, making the Mount Mao complex visible for miles around. It is due to open on this weekend, with Taoists from Southeast Asia and across China expected to participate.

Abbess Yin’s success led the China Taoist Association to invite her to Beijing for training. She learned accounting, modern management methods and the government’s religious policy. Earlier this year she was placed on one of the association’s senior leadership councils. She has also begun speaking out on abuses on the religious scene, urging greater strictness inside Taoist temples and less emphasis on commerce. Many Taoists, she wrote in an essay reprinted in an influential volume, have become obsessed with making money and aren’t performing real religious services but just selling incense. Too many traveled around China, using temples as youth hostels instead of as places to study the Tao or to worship.

“Taoism is a great tradition, but our problem is we’ve had very fast growth, and the quality of priests is too low,” she told me. “Some people don’t even know the basics of Taoism but treat it like a business. This isn’t good in the long-term.”

THE DAY AFTER Abbess Yin’s standoff with the official, the big event on Mount Yi was due to start. She arrived early, making sure her nuns were ready at 7. The muddy path was now covered with stones that farmers had just hosed down, making them glisten in the early-morning sun. Workers scraped paint off the floor, inflated balloons and hung banners, while a television crew set up its equipment to film the politicians.

Inside the Jade Emperor Pavilion, the nuns milled around, checking one another’s clothes and hair. All, including the abbess, were wearing their white tunics and black knee breeches. They pulled on fresh blue robes and pink capes, while the abbess donned a brilliant red gown with a blue and white dragon embroidered on the back. She and her top two lieutenants affixed small golden crowns to their topknots. She was now transformed into a fashi, or ritual master. Something was about to happen.

Abbess Yin walked over to a drum about two feet in diameter and picked up two wooden sticks lying on top. She began pounding in alternating rhythms. The nuns knew their roles by heart and lined up in two rows, flanking the statue of the Jade Emperor, golden and beautiful, the god’s eyes beatific slits and his mouth slightly parted as if speaking to the people below. Still, for now the statue was just a block of wood. The ceremony would change that. It is called kai guang or “opening the eyes” — literally, opening brightness. Abbess Yin could open them, but it would take time.

Five minutes passed and sweat glistened on her forehead. Then, six of the nuns quietly took their places and started to play their instruments. A young woman plucked the zither, while another strummed the Chinese lute, or pipa. Another picked up small chimes that she began tinkling, while a nun next to her wielded a cymbal that she would use to punctuate the ceremony with crashes and hisses. Abbess Yin stopped drumming and began to sing in a high-pitched voice that sounded like something out of Peking Opera. Later during the ceremony she read and sang, sometimes alone and at other times with the nuns backing her. Always she was in motion: kneeling, standing, moving backward, turning and twirling, the dragon on her back seeming to come alive. It was physically grueling, requiring stamina and concentration. During the occasional lull, a young nun would hand her a cup of tea that she delicately shielded behind the sleeve of her robe and drank quickly. Gradually, people began to pay attention. The wives of several officials stood next to the altar and gawked, first in astonishment and then with growing respect for the intensity of the performance. When a police officer suggested they move back, they said: “No, no, we won’t be a bother. Please, we have to see it.” Workers, their jobs finished, sat at the back. Within an hour, about 50 onlookers had filled the prayer hall.

On cue, at 10:30, she stopped. A group of local leaders had assembled outside the hall. They announced the importance of the project and how they were promoting traditional culture. A ribbon was cut, applause sounded and television cameras whirred. Then the group piled into minibuses and rolled down to the valley for the hotel lunch.

The speeches were barely over when Abbess Yin picked up again. As the ceremony reached its climax, more and more people began to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, on the barren mountain face. Four policemen tried to keep order, linking arms to barricade the door so the nuns would have space for the ceremony. “Back, back, give the nuns room,” one officer said as the crowd pressed forward. People peered through windows or waited outside, holding cameras up high to snap pictures. “The Jade Emperor,” an old woman said, laying down a basket of apples as an offering. “Our temple is back.” Abbess Yin moved in front of the statue, praying, singing and kowtowing. This is the essence of the ritual — to create a holy space and summon the gods to the here and now, to this place at this moment.

Shortly after noon, when it seemed she had little strength left, Abbess Yin stopped singing. She held a writing brush in one hand and wrote a talismanic symbol in the air. Then she looked up: the sun was at the right point, slanting down into the prayer room. This was the time. She held out a small square mirror and deflected a sunbeam, which danced on the Jade Emperor’s forehead. The abbess adjusted the mirror slightly and the light hit the god’s eyes. Kai guang, opening brightness. The god’s eyes were open to the world below: the abbess, the worshipers and the vast expanse of the North China Plain, with its millions of people racing toward modern China’s elusive goals — prosperity, wealth, happiness.

Ian Johnson is the author of “A Mosque in Munich” and “Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China.” He is based in Beijing.

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Full article and photos: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/magazine/07religion-t.html

Knowing it all

God, science and knowledge

A counterblast to Stephen Hawking

The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? By Russell Stannard. OUP; 228 pages; $24.95 and £14.99.

REPORTS of the death of science have been greatly exaggerated—at least, that has proved to be the case so far. A British physicist, Lord Kelvin, is supposed to have said in 1900, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, all that remains is more and more precise measurement.” But then along came general relativity and quantum mechanics that proved him wrong. A bestselling book titled “The End of Science” by John Horgan, an American science journalist, was published in 1996, but there are no signs of the stuff abating. In “The End of Discovery”, Russell Stannard once again predicts its demise.

Mr Stannard bases his argument on three ideas. The first is that the human brain—which evolved to survive on the savannah rather than to grapple with the mysteries of string theory—may be inadequate for the task of progressing with science to the point where it explains everything. The second is that it may prove technically impossible to test all the ideas created by human minds. Finally, it may be that the end point so desired by scientists—the explanation of everything—does not actually exist.

Rehearsing the arguments, Mr Stannard examines the problem of consciousness, asks whether it makes sense to demand an explanation of what caused the Big Bang that created the universe, and questions the source of the laws of nature and the status of mathematics. He asks big questions. Why is the universe such that conscious life could evolve in it, and has it done so elsewhere? What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy? Does it make sense to talk about free will in a universe that appears deterministic? What is time?

Although he does not mention religion, Mr Stannard’s tome is carefully timed as a counterblast to the book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that rejects the need for the existence of God. Mr Stannard—a retired professor of physics at the Open University, as well as the author of a series of children’s books on quantum theory—is a believer. His book is a call for scientists to exercise humility when faced with the awe of the mystery of existence.

Unfortunately the evidence he marshals is far from compelling. The lists of scientific mysteries stand as much as a testament to the discipline itself as to its inadequacy to deal with them: science has helped to elucidate where the difficulties lie and, so far, it has also been science that has addressed them. Mr Stannard argues that mankind is living at a special time when it can contemplate the failure of its most successful attempt yet to understand the universe, but this is as unsatisfactory as arguing there is something special about the universe that allows mankind to exist.

Moreover, Mr Stannard—an accomplished writer—has let his standards slip. The book is rushed and lumpy, reminiscent of lectures by a man who skims over the central thesis to concentrate on his pet interests. Attacking the hubris of the most vocal atheists is understandable. Sadly, Mr Stannard hasn’t made a good job of it.

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Full article: http://www.economist.com/node/17145141

Harvest Moons and the Seeds of Our Faith

How the fall equinox, and the science of ancient astronomy, helped shape religions

Next Wednesday heralds the official end of summer—the autumnal equinox —when the length of day and night are equal (circa 11:09 p.m. ET). In the 21st century, this astronomical event is little more than a passing curiosity. But rewind by about three millennia to the time of the ancient Babylonians, and the autumnal equinox marked the start of the “minor new year.” Not only did celestial events define sacred festivals. Conversely, religion powered the development of astronomy, the first science.

Today, science and religion are often thought to be very different, unconnected disciplines. But looking back at our ancient past, we see that the development of religion and early science have really gone hand-in-hand, shaping some of the characteristics of mainstream religion in ways we may not realize.

For instance, while the Babylonians celebrated their “main new year” in the spring, their tradition of having a minor autumnal new year has carried over into both mainstream religion and secular practice. Nick Campion, a historian of cultural astronomy at the University of Wales, notes two echoes of ancient autumn observances today. “It’s a custom inherited by Jews—hence Rosh Hashanah,” he told me, “while the beginning of the academic year in autumn is a secular legacy.”

The Babylonians made meticulous records of celestial events. To them, as to many ancient civilizations, the sky was thought to be the writing pad of the gods, while the stars and planets were the ink used to communicate divine messages.

Through today’s lens, the practices of star-gazing Babylonian priests may appear to be based mostly in superstition. Each night they searched the sky for omens sent by the great god Marduk or one of his entourage of lesser deities. Unexpected wanderings of the planets might foreshadow a poor harvest in the village, while the early risings of the moon could portend malformed births. By far the worst harbinger was a lunar eclipse, which signaled that the gods were angry with the king and called for his death.

The fall equinox. Astronomy helped shape religions.

Much early astronomy dealt with developing techniques to predict these omens, allowing crucial time for pre-emptive prayers and rituals to ward off misfortune.

Despite being tied to religious ritual (and often to gruesome sacrifice), the work of these priests marks the beginnings of science, says John Steele, a historian of ancient astronomy at Brown University. “They were making mathematical predictions based on empirical observations, which is astronomy by definition,” he says.

An even more detailed understanding of celestial phenomena influenced the decline of polytheism. As more sophisticated science showed that the astronomical events were routine and could be predicted, they lost their ability to inspire fear. By the 5th century B.C., Greek philosophers were developing a view that the universe originated from one divine source.

Nick Campion adds that with the rise of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, the need to “secularize the planets”—stripping them of divine agency—became even more pressing. Astronomy could not be written out of religion completely, in part because in people’s minds the celestial patterns were so clearly tied to the changing of the seasons. So monotheistic religious leaders emphasized the importance of sacred calendars governed by predictable celestial motions.

They argued also that understanding the behavior of planets and stars was the route to revealing what Mr. Campion calls the “unfolding of God’s plan.” For a time, he notes, astronomy actually became a tool of power for the religious elite to wield, The better religious scholars were at predicting astronomical events, the more society was seen to be successfully harmonizing with God.

In the early Islamic empire, astronomical patterns dictated not only the calendar, but also the architecture of cities. Mr. Campion has studied the original plans for building Baghdad, which was designed to be laid out in seven concentric circles––to mimic the geocentric view of the cosmos held at the time, with earth at its center, and the sun, the moon and the five then-known planets in orbit around it.

Although those plans were partially abandoned, the ultimate framework of the city was indeed circular and its foundations were laid on a day calculated to coincide with the time that Jupiter, then thought to be the supreme power-giving planet, rose above the Eastern horizon. “Baghdad was literally a cosmopolis,” says Mr. Campion.

Baghdad is one example of how an ancient society was built to celestial blueprints. To fully appreciate some of our religious practices today––and sometimes even the layout of the ground under our feet––we must look back to the earliest science and the influence of the night skies.

Ms. Merali is a science writer and documentary producer based in London.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703466704575490150383969986.html