Details: Interfaith Conference on “Scriptural Authority and Status in World Religions”, Thursday, October 16, 2008, at Brks Chapel, McGill University. The conference is co-sponsored by McGill Faculty of Religious Studies and Canadian Sikh Council, to celebrate the 300 year anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib.

This was my first “seminar” at McGill. Basically, it was a whole day devoted to lectures by significant (and maybe less significant?) Religious Studies faculty of two main universities in Montreal (McGill and Concordia), with some time to ask questions, and a really good lunch! :) The lectures were structured with each “religion” spokesperson being allotted about 30 minutes to talk about the topic (and it was mainly a talk/lecture and not really a paper), and then the floor was open for questions/clarification. There were about 30-40 people in the audience, the majority being Sikh scholars and laypeople, partly because they must have advertised heavily about this event to their community.

While such a conference was promising, it was sad that most of the speakers avoided the central topic and spent most of their time informing their audience (who I would have expected to be learned), ABOUT the scriptures of the various religions, rather than actually dealing with the specific issue of their “authority”.

Thus for instance, the first speaker, Mathieu Boisvert (Université du Québec à Montréal), who ominously started the first presentation with the words “I forgot my notes”, informed the audience about the in-text narratives about the formation of the Buddhist texts for about 20 minutes to then quickly rush to make his point that the Buddhist scripture has authority because the community gives it authority. Furthermore, “I don’t think it is important whether Buddha actually said [what is recorded in the text]. What is important… is that a group of people kept those texts alive… through many generations.” In this statement Boisvert was able to discredit issues of history (asserting that it was his scholarly opinion) while making an obvious point.

The second lecture was by T. S. Rukhmani (Concordia University), who took by Hinduism. She had a long paper that was speedily read,  which once again spent most effort in informing the audience about the various types of literature. Even while her survey was extensive, with notes about their role in Hindu community, her main assertion was the primacy of the Vedas. From this I surmise that the traditional understanding of the “authority” of Vedas continues to permeate some forms of Hinduism.  Rukhmani’s talk took an interesting turn during the question/answer session when she was asked about historicity the Birthplace of Ram (Ayodhya) in light of the Babri Masjid issue. She promptly said that she refused to answer the question because it dealt with politics and she was presenting a scholarly paper. She however added, “When religion is used for a political end it definitely gets distorted” and furthermore, “it is wrong to use the text for your ends”. Both these final statements were unexamined/unexplained, and in the light of the central issue of the Conference, it was a sad omission. I would think that this conference would have been best served by answering precisely these questions; in view for instance of what makes even her assertion about the “right” use of Hindu scripture valid?

Then, disappointingly, though not unexpectantly (considering the first statment by Boisvert), the Islam scholar (Patrice Brodeur, never even showed up). And so, we listened to an ad-hoc lecture by Sheila McDonough (Concordia) who talked about Wifred Cantwell Smith and his views about Islam. Hmm. Enough said.

After an excellent Lunch, in McGill’s New Residence, literally a Hotel which they bought for student residences!!!, we returned for our next set of lectures.

Ellen Aitken (McGill University) talked about Christianity. I would think that at least the Christian discussion would yeild more to-the-topic discussion since the issue is very much central (at least historically) to Christian doctrine. And it was, with Aitken dealing with various subheadings from the nature of the scripture to the authority of the scripture and the use of the scripture… all within the context of a diverse Christian community. The central point was that while scripture has been seen to have authority in Christianity, because of the diversity of Christianity, it is difficult to find commonality on what that exactly means. Now this was an interesting point, even though Aiken had to rush to make it because she ran out of time. But after all this, in the discussion session, she asserted that the Jesus Seminar is doing good work and that most of what Jesus said in the Gospels is not really historical. In a sense, there was a clear imposition of authority by the “scholar” over the text, that was not critically examined by Aitken; which once again made me wonder whether we were dealing honestly about the issue of “scriptural authority” in this conference.

In direct contrast to the Christian lecture, that more than anything suggested a lack of reliability, came the presented of the Sikh scriptures by B. S. Bhogal (Hofstra University, New York). Bhogal is an extremely eloquent Sikh professor, and while he too did not sufficiently deal with issues of the “authority” of the Guru Granth Sahib, he talked extremely positively about the Sikh religion and scriptures… it was almost a promotion of the Sikh faith.

Ironically, this was the session that some graduate/undergraduate students attended. In fact, they attended the closing part of the Christianity lecture that ended with the tone of inadequacy and they got to hear Bhogal’s faith-in-scripture tone that especially asserted a message about plurality of truths and cooperation of religions… certainly got the students nodding their heads (and certainly got me thinking about how poor Christianity probably seems to the western intellectuals).

The final session was Bery Levy, on Judaism (McGill). He asserted that the Jewish way of looking at their ancient scriptures can be a paradigm for how other religions look at their scriptures (whether they accept the way or not, at least as a dialogue paradigm). His main assertion however was that there are intellectuals who look at the scripture critically and there are non-intellectuals (devotionalists?) who look at the text uncritically… to suggest differing attitudes towards scripture… once again displaying the need for a more extensive study on the issue of authority OF scripture.

Anyway, Arvind Sharma (McGill) summed up the conference with some questions, one of them was when we look at scripture are we looking for certainty or are we looking for truth? It’s hard to see what this had to do with the topic, and yet, summed up the conference in its diversity quite well.

My own further comments

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed attending the seminar. I even found it stimulating at times. I guess I just have to learn to handle (and get used to) the frustration about seminars/conferences not really sticking to the original mandate.

One of the things I learned from all this was the heavy reliance on the functional/phenomenological way of looking at religion in the current field of study. Which is to say, the focus is more on the phenomenon of religion, the visibles of religion (like scripture being USED as scripture) rather than the theology (the ideology/the faith as true) part of the religion. This visible-only evaluation of religions allows scholars to remain agnostic or unbelievers about the ontological assertions and allow them to view only the ‘reactions’. And it does raise an important question for my own work… is this the ONLY way of legitimately looking at religion, especially the ‘religion’ you do not believe in? Or is a theological orientation valid/needed/recommended?

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this more in the future. especially since I have a load of other seminar/conferences coming up.