October Edition

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Wisdom October 2012 Issue

Special Edition – Religious Genius

News: Elijah Receives Templeton Grant to Study Saints and Religious Genius

The Elijah Interfaith Institute is proud to be the recipient of a significant grant from the John Templeton Foundation, titled “Religious Genius: Planning Grant”. The grant is to explore a new area of study, as a basis for advancing interfaith engagement. It is based on the intuition that saints are an important subject for study, admiration and inspiration across religions. Friends of Elijah, who have followed our evolution since the founding moment, will recall that Elijah’s birth was in response to the request of a Jewish friend to study the lives of the Christian saints, and the subsequent realization that Jerusalem did not afford a context in which this could be done. The subject of saints was the topic of a summer school, held in Jerusalem in 2001. And it remains a subject of great potential for inspiration, learning, sharing and recognition across religious traditions. The Templeton grant is to explore new ways of talking about saints, so that they can be appreciated across religions, as well as by those who seek to understand them, independently of a religious worldview. The planning grant will allow scholars to explore the category of “Religious Genius” as a means of facilitating understanding of and conversation about such individuals, across religious boundaries. The category has a history that is a century old, and was particularly important for Sir John Templeton. The Templeton foundation is presently funding the Elijah Institute to further develop this category, to elaborate a working model for it, to test it in multiple religions, to share it with religious leaders, and based on all the above – to present a long term research and dissemination project, that will feature “Religious Genius” as an innovative approach to the study of saints and as an important site for interreligious dialogue.

Why Saints?

All religions recognize there are outstanding individuals, whose spiritual insight, presence and power by far surpass those of others. These individuals help create, define, drive, reform and inspire their traditions. To a large extent they are the models that provide the basis for emulation for others and they are the ideal of the tradition in its concrete manifestation, in the lives of humans.
Historically, most religions have tended to appreciate only those exceptional individuals who have contributed to their own traditions’ formation. While on the popular level there has often been some mix of cults, in seeking blessings from individuals who belong to other traditions, the fuller appreciation of special religious individuals has been limited to members of one’s own tradition.
The “Religious Genius” project seeks to engage the topic of these special individuals from a perspective that is broader than just the individual faith perspective. In part, this is informed by the recognition that in an interreligious age, we must be open to study and to be inspired by the finest models that other traditions can provide. Without such openness, we are missing out on true appreciation of what other religious traditions are and what they have to offer. From a different perspective, the study of such individuals is important because it allows us to approach them as part of the study of the meaning of the fullness of being human and of human potential. From this perspective we are invited to consider what such unique individuals are, how they function, and what they contribute to society, in a way that cuts across the different religious traditions, and draws on them all. Thus, both for purposes of our knowledge and understanding of what it means to be human and for purposes of advancing relations between religions in today’s world, the study of exceptional individuals in the field of religion holds great promise.

The Boston Meeting

On June 24-26, 2012 the Elijah Interfaith Institute held the first meeting of the “Religious Genius:Planning Grant” project. 14 scholars, representing six religious traditions and various academic disciplines, attended the three day meeting, graciously hosted by the Center for the Study of World Religions, at Harvard University. At the core of the meeting and of the study process is an essay, authored by Alon Goshen-Gottstein, that offers initial positions and a model for understanding saints as religious genius. The meeting focused on the project’s core essay, and on a series of responses that project members composed. The group process, prior to and during the meeting, provides a firm foundation for the continuation of the project. The “Sharing Wisdom” section of this issue of our newsletter shares some of the insights that emerged from the Boston meeting.

Sharing Wisdom: Defining Religious Genius in Relation to Saints

  • The category of Religious Genius (RG) is not identical to the category of saints, broadly construed. Not all saints are religious geniuses, and as will be noted below – not all religious geniuses are saints. RG has cognitive associations, related to knowledge, teaching, understanding and discovery, as these apply to questions that are fundamental to the religious quest and to the historical traditions within which religious geniuses are found, and to their canons. Thus, a religious genius is a sage-saint. In some way, directly or by example, he or she teaches.
  • One looks to the RG for understanding, illumination, wisdom of a high order. What distinguishes RG from the philosopher is the grounding of wisdom and insight in a higher order of reality, a higher state of consciousness. This contrasts with more common expectations of the saint (who is not a sage), where one looks to the saint for intercession. At times the same personality might provide both functions, but it is often the case that there will be a difference between the ingroup of students who seek the wisdom and the outgroup that seeks the blessings and intercession.
  • A RG provides an answer to a question, rather than bringing aid to a situation. The question that is answered may be a collective religious problem, specific to the tradition, or more broader question, relating to the meaning of existence. Because RG in some way addresses the meaning of reality, RG can have appeal across traditions.
  • According to this definition, a religious genius may be considered as someone who is innovative in the field of religion, providing solutions to religious problems, or making the teaching of religion more broadly available to others, through how he or she configures or restates the tradition and its teaching, whether in terms of theory or of practice.
  • This distinction has implications for the kinds of materials to be studied. Recognizing that the RG is the sage-saint, we will be drawn to teachings and to such autobiographical or biographical materials that provide a window unto the unique interior vision of the RG. Miracles and intercessory activities typically are expressed in more stereotypical ways in the hagiographical literature, that is not of major significance for our project.
  • The upshot of relating saints to RG is that we are not studying saints as examples of RG. Rather, the focus of our study is religious genius, using saints as examples. With the primary emphasis on RG, our study might open up to the study of religious geniuses who are not saints. Because the primary focus is on RG, this means we will be considering the theological questions as first order questions, rather than many of the second order questions, typically associated with the study of saints.
  • One of the implications of focusing on RG, as distinct from saints, is the choice of a category that does not carry the same evaluative associations or weight. The term “saints” carries with it an evaluative dimension, whereas RG could be considered more descriptive, even if implicitly admirable. In constructing the category of “religious genius” one does not deal with a pre-populated category, that one seeks to make sense of. Rather, one can construct the category so that it is descriptive of specific aspects that one seeks to highlight.
  • A working assumption of our project is that the the cognition of the RG is often grounded in a transformed state of awareness. As a function of this broader awareness, the RG exhibits extraordinary capacity for identifying with others and of loving or otherwise living for others.
  • The tension between cognitive, on the one hand,  and moral and relational dimension, on the other, in the person of the RG, plays itself out in relation to what might be called the “flawed religious genius”.  Flaws, ostensibly, would not relate to his or her genius, as far as the more cognitive dimensions are concerned, but rather to the relation between these dimensions and aspects of the person typically associated with sainthood. Whether moral or relational imperfections, we would need to consider whether the “flawed religious genius” could sustain a greater degree of imperfection than the “flawed saint”. While we could construct a category that assumes a great degree of perfection on both fronts, our discussion of a broad range of personalities, listed below, does problematize the possibility of limiting “religious genius” to only those individuals who were extremely saintly and who attained great perfection, in all aspects of RG as spelled out in the model described in the concept paper. The tension between the “saint” and “genius” dimensions of the RG will thus need to be tested out with reference to a large base of case studies, as we seek to apply the category in ways that are contiguous with application of “genius” in other fields, while continuing to appeal to a broader range of perfections, usually associated with “saints”.

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The Elijah Interfaith Institute
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