I'll take this in five parts for which I'll find zingier titles:
• Pulling an Eliade
• Justification comes to an end
• Pushing the envelope
In this post, a sort of introduction.
* * *
Near the end of the story of "Ten Canoes," the elders of a Yolngu Aboriginal clan confer on how to respond to the latest in a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings and retaliations. The group's leader had been mortally wounded in a payback ceremony after he killed someone he thought - erroneously - the abductor of one of his wives. (In fact it wasn't even the one mistakenly suspected but his brother.) But then the wife had returned, and told she had being abducted by people from a different band entirely. Should they punish this new group? Go to war? Abduct their women? Various possibilities were bruited, until the most senior elder, Birrinbirrin, spoke. "This is where we stop," he said (in translation).
"Ten Canoes," the first feature film entirely in Aboriginal language, was where my seminar on "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" started. An oral and visual work of nested stories, a meeting of old and new media, it seemed the perfect way to kick off a course engaging with the theory of religion's favorite indigenous tradition: Freud, Durkheim and Eliade are only the most famous early theorists to have anchored a global theory of religion in the "primitive," "elementary" or "archaic" forms they discerned in Aboriginal traditions. I also counted on "Ten Canoes" to ensure that we did not fall into our predecessors' trap of understanding Aboriginal traditions as timeless and unchangeable. Birrinbirrin's words were to become one of the course's mantras. The vitality and resiliency of a tradition lies in its ability to decide when to stop looking back. Understood as alive and engaged with our world, Aboriginal traditions would help us see beyond our forbears.
But Birrinbirrin's words resonated with me in other ways, too. They connected to unexamined assumptions which inform my understanding of culture and history and religion - and of the craft and vocation of teaching. The effort to engage with Aboriginal Australian traditions in my little seminar classroom in New York City raised questions about why I do what I do - powerful and disturbing questions: the best word is probably unsettling. In this essay I will try to articulate why I came to wonder if I had any business teaching any of this, although my business is teaching.