At my talk at the University of Waterloo last night, I met Doris Jakobsh, professor of religion at the University. Today she came over to Shivji's house and we had breakfast together.
She is principally a student of Sikhism and specifically of women in the Sikh tradition. Her publication on the subject, Relocating Gender in Sikh History has stirred up quite a bit of controversy.
When I was in Toronto in the 90's, Lou Fenech was also involved in another Sikh controversy. So I was a little dismayed to hear that the thin-skinned element of that community has taken the "scientological" approach of using blunderbusses to kill mosquitoes.
So the three of us had quite a discussion on various aspects of this super-defensiveness on the part of religious groups in response to criticism. She told of how when in India last year, she went to Potiala, where she had learned Punjabi, etc., and was told by professors she had thought were her friends that she was not welcome there because of what she had written. When she pressed these "friends" about whether they had even read her book, they admitted they hadn't. I could see that she was even now quite emotional about it.
I also had my stories to share, but I have done this kind of thing too many times to hurt any more, nor think it worthwhile to share. But it is a constant source of amazement how delving into the history of a religious sect or any other kind of close-knit, sensitive community, can raise so many hackles. What comes as a surprise, too, is that they often fail to recognize that those they ostracize are in truth allies. Truth should never be seen as an enemy. Does it really hurt that badly to recognize that our religious communities and even their founders and saints are human and may have very human flaws?
To support this, Doris cited the testimony of some of her own students, who wrote to her or told her personally that they had become better Sikhs after taking her course. She spoke very enthusiastically of the doctrine of grace in Sikhism and compared it to Martin Luther. She herself is a Protestant in the United Church and the above subject only came up after she and Shivji were praising the Sikhs' commitment to charitable works and I suggested that the United Church, which is known for its own commitment to such activities would form a natural ecumenical partnership. She said, "That's interesting, but the fact is I don't have many Sikh friends anymore." Sad.
Another thing Doris said that I liked came up when she started talking of a proposed tour of India that she is planning for next year with a group of religious studies students. She is indeed intending to bring them to SRSG, which I highly recommended. But in this connection she enthusiastically championed the idea that teaching religion or the liberal arts in general should never be seen as a purely academic exercise. She recognizes that most of the students in her courses are there as a part of their search for meaning and purpose in life, and she feels that she should teach with that in mind. She joked, "I have tenure now, so I can do it." At any rate, I approve wholeheartedly.