Course: Oriental Beliefs: Between Reason and Traditions
Length: self-paced; 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)/edX
Instructor: ~24 instructors
This course takes a journey through the world of beliefs as they have developed in a great variety of cultures, ranging from Ancient Egypt, the Near East to Central Asia, India, China, and the Far East. We will discuss where these beliefs, theories and practices originated from, how they were passed on over the ages and why some are still so central to large communities of believers across the world today, whether it be amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Shintoists.
We’ll be dealing with everything from gods and spirits, to angels and demons, to afterlife and the netherworld, as well as the great cycles of the universe and the tremendous power of lunar and solar eclipses. The interpretation of dreams and all sorts of magic and miraculous deeds will also be covered during this course.
Short version: Enjoyable survey course, covering a broad range of interesting topics with a couple of deeper dives towards the end.
I’ve said several times in the past that I tend to have trouble with survey courses, that I prefer depth to breadth. Still, while there were a few “catalog lectures” early on (this god does that, this demon does the other thing), I found many of the units quite interesting – and last three weeks were great.
It’s self-paced, with all material available at the outset. I completed it in about four weeks. The course twitter account sent messages once a week about the course and some of the material covered.
The first week opened with the usual introduction, including geographic and thematic scope and a word about interdisciplinary methods used. I was relieved to find the elephant in the room – the word “Oriental” in the title, which to me felt like fingernails scratching on a blackboard – was addressed in these introductory lessons, with an acknowledgement of the critique leveled in the Edward Said book which tarnished that word for some of us.
However it should be clear that where universities still have “Oriental Studies” as an administrative department of teaching and/or research, such as the Université catholique de Louvain, it has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of sensitivity with regard to the problem just alluded to, and even less to do with a neo-colonial attitude towards the languages and cultures under scrutiny. Instead, the survival of such departments should be understood almost entirely in terms of institutional politics, numbers of students, and budgetary considerations.
While acknowledging the historical fact that Oriental Studies as a discipline originated in these universities in times when an ethnocentric approach was a norm unchallenged by anyone, the “Oriental Beliefs” team is fully aware of the global nature of its audience and we have done our utmost to avoid any kind of “Eurocentrism”, bias or prejudice.
The material was arranged, not by culture or region as might be expected, but by topic: a week on gods, another on angels and demons, then the afterlife, astrology, and magic. I would guess the idea is to get a cross-cultural perspective on these themes. Astrology and alchemy, where so much material was passed via translations and adaptations, was particularly rich in this. I was a bit surprised gods, angels, and demons weren’t explicitly connected across cultures (the nature theme, for example), since it seemed to me there were obvious similarities and differences. I probably should have been more active on the forums to discuss these.
The roster of 24 different lecturers allowed for a great deal of diversity in what was covered and how it was presented. This approach comes with advantages and disadvantages: there’s a loss of connection, since there’s no one instructor (some of us have attachment issues, y’know?), but it also allows different approaches. I had several favorites; whether it was the material, or the presentation, I can’t be sure (that would be a cool research project for mooc learning, by the way). I found the lectures on Buddhism to be nearly incomprehensible (I stuck with my interpretation – Buddha was an agnostic who incorporated Hindu gods as a marketing tool – and moved on), but 23 out of 24 is still excellent any way you cut it.
The graded material consisted of brief quizzes (“training exercises”) at the end of some units, about five per week. Most of the questions were multiple choice; a few were matching or short-answer, one was a self-graded short-answer essay. The final exam counted for 60% of the grade; it covered all seven weeks of material, so I was very glad I used Cerego as a study aid for this course, as I was refreshing my memory on earlier material all along. The material isn’t hard, it’s just that there are a lot of different parts that interrelate, and it’s easy to get them confused.
I greatly enjoyed, somewhat to my surprise, the material on astrology and astronomy, magic, and alchemy, and, even more surprisingly, sorting out the Egyptian gods and theogony (I’ve always been distinctly uninterested in ancient Egypt, but it seems there was a way to intrigue even me). I also found the centuries-long ever-evolving story of the acheiropoieton, the miraculous portrait of Jesus “not painted by human hands”, to be of great interest. I also loved the last week, a more in-depth case study of another continuing saga of a miracle, this one from Coptic Egypt involving the moving of a mountain. Manuscripts got into the act, and, well, manuscripts, what else can I say. I feel like I finally have some understanding of Copts beyond “Egyptian Christians.” That, to me, is the real value of these types of courses: we feel more connected to places we’ll probably never go, places like the Muqattam area of Cairo, Ise in Japan, Armenia, and Georgia. These days, we need all the connection we can get.
It’s a class well worth taking for a broad overview, and a brief glimpse into what more in-depth work might involve, hinted at in the introductory remarks: “Most of the time, in fact, you will be implicitly exposed to methodologies deriving from a variety of fields, including archaeology, history in general, the history of ideas, the history of religions, the history of literature, and the branch of philology called textual criticism or (in a larger sense), textual scholarship.” Oooh, now there’s a mooc I want to take! We got a glimpse of this during the last two weeks, in the tracing of the miraculous portrait and the moving of the mountain. I hope to discover more along those lines in future moocs.