John Raines: Religious Studies and the Door between the West and Islam

JRDr. John C. Raines (JCR) is a professor of religion at Department of Religion of Temple University, Philadelphia, USA. He is one of the founding fathers of the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies or CRCS  in Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. This center become the first postgraduate program on religious studies in a non religiously-affiliated university in Indonesia.  In his visit to Yogyakarta, CRCS team (Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir, Najiyah Martiam, and Jimmy Immanuel), had a chance to interview him about the background of CRCS and its missions, and his views on Religions and Religious Studies.


CRCS: Why did you come to Indonesia at the first time?  What did interest you?

JCR : It’s because of a man named Alwi Sihab who did his second Ph.D at Temple University working  with Mahmoud Ayoub, my colleague, the professor of Islamic Studies at the Department of Religion, Temple University. Alwi was impressed with the way our department of religion at Temple studying religion; we do not study religions as doctrines, we study religions descriptively, we do not prefer one religion against another, and we do not try to compare and contrast religions. We try to understand religions, their historical and cultural development, through which they’ve passed, how they’ve changed through time, and so on. All of religions are being treated with equal respect. Alwi Sihab liked the idea. Actually he liked the idea especially after of May 1998 in Jakarta. You remember that when there was a terrible riot, the economy had had gone broken in the fall of 1997. I was in Jakarta actually in July 1997 for conference.

          The dollar in July 1997 was traded one dollar for 2.300 rupiahs. Four months later in December one dollar for 14.000 rupiahs, which means disrupted every bank, disrupted every major corporation, a lot. The economy except the informal economy of the country was basically shut down. And in May before Suharto was forced out there were terrible riots in Jakarta, and basically why were poor victims of the financial meltdown, who were Moslems, taking their anger to Chinese who were also the victims of the melt down. It was victims making victims of other victims. The wealthy Chinese got out from the town a long time before they took their money. They were gone to Singapore. It was behind of the all, and it was very tragic. I think Alwi looked that and said that it could be the end of the Indonesian Republic that we must address religious differences, not as a problem but as a potential. Not as something is going to cause people fight each other but rather is going to cause people to be curious about each other and drawn each other and working together.

          Two years later I, through the Fulbright, came to Jakarta and he (Alwi) was a Foreign Minister, and had very close associate to President. He had approached me two years before, when he still lived in United States, with the idea, when he got back to Indonesia, of doing something in Indonesia like studying religion the way we study religion at Temple. But when he got back here he found himself in position with a great power, Foreign Minister, close advisor of the President.

          When I arrived in January 2000, he and I started working together, putting together in proposal for the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Religious Affair, both of them to found the master degree. The style of study would be as it was in Temple; it would be not doctrinaire, it would be descriptive, and all religions would be treated equally. So, if you want to study Islam and you are a Christian you will be studying Islam with a Moslem teacher. If you are Moslem and want to study Christianity you will be studying Christianity with Christian teacher. With that kind of understanding, you would study religion not with a scholar of your own faith community but with a scholar of faith community of the religion you want to study. At first Alwi’s idea was to have it (the program) situated at the University of Indonesia, but the Minister of National Education and the Minister of Religious Affair, they were both Muhammadiyah, and of course Alwi was Nahdatul Ulama….. so, negotiation took place, hahaha…  Thank goodness and in circumstance, you know, they decided to bring CRCS to UGM, to Yogyakarta, because it is so much cheaper. It is so much easier to get around of this city, and this city has a long history of multiple-ethnic encounters. Differences meet side by side peacefully. 

CRCS: Is there any direct role of Gus Dur as the President at that time?

JCR : I don’t know of any direct intervention by Gus Dur. I know that Alwi Sihab was in constant touch with Minister of National Education, Yahya Muhaimin, who was critical. He was very much in favor with this. He was a very fine gentleman. And the Minister of Religious Affair, his name, I do not remember, was equally in favor of it. This is very important, between the three Ministries: Foreign Affair, National Education, and Religious Affair. The budget they put together.

Religious Studies in USA

CRCS: Before we go further, perhaps it is important for us to know the history of religious studies in the US especially at the Temple University, and the way of studying religion at CRCS you wanted to develop.

John Raines and the director of CRCS, Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir and CRCS’ students

JCR : In 1960s, Temple University was something quite different. Other universities were beginning, but only beginning to have department of religion. There were a 

lot of Seminaries like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, George Town, Duke, and Emory. They had large seminaries, but they were just beginning to develop department of religion. Temple had the department of religion beginning in 1963. Also the department of religion tended to develop seminary background. So, in certain senses although they were independent, they were departments of religion with large universities, they shared back not only to seminary, but also they shared a kind of sense of religious hierarchy.

            Even though they were a kind of liberal protestants they still had a kind of attitudes that you judge other religions in relationship to what Protestantism is; we set the standard on other religions we kind look out to those. It was almost unacknowledged, but it was real. Temple department of religion never was a seminary; it was started as a department of world religions. Our first chair, started in 1963, Bernard Phillips of Jewish background, but his mentor, his guru, was a Sufi. He traveled to Middle East in Summers to study with his guru. 

          Department of religion was started with one faculty member in 1963 but ten years later we had 22 full time faculty members. We grew in ten years from one professor to twenty two professors. We were about the largest department of religion in the country. We were the only department of religion which was not begun as seminary but as department of religion. So, from the beginning the Temple department of religion was the department for all religions which were going to be viewed equally. We would not be in the business of trying to rank the religions in term of whether they were more liberal, progressive, or whatever. All religions should be treated with curiosity to discover the truth about the humanity that embedded and lodged in those particular religions, particular cultural development, in their particularistic.

          It was our understanding that no religion was false. All religions have truth, but they also have falsehood, but they also have truth. And this is true of all religions, including my own religion, Christianity. It has some truths and some falsehood, too. We need to do sort through what we thought the truths and valuable things of these religions that we might not have in our own traditions and then add those the way we should be. For example in Islam you have a tradition of riba, a prohibition against taking of the interest on loan because it is conceived that to take the interest from loan and to take advantage from whom the person needs the loan, but you don’t share the risk of that person who needs the loan. It’s taking advantage of somebody who is in need, and that in Islamic tradition is forbidden. That was also true for a while in my tradition, Christian tradition. It’s called prohibition against usury with the same reason. But beginning in the 15th to 16th century, that moral discourse in Western Christianity really was lost.

          And the reason behind was the emergence of automotive corporations. Those corporations really developed, first of all, as trading companies. The modern  corporations went back to these trading companies where there were relationships from London, over here actually to what was then called Spice Island, and they got silks from China and so on, and brought them back to London or to Paris or wherever. These ships would be invested by private investors who hoped to gain money, you know, once the goods came back to London or Paris. Also the ships were owned by a particular private company. So you had the company but you also had outside investors, investing the contents of the ships. You can imagine what would happen when the ships sank. I mean there was a huge lost. It was not the lost of the ships; it was the lost of the contents of the ships. What happened with the development of corporation which developed from all of these tradings something called limited liability that is you could sue for the loses of your goods, but you couldn’t  sue  for the losses imposed by the lost of the ships. There was limited liability you could only sue after certain points, the core value of the corporation which was the ownership of the ships that went down. Even though it went down, in Tokyo goes with it you couldn’t sue the corporation of the owner of the ship itself, that preserves the capital of these ships only trading corporation. That basically did away with the prohibition against usury, and then the taking of interest on loans became something that was no longer prohibited. Well, that produced a danger. For a while it looked it’s good in that corporation expanded trade, world trade, and it looked like a development, and soon, large of money was produced. But it did open up of a question of the banking system: how the banking system works in United States. And the reason of, even in Wall Street, the collapse was basically a collapse of debt. That was of a collapse of the whole way of doing debt in the Western banking system. There was a missing dialogue in the United States. We left a dialogue about usury and what/how loan should be made. We left that discourse behind. It illustrates Europe civilization. Your religion (Islam) would preserve that moral discourse. That is something we need to think about and learn from you in the present situation.

          This was the attitude we have at Temple University, department of religion, and I think there is another religion, we do not have in our own religion that we need to learn from. Also there is a thing in our tradition that is not in other traditions that other traditions need to learn from. Every tradition has truth in it and false in it and therefore we need to talk with each other. I need, as a Christian, to be able to talk to you as a Moslem. You, as a Moslem, need to talk to me as a Christian. We need to be able to do that openly and frankly with full and critical knowledge and with respect. I’m a better Christian if I do that, and you are a better Moslem if you do that. That is the notion at Temple University.


Open up the Door between the West and Islam

CRCS: In your description about religious studies at Temple University and the one which is built here, as well as the first reason why you want to build something like CRCS here, it seems that the motivation is not only academic motivation, but there are some ethical motivations as well as the spiritual motivations. How do you see that? This is an academic institution.


JCR :  Well, Indonesia is a huge country, 85 % Moslem, maybe 5 or 7 % Christian, and others. There are more Moslem living here in Indonesia than entire Arab world
 put together. Because I think of some very serious policy mistakes made by Washington, the door of corporation, the door of discussion in the Middle East has been closed and probably closed for several generations. That discourse between the West and Islam is desperately important discourse, and I saw there was another door and that was the door here in Indonesia.

          That brought me to Indonesia really as a Westerner knowing that we have many misunderstandings of Islam historically. We did not understand your religion well, we thought about our own religion all the time as superior, and so on. We have a history of colonizing your country, colonizing Islamic territories. So, we did not have a good history with you, we have a lot of misunderstandings about Islam, and as a Westerner, and a Christian, I felt that I needed to do what I could do to open up that second door between the West and Islam. That is what CRCS means for me. That was my motivation, moral and religious.

          It was also in a sense that we have the world crisis. We have to do something about this. We just can’t consider on and let the implication of colonial history, and the injustice of that colonial history. We could not pretend that in that way. We have to deal with Islam as those who were the former colonial owners and this disposes of your land. We had owned that. We could not walk away from that. I felt and I still feel that much of the land which development and developing is colonial discourse. It is unexamined discourse. It says that my country is developed and your country is developing, and that has a major problem that seems to me an ideological problem which says we are or Europe’s supposed to get too. To put quite simply if the population of India, China and Indonesia, all consume the way my country consumes, the global world economically would collapse  within a year. I do not know what it means to be developed. I do not know what it means to be developing. All I know that language tends to be a disguised neocolonialism. I do not like it. I want to unveil it.

I want to show what is going on. I want to talk about, for example, why the disaster of 1997 happened. The reason was speculative, currency speculative, out of New York, out of London. They had bought into the Thai money, the baht. They bought millions of millions of dollars of bahts. So, the international trading value of the baht went up and up, against the dollar and were buying the baht and were forcing the value of the baht up and up overnight, with pushing the energy on the computer they sold everything that they had in baht. Here was the price we appeared in dollars. They made millions of millions of dollars and the baht crashed. That’s why the baht crashed, then the ringgit crashed, the rupiah crashed, the Taiwanese money crashed, and the South Korean money crashed. Well, no laws were broken. International trade losses were followed, and great damage was done to your country and other countries in South East Asia. The year was following that crash, the year of 1998, and the infant mortality rate. There was a lot of children who did not get to pass one year triple. Those were the direct victims of that way of doing international finance. The indirect victims, that’s what happened in May 2008, were victims of this international conspiracy, this international tragedy. The victims of this international tragedy made victims of other victims of the international tragedy. So there were both direct victims and indirect victims. And all of that in the name of development, all of that in the name of poverty, all of that legal, and people who made millions of dollars in Wall Street would look up on top to be smart business man. Meanwhile the economy was destroyed. I do not want that history to be the future. I do not think that the development is. I think the language of development is the basically language of neocolonialism. I want expose it for what it is. I want to help work with other to transform the way international financial was done. It needs profoundly to be transformed. I mean the international monetary of the World Bank, the world trade organizations are basically run by the West, for the West, of the West. We know that! Those suppose to be international referees of how business activities are done around the world. They have to be made more neutral. They have to be made real referees. They cannot be short of so to speak standards for Western large corporation and banking. That is going to be a difficult process, but it is important process. And the beginning of that process is to recognize what we call the development. It is really an extension of what has been 300 years of colonialism.

CRCS: You have been talking about really big issues. I mean colonialism, post-colonialism, and then development, etc. What do you think of religious studies, an academic program? Where can it fit in? What is its role in all these large world global problems?

JCR : Politicians think they have a lot of power. Banks think they have a lot of power. And they do. It looks like to have a whole bunch of power. But they lack moral legitimacy. Or, they struggle to present the surface of moral legitimacy. If that moral legitimacy can be critically unveiled to show how power and interest are working behind that language of legitimacy which is called development, free market, transparency, all those things, it is language of out of there.  If that side of legitimacy can be exposed for what it is, and the moral resources of religion are a mess, because religion begins on the ground in the neighborhood. Religion does not begin, like CRCS, like the department of religion at Temple University. The reason there is CRCS, the reason there is Temple University, is because religion is alive. It is alive on underground, and its power comes wide spread from ground up. That power can be misused, or can be used accurately. And I would see CRCS like department of religion at Temple University. We in some sense have a tremendous reservoir of critical privilege of legitimacy. It is given to us by the guy who goes to pray five times a day. That is where we get our legitimacy from. That is why we study religion. If religion did not happen up here on the ground, there would not be any department of religion. There would not be any CRCS. We benefit from the everyday religious beliefs and practices of Moslems, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews. That is a precious inheritance that we get generations after generations. CRCS can use that vast cultural-moral power to begin to do the work on building a world, but it has two things right now. The world is getting more and more unequal everywhere, no question about that, and the statistic says so. More unequal within nation! within your nation is more and more unequal; within my nation we are more and more unequal; within all nations everywhere are more and more unequal. It has tremendous implication for what is called democracy because money and wealth are also the power. When you have brought money become more and more unequal, what happens to democracy? Building is going on and it is inequality between nations of the global south and global north. The global north continues to be the big winner in international financial trade. So, there is inequality within nations that are expanding. Inequality between nation of north and south is expanding. That is one of the critical problems.

          The other critical problem is the ecological crisis. All the language of development has offered. We cannot address the issue of inequality directly. What we can do is we can grow our way out of it. That the whole idea that with the rising tide, all boats rise. Maybe if the big boats rise, little bit faster and higher, we can grow away out of this. See! that is the implication of the ecological crisis that we cannot try to answer the inequality, moral issues, by simply trying to grow rapidly. We have to find a way of redistributing, the way the goods of the world are distributed. That is politically a difficult task. But I think the only way forward, and I think places like CRCS have the moral inheritance given to you by people on the ground to say “we cannot have this inequality continue this way; we cannot have unsustainable environmental practices to continue.” You know that; we know that; we have to work together. CRCS has Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists. You put those populations together. You’ve got a lot of people working against us, to try to use religions in different way, to try to divide in order to conquer. That’s the old use of this practice. Power uses religion to divide and conquer as power offers this unnecessarily divided ethnic tradition. So, the struggle is going to be there. We cannot leave that struggle. We need the field. We just live with the others who can use the religion for purposes we deeply disagree with. So, we have to get other stuff. We are in there. Your children will be in there, struggling with my grandchildren. It is going to be a long fight, but it is a great fight, and we have a great possibility of winning that struggle over the long time.


CRCS: That makes a program like this subversive

JCR : Yes, I hope so. Subversive in the name of Allah or mother earth, hahaha… whatever. Subversive in the name of more equality, create sustainability. That is a subversion that needs to win in the future.

CRCS: Does it mean, after you explained about the issue and also the relation with the religious studies, the religion still used as an instrument rather than a part of realm that we should study?

JCR    : You need to study religions because people out there had designed religions to use religions for their own purposes and those purposes I call agree with power. So religion is a major player, a major power player in the world today. We, our persuasion, need to be in that struggle. I need to try very clever in that struggle. I need to be insightful in that struggle. I mean struggle going to be successful has to begin with accuracy and honesty, and communicating that. I was saying at the end of my class today, “if you’re concerned about your environment, we are talking about environment, you can feel very isolated, very alone. You are very small. You have this tiny little NGO, but there is a huge bank, huge corporation, and what are you going to do?” And then I said to my student in the class, “I’m not a stranger. I’m not alone. In my country there is a million of me.” This is true, and I said, “There is a million of you in your country. There is a million and million of those who think like we do, hope like we do, and feel like we do. There is a million and million of us.” And that is an important statement you can feel like you are isolated and alone, but you are not. My graduate students no longer drive cars to Temple University. They do not even ride motor scatters to Temple University. They ride bikes. My graduate students are working with poor people in North Philadelphia, where Temple is, teaching them how to build unbanning carbons, how to build nutritious food. The new rice that has grown up, three harvests, used to be two before you got new seeds, pesticides, and so on, but the problem with the new rice is loses of a third of its nutritional value, because it is grown so quickly. See…, get three harvests but only two-thirds of the nutritional value. To get the same nutritional value of the new rice you have to have third as much consumption as you had before. When you grow your own food, let say like the graduate students are doing teaching the folks, living right next door, poor folks to use the land around of them to replant that plant with the urban gardens, that’s very nutritious food. That does not have to be irrigated. It does not have to be transported -the average supper in the United States to be traveled 1500 miles, to get to that supper table. That is the average distance travelled by the different food you have to supper in United States. What does it mean we are eating? It means we are eating essentially oil. We are eating oil, to transport all that food. When I ate grapes –I love grapes– in January, in Philadelphia, those grapes were travelled 4000 miles from Chile to get to my table, and I am basically eating oil. What I am saying, there is a new consciousness about how to relate ourselves as a species to the larger environment that we are actually dependent part. And people are active, in your country and in my country. There are millions and millions like us. So, it is the wrong time to say “it is impossible!” It is the right time to say “it is the beginning to be a possible dream!” You see…, the human species never face this kind of crisis before. This is absolutely new. We never finish this before. And those who already know what the crisis is, who know how we got it, I mean, we know this is something that our species has ever had to manage before, and now has to manage if our future as a species is going to be this future. So, it is terrible and the wonderful time to be alive. I wish I am a little younger. I like to be around to see this struggle growing up. But, I trust you folks, your children and my children. We are in a good start.


Religious Studies, Social Science, and Poverty

JohnCRCS: I’m still thinking about the existence of religious studies. After I learn the religious studies, I question myself with a question about differentiation between anthropology of religion and religious studies itself. What kind of urgency of religious studies has if we still use the approach and area of anthropology of religion?

JCR    :  I am very sure, for example in Christian tradition, there is a very sharp understanding that cannot be in final discipline between faith and reason. The faith needs reason, reason needs faith. That cannot be any final separation of those two. So, to use, let say, the instrument of social science to study religion is not to violate the religion. It is not to violate the faith. It is a way of expressing faith through scientific reason. Scientific reason can be quite irrational as well. I mean there was a scientific reason for a while, in the West especially, that says science will explain what religion used to explain and what all things done that the science and religion will explain everything. That is a kind of irrational rationality. At the bottom of science, I think, the best of science, is wonder, acknowledgment. It is “Oh my God, how are we going to understand? Billions of suns, Billions of galaxies, wow….!” You see that???. That is the science. That is the call of horizon of truth. That is the call of the horizon of truth. That is the call of the horizon also of faith. We trust this faith but what does this faith means. We receive our life. We receive this world as a gift to us, as our responsibility. So, I do not see any ultimate difference between using anthropology and critical tools of anthropology to study religion, and being a religious person, being a Moslem, being a Christian. I think that is a way of being both faithful and also critical and rational. Takes two legs to walk, and you can walk with those two legs.

CRCS: Are there any mainstream approach in religious studies compared to Indonesia and United States? Or, just generally we call religious studies?

: I was talking with my friend last night. He comes from Arizona State University who is in graduate program of religious studies, doing his Ph.D. He was giving a complaint, that he felt that many departments of religious studies no longer see themselves responsive or responsible to their religious heritance rather they see themselves responsive and responsible to the academic association or to other departments in the university. They like to present themselves as objective scientist studying religion over there. And Steve Potter thought that was a kind of inferiority complex, a fear that, you know, religious studies somehow was really as hardnosed and tough as anthropology, psychology, sociology. I agree with Steve, there is a danger in some academic programs of religion that they think of themselves not as programs which study religion but as programs that study how to be scientifically regressing. I think that tends to make the study of religion something that ends up going nowhere except back to itself, and ends up going over not into anything that we have been talking about before the heritage of moral, of resources of moral heritage, to struggle with contemporary world. That kind of academic study of religion tends to just go back into the academic of religion,  the academic of religion: how can I get them, how can I get them, how can I publish my book, how can I publish my book?. It is terrible! 

CRCS: I have already read your article about religion and poverty. What made me still question about the discourse of religion and poverty that we have already known that there are many articles about the religion and poverty, so what makes you still interested in the discourse of religion and poverty in current time of Indonesia?

JCR : Well, Islamic heritage, Christian heritage, and Jews heritage all have something in common called the prophets. If you read the prophet they have interesting notions that say, “how does God judge an issue; how does God bring moral judgment to an issue; and does God look at the size of people’s houses, does God look at the number of cars on the street; does God look at the size of bank corporation.” No! God has every nation. How do you treat the winners of the earth? That is how you judge the nation. So, why do you pay attention to poverty? Because that is what it means to be a Moslem, and a Christian. We know that from the prophet. Imagine…! You see how different this study on language of Medieval, and looking Dow Jones is doing just like that. This is development from below. This is the development from ground up. And what could be more ground up than food? Either you eat or you die. The prophets were very clear; they say, “you want to know about the moral standing of your country? Fine! This is what you will find out. You go, you do research on “how is your country doing with the widows of the earth? How is your country doing with those who are most exposed, and are most wrong?” That is how you judge your nation. And that is also how you begin your test. I do not come from strange place. I come from the same place like you do. They told us about what we’re supposed to do.

CRCS: Ok, Dr. Raines, thank you for your time talking to us. (CRCS)

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