Core Research

 

Asian Diasporic, Alternative, and New Religion in Central Europe and Austria
Lukas Pokorny

Born and bred in Vienna, I am naturally fascinated by the growing diversity of Austria’s religious panorama. This research draws on a variety of social-scientific (qualitative interviews et al.) and historical methods, investigating one substantial aspect of the vibrant Austrian religious landscape, that is, Asian diasporic, ‘alternative,’ and new religion. Examining both the historical formation processes and the contemporary situation of selected groups/traditions, I contribute to mapping the largely uncharted domain of religion in Austria, both past and present. While assessing the historical development, this research also traces Austrian missionary mobilities into the neighbouring Central European countries. A survey of the historical dimension likewise includes a study of glocalisation processes in terms of ritual and doctrine, but also how they manifest contemporarily. Additionally, each country-specific case study is commonly anchored in a succinct preceding discussion of the group’s general history and main doctrinal tenets. Naturally, I take a Religious Studies approach towards the movements encountered, seeking to establish a trusting working collaboration where the researcher and the informants are on a par. This research is descriptive, recognises the significance of and does not pass any value judgement on the teachings and groups studied. My papers in this field are chiefly published in Religion in Austria, a Religious Studies book series I launched in 2012 together with Hans Gerald Hödl to create an international dissemination platform of respective scholarship. In my past research I dealt extensively with Kōfuku no Kagaku (Happy Science), Sōka Gakkai, and, especially, the Unification Movement. Currently, I prepare papers on FIGU (Freie Interessengemeinschaft für Grenz- und Geisteswissenschaften und Ufologiestudien), Naikan, Nipponzan Myōhōji (with Isabelle Prochaska-Meyer), Share International, Śrī Śrī Rādhā Govinda Gauďiyā Maţh (with Hans Gerald Hödl and Birgit Heller), Wŏnhwado, and the Unification Movement.
 

Disciplinary Trajectories in the Study of Ancient Religions
Nickolas Roubekas

My current research revolves around the disciplinary chasm encountered in the contemporary study of ancient religions. On the one hand, classicists and ancient historians have served the field of ‘ancient religions’ with their detailed studies, commentaries, textual analyses, and discussions. On the other hand, the hegemony of the North American and North European postmodern view of the category of ‘religion’ has raised some important and—more often than not—‘dangerous’ issues in the overall academic study of religion. However, both ancient history/classics and postmodern religious studies approaches seem to be somehow utterly isolated within their own disciplinary limits when it comes to the study of ancient religions. This research is situated at the crossroad of the two fields, attempting to bring together the two disciplines while simultaneously promoting criticisms and the centrality of methodological and theoretical discussions that are most of the times neglected by representatives of both fields.

Inter-Religious/Spiritual Dimensions of Palliative Care or Spiritual Care
Birgit Heller

Palliative Care administers to the physical-mental-social-spiritual dimensions of critically ill or dying patients and their affected relatives. In multi-religious modern Western societies, the Christian hospital chaplaincy has lost its formerly undisputed position. However, in the hospice movement and in Palliative Care, Christian spirituality still has great significance, not least because the hospice idea itself is strongly influenced by Christian values. Nowadays, Buddhist traditions play an important role in Western societies as in many cases they seem to form a bridge between the levels of a non-denominational and an individual spirituality. Apart from terminal care in the institutionalized religious traditions, numerous forms of spiritual care for the dying have emerged which are located outside of organized religions. The dimensions of spiritual care and support for the dead constitute a special aspect which has received little attention so far. Many facets of this care for the dead are anchored within the religious traditions, but it also plays a role in modern secular societies. Spiritual Care is a modern phenomenon that is not only relevant in palliative care, but in the healthcare sector in general. The term is applied to confessional Christian pastoral care in its modern (often inter-religiously renewed) appearance, to the traditional support on the part of various religions (such as Islam, Judaism, etc.), but also to spiritual support beyond the established traditions. From the perspective of religious studies, Spiritual Care is particularly interesting since developments of the contemporary religio-spiritual culture are reflected in this field. I gained broad expertise in this field as I have taught in an interdisciplinary university course on Palliative Care for 15 years where I learnt a lot myself from various professors, and I have been active in training and advanced training up to the present day. The theoretical and practical exposition of this area has already found its expression in numerous publications. In the future, I will continue to work on individual detail aspects, especially since a contextual bridge may be built to the subject area of near-death experiences insofar as these phenomena are being increasingly perceived in their relevance for Palliative/Spiritual Care in recent times (Allan Kellehear; Simon Peng-Keller).


Inventing Early Christian Anti-Pagan Discourse
Nickolas Roubekas

This research aims at examining and further analysing how second- and third-century Christian authors responded to and utilized pagan theories of religion in their attempt to confront their contemporaries that adhered to the traditional religions. Rather than residing to the old premise that Christian discourse was merely a theological reply to pagan attacks based solely on theological grounds, this project maintains that early Christian apologists were working towards strengthening the belief of existing Christians by involving both dogmatical and theoretical principles that stemmed from both the pagan and the newly-formed Christian milieu. In this manner, authors like Justyn Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, and others invented a new line of defence and argumentation that is closer to theorising about religion as a category rather than only about promoting Christianity as the ‘true’ religion.

Life, Aging, Death, and the Supernatural in Neo-Confucianism
Lukas Pokorny

In this research I explore an area that has hitherto received only little attention by scholars of Confucian Studies, namely neo-Confucian views towards life, aging, death, and the supernatural, as well as the ensuing implications for a Confucian spirituality. In a first step, my research focuses on the oeuvre of a seminal figure of Korean neo-Confucian thought, that is, Yi I (Yulgok; 1536–1584). The teachings of Yulgok (yulgokhak) are representative for Cheng-Zhu Confucianism fully unfolded and at the zenith of its systematic development. I pursue the research in two stages. First, I focus on the production of a critical edition, translation, and annotation of individual Hanmun texts relevant to the subject. Subsequently, I intend to systematically examine selected issues drawing upon the full array of texts previously studied. In a second step, the research will extend to other exponents of neo-Confucian thought, significantly widening the materials and worldviews under scrutiny. The annotated translations will be extensively introduced, and parallel corpora will be used. The discourse rendered accessible by the research allows for further comparative reflections and opens up practical implications (e.g., Confucian-based healthcare). The pertinent neo-Confucian line of argument ordinarily develops while contesting concepts and practices of traditions competing in the religious realm, involving Daoism, Buddhism, and folk traditions such as musok. Accordingly, expounding on the neo-Confucian understanding of life, aging, death, and the supernatural, not only explicates this intriguing and scarcely known part of neo-Confucian self-identity, but also sheds light on the emic perception and criticism towards the surrounding ‘heterodox’ religious milieu, and thus gives a portrayal, albeit an apologist one, of the doctrinal and ritual environment beyond self-defined orthodoxy. I currently work on several annotated translations, including Yulgok’s Suyo ch’aek (Treatise on Longevity and Premature Death), Sasaeng kwisin ch’aek (Treatise on Death and Life, Ghosts and Spirits), Sinsŏn ch’aek (Treatise on ‘Immortals’), and Ŭiyak ch’aek (Treatise on Medicine).

Millenarianism and East Asian New Religious Movements
Lukas Pokorny

This research is situated at the intersection of East Asian Studies and Religious Studies, and Millenarian Studies and New Religions Studies, respectively. In recent years, an increasing amount of scholarship has been produced around the junction of Millenarian Studies and New Religions Studies. Whereas the significance of millenarianism—that is, the belief in an all-embracing salvational transformation of the current world order—in East Asian new religious movements (NRMs) is broadly recognised by scholars, a substantial treatment of the subject has been, as yet, largely avoided. My research aims to fill this lacuna, providing the first comprehensive (comparative) analysis of the millenarian trajectories of a number of major East Asian NRMs based on copious and close hermeneutical examinations of original sources in Japanese, Korean, Modern and Classical Chinese, and Vietnamese. I argue that this millenarian dimension forms the doctrinal leitmotif and root ideological cause sanctioning and facilitating the versatile mundane (that is, social, political, and economic) engagement of East Asian NRMs. Based on a specific definition of millenarianism (inspired by the scholarship of Norman Cohn/Yonina Talmon-Garber and Catherine Wessinger), the movements under scrutiny are first assessed individually, delineating in detail the dominating millenarian narratives, which are usually blended with conspicuously ethnocentric topoi. The discussion also reveals the distinct soteriological discourse, which is largely fed by functional patterns adopted from the surrounding religious-doctrinal environment. Based on a sufficient number of individual case studies, I intend to eventually comparatively classify the millenarian themes of East Asian NRMs along the theoretical lines developed by Wessinger et al. ('catastrophic millenarianism,' 'avertive millenarianism,' and 'progressive millenarianism') with the aim of creating a more refined scheme by adding functional subcategories. Ultimately, the research is anticipated to offer an initial thorough, philologically sound comparative analysis of the millenarian anatomy of East Asian NRMs, linking the results to, and thereby substantially advancing the vibrant theoretical discourse in current Millenarian Studies. As such, this research will contribute substantially to a solid understanding of East Asian NRMs, many of which have spread overseas, considering their main motivational urges as well as their domestic and global mission and aims. Several papers and a monograph are in progress. As for the wider area of New Religions Studies, my co-edited (with Franz Winter) Handbook of East Asian New Religions Movements is slated to be published in 2017 with Brill.

Near-Death Experiences in the Context of Contemporary Religiosity/Spirituality
Birgit Heller

Many religious traditions report about journeys to the otherworld by (female or male) shamans, founders of religions, saints, or visionaries. There is an astounding wealth of transmissions on diverse ascents to heaven or descents to hell. (Not only) from the perspective of religious studies, near-death experiences are considered a modern version of these journeys that are found widespread across the religions. Such experiences are common worldwide and the public interest is enormous and increasing. The contents of near-death experiences vary according to culture, religious affiliation or biography. There are several scientific explanatory approaches that so far have been anything but coherent. It is at first interesting to analyse how clear and strong the respective ideological background of the single researcher shapes an "objective" view of the phenomenon. This research area virtually is a prime example for the entanglement of science and subjective ideology. Thus, the two extreme perceptions of near-death experiences as either a figment or as empirical-objective evidence for life after death stand opposite each other. Central to my approach is the attempt to consider near-death experiences as mystical experiences that transcend everyday reality. At any rate, these experiences prove that in the extreme situation of subjectively encountering death, human beings immerse relatively frequently into a profoundly religio-ethical dimension that impacts their attitude towards life and death sustainably. It is evident that the popularization of the phenomenon conforms to the contemporary religious field and its characteristic elements (Hubert Knoblauch: Populäre Religiosität). Within the religious traditions, detailed descriptions of the worlds beyond mostly have the function to offer orientation for the living, to shake them up and to motivate them to lead better lives. Partially, journeys to the otherworld also serve those dead who are in an unpleasant state and in need of help. What meanings and functions the theme of the journey to the otherworld has for modern humans in the form of near-death experiences, is a special question that I aim to pursue more closely.

Religion and Gender
Birgit Heller

In the past decades, the category "gender" has become an important component in research, which also applies to the field of religions. The term gender refers to its social construction and is internationally prevalent in the scientific discourse. The German term "Geschlecht" has the advantage that it encompasses the biological sex as well as the social gender and is thus consistent with the findings that these dimensions are not to be separated from each other. Gender and religion are interwoven in several ways. On the one hand, religious traditions, views, symbols and practices are not gender-neutral, but characterized gender-specifically. Furthermore, the gender roles, images, stereotypes, ideals and self-conception of women and men within the context of a particular culture are in constant correlation with its respective religious-philosophical heritage. On the other hand, the traditional research and presentation of religions itself is predominantly marked by a one-sided androcentric perspective. The complex of religions and gender comprises a broad range of themes and questions. Since more than 25 years I have been dealing with the most varied aspects of this vast research field. A first focus are religio-historical in-depth analyses (such as thea-logy in the ancient Orient; the emancipation of women in modern Hinduism; the access of women to religious knowledge in Brahmanic Hinduism and in Rabbinic Judaism or transgender-phenomena in Hindu traditions), while a second focus lies on the comparative-systematic perspective. Central issues here are the connections between religions, gender roles and gender orders; body and body symbolisms; sexuality and sexual violence; gender transformations in form of bodily and symbolic phenomena, but also questions on gender-specific religiosity/spirituality or gender-specific symbols of divinity and the references to social gender roles and relationships. Many publications exist on these subjects that I plan to integrate into an introductory, systematic synopsis over the next years.