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Flagler professor’s book ‘Making Sense of the Sacred’ investigates ethics of universalism

Apr 27, 2021

Our shared values as a global society can be found in the religions of the world, according to a new book by Dr. James Rowell, associate professor of Religion at Flagler College. “Making Sense of the Sacred,” available on May 18 from Augsburg Fortress Publishers, breaks from the conventional norms of textbooks – which focus on providing comprehensive detail – by examining in greater detail the universal message found in religious doctrines.

Jim Rowell book Making Sense of the Sacred“All religions share certain moral values,” Rowell said. “These are important norms that allow us to behave civilly towards one another. But not all religions emphasize or interpret these ethics in the same way.”

This divergence in how values are interpreted leads to different, and sometimes conflicting practices. In Rowell’s book, he points to the injunction of “do not kill,” which exists in every major religious tradition, as an example.

“Is abortion a form of murder?” he asks in the book. “Should capital punishment be allowed? Can war be justified? We all agree that killing is morally bad and should be avoided but disagree (ethically) in terms of specific applications of or exemptions from that rule.”

It is these complex relationships between diverse belief systems that inspired the cover of Rowell’s book – that of a puzzle.

“We all know how to make puzzles, and we look to images of the box for their construction,” he said. “Life, however, presents no absolute or clear image – we are not certain where we came from, why we are here, or perhaps if there is God or something sacred in the world as we know it. All of us, as we are born into certain traditions and places, inherit parts of those puzzle pieces, and we can assemble them meaningfully. Looking beyond the horizons of our own traditions and background, however, there is not a complete image for how to integrate our views with contrasting views of those about us. “

As our world grows increasingly interdependent, these commonalities matter more now than ever.

“We live in a pluralist world, where we encounter people from various traditions and perspectives all the time,” Rowell said. “It is essential that we have a way of thinking that there are values we can hold in common, and that because someone is from a different tradition or viewpoint than we have, this does not make them our enemy. This may simply mean that they are trying to understand the puzzle of life, the essential and cosmic questions of philosophy and of religion, differently.”

Rowell’s interests lie at the cross-section of religion, politics and morality. At Flagler, he teaches courses such as World Religions; Star Wars, Tolkien and Religion; Gandhi and Bin Laden; Buddhism and Asia; and Hinduism and India. He is also author of “Gandhi and Bin Laden: Religion at the Extremes.”

It is no surprise that his new book explores the connections between diverse worldviews. He hopes readers will learn from his book a similar message he discovered in his research – one of universalism. It is a theme he has admired since his days in graduate school, and one anchored in the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi.

“All too often we pride ourselves too much in our own viewpoint, religious or otherwise, and claim a monopoly on truth,” he said. “The deeper truth is (as I think Gandhi understood it) is that none of us have a monopoly on truth, and all of us have quite a lot we can learn from other religions, or other perspectives. What we must do is realize we do not know it all, and take other viewpoints very seriously.”

Rowell’s book, “Making Sense of the Sacred,” published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers, can be purchased from May 18 at https://muse.jhu.edu/book/82211. For more, visit Rowell’s website at www.meaningofreligion.com and his YouTube channel.

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