Lecture examines role of saints and relics

by Jordy Urstadt | 11/18/93 6:00am

On Tuesday night, J.S. Tambiah lectured on the relationship of saints and the concept of sainthood to religious communities.

Tambiah, the head of the Harvard anthropology department, presented "The Charisma of Saints and the Cult of Relics, Amulets and Tomb Shrines: A Comparison" to an audience of 45 faculty and students in Rockefeller Hall.

Tambiah came to Dartmouth as a Dickinson Visiting Fellow, a program sponsored annually by the religion department. In conjunction with his public lecture, Tambiah has given three private lectures to a religion seminar focusing on his work.

Tambiah, in his comparison of eight different world religions, found that there is a universal concept of sainthood.

"A profile of religious sensibilities is realizable whatever the religions' substantive differences. There is a concept of universal saintliness," Tambiah said.

"Rather than abstract dogma and intellectual doctrines, saints are an effective way to focus religiousity (for a community)" Tambiah said. "They are creators of community and conduits to the divine."

The saints position in the community sanctifies a community. "Monks, by leading religious lives, keep the universe in moral balance," Tambiah said.

Tambiah used the case of Theravada Buddhist monks in present day Thailand to illustrate his conclusions. "The businessmen and royalty of Bangkok lionize the ascetic saints," Tambiah said.

"Political groups seek legitimation of their power by visiting a group of monks," Tambiah said.

The cult of relics continue the relationship of the world-renouncing saint to his or her community, Tambiah said.

Tambiah spoke on the powers of relics to spiritually ground a community. "Saints in the form of relics are placed at the very heart of institutionalized religion," Tambiah said.

In the political realm, the diffusion of relics legitimates empires and authority throughout history, Tambiah said.

Tambiah began his lecture with a reference to Pope John Paul II's 255 canonizations, illustrating the pertinence of the cult of saints. "It is no surprise that Pope John Paul II has canonized so many saints; it is an effort to extend the empire of Christendom," Tambiah said in conclusion.

The audience was impressed with the scope of Tambiah's lecture. "It was typical Tambiah stuff, jammed full of material," Religion Professor Hans Penner said.

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