REFLECTIONS – “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce” with Dr. Adam Davis

by Savannah H. Finver

On December 1, 2022, Dr. Adam Davis, Professor of History at Denison University, delivered the annual Don and Barbara Davis Lecture in Christianity, co-sponsored by the Department of Comparative Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and the Department of History. The lecture, entitled “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce,” focused on the emergent connection between charitable giving, especially in the form of almsgiving, and the increase in rhetoric around the profit economy popularized in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Davis’ argument stems in part from his recent book, The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Medieval Hospital (2019) which was awarded the Ohio Academy of History’s 2021 Publication Award for best work published in the previous year by an author from the state of Ohio. While the book focuses more heavily on the founding of hospitals during the 12th-13th centuries, Davis’ lecture focused primarily on the ideas circulating through both churches and the emerging market economy which led to charitable giving being reframed as a kind of spiritual capital; that is, as a loan that a layperson could make to God which God would then be obligated to repay “tenfold” or even “a hundred fold.” Crucially, this reframing of charitable giving in economic terms directly challenged prior notions of the very definition of “charity” put forth in the gospel as Christian clergymen had interpreted the text before.

The problem with framing charitable giving as a “loan,” as Davis explains it, is that by definition, a loan requires reciprocity, meaning that which is given must be compensated or repaid in full. Furthermore, usury, or the taking of interest on a loan (being paid back tenfold, for example), was explicitly denounced as a sin in early Christian and Catholic teachings, and in certain cases in Jewish and Muslim teachings as well. Charity, then, at least prior to the 12th century, implied a certain type of attitude towards the act of giving, that the giving must be performed without any expectation of compensation or reward in return, even emotional or spiritual reward. In the 12th and 13th centuries, though, it was the very promise of spiritual reward or spiritual capital in Heaven—indeed, sometimes even material rewards on Earth—that clergymen used to encourage their congregations to engage in almsgiving. Though the idea of performing good works, especially in the form of charitable giving, in order to secure favor with God may sound like a familiar idea to readers today, in the 13th century it amounted to a fundamental paradigm shift, one which would usher in a new era of conceiving God as a debtor to his human creations, who were in turn conceived as merchant creditors with the power to force or manipulate God into providing them material or spiritual wealth in exchange for their good deeds. In other words, the language used in churches to discuss charitable giving began to take on the same terms and ideas that were emerging from the profit market. Put differently, churches began borrowing the language of economy to make sense of the gospel to their congregations. You can see some examples of how this language was equated and interchanged in the table below:

Economy Church
loan charity
debtor God
creditor layperson
repayment spiritual reward
profit favor
market congregation

At the end of the lecture, many audience members remarked that, though they very much enjoyed the lecture, they were unsurprised by Davis’ findings and felt that the language of market/profit economy was still very present currently in churches and in matters of charitable giving. For my part, I was reminded multiple times throughout Davis’ talk of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (originally published in English in 1930) and my own undergraduate advisor Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion. Because the rise in free market capitalism coincides pretty closely to the height of Protestant Reformation (in the 16th century), it hardly seems surprising that the commercialized language that would become the center of the modern world would inevitably have an impact on those discourses we call “religious” as well. Relying in part on Weber’s argument that the Calvinist expectation for engaging in good works drove the development of modern capitalism, Martin argues that many kinds of so-called “religious” discourses have been adapted to produce a particular kind of docile worker–one which won’t protest worsening conditions in the workplace and accepts individual responsibility for systemic issues. No corner is truly safe, it would seem–even the supposedly “separate” sphere of religion–from the jaws of the gods of the marketplace.

We look forward to continuing these conversations at next year’s Davis Symposium, a day packed with discussions about Christianity and Capitalism, on Oct. 27, 2023. We hope to see you there!

REFLECTIONS: Physical Space and Reproductive Rights for a More Just World

by Savannah Finver, originally posted to the Center for the Study of Religion website on 03/03/2021

On February 25, 2021, the Center for the Study of Religion hosted the fourth installment of its Living Well, Dying Well: Religion, Health, and Healing series entitled “The Movement for Black Lives.” This was the final panel for the first of a two-year Global Arts + Discovery Theme grant that was focused on the topic of “Living Well,” while next year’s panels will turn to the topic of “Dying Well.”

The first speaker for the panel was Dr. Elise Edwards, Assistant Professor of the Department of Religion at Baylor University. Her talk was entitled “Black Spirituality and the Creation of Spaces for Healing and Liberation” and focused primarily on the need for construction of physical spaces in which black bodies, lives, achievements, and joys can be celebrated. For Edwards, religion intersects with both violence and liberation, but emphasis on liberation and restorative justice can’t and won’t be effectively reached until there has been greater focus on developing the physical spaces necessary for ensuring the safety of black bodies. While Christian theology can provide a kind of moral structure for a more just world, physical buildings provide the more tangible structures that ensure freedom from acts of violence, protection from toxic conditions in the environment such as pollution, and celebration of a black aesthetic that focuses on black joy rather than black trauma or death. Only once these bodily needs have been met can spiritual transformation be sought and achieved. Thus, for Edwards, it is our responsibility as scholars to engage in community-based scholarship where we actively participate in and critique the world around us in order to create a more just world.

The second speaker for the panel was Dr. Monique Moultrie, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Georgia State University. Her talk was titled “Trusting Black Women: Reproductive Justice as Black Liberation” and focused on the need to trust black women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. For Moultrie, reproductive health encompasses three main rights: (1) the right to have a child under the conditions of one’s choosing, be that a hospital or at home with a doula or midwife; (2) the right to not have a child if bearing children is not desired; and (3) the right to raise children in healthy and safe environments when motherhood is desired. Moultrie further notes that visible black mothers are a source of resistance against injustice, which she describes as “revolutionary mothering.” Because black women have historically been barred from parenthood, women who have chosen to parent visibly—and especially the mothers of the many black men who have been subject to police brutality and violence—have become the leading activists and representatives advocating for safe spaces in which to raise their children. However, Moultrie also emphasized the important role ethicists must play in celebrating all of the procreative choices of women, including the choice not to procreate. Religion and ethics can provide us with some of the logics and language needed for understanding the importance and value of human and specifically black life by emphasizing the sacredness of human life, redescribing women’s choices as being made in a Godly image, and the imperative of moral agency embodied in procreative choices.

Where both of the speaker’s presentations converged was on the importance and centrality of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in social justice initiatives for black bodies, health, and lives. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter was developed in 2013, according to the movement’s website, as a response to the acquittal of the police officer responsible for the shooting death of Trayon Martin. Though it is best known for its protests against police brutality, Drs. Edwards and Moultrie both emphasize the growth of the movement since its origin to focus on many different aspects of black liberation and social justice initiatives. These initiatives include the creation of safe spaces within communities where black joy can be celebrated, children can be raised, healing can occur, and spiritual development and transformation become more accessible within black communities. Both speakers also discussed the importance of involvement on behalf of both scholars and religious groups/movements in communal social justice initiatives. The obligation to create a more just world does not belong to the members of the BLM movement alone. If we want to live in a world where health and healing are possible for all citizens, we share the collective responsibility of participating in black life and movements and elevating black voices.

REFLECTIONS: Magic & Healing Workshop

by Sarah Dove, originally posted to the Center for the Study of Religion website on 02/02/2021

The Center for the Study of Religion recently hosted a “Magic & Healing Workshop,” programmed as a part of their Living Well, Dying Well: Religion, Health, & Healing series for the first year of a two year Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme grant. This event was co-sponsored by the Center for Folklore Studies, and is the third event in the first year of programming focused around the topic of “Living Well.”

This event featured a diverse panel of experts and practitioners of religious healing and magic. The panel was moderated by Michael Swartz of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at OSU. The first presenter was Sabina Magliocco of the University of British Columbia, and her contribution was titled “Italian Vernacular Healing Modalities: Story & Song.” During this part of the panel, Dr. Magliocco shared about her work with the breadth of magical religious healing traditions embedded in the everyday life of rural cultures in and around the Tuscan Apennine region of Campagnia, Italy. Her primary argument delivered a counter-Weberian view, laying out the “enchanted worldview” of her interlocutors, perceiving the world as interconnected and permeated by spirits. Members of the communities that Dr. Magliocco comes into contact with engage deeply with the practice of magical religious healing through song and dance as a means to instill a re/integration to balance with and agency within the world around them.

The second panelist, Michael Dangler of Three Cranes Grove, is a practitioner of druidism and gave a presentation on “Healing Through Inspiration and Relationships.” Rev. Dangler’s focusing question as someone both invested in this ritual tradition and critically investigating it was, how does the body (broadly conceived) react to the healing ritual and what is the role of the spirits that aid fellow practitioners also participating in the healing ritual? In the druid tradition, “inspiration” (Aren) is a process of external internal connectivity, it is a path to healing. Directly addressing the ritual practice of “toning,” or the drawing forth of blessings and transforming it into sounds, Rev. Dangler noted the importance of the ritual intent more than the ideas behind the ritual itself. In other words, “the act of healing is healing” for those involved in the ritual.

Third to speak was Alexander Rocklin of Otterbein University. The research he discussed concerned itself with magic and religion in the context of historical colonization. He gave keen attention to radicalized religious practices as marked by colonial suspicion and practices of criminalization, especially ritual healing practices. But as these practices were being examined for their negative association by colonizers, Dr. Rocklin told us, they also demonstrated a mode of identification not hemmed in by blood or borders, but embodiment of spirit through ritual. Essentially, ritual healing practices in this context demonstrate that healing spans divisions.

Last to present of the panelists was Hugh Urban of the Department of Comparative Studies here at OSU. He delivered research from his latest project that undertook a study of “Magic and Healing in Mayong, Northeast India.” The long history of magical religious tradition that has continued into present day. Specifically, Dr. Urban tells us that the region is becoming increasingly well known through news and social media, and national tourism campaigns. As attention in the area increases the magical, religious rituals that permeate the region have also been subjected to increasing scrutiny and accusations of fraud or “black magic.” His overarching question is—and remains—how local practitioners and recipients of magical healing are negotiating their position and efficacy in the world of globalization and digital media.

The intersections of the panelists’ work became clarified across these seemingly disparate field of investigation in two primary ways. First, each presentation in some way discussed the role of sound produced in, around, or by the body of the practitioner or the recipient of healing as integral in some way to the underlying meaning of the ritual practice. Sound, located between the material and the ephemeral, thus becomes a slippery source of power in refiguring agency and efficacy but also allowing suspicion to seep in. A second unifying point of discussion that arose concerned the idea of efficacy more directly. Initially introduced by a member of the audience, the panelists and moderator undertook a lengthy discussion concerning the power of belief in confirming magical, religion healing. In this light, healing is able to move from the level of awareness, into practice, into reality. This stirring affirmation of what Dr. Magliocco called the “enchanted world view” coalesced around a singular defense of practice driving truth for those invested in magical, religious healing: “It may not be true, but I believe it.”

The Center for the Study of Religion would like to thank our panelists for their wonderfully rich and fascinating contributions, and our audience for attending and participating in our lively discussion. If you are interested in viewing a recording of this event, you can locate it using this LINK. For more information or for trouble shooting tips, contact Be sure to catch out next event on February 25, 2021 which will discuss Religion, Healing, and the Movement for Black Lives.