Forthcoming Book

Just a quick announcement that a book of mine — on Deleuze, in connection with many things, including Adorno, religion/secularism, and metaphilosophy/nonphilosophy — is coming out with Edinburgh UP in December. I’m happy to be able to post the cover at this point. Read the rest of this entry »

On the undecidable Caputo-Hägglund debate

I am vastly late to the party, but I have finally gotten around to reading Caputo’s response to Hägglund’s Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. A blog post is probably not the place to adjudicate detailed scholarly questions, but it does seem to me that Caputo has made a convincing case that Hägglund’s reading of Derrida leaves a good deal out. I have said before that we should view Hägglund’s book as a systematization of Derrida rather than a “reading,” and Caputo makes clear that it is a systematization with the goal of making Derrida newly useable to the kind of person who goes in for contemporary materialisms of various forms, which includes having a serious allergy to anything “religious.” That is to say, if I can be forgiven for putting it in a crass and over-simplifying way, Hägglund seems to be concerned with getting all that gross religion off of Derrida’s text.

What I’d like to suggest here is that Caputo’s argument is a kind of mirror image of Hägglund’s. Where Hägglund wants to use Derrida to get us completely free of religion, Caputo seems to want to use it to set up a completely blameless religion that would be free of the historical baggage of “religious violence.” This particularly comes out in the end of Caputo’s long piece, where he argues that deconstruction does not have access to a field in which the existence of a God beyond our experience could be “disproven” — hence, again, “religion” remains “safe and sound” (as Hägglund will recall in his response to Caputo). Thus, either we’re kept “safe and sound” from religion or religion is kept “safe and sound” from our tendency to screw everything up.

I would maintain that both readings of religion are actually present in Derrida’s sprawling oeuvre. Read the rest of this entry »

Book announcement: Religion and Hip Hop

My colleague Monica Miller, a fellow CTS PhD currently teaching at Lewis and Clark in Portland, has a new book coming out this summer called Religion and Hip Hop. Here’s the book description:

Religion and Hip Hop brings together the category of religion, Hip Hop cultural modalities and the demographic of youth. Bringing postmodern theory and critical approaches in the study of religion to bear on Hip Hop cultural practices, this book examines how scholars in religious and theological studies have deployed and approached religion when analyzing Hip Hop data. Using existing empirical studies on youth and religion to the cultural criticism of the Humanities, Religion and Hip Hop argues that common among existing scholarship is a thin interrogation of the category of religion. As such, Miller calls for a redescription of religion in popular cultural analysis – a challenge she further explores and advances through various materialist engagements.

Going beyond the traditional and more common approach of analyzing rap lyrics, from film, dance, to virtual reality, Religion and Hip Hop takes a fresh approach to exploring the paranoid posture of the religious in popular cultural forms, by going beyond what “is” religious about Hip Hop culture. Rather, Miller explores what rhetorical uses of religion in Hip Hop culture accomplish for various and often competing social and cultural interests.

The nerdiness of the New Atheism

This Sunday, the New York Times published a hugely entertaining review of a book purporting to demonstrate that quantum physics definitively answers the question “why is there something rather than nothing,” absolutely and once and for all. The reviewer goes to great lengths to show how ridiculous this claim is, but the best part of the piece is when he responds to the author’s polemic against religious thinkers:

And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

Religious but not spiritual

For years, I have been sarcastically reversing the popular claim that one is “spiritual but not religious,” instead declaring myself to be “religious but not spiritual.” As I’ve pondered this formula more, however, I have become increasingly convinced that this joke does contain a sincere grain of truth about the way I’d like to approach my life. I obviously don’t want to be “religious” in the sense of going to church every week, but that’s not all that’s at stake in “spiritual but not religious.” The “religious” is the formula, the ritual, the mediating institution that’s bigger than any individual — anything that’s not fully owned by the individual, anything that risks being an empty gesture. The “spiritual but not religious” person wants to cut past all the accumulation of tradition and habit and get straight to sincere spiritual experience.

My inspiration to write about this at long last comes from my reading of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which seems to fit my current mood perfectly. In particular, this bit strikes me as true:

Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things. (sec. 20)

Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.

My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. Read the rest of this entry »

Why do you care? On the “cult” of Mormonism

Despite my best efforts, it has proven impossible to avoid learning of events in the Republican presidential nomination process. This is particularly true of the revelation that a supporter of Rick Perry has called Mormonism a “cult.” I could swear that Religion Dispatches is doing 40 stories on this issue every day, each one of which gets retweeted into my Twitter feed at least a dozen times.

I find the response to this event extremely, extremely annoying. First, there’s the question of the word “cult.” Suddenly we learn that the term “cult” is nothing but a slur for a religious group you think is bad. But is it really? Read the rest of this entry »

Weapons Grade Snark: Against Barth On Religions

I am frankly offended by this stunning display of bad faith, initiated by Barth’s tortured dialectic and Green’s defence of so transparent a piece of sophistry […] The parochialism and abject ignorance of the advocates of the Barthian position is not only embarrassing, it is offensive to the dignity of the spiritual and religious lives of literally billions of fellow human beings.

Ivan Strenski, “On “Religion” and Its Despisers,” in What is religion?: origins, definitions, and explanations, ed. Thomas A. Idinopulos and Brian C. Wilson (Leiden: Brill, 1998). responding to Green Garrett, “Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barth’s Theology of Religion,” The Journal of Religion 75, no. 4 (1995).

Imagine writing a piece that was so offensive that it actually was offensive to billions of people.

The faith of Socrates

I taught the Phaedo this semester, and needing to divide it over two class sessions, I found a convenient stopping point — Cebes claims that Socrates has only demonstrated that the soul lasts longer than the body, but not that it’s immortal, a claim that throws Socrates’s companions into a depressed and confused state of mind and even prompts a return to the framing device. Focusing on this first half in relative isolation from the rest of the dialogue was helpful in that it forced me to grapple with the question of why the arguments of the first half run aground. It has to be more than the simple fact that Socrates usually analyzes and discards several arguments in the course of a dialogue, since the break here is so dramatic and pronounced.

Dealing with this question has led me to some observations that are doubtless unoriginal, but hopefully at least a little interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

An experiment

My title at Shimer College, by default, was going to be “Assistant Professor of Humanities,” but they offered me the option of tacking on another discipline if desired: religion or theology, for instance. As I normally do, I overthought the decision considerably, but I finally decided to go with the default for simplicity’s sake — as a few people pointed out, it wasn’t like people weren’t going to be able to tell from my CV what my home discipline is.

One side benefit, though, has been getting away from some of the baggage that would inevitably clog up any conversation where I said my job was “professor of religion.” In fact, a recent party provided a kind of natural experiment, as I alternated between saying I taught humanities and saying I taught religion. When I said humanities, people didn’t really have much to say and the conversation moved on naturally to topics other than the standard small-talk of “what’s your name, what do you do,” etc. When I said religion, by contrast, I was suddenly inundated with people’s religious histories, their novel theories about how every religion is at bottom the same, their lack of interest in organized religion and yet their deep concern for spirituality, their interest in Buddhism, etc. (I have trouble deciding whether this is preferable to the time that an evangelical tried to convert me to Christianity upon learning I taught… Christianity.)

So overall, I think I made the right decision on the job title and I need to stick with it in conversation going forward.

Indeed, I encourage others in religious studies to find a more neutral way of describing their work in casual conversation as well, because my experience has led me to believe that religion scholars bear a burden that no other class of expert does. If a doctor is at a party, for instance, people will likely ask them for medical advice. If a religion scholar is at a party, people will tell them all about religion. Obviously both approaches are annoying — I doubt doctors go to parties hoping to give out free medical advice — but at least asking questions shows some modicum of respect, some basic acknowledgment that specialized knowledge in the topic exists and requires work to attain.

The simple believer

In comments to my post on literalism, Rob L. has been concerned with defending the existence of “literal” religious beliefs, as opposed to what he sees as the tendency of religion scholars to explain away seemingly simplistic views (such as the idea that the Virgin Mary is “really” up there in heaven listening to our prayers). He seems to worry that such a view is patronizing or disrespectful to the simple religious folk, but I’ve seen a similar strategy at work among New Atheists: when confronted with more sophisticated theological reasoning, they will claim that theologians aren’t representative and you have to look at the religious beliefs of the majority.

This overlap between a well-intentioned and hostile approach gives me pause. What I’d like to argue in this post is that literalism is an unacceptable and ultimately patronizing approach to the faith of the simple believer — we must side with approach of the religion scholar or the theologian to deal with religious beliefs responsibly.

Read the rest of this entry »

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