Accessible English text of Vaiśeṣika Sūtra

As many readers know, I teach in a Great Books program where our courses center on the discussion of important primary texts across all major liberal arts disciplines — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The center of authority in the classroom is not the professor, but the course materials, and accordingly we are encouraged to be a “jack of all trades” and teach outside our scholarly expertise. Hence this semester I am actually teaching a natural science course on different views of astronomy and cosmology through history. While a traditional Great Books program would focus only on Western sources, we have aimed for greater inclusivenes. My current syllabus includes Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic sources alongside Western materials.

This brings me to the topic of my post, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, an ancient Hindu text that espouses something like atomism. It was clearly a slam dunk for my course, to include alongside Democritus and Lucretius, but I have been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a useable English translation of the text. This old edition is festooned with so much commentary as to be unreadable. Meanwhile, more recent editions are unusable for different reasons. The translation by Debasish Chakrabarty leaves so many words untranslated — including, absurdly, the words for the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) — as to be almost completely unreadable. Subhash Kak’s rendering is somewhat better, but still leaves far too many words untranslated and is burdened with a line-by-line commentary that alternates between boring reiteration and a tendentious attempt to demonstrate that the text anticipates everything in modern science. I can’t give either of those translations to my students and expect them to make heads or tails of it. I realize that no translation fully captures all the nuances of the foreign language — yet the solution is surely not to simply give up and expect the reader to learn dozens of foreign terms before they can approach the text at all.

Finally, driven by desperation, I went through the old edition, which at least translates the text into English, and transcribed the aphorisms of the original text. I provide the result here in case anyone might find it useful. It includes some clarifying footnotes of my own, as well as some material related directly to my classroom context (such as a division of the reading for two class sessions). I am aware that a full understanding of the text and its legacy requires engagement with the commentary, but I cannot pretend to provide that in the context of my class in any case. Presenting the original text, relatively unadorned, will at least give my students an overview of its breadth and key claims.

Thou shalt not lie

Immanuel Kant famously taught that we should treat all human beings as ends in themselves, and never simply as means. The categorical imperative imposes a complete prohibition against lying, because when someone lies, they treat the recipient of that lie not as an end in themselves, but as a means for the liar. When a lie is told, there is a fundamental breach––Kant calls this an annihilation––of a person’s dignity and autonomy. Many actions can be justified within a Kantian ethic; never lying.

I am becoming more Kantian by the day.

What we are witnessing today is not some postmodern moment where everything is relative. No, what we are witnessing today is a fundamental violation of Kant’s categorical imperative where a small group of right-wing extremists constantly lie to their listeners, and it is literally resulting in mass death. This is not sustainable.

When Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity––both fully vaccinated and part of a company that requires vaccination––get on television night after night and tell their viewers that Anthony Fauci is evil and that the Covid-19 vaccine is not trustworthy, they are lying. They are lying openly and they are lying unashamedly. They are using their viewers not as ends, but as means for their own political gain. Viewers of Fox News have dignity, and as that dignity is constantly violated by these bad men during a once in a century pandemic, said viewers are unnecessarily, but predictably, dying. This is not sustainable.

When these same right-wing commentators and politicians tell their listeners that President Biden has opened the southern border and that there are dangerous criminals flooding in, they are lying. Joe Biden has almost completely closed the border and he is likely violating international law by deporting asylum seekers, but half of America believes otherwise because people on television, radio, and pulpits have lied to them. The result of this lie ends up violating the basic dignity and autonomy of those who are credibly seeking help at our southern border, almost always leading to their further suffering and possible death. This is not sustainable.

From climate change to reproductive rights, the lies are nearly endless. I am actually not sure how to respond to a situation where half of the country is being lied to day after day. This might be where we need the psychoanalysts to explain that some people want to be lied to. But that still offers us no solution. In a world of lies where basic human dignity is being violated in such a blatant way, and where we see in real time the deadly results of those lies, the correct response must be political. The liars need to be defeated and their voices muted.

But is a politics built upon a prohibition of lying actually possible in a time when the liars are so loud? I’m genuinely not sure. But I am tired of watching family and friends get lied to again and again. I increasingly think that at a fundamental level Kant is right: we need a prohibition against lying. Humanity might literally depend on this.

LEST XIII Dissenting Church: Exploring the Theological Power of Conflict and Disagreement

Readers of the blog may be interested in the upcoming 13th Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology Conference, which will be taking place online from 20-23 October. The conference is free to attend, and you can register here.

I’ll be taking part in the final conference plenary as a keynote speaker. The theme for the panel is, “The theological power of conflict and disagreement?” Papers will be made available online before the conference and during the conference itself we’ll discuss the key ideas and arguments presented by the panellists. My paper is titled ‘Love your enemy: theology, identity and antagonism’, abstract as follows:

Christianity has always been characterised by disagreement, conflict, and inconsistency; so much so that it is tempting to define Christianity precisely as an ongoing disagreement about what it means to be a Christian. Theology has, for the most part, evaded this messy and embarrassing reality in favour of fantasies of wholeness, maintained by a range of strategies from sleights of hand, outright denial, or projection. Contestation cannot become a point of departure for theology so long as theologians are invested in denying its existence. To understand this desire for coherence, which grounds so much theological evasion, this paper draws on the work of Slavoj Žižek, whose materialist reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis offers resources for considering theology’s desire for unity, and suggests a number of possibilities for understanding, unsettling, and reworking our theological investments in fantasies of identity. As continental philosophy in the wake of Hegel has consistently held, however, we cannot understand self-relation and identity without also understanding the relationship between the self and the other. To consider contestation within Christianity, then, we must also pay attention to the fundamental antagonism which makes possible these internal conflicts: the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. This distinction is homologous with Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as the dimension of human relations that concerns the distinction between friend and enemy. This paper, then, explores what it means to take seriously the centrality of the distinction between friend and enemy to the construction of Christian identity, and will consider what it would mean to undertake to love our enemies, our selves. 

Political Theology syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for this course, and also to Sean Capener, some of whose ideas for excerpts I have borrowed, and to Robin James, whose pitch/thinkpiece assignment I’ve adapted! I’ll be starting to teach my joint second- and third-year course on Political Theology next week and I’m somewhat nervously looking forward to it – I think of all the courses I’ve taught this is the one with the most texts that have most profoundly shaped my thinking, which I know can sometimes make it more difficult to teach well.

Module summary:
“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt began the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

Continue reading “Political Theology syllabus”

Thoughts in the wake of the Texas anti-abortion law

[A blogpost version of a Twitter thread from earlier this morning.]

I grew up as a conservative evangelical and understand why the appeal to the life of the fetus has proven such a powerful argument. But forced childbirth is ghoulish and dystopian and it concerns a 100% definite human being we can see and talk to right now.

Continue reading “Thoughts in the wake of the Texas anti-abortion law”

What is the chief end of man?

A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:

There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.

Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?

I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?

Continue reading “What is the chief end of man?”

A Sabbath Rest

I am tired. I recognize that I’m privileged, that I don’t have kids, that we were able to keep our jobs, etc., etc. But I’m still tired. I lived through a pandemic, I lived through completely retooling my teaching for a format it was never meant to be in, and on top of that I bought a new apartment. Originally this summer, I was planning on starting a book project — a fun one, even — but I kept… not starting. It would have been my third book in three years. I couldn’t.

I deferred that project and since then have been doing this thing called “relaxing.” I’m working slowly and steadily toward things that I eventually need to get done — class prep mainly, but also a small handful of shorter writing commitments — but the majority of my days are free-form. Some days I read comic books, other days I dip into scholarly works I’m curious about. I play my NES Classic Edition and play piano. I sit around and argue with people on social media, or stare out the window, or do one of the hundred minor chores available to a new homeowner. In other words, I do some things that could be classified as “work,” but not Work in the strong sense that has dominated my life since college and maybe even before.

Looking back, my life has been dominated by a sense that the life of the mind I was enjoying was a temporary fluke and I must get the most out of it while I can. Continue reading “A Sabbath Rest”

Christianity, Race and Colonialism reading questions

When I was preparing to teach my Christianity, Race and Colonialism module for the second time round, I realised that one of the main things I was trying to do in the module was to help students develop the skills to recognise the ways that the entanglements of Christianity, race and colonialism show up in the world around them. The module was assessed by an oral exam, where students were asked to analyse a theological text, and to answer the question ‘How does the text reflect and/or resist the entangled histories of Christianity, race and colonialism?’ I told my students that I wasn’t expecting them to go off and do a lot of additional research on top of the core readings for the module, because what I really wanted was for them to think about how they could take what they’d learnt from lectures, readings and seminars and apply them to other texts. One of the things I did to help them prepare for their assignment this time around was to put together a worksheet, where I briefly recapped what we’d covered each week, and gave them some questions they could ask of their chosen theological text to help them spot where key themes and ideas were showing up. It seemed that, for at least some students, this was helpful for thinking about how to draw connections between the material we’d covered in class and the texts they presented on for their oral exam – many of them certainly produced really excellent work, though I obviously can’t take all the credit for that. Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve done something like this, and I thought that as a pedagogical tool it might be of use and/or interest to readers of the blog:

Continue reading “Christianity, Race and Colonialism reading questions”

Help me plan a course on Political Theology

In September I’ll be teaching a joint second-and-third-year undergraduate course on political theology – by which I mean political theology as Adam helpfully defines it, ‘the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields.’ rather than just a course about politics and theology. I have a good sense of the broad ‘canon’ I’m working with (again, broadly along the lines that Adam sets out here), but much less of a sense of how to find and teach texts that undergraduates will find accessible and engaging. So I’m posting this in the hope that readers of the blog might be able to share any accumulated wisdom from teaching in this area. Which texts or authors work well for undergraduates? Which do not? Any suggestions/advice/tips gratefully received. As always, I’ll post my syllabus here once it’s done.

Here’s the module description I created when I first set up the module:

“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt set the terms for the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

A plea for anti-anti-wokeness

The online debate about “wokeness” torments me, because it is so amazingly stupid and uninformative. But it also torments me because I am torn between two thoughts.

The first is that there has to be room to discuss the potential pitfalls of the various lingustic formulations that one used to group together as “political correctness” and now designates as “wokeness” (I can see literally no difference between the two categories). Those pitfalls might, in any particular case, include a tendency to alienate the very groups they’re meant to serve, an inaesthetic clunkiness, or even the simple fact that they periodically seem to arise suddenly from who knows where, like neoliberal “best practices” that become instant unconditional requirements.

The second is that no white male leftist who takes a blanket anti-PC or anti-woke stance — especially in mainstream media contexts — can expect to be trusted, because they are objectively treating their white male perspective as the point of neutrality from which they can hand down judgment of what activists and theorists of other groups should say and focus on.

How does one reconcile these two thoughts? The first step is to recognize that the second thought is more important, both ethically and strategically. Even if individual “woke” speech expectations are short-sighted or self-undermining, the blanket anti-woke screed objectively, performatively reinstates the power hierarchies that all leftists should be seeking to unravel. Especially given how often the anti-woke white male leftist has access to bigger platforms than the activists they’re critiquing, it is a clear example of punching down — when we presumably don’t want to punch our allies in any direction. Strategically speaking, it is more likely to give aid and comfort to our enemies than to somehow make leftist ideas more persuasive or leftist organizing more attractive.

It may well be the case that PC or woke language is holding back the left in this country, but I would humbly suggest that white men who want to be part of that strategic conversation should adopt the rule of first shutting the fuck up and listening. Learn to process your defensiveness and gut-level objections into sincere questions. If you get frustrated and need to vent, save it for the DMs. With time, you will realize that no one is mandating that you have to adapt your speech unconditionally to whatever the latest rando on Twitter demands. Doubtless we will all stumble as we seek to practice this spiritual discipline, but hopefully we will train ourselves to resist the urge to pitch op-eds to publications that are eager for anti-leftist content and would never consider publishing the perspectives of actual activists or organizers.