On Diaspora Book Event: Broader questions

Thanks to all our contributors and commenters, who have made this book event such a success so far. Dan is planning on posting a general response on Monday, and in the meantime, we thought, after having gone through each chapter in some detail, it might not be out of place to open up a broader conversation, as well as to provide space for questions that people didn’t get around to asking before.

In particular, this might be a good opportunity to talk about the project of the book as a whole and where it fits into the broader fields of religious studies, philosophy of religion, and theology. What new paths of research does it open up? How do you think your engagement with On Diaspora will affect your thinking and your future work? What questions do you think Dan will need to address as he moves forward?

(Meanwhile, don’t forget that the book remains available for purchase direct from the publisher, as well as from Amazon (US, UK) and Book Depository.)

12 thoughts on “On Diaspora Book Event: Broader questions

  1. I have a general question about the book, and I think it is about the style of writing. I have to admit I found it difficult to read at times, and that is not only because Dan discusses with several writers I am not familiar with, but more about what I can only describe as a certain vagueness throughout. I’d prefer a different word because I do not intend this a s criticism. I think what I am aiming can be seen in several ways. For example several of the writers in this book event has related the book to Hauerwas, and Dan has not at least contested this reading, yet Hauerwas is not mentioned in the book, apart from on the back cover, nor is the argument brought to a point where the concept of dispora developed is put in relation to some other point of reference. I think the question brought up in relation to chapter four falls in the same category, by refusing to actually name a time frame or concrete persons that would act in the name of Christianity but rather talking about these big concepts (religion, Christianity,Judaism, secularity, diaspora) in quite a general way. My question is if this a intentional style choice, trying to keep the discussion “open” in a sense, and if so, what is the reason for this?

    The reason I ask this is that it seems that those of you that know Dan personally seems to be very clear about what the book is about, whereas I as somebody not familiar with the discussion, but interested in the concept of Diaspora, Yoder and secularity, often find it hard to grasp the context of the discussions in the book. What I mean is that the way the book argues its case is clear and not very difficult to follow, but it always seem to stop short of for example giving historical examples that would add a certain concreteness.

    I guess I completely failed to formulate this so that it does not sound as a complaint, but that is not what I want to do. Any time one is writing one has to choose at what level one wants to place one argument, I’m just curious to hear something about the thinking behind the way the book is presented.

  2. I’m very interested to hear what others might think w/r/t Patrik’s comment — though I have my own thoughts, no doubt the writer of a book becomes way too familiar with it to have much of a sense of how that book comes off to others…

    That said, i think some thoughts of my own might be relevant. First, regarding the historical specificity, i’m not sure how to respond — perhaps i’m depending too much on a reader’s knowledge of how these concepts are periodized, and / or too much on the historical specificity provided by some key sources that i use, such as Boyarin, Schwartz, Asad, Masuzawa, etc. Maybe it’s a problem to leave that so implicit, but in any case it’s worth noting that it *is* there, implicitly at the very least.

    Second, as to a “point of reference” for diaspora, i’m not sure i understand… there are, i think, a *ton* of points of reference there. There is, of course, no one-to-one rival concept of diaspora, but that’s precisely the point: diaspora is a concept that i’m develop in reference to a many points of reference, which emerge from a variety of discourses, but which all converge (or “intermatter”) from the vantage of diaspora. This perhaps is one of the reasons i aim at a more “open” discourse.

    A bit more on this point: it’s going to be the case that different readers, with different foci, are going to be alternatively intrigued and annoyed by the book, given that the book draws on a number of discourses. For instance, the book can be engaged, at least partially, by philosophers, anthropologists, theologians, theorists of religion, Jewish studies, and pretty much anyone involved in discussions about secularism. Note, for instance, that the endorsers on the back cover are disparate in their interests, perhaps even in their interpretations of what the book’s doing. Same, though less so, for those who have kindly and incisively posted in this book event.

    Which brings me to my last point, regarding your mention of Yoder and Hauerwas, etc. This book is not really written from a Yoderian or Hauerwasian point of view (or at least not entirely, perhaps Ry would say differently) — though of course it can be read from that angle. But this would be to miss its engagement with all kinds of other questions, which are just not on the table from that point of view. (For instance, as helpful as Cavanaugh may be in some regards, he is a very limited point of entry into discussions concerning the concept of “religion”). Conversely, from another point of view… and so on. (I will say that i regret that a friend of mine, whose specialization would have connected some of your concerns to these other issues around secularism, the invention of Christainity / religion, was not able to be involved due to dissertation-finishing issues.)

  3. So in a sense you feel that in order for the book to be of interest to such a wide group of people, it makes sense to, or it might even be necessary to, write in a way that risk “confusion”?

  4. Put differently, from my point of view one of the most obvious “consequences” of your discussion would be a particular understanding of the Church, right down to ideas about catholicity and ministry. But you do not enter in this discussion, maybe because that would perhaps limit the interest of people coming from a different perspective?

  5. Writing cannot avoid the risk of confusion.

    It was not at all my goal to provide a particular understanding of the church, and certainly i’m not writing for the church (though obviously there may be — and i know there are — individuals in the church who are interested in my work … ok, now that i think about it, what in the world do you mean by “church”?) In any case … while i’m very happy for people involved in the “church” to make use of my work, i’m not sure what consequences they would want to draw, and in fact would be glad to learn from them what they think these consequences would be.

    This book (and my work in general), though, is written for an “academic” audience, and ideally the reader would be interested in the various academic discourses upon which i draw.

  6. It seems to me – ideally, at least – that nothing that is of interest theologically can be fully uninteresting to the church (however one construes the latter).

    (I’m vacillating between “can” and “should” In that sentence, but I’ll go with the stronger “can” for now…)

  7. Yes, Robert, i agree with that point. If i’ve come off as polemical it’s just because i wouldn’t want to decide in advance on what counts as theology or the church, as a kind of aim. Especially because this book is not primarily or simply about “theology” (at least as we understand that word), and because much of the argument is to show how “theology” is derived from a number of other discourses.

  8. OK, I guess that kind of explains *my* confusion, because if you’re consciously not writing about church it might be difficult to read the book as a discourse about the church… :) You have to forgive my mistake, though, since church, however you want to describe it, is the way Christianity is organised. What I take from you argument in an ecclesiological context is a critique against the notion that the church should be organised in a way that aims towards conformity with a transcendent “true” Christianity, and instead affirming the local variation in practice and language. You might even claim this as a position about ecumenism. If this wasn’t on your mind at all when writing, that is interesting indeed!

  9. Dan: In your future work (and maybe you’ve done this already in other writings), I’d be intrigued to see you flesh out in greater detail the political implications of your account of diaspora through engagement with concrete cases (e.g. of peoples in “diasporas,” refugees, exiles, etc.).

    One fortuitous effect of the term diaspora for political thought is that it directs attention away from a politics which presumes stability and “at-home-ness”–which tends to be the politics of elites, of nation-states, etc.–towards a politics which doesn’t presume dominant status and a position of control (e.g. to stateless refugees). In that way I’d tentatively read the political implications of your project as being in line with the anti-Constantinianism of Yoder and Hauerwas. Where your politics diverges from theirs happens to the extent that Yoder and Hauerwas presume that the church as a political entity in exile has a fixed, stable point of identity.

    I’d note that when it comes to what I think are the ecclesiological implications of your project, your approach is more in line with Yoder than with Hauerwas. It’s Hauerwas, after all, who envisions the church as a “colony,” with all of the implications of policed borders that imagery carries with it. Yoder’s ecclesiological writings, in contrast, point to a more de-centered, more porous church–a church that can recognize the diaspora within itself, in your terms. It’s just that you get there via a focus on radical immanence whereas Yoder’s ecclesiology is ultimately hard to decouple, I think, from a Barthian appeal to transcendence.

    Feel free to ignore the final comments re. Hauerwas and Yoder if there not of interest to you: I’m more intrigued in how you’ll work in the future on the first issue I raised.

  10. I’m pretty sure the “colony” analogy in Resident Aliens was a mistake – it does not occur again in the sequel “where Resident Aliens Live” an nowhere else in his work as far as I know. I’d attribute it to Willamon, and be done with it. ;)

  11. Alain, thanks again for your comment. I’m interested in trying to give more focus to the specific issues that you mention — this is direction in which i’m trying to go.

    And i should say, as well, that theoretically it’s important to me to advocate immanence, but that this is theoretical. In other words, I am opposed to transcendence when it is theoretical, when it is a conceptual paradigm. In more concrete situations, however, I have less of a problem with rhetoric tied to transcendence. So, for instance, while language of exile might be more transcendent-implying than I like, I’m very happy to use it or to enter into common affirmations with those who do. Whereas more conceptually-oriented work that insists on, or that explicitly cannot avoid, transcendence, is something I feel it is important to oppose. In other words, I find myself interested in conversations with a politically-engaged thought that uses rhetoric of transcendence, but very much opposed to, say, Barth.

    Also — don’t know if you saw, but in Ry’s post on chapter 2 he says I am Hauerwasian. I’ve just commented there, on that, in relation to your own comment.

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