Many readers may find themselves in the midst of the AAR/SBL meeting this week. It is the largest convention for scholars involved in the morass of fields that go under the name “religion”. Below you’ll find a list of sessions that authors of AUFS are taking part of. 

Theology and Continental Philosophy Group
Theme: The Future of Debt: Theology, Economy, and the Political
Amaryah Jones-Armstrong, Vanderbilt University, Presiding
Saturday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Marriott-M106-107 (Marquis Level)

We live in financially precarious times with ever-accumulating public and private debts, anxiety around austerity in Europe, increasing wealth gap between black and white US households and globally between the 1% and the rest of us. While recent interrogations of debt have been mounted from a wide range of disciplines, this session proposes a diverse exploration of the theologic of debt, especially as it has been shaped by the Christian tradition. What is the relationship of debt to theology? How have the histories of theological and economic discourses on debt been entangled and what is their relationship to the secular? And, given these entanglements, what is the role of religion in relation to the current financial crises? Examining the nature of debt in relation to theological and secular concepts, this panel will raise key questions about the role of theology, religion, and the secular in an age of indebtedness.

Sean Capener, Claremont Graduate University
The Price of Charity: “Christian Love” and Credit Banking

The Price of Charity: ‘Christian Love’ and Credit Banking


‘Charity’ has a long history of delineating the specifically Christian discourse on love. This delineation does not separate the Christian question of love from those of desire, friendship, etc., but reorients their articulation around a new, specifically Christian field. Charity has traditionally involved a certain ‘gratuity,’ but it also has maintained an inextricable relation to the notion of ‘price.’ The problem of charity, then, involves the point of connection between a finite ‘economy’ of human relations with an infinite ‘gratuity’ which exceeds reciprocal exchange even while ‘giving’ it. How might one ‘love’ infinitely, selflessly, in excess of what one might get in return?

If ‘charity’ names the possibility of a gift of love that exceeds exchange, ‘faith’ (credit) is what makes this gift possible. This paper will explore homologies between Christian charity and credit banking, arguing for the literal identity of ‘credit’ between the two.

Devin Singh, Dartmouth College
The Sovereign Logic of Jubilee

This paper engages the notion of Jubilee as a historical practice and conceptual trope to shed light on the political logic of sovereignty at work in debt management. Jubilee or debt cancellation has served as a metaphor for divine grace in Jewish and Christian scriptures. Partly as a result of its positive associations with the language of salvation in such traditions, it has gained traction as a politically progressive concept in many social justice movements. Discourse on debt cancellation, drawing on this ancient practice as a model, has entered the modern, popular imaginary. This paper argues that these ancient practices should be understood as sovereign acts of exception, undertaken by rulers further to instantiate the logic of sovereignty—whether political or divine. Jubilee also reveals the persistent links between money, debt, slavery, and obligation to political authority, raising questions about its viability as a liberative idea and practice.

Lucia Hulsether, Yale University
The Multicultural Ethic and the Spirit of Microcredit

This presentation brings cultural theories of racial capitalism to bear on theories of pluralism and secularism, to interrogate practices and discourses surrounding microcredit. Building on recent work by Miranda Joseph, Chandan Reddy, and Fred Moten, I argue that microcredit ventures accomplish a strategic rearticulation of welfare capitalism. Once a concept that sought to explain the implicitly Christian paternalism of bosses’ relationships toward masses of workers, welfare capitalism now signals a broad-based invitation to socially conscious, spiritually purifying participation in global markets understood as a pluralist community. I theorize the religious and the secular as categories that must be understood as they emerge through notions of possession, ownership, and value—materially consequential concepts that regimes of capital and finance inscribe into human bodies and lives.

Stephen Keating, Chicago Theological Seminary
Debt: The Last Few Years

Marx famously posited that ‘the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.’ However, in the wake of recent financial crises, several texts in critical theory have identified debt as the new prerequisite. The criticism of debt, it seems, has not been completed. The connections between religion and debt are undeniable. Early hints of a criticism of debt came from Nietzsche and Benjamin, but in the last decade a few thinkers have foregrounded debt as a problem for thought. The anthropologist David Graeber’s expansive and enthralling text Debt: The First 5,000 years dropped like a bomb around the same time as the birth of Occupy movement, and the book has served as a rallying-cry for popular resistance movements. Italian/French philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato has enlisted Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze in his The Making of Indebted Man and Governing by Debt to theorize both the subjectivity of debt and its power to enforce political agendas. Critical race theorists Denise Ferreira Da Silva and Paula Chakravartty, in a special journal issue of ‘American Quarterly,’ opened up investigations into “the racial and colonial logic of global capitalism.” Finally, philosopher of religion Philip Goodchild, in his Theology of Money, has argued that “debt takes over the role of religion in economic life.” This paper will introduce these texts with an emphasis on how they can further the discourse of political theology.


Vincent Lloyd, Syracuse University
Business Meeting:

Ellen T. Armour, Vanderbilt University
Theme: The State of Political Theology Today
Inese Radzins, Pacific School of Religion, Presiding
Sunday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hilton-Grand Salon A (Level 2)

This exploratory session will address the possibilities and limitations of political theology as a subfield of religious studies. Political theology has been taken up in philosophy of religion, Biblical studies, Islamic studies, African American religion, religion and sexuality studies, and elsewhere, yet it remains unclear to many what “political theology” exactly means. Is it a specific methodology or a specific subject matter? How does the term, today, differ from the “political theology” of Carl Schmitt or from that of Jurgen Moltmann and Johann Baptist Metz? Now that political theology is being taken up across the humanities, what does it mean to study political theology as part of religious studies? What might it mean to “apply” political theology? Panelists will discuss what political theology means in their own work, how they see a unified conversation about political theology emerging and maturing, and what future directions they suspect political theology will take.


Abbas Barzegar, Georgia State University
Alex Dubilet, Vanderbilt University
Ruth Marshall, University of Toronto
Erin Runions, Pomona College
Ted A. Smith, Emory University
Andrea C. White, Union Theological Seminary

Annika Thiem, Villanova University
Theology and Continental Philosophy Group
Theme: Thinking Critically about the Future(s) of the Human
Stefan Skrimshire, University of Leeds, Presiding
Sunday – 1:00 PM-2:30 PM
Marriott-L506-507 (Lobby Level)

This session will be of great use and interest to scholars working across theology and continental thought whose work contributes to current critical thinking about future(s) of humanity. To what extent are our traditional philosophies of history, progress and providence invoked, questioned, and problematised, by contemporary discourses on planetary limits and the imagination of ‘posthuman’ futures? Whilst the contexts out of which such thinking rises may vary, one of the intended outcomes of the panel is to contribute theoretical insight into the contemporary challenge of thinking the ‘Anthropocene epoch’. This relatively recent discourse generates, amongst other things, the possibility of thinking of the impact of humanity upon the planet far beyond its own lifespan. Critical thinking – in particular through engagement with post-Kantian philosophies of history and their encounter with apocalyptic and messianic thought through Jewish, Christian and Gnostic sources – is thus required to understand the way we negotiate beliefs in mortality / immortality and finitude / infinitude, and how these are manifest, in framing the deep future(s) of the human.

Thomas Lynch, Chichester University
Seeking a Philosophy for the End of the World?: Religion, Hope, and Nihilism between Hegel and Bloch

Philosophy has long critiqued Enlightenment notions of progress. However, there is a perhaps deeper problem now confronting philosophy – what does it mean to think about ethics and politics in the absence of the future? ‘Absence of the future’ does not designate the cessation of time, but rather the absence of a horizon of possibility. This question confronts us, most significantly, in terms of anthropogenic climate change. In seeking a critical, creative response from philosophy of religion, I turn on the one hand to recent engagements with Hegel’s philosophy by continental thinkers concerned to redeem its potential for thinking through the power of contingency and negativity. On the other, and advancing this thesis, I revisit Ernst Bloch’s concept of the Not-Yet as source of a peculiar hope – a hopeful nihilism, or at least a hope that is difficult to distinguish from nihilism.

Anthony Paul Smith, La Salle University
Messianism and Nature: The Paradoxical One of Ismaili Islam and Non-Theological Nature

This paper examines the possibility of conceiving of a messianic break within nature, which is often thought to be the realm of pure necessity and law. To do so it considers the conception of nature present in Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani’s philosophical theology and interprets it through the theoretical lens provided by Christian Jambet in his mature work on Ismaili Islam as well as in his early, highly creative and contentious work with Guy Lardreau in their L’Ange. Ultimately, the paper is concerned with the possibility that sabbath or the refusal of law is natural even as it presents itself as contra-nature.
Marika Rose, Durham University
Machines of loving grace: angels, cyborgs, and the liberation of work

Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ was always also a machine age; the death of God and the mechanisation of the world developed in tandem with one another. Yet magic did not disappear from this new world so much as find itself transposed into new forms, new bodies, and new powers. This paper will explore the implications of this tranposition.

On Marx’s account, a machine is made up of three components: a motor mechanism, a self-moving power which drives the machine as a whole; a transmitting mechanism, which divides and distributes this power; and the tool or working machine. We might, then, read Dionysius’ decidedly un-secular Celestial Hierarchy as the description of a heavenly machine designed, as Agamben suggests, for the government of the world and the generation of surplus value in the form of doxology. The divine eros which generates the Dionysian cosmos originates with God, is passed on by the angelic messengers, who transmit the divine power to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, whose members labour to become fellow workers with God.

As Marx well knew, machines can function as instruments either of domination or of liberation. This paper will bring Dionysius’ account of angelic labour into conversation with contemporary discussions of the machinic transformation of human labour. First, it will think through the relationship of the divine eros and the role of angels as ‘fellow workmen for God’ in dialogue with Frédéric Lordon and Maurizio Lazzarato’s account of the entanglement of machines and desire in contemporary labour. Second, it will bring the ambiguous role of angels in Dionysius’ anthropology to bear on Donna Haraway’s exposition of the utopian possibilities of the figure of the cyborg as a figure for the possible futures of human life and labour. How might Dionysius help us to think postsecular labour anew?

Animals and Religion Group
Theme: Animals in Religious Studies and Jewish Thought: A Conversation on Aaron Gross’s The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications (Columbia University Press, 2015)
David Clough, University of Chester, Presiding
Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Hilton-206 (Level 2)

Aaron Gross’s The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications (Columbia University Press, 2015) makes the bold claim that the human/non-human animal distinction is a founding element in the discipline of Religious Studies, in dialogue with theorists such as Ernst Cassirer, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, J.Z. Smith, and Jacques Derrida. Taking the controversial case of orthodox Jewish kosher slaughter in the United States as a point of departure, Gross’s study analyzes the significance of the animal question for the study of religion. His work has practical implications for the lives of real animals in the contemporary industrialized world, as well as offering a challenge to established disciplinary boundaries of religious studies. In this author-meets-critics panel, scholars from a range of specializations discuss the material, theoretical, and theological ramifications of Gross’s work.

Beatrice Marovich, University of North Dakota
Animals in the Theory of Religion and the Mystification of Solidarity: A Response to Aaron Gross

This paper offers a response to Aaron Gross’ recently published The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications (Columbia University Press, 2015). The discussion in this response will primarily be concerned with what Gross calls the “absent presence” of animals in the theoretical study of religion. More particularly, this paper will analyze and attempt to complicate some of Gross’ commentary on the work of Mircea Eliade, who makes the theoretical claim that there exists a kind of “mystical solidarity” between human and animal life.

Donovan Schaefer, University of Oxford
Animal Method: The Materialist Shift in Aaron S. Gross’s The Question of the Animal and Religion

Aaron Gross’s The Question of the Animal and Religion is the first book-length exploration within religious studies of the significance of animality for understanding the category of religion. This paper will argue that Gross’s insight is that “attending” to animals does not only lead us to diagram the richness of animal worlds in new and more vivid ways, but leads us directly back to ourselves—the way that we as humans have obscured our own embodied, material, accidental lives—including the embodied, material, accidental, and animal in religion. Gross advances a Darwinian revolution that underscores continuity between human and animal bodies, yet his work intersects not with hyper-reductionist attempts to flatten religion to a set of adaptive or maladaptive processes, such as are offered by sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, but with a textured, multi-layered account more akin to what Manuel Vásquez has described as the “materialist shift” in religious studies.

Matthew Eaton, University of St. Michael’s College
The Question of the Animal and Theology: Re-imagining Theory and Incarnation

Aaron Gross’s The Question of the Animal and Religion, provides a crucial corrective to the nontheological study of religion that the proposed paper seeks to extend to Christian theology. Gross invites us to imagine what the nontheological study of religion might look like if we “attended” to animals. Animals, for Gross, deeply, even if invisibly, shape human thinking and mythologizing. As such, animals must be re-envisioned as actors in the religious imaginary, as religious subjects. This paper extends Gross’ insistence on attending to animal lives by building upon his critique of the Eliadean conception of “myth” to theorize theology as a “mythic” configuration of the Divine in light of humanity’s intimate entanglement with a world made up of an infinite plurality of agential forms. More specifically, I theorize what theology might look like if we attended to animal bodies, specifically considering how this would recast the Christian doctrine of Incarnation.


Aaron Gross, University of San Diego
Business Meeting:

David Clough, University of Chester
Barbara Ambros, University of North Carolina
Theology and Continental Philosophy Group
Theme: Micrologics of the Postsecular
Stephen Keating, Chicago Theological Seminary, Presiding
Tuesday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Marriott-International 7 (International Level)

The secular, as a theoretical field and epistemic category, along with secularism as a political formation, have come under critical scrutiny in recent years in a number of disciplines including religious studies, theology, philosophy, and literary studies. The notion of the postsecular has emerged out of these critiques and has developed into a polymorphous theoretical concept, harboring conflicted ideological and theoretical interests. This panel is an effort to constructively recalibrate theorizations of the postsecular. It proposes to think the postsecular as more than merely a monolithic displacement of the secular—as if the postsecular named an epoch, or an episteme, that simply succeeds the secular. Rather, the chorus of perspectives on this panel suggests that we think the morphology of the postsecular as multiple, eventive, and interruptive: emerging at points of segmentation where the religious and the secular, as macrological spaces of enclosure, rupture, fracture, or split

An Yountae, Lebanon Valley College
Poetics of Creolization: Rethinking the Spiritual beyond the Secular Coloniality/Modernity

This paper explores the Africana philosophy of creolization as the resource for rethinking the spiritual postsecularly. In particular, I read the Martinican thinker Edouard Glissant’s poetics of creolization as a spiritual process. The main line of my reading and argument is based on the central notions of creolization such as poetics, the Other, relation, becoming, and multiplicity. Such ideas, I argue, while seemingly non-theological in nature, can be read as the revivification or reinvention of theological questions in secular terms. Glissant’s complex method of intertwining the political analysis of culture and history with the invocation of poetics offers a new way of thinking the spiritual beyond the divide between the spiritual and the political or between the secular and the religious. Most importantly, I submit that poetics of creolization provides us with a new way of reading decolonial thought and politics as an expression of spiritual politics.

Amaryah Jones-Armstrong, Vanderbilt University
Disinheriting Supercession: Black Theology and the Politics of the Flesh

The turn to Paul, especially Romans, has been marked by explorations of difference and universality in hopes of articulating new modes of thinking the two. The logic of supercession, where the particularity of the Jews is overcome by a universal Christianity is central to these interrogations. In reconsidering the postsecular’s use of Pauline theology, I use Delores Williams’ reading of Hagar alongside Daniel Boyarin’s work on Paul and identity to consider how Hagar is a crucial figure in Pauline theology’s supercessionist logic and also works for Williams to diagnose the role of the reproductive in political theology. Paul’s allegory of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians is thus a crucial moment in understanding supercession as the imposition of a disinheritance that severs the flesh and the spirit in order to articulate substitutionary relationships to the name of the Father and the Father’s inheritance. Understanding disinheritance in a postsecular vein, however, allows us to consider the possibility of the flesh constituting a theological discourse that does not inherit the supercessionist logic of Pauline theology.

Beatrice Marovich, University of North Dakota
In the Wreckage of Life’s Sanctity: Death and Postsecularity

The resurrection of Christ presents a battle with death wherein life arguably emerges as decisively triumphant victor. While death is a necessary symbolic element in this process, it risks becoming a kind of villain whose subjection to life—and the God of life—is celebrated. This paper borrows from French philosopher Francoise Dastur’s phenomenological approach to death—one that thinks death relationally, by analyzing the postures we use to approach it. This paper is concerned with Christianity’s quest to triumph over death. But it is also concerned with the fate of death in the secular where we find ourselves in the wreckage of life’s once authoritative sanctity, but the struggle to achieve victory over death continues. This paper argues that, in the midst of this wreckage, life’s attempt to emerge victorious over death has come to seem a form of gratuitous violence. And it asks what thinking death as a condition of postsecularity can do to shift our social relations with death.

Alex Dubilet, Vanderbilt University
Undecidable Acts of Subversion: Thinking the Postsecular with Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer”

This paper argues that Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” is a productive site from which to critically rethink some of the dominant ways of articulating the nature of and the relation between the secular, the religious, and the postsecular. The performance’s fundamental undecidability – neither straightforwardly secular, nor straightforwardly religious in its essence – puts into question the very binary between the secular and the religious on which secularism relies. From this, the paper theorizes a postsecular model of blasphemy and, more generally, of transgression, that targets transcendent frameworks of power and knowledge, regardless of whether they are construed as ‘secular’ or ‘religious.’ Finally, in opposition to a political theology of transcendence, this paper shows how subversive acts, like the “Punk Prayer,” disclose a postsecular immanence insofar as they marks an outside of the entire secular/religious regulatory apparatus.


Anthony Paul Smith, La Salle University
And here are two other panels that I may be checking out (though they are at the same time). Feel free to post your own below in the comments!
Philosophy of Religion Section
Theme: Race and the Practice of the Philosophy of Religion
Jonathon Kahn, Vassar College, Presiding
Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Hilton-Grand Salon A (Level 2)

The fall 2014 issue of the JRE presents a set of essays that center around a common claim: historically and conceptually, the construction of race is imbricated in the construction of religion. The JRE is not the first to interrogate this intersection. A good amount of recent scholarship is advancing this claim. This panel asks what this claim–and the scholarship that advances it–means for the philosophy of religion. How does the contemporary project of the philosophy of religion shift in light of this genealogical narrative on race and religion? Some of what’s at stake, then, in this panel is the re/conception of the philosophy of religion. The issues raised would include but also push beyond the significance of race and toward the significance of race for the field.

Monica A. Coleman, Claremont School of Theology
Multiple Religious Belonging Theorized through African American Studies: Redressing a Challenge in Theories of Religious Pluralism

Religious pluralism is one of the major fields of study within philosophy of religion, and yet it has a spurious history with race. With the widest cast net, missiology and colonial exploitation joined together in support of exclusivist arguments in religious pluralism throughout the world. In the most liberal academic circles, religious pluralism advocates the peaceful cooperation and understanding of different religious traditions across the boundaries of incommensurate truth claims. Within the school of thought that David Griffin and John Cobb refer to as “genuine religious pluralist,” philosophers of religion argue theories of pluralism with the assumption that individuals locates themselves within one specific religious tradition or another. Practices of multiple religious belonging have literally stumped and befuddled most theorists into condemnation or special exemption. If philosophy of religion interacts with racial theories as thoughtful interlocutors, new possibilities emerge.

Only as theories of religious pluralism are able to engage thinkers in cultural and gender studies are they able to incorporate the complexity of multiplicity in religious identification and practice. Some feminist thinkers in the field of religious pluralism critique the way that what Laurel Schneider calls “the logic of the one” operates within conversations of religious pluralism. Yet many areas of racial-cultural studies have long histories of theorizing about methods of navigating cultural multiplicity. In this paper, I draw from African American studies to help understand a key challenge in theories of religious pluralism – multiple religious belonging. With over one hundred years of theory about the ways that African Americans negotiate oppressive minority status in the United States, African American Studies is well positioned to suggest similar modes of being in the practice of religious plurality. This paper focuses on three terms from African American Studies: passing, code-switching and double-consciousness. While these practices are not particular to African American experiences, they have been deeply explored in the theory and literature of African American Studies.

Vincent Lloyd, Syracuse University
Anti-Blackness as Radical Evil

For obvious reasons, the problem of evil has been especially vexing for Black religious communities. Given the extreme, unprovoked suffering of Blacks in the United States (and more broadly) from the slave trade through to our current era of mass incarceration, the philosophical question of how God could allow such suffering has often been asked and answered – though not often in systematic treatises. W. E. B. Du Bois addressed the problem of evil, as did James Baldwin, as did Toni Morrison, as did Louis Farrakhan. The problem of evil has frequently led Black religious thinkers away from Christianity, towards a humanistic religiosity, most famously in the case of William R. Jones’ Is God a White Racist? and more recently in the work of Anthony Pinn. Emilie Townes’ Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil pushes conversations about evil from the conceptual to the material but, like Jones and Pinn, essentially arrives at an embrace of humanistic religiosity.

In this paper I will revisit Black theodicy from a perspective that takes Blackness as a metaphysical condition, from a perspective that takes the foreclosure of Black humanity to be fundamental to Western metaphysics. Frank Wilderson has coined the term Afro-Pessimism to describe such a perspective, synthesizing strands of Black existentialism and critical theory. From such a perspective, I argue, the humanistic religiosity embraced by Jones, Pinn, and Townes is not responsive to the depths of the problem of Black suffering. When Blackness is understood as a metaphysical problem, a metaphysical solution is necessary. For that, I turn to Kant, exploring how his notion of radical evil aptly characterizes anti-Blackness. Exploring Kant’s responses to radical evil in dialogue with theological responses to Black suffering promises to invigorate both conversations in philosophy of religion and in Black theology.

Sonia Sikka, University of Ottawa
Is Philosophy of Religion Racist?

A still widespread view of the meaning of “race” and “racism” links these terms, and the forms of prejudice connected with them, exclusively to attitudes and behaviours based on perceived biological differences among human beings. As commonly understood, “racism” includes aversive or discriminatory acts towards people of a certain skin color, for instance, and its modern history is told in terms of now discredited theories about supposed links between the typical biology and character of distinct human groups. In truth, however, that history is one in which constructions of race are interwoven with ideas about culture, and in which racism consequently cannot be separated from Eurocentrism. The latter, moreover, is not merely an instance of ethnocentrism as a universal human tendency. It is, rather, a historical process that must be understood in terms of the effects of European power on the minds and societies of colonized peoples.

In light of this analysis of race and racism, I begin by examining Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion as representative of a certain European view of the religions of other peoples, and the superiority of Christianity. Drawing on the work of Hoffheimer and Bernasconi, I point out the racial dimensions of the association of Christianity with advanced culture, in contrast to allegedly primitive or less advanced forms of religion. I note also the effects of such colonial discourses about religion on Asian intellectuals, as traced by Peter van der Veer, giving as an example the assimilation of a highly specific monotheistic idea of religion by Indian philosophers like Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan. Finally, I argue that these highly racialized ideas about different forms of religion have colluded to construct an idea of religion, which in turn has shaped the dominant preoccupations of philosophy of religion. Thus, while it might initially seem odd to describe this sub-field of philosophy as being in any way “racist,” the fact is that its approaches and topics continue to revolve around an idea of religion constructed through a privileging of European culture. And the history of this concept of religion is intimately connected with ideas about more and less advanced races, ideas whose shadows can still be discerned, I maintain, in the positions on religion of many contemporary philosophers.

Josef Sorett, Columbia University
Secular Compared to What? African American Religion and the Trope of Black Sacred/Secular Fluidity

In the modern West, and especially in the context of the United States, there has been a concerted effort, as part of the Enlightenment project of rationalization and specialization, to partition the two spheres—of sacred and secular—as functionally separate, at least in the realm of public life and political practice, as seen in the principle of separation between church and state. Of course, this policy is a rather simplistic metaphor intended to define the relationship between these two realms even as it has often served to conflate the nation’s commitment to allowing the free practice of religion with its desire to prevent the establishment of a religious state. Additionally, at least until the 1960s the common belief (and intellectual claim) was that “the West” was becoming an increasingly secularized society. The secularization thesis argued that modern society would be progressively governed by science and reason; and religion, as a residue of a premodern, primitive past, would gradually give way to these modernizing forces. In short, modernity and secularism assumed each other. Of course, the fervor of religious life in the contemporary United States, and around the world, has proven this secularization thesis inaccurate, to say the least; and much of American public suggests a fluidity between sacred and secular. However, even when and where theories of secularization were in vogue, a different view was often held concerning black communities. In fact, African Americans were often understood as the exception to the rule of a secularizing modern citizenry. Not only were they considered hyper-religious, but many of their religious practices (i.e. what Du Bois referred to as “the frenzy”) were viewed as leftovers from a primitive past and anathema to the aims of modern society.

Assumptions such as these—about a certain racial recalcitrance to a historical narrative of secularization—have yet to be interrogated within the more recent robust debate about secularism and post-secularism, for that matter. Rather than figuring as the foil to an American story, the significance of religion in black life and the history of theories of secularism and secularization are stories best told in tandem. I attempt to do precisely that with this chapter. More specifically, I offer a genealogy of the study of African American religion that is organized around how scholars have negotiated the prevailing logic of a sacred-secular divide, and the narrative of secularization, and sorted through the relevance of such claims for their analyses of black religious and cultural life. Ultimately, I refer to the pattern of describing black culture as somehow distinct from or immune to shifts in the broader society as the trope of black sacred/secular fluidity. By this I mean that scholarly (as well as popular) claims of a particular sacred/secular configuration unique to black communities serve as a shorthand for a host of more specific arguments regarding African American religion and culture. Furthermore, such claims reveal just as much (if not more) about the individuals who make them as they do about any particular characteristic of black religious life. In fact, this trope of sacred and secular in black has been employed to endorse a range of widely diverging ends, including arguments for the significance of African cultural retentions, condemnations of the consequences of segregation, and to assert the natural religiosity of black people, to name just a few. Ultimately, by calling attention to multiple arguments and aims at play in each invocation of the trope of sacred and secular in black, I hope to both contribute to recent efforts to explore the politics at work in the history of “the field” and to offer a novel account of the meaning(s) of “the secular” in African American cultural history.

Secularism and Secularity Group
Theme: Future Directions in the Study of the Secular
Joseph Blankholm, University of California, Santa Barbara, Presiding
Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Marriott-M106-107 (Marquis Level)

This panel offers the Secularism and Secularity group the opportunity to take stock of the academic study of the secular and to sketch out several of the field’s fascinating possible futures. All four papers build on recent work while adopting fresh theoretical insights and novel objects of inquiry. The panel’s first two papers are firmly grounded in the present and recent past, investigating secularism as an ongoing project that structures physical spaces, regulates bodies, and secures the privacy that sets the conditions of freedom. The panel’s third and fourth papers look deeper into the past, troubling how scholars narrate secularization by exploring the role of money in producing the secular and investigating the complex entanglements of Protestant piety and Existentialism.

Finbarr Curtis, Georgia Southern University
Securing the Secular

This paper will examine the relationship between secularity and security, and will take a particular interest in how current discourses about religious freedom work in tandem with the expansion of private and public techniques of surveillance. I will suggest we need to rethink the centrality of individual autonomy to secular models of personhood. While individual freedom is a crucial feature of secular liberal rhetoric, protecting religious freedom in practice depends upon securing the privacy of corporations, churches, and families. Part of the imagined social function of these private institutions is to enforce forms of personal and sexual discipline necessary to keep people from becoming morally threatening creatures. Secular forms of privacy, then, threaten freedom at the same time as they offer a defense against these threats.

Mayanthi Fernando, University of California, Santa Cruz
The Materiality of Secularity: Secular Bodies and Secular Space

Over the past decade, scholars have argued that secularism does not entail the separation of religion and politics but rather the state’s administrative and legal regulation of religious life. While much recent analysis focuses on law, other work explores the social, aesthetic, bodily, and ethical norms that work together to produce not just a discrete notion of religion but also the embodied sensibilities of the secular. Drawing on my own research in France, my paper similarly argues for attending to the materiality of the secular, its grounding in certain spatial and bodily forms. I discuss two cases: first, the construction of the Institute for the Cultures of Islam by the Parisian municipality as a way to understand the normative spatiality of proper (i.e. secular) religion; and second, the critique of veiling as a way to understand the sexual, aesthetic, and bodily norms of the properly secular woman.

Noreen Khawaja, Yale University
The Existential Ethic: Reconsidering the Secular in Modern European Thought

The core ideas of Existentialism are attempts to translate the ascetic logic of Protestant piety into the idiom of a modern secular philosophy. Repentance gives way to choice, sin to finitude, conversion to authenticity. But what does it mean to see Christianity as a normative and conceptual context for interpreting existential thought? Does existentialism become a religion? Does Christianity itself become less religious? Existentialism is a fertile context in which to think through problems of the secular, I argue, because it asks us to think about the secular in terms of self-conscious historical agents. It asks us to pose questions of legitimacy and efficacy, and not only of genealogy. By examining the intimate link between the devotional ideals of Pietistic reform and philosophical ideals of existence, I show how that in the context of modern European thought, philosophical secularization and theological reformation are best understood together, rather than apart.

Devin Singh, Dartmouth College
Secularity and the Money Economy

Taking up Hans Blumenberg’s claim that analyses of secularization should recall the material realities that undergird the term (after all, secularization denoted the transfer of ecclesial property to state control), this paper inquires into the economy of the secular. From the rationalization that purportedly drives worldly disenchantment, to the reification of social relations, to the technical desacralization of traditional modes of representation, economic dynamics appear integral to the processes and postures denoted by ideas of the secular and secularity. As an inroad into examining such economic materiality, this paper claims that money plays a critical yet underexamined role in conceptualizing such formations. Money is centrally implicated in mass production and reproducible representation, interiority of values and subjective buffering, and conceptions of immanence, which apparently characterize the secular modern, raising questions about the “secularizing” power of money and its role as a heuristic for genealogies of modernity.


Saba Mahmood, University of California, Berkeley