Stop “trusting the science” and start trusting democracy

I’m an educator and a scholar by profession. So if you ask me, in the abstract, what students should do, I’m always going to go all out — do all the reading you can, pick the most challenging paper topic, take the courses that engage you the most intellectually, etc., etc. That’s because that’s my expertise and my life. If students come to me with problems that keep them from doing that, I’m happy to help them talk through their priorities, but I’m no more help than any other trusted person. I’m not a life coach, I’m an educator — I want to tell them how to get the best education.

The same thing happens with health professionals, I think. I have been having episodic symptoms that prompted my doctor to recommend I abstain from coffee and alcohol for a week and get back to him. When I told him the symptoms hadn’t come back under this new regime, his initial recommendation was for me to continue it for the rest of my life. And that’s fine. He’s a doctor and he’s going to give the maximal medical recommendation. It’s up to me to balance that with other quality of life concerns. (And to his credit, when I pushed back on his recommendation, he was happy to help me think of ways to experiment and strike a balance that works for me.)

This is all the more true when it comes to public health officials. If you ask them how you prevent the spread of covid, they will lead with the maximal plan, just like if you ask if vaccinated people pose a danger of spreading covid, they will say yes because there is still some miniscule danger. Just as it’s up to my students to figure out how to square their education with other concerns and up to me to figure out how to square my symptoms with quality-of-life concerns, so too it’s up to a democratic society to figure out how to square the public health officials’ advice with other factors.

Our elected representatives have mostly done a really shitty job of that — Republicans more than Democrats, of course, but across the board — and the answer to that is not to “trust the science” and just do whatever the expert commands you to do. The answer is a more robust democratic culture, including higher quality public officials with more creativity and integrity. And if the behavior of a big portion of our population makes you distrust democracy, keep in mind that they behaved that way in large part because they felt that the measures in question were an arbitrary imposition by some outside force, rather than the result of democratic deliberation in which they are invested — and on that point, and that point alone, they were correct. Public officials have tended to berate and bully and manipulate us rather than actually treating us like adults who live in a democratic society. That’s all they know how to do. That’s “best practices.”

We deserve better — all of us, including the asshole anti-maskers.

Self-regulation

I am a very self-disciplined and routine-oriented person. This has been true of me from a very young age, and my experience of college and grad school actually reinforced it. In college, I had a very generous but very stringent scholarship that I could lose irrevocably if I fell below a 3.8 GPA. Hence the typical startegies of cramming and all-nighters felt too high-risk to me. After choosing a PhD program with inadequate funding — and then getting the rare opportunity to write a book before my dissertation — I felt pressure to build some kind of routine to grapple with the great looming maw of unstructured free time, so that I could actually finish.

These experiences have led me to view monastic routine with a kind of nostalgia, as a way to achieve a great deal without ever becoming overwhelmed by excessive demands. I have proven to myself over and over that slow and steady work, even work that feels phoned-in much of the time, can lead to great results. Doing a 45 minutes or an hour of language work for several months can give you a baseline comfort and familiarity with a foreign language to the point where you can easily dip into the original text to check translations, for instance. More dramatically, write a page or two a day, and before long you have a chapter and then a whole book. Real life doesn’t allow such neat and tidy sequences, of course, even during summer vacation. Yet I often think of my life as asymptotically approaching that ideal state, even if the progress is continually interrupted.

In many ways, this idealization of routine is strange, because the times when I had the steadiest routine were among the most miserable of my life.

Continue reading “Self-regulation”

…which begs the question: “What is political theology?”

I’ve been feeling lately that I am on the losing side of a terminological dispute. The term in question is one that has become absolutely central to my academic research: political theology. It is, admittedly, a somewhat ill-named field, and thus ill-defined. The juxtaposition of the two terms and the relation of noun and adjective makes one think initially of a politically-engaged theology (i.e., “political” is the determinate difference that distinguishes “political theology” as a species of the genus “theology”). If one had to venture a further guess, one might hit on the idea that it refers to treating politics as though it were theological: political theology as opposed to political theology. But surely no naive reader of the phrase would hit on precisely the definition that I prefer: namely, the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields. Instead, while maintaining some space “my” version, the field seems to be converging on the first, most obvious meaning as the guiding thread.

Why do I insist on the less intuitive definition? It’s not because it better reflects the origins of the field, though it does. Schmitt’s Political Theology mixes all three versions to some extent, but the third, counterintuitive version is the real innovation and contribution. Yet obviously Schmitt does not deserve our loyalty. Nor is it simply because I have written books using that paradigm and don’t want to have to scrap all that work — which I don’t have to do in any case, since “my” approach is certainly still seen as a valid part of the big tent of political theology.

My insistence comes, instead, from a belief that the third, counterintuitive definition provides the greatest chance of contributing something distinctive. Continue reading “…which begs the question: “What is political theology?””

Adam’s Year in Review

It goes without saying that this was a strange year. Covid-19 affected me less than most — I thankfully didn’t lose anyone to covid, I don’t have childcare to contend with, and both My Esteemed Partner and I were able to continue our jobs working from home — but even in the best case, a combination of sheltering-in-place, nationwide protest punctuated by a brief quasi-military occupation of Chicago, and the mounting horror of a botched pandemic response produced a low- (and often high-) level background anxiety that colored everything. I also lost my mentor and friend Ted Jennings in March (to complications from a stroke), which still often feels like a fresh wound — particularly as the pandemic prevented a normal funeral or any of the usual ways of sharing grief with friends and chosen family.

Nevertheless, there were some good things that happened this year. Continue reading “Adam’s Year in Review”

What was blogging?

Yesterday I got into a fight on Twitter with the official WordPress account. My complaint was that they had imposed a new, inscrutable editor on us — not just a different interface, but a different paradigm for composing our posts — when it would cost them nothing to let us choose the old editor (which can be found with some effort; I am writing this post in “classic” mode right now). I was feeling some profound emotions about this situation, far out of proportion to the objective gravity of my complaints. I could after all just learn the new system, or I could content myself with workarounds, or I could change hosting services. Yet the very fact that I needed to take such extraordinary actions just to maintain the status quo made it feel like blogging was being stolen out from under me.

Blogging has been dead for a long time, of course. Continue reading “What was blogging?”

Reading the Qur’an: An update

This spring, I did a series of posts on my course “Reading the Qur’an,” in which we studied the full text of the Qur’an, roughly in chronological order of revelation, paired with biblical parallels, classical commentaries, and a contemporary feminist interpretation. (You can find those posts here.) As I was finishing my class, I was also completing work on an Arabic textbook oriented specifically toward reading knowledge of the Qu’ran (link) and shifting toward the study of the Qur’an in Arabic. This whole process was helped greatly by sitting in on my colleague Esra Tasdalen’s Intro to Arabic class last fall, where I learned the intricacies of the alphabet and pronunciation in a way I literally never could have achieved through self-directed study. I wish I would have been able to do more with the Arabic in my class, but I am only one man.

Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: An update”

Apocalyptic Between Philosophy and Theology (With Bonus Agamben Content) — Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

One of the things that most interests me about Tommy Lynch’s remarkable book is his unique approach to political theology. As I often complain, practitioners in this field seldom clearly define their methodology, such that “political theology” can be taken to embrace both politically-engaged theology and the often, but not exclusively, genealogical studies of the interface between political and theological concepts in a particular historical era or tradition. With all due respect to politically-engaged theology—or, as we might more efficiently call it, theology—I view the more genealogical version as normative for the discipline and believe it is confusing and counterproductive to lump such studies together with more confessional or constructive theological work that wears its political commitments on its sleeve. I was relieved to find that Lynch shares my more “narrow” vision of what political theology is, at one point defining the field as follows:

political theology is a methodology focused on the relationship between political and theological concepts. It seeks to understand the political history and significance of theological ideas, the theological history and significance of political ideas and to use theological ideas to explore the nature of the political. (7)

In my work, I narrow the definition even further to specify that the root of the relationship between theological and political categories is their shared confrontation with the problem of legitimacy, but Lynch’s definition here would include my understanding of what I am trying to do in my political-theological investigations.

More puzzling to me is a second definition of political theology, which appears to have more direct bearing on Lynch’s understanding of his own project here: “Political theology, in the narrow sense, is a method of philosophical thinking that uses theological concepts to critique the world” (35). We can say that this is a further specification of his initial, broad definition, akin to my more narrow focus on legitimacy. But it is a specification that raises any number of important questions. What is philosophy as opposed to theology? Why should philosophy need to draw on theological concepts to carry out its work of critique? And why should we view such philosophical usage of theological concepts as constituting its own distinct field of inquiry? I want to tease out some of Lynch’s implicit answers to these questions by putting his work into dialogue with the contemporary philosopher who has arguably spent the most time and effort using theological concepts to critique the world: Giorgio Agamben.

Continue reading “Apocalyptic Between Philosophy and Theology (With Bonus Agamben Content) — Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event”

You must change your life

Pondering Bonhoeffer’s idea that there is a form of moral stupidity that requires more than persuasion — it requires conversion. You have to become a fundamentally different kind of person who lives a different kind of life.

I’m not a moral exemplar by any means. Ultimately, the only morally significant decision I made, coming from a conservative evangelical background, was to get the hell out of Dodge. However else I have evolved since then, it absolutely required being away from those people. To the extent that I actually manage not to be a prickly white male asshole about the concerns of other groups, it came from the choice to spend a significant chunk of my life at Chicago Theological Seminary, a genuinely diverse and progressive place.

One big problem with standard liberalism is that it is implicitly asking people to change their lives and break with their families and communities, and it offers them absolutely NOTHING, no way to imagine a different life or community — other than just “being right.”

Imagining if I had stayed in the evangelical orbit. Maybe I would have had formally “correct” opinions in some ways, but they would have been couched in the terms of that community and mostly represent my own personal pride and arrogance rather than any real alternative option. And I’m sure that, with the thin gruel on offer there, I would have been more vulnerable to online conspiracy thinking, etc. — again, out of intellectual pride and a desire to define myself over against my surroundings. That’s what happens when you don’t offer genuine education.

Sometimes I regret my decision to go to Podunk Christian College, but maybe marinating in that corrupt environment, learning that it really was “that bad,” was ultimately more productive for me. I don’t think I would have thrived in the elitist, competitive ethos of some schools. The evangelicals would have felt more like “home” — I could picture myself retreating, convincing myself that I was making the better and more counter-cultural choice, etc. It’s hard to think of all the ways my life could have basically been lost.

Academic Publishing: An Odyssey

Over three years ago, I was invited to write a review of a handful of recent books by Giorgio Agamben. Since the books represented material from throughout his career, I used the opportunity to reflect on his intellectual development. After an unexpected round of editorial review, the text of my contribution was finalized and ready to go. That will have been approximately three years ago this fall.

Around the same time, I completed a translation of Agamben’s Creation and Anarchy, a reflection on the artwork that thematically overlapped with his first book, The Man Without Content. I hadn’t read the earlier book for a long time, so I decided to pick it up just to compare. It turned out to be very, very different, which piqued my interest in returning to Agamben’s earlier work. Gradually, this investigation evolved into an attempt to reread Agamben’s entire body of work in as close to chronological order as possible.

It became clear that this was my chance to make my definitive statement on Agamben’s work. As I finished my own read-through, I reviewed the relevant secondary literature. I began planning a book proposal and applied for (and received) institutional funding to travel to Italy to interview the man himself about his intellectual development. I gave papers on the topic in multiple venues. Then I wrote the book, got through the review process, and most recently, completed copyedits, proofs, and the index.

The book is coming out in September. I recently got an email that my book review has been scheduled for publication — in September. So in the time this journal has been sitting on a review that it solicited from me, I will have conducted a research program, obtained travel funding, then drafted and published a book on the same topic as that review. This has to mean something, but I can’t figure out what it is.

New Article: “Not Persuasion, but Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”

The idea that college faculty and their allies have somehow failed to “make the case” for the value of their work is one of the hoariest clichés of higher ed commentary — our equivalent to the legendary “since the dawn of time”-style opening for undergraduate papers…. It is clear enough why academics would be drawn to a solution that draws on their particular skillsets of persuasion and argumentation, but the demand that we “make the case” is naïve and impotent.

Read the rest of my scathing indictment of the entire world here.