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.

Continue reading “The simple believer”

Loving your enemies

In my discussions about religion with secular liberals, a certain dynamic has become disturbingly familiar. Again and again, they will listen patiently to me talk about a liberation, feminist, or even just plain liberal theological perspective and then authoritatively declare, “That will never catch on.” A reading of the Bible that goes against long-standing tradition? “Too much of a stretch” — and, for some of them, even potentially dishonest.

What is so frustrating about this is that there are actual communities of actual human beings who live out the doctrines I’m talking about. Continue reading “Loving your enemies”

Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

Like many of our readers I’ve watched the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt unfold with a mixture of hopeful expectation and anxious trepidation. It has been a long time since something called a revolution has actually been one. Still, I am one of those on the Left who celebrate every act of resistance, regardless of its subsequent failure, because they serve to remind all of us that the state we are in is always contingent. That there are fissures and cracks dotting the seemingly monolithic entity that is Empire. And so with the same expectation I have watched and tried to understand. I don’t think that I do completely understand, as I’m sure most of us feel, but I felt the need to write down some thoughts on the matter especially since the other big theology blogs yet again remain silent in the face of massive political and social unrest. Preferring instead to continue their usual self-flagellation about their chosen career path or posting links to lectures by yet another conservative theologian espousing a sophisticated form of apologetics. Continue reading “Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt”

Even more philosophy of religion

Blogger Vis Viva has weighed in on my ongoing quest to redefine philosophy of religion:

This seems right to me actually, though I hasten to add that many who take philosophy of religion courses may benefit more from being exposed to skepticism regarding God’s existence than they do from exploring the nuances of religion taken generally. Churches aren’t really up to the task, and of course public education does not allow it–which is why philosophy of religion is so important–but at the same time the courses the post’s author describes seem too timid, too vulnerable to the lazy self-verification undergrads like so much already.

This reminds me of the response to my IHE article on evangelicals, where I suggested that maybe we could just focus on teaching students writing and argumentation skills in freshman comp instead of jumping straight to making them question their entire worldviews. There was a similar rhetoric of cowardice there, as though I was playing to students’ prejudices by suggesting that “here’s how you structure an essay” could be treated separately from “here’s why you’re probably wrong about abortion.”

Continue reading “Even more philosophy of religion”

More on philosophy of religion

I brought it up in comments, but it seems worth highlighting: Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, arguably the founding documents for philosophy of religion as a specific subdiscipline, represent a much more capacious kind of reflection than that found in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. Despite its obvious flaws, it does make an effort to reflect on the nature, role, and origin of religion and does so through a systematic reflection on as many religions as possible, as opposed to the contemporary focus on monotheism and proofs of God’s existence. For all that, it also seems to be clearly different from mere “sociology of religion” (something that the relatively new commenter Jim H. brought up but that has come up multiple times before in similar discussions), whatever “sociology” might be.

Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is another example of philosophy of religion rather than what I’ve called “philosophy of God” or “philosophical theology.” Continue reading “More on philosophy of religion

On the philosopher of religion who quit

Although the philosopher Keith Parsons posted his reasons for giving up philosopy of religion several months ago, it has for some reason become part of the online dialogue again — and after teaching philosophy of religion (and abortively interviewing for a position in philosophy of religion), I thought it may be appropriate to “weigh in.”

My first reaction to the piece was to ask, incredulously, “that’s supposed to be philosophy of religion?!” Continue reading “On the philosopher of religion who quit”

Why “sacrifice”?

Sacrifice is everywhere in politics. Austerity programs are sold as “shared sacrifice” — and pundits who take great joy in the notion of politicians ignoring what their constituents want are constantly hoping for some Great Man who will have the maturity to call for “shared sacrifice.” We are supposed to be deeply grateful for the sacrifices that members of the military make on our behalf. One of the greatest criticisms people had of George W. Bush was that he failed to call on us to make a sacrifice after 9/11.

This constant invocation of secularized sacrifice calls for analysis. Yet there is something even more important than analyzing where it comes from and why it is so effective: totally rejecting it.

We don’t need any kind of “sacrifice” in response to the economic downturn. There is no need for any country to cut any public service. There is no need for companies to lay people off. There is no need to lower our quality of life — certainly not because of some accounting fiction known as the government’s budget deficit. None of these things are necessary at all, and clouding the issue with the moralistic language of sacrifice does not change that reality.

Similarly, there is no need for the members of the military to die at the behest of their country, because they are not doing anything that is useful or helpful for the country. Dying in Iraq or Afghanistan isn’t a sacrifice — it’s a waste. Even if we stipulate that the majority of the soldiers individually think of themselves as serving their country, that just makes the situation worse, because our leaders are cynically manipulating their noble intentions and directing their efforts toward ignoble ends.

Now in the interest of justice, it is necessary that some people give things up. Many people who are accustomed to power and money need to be deprived of it. Yet that is not a “sacrifice” either, because their power and money corrupts them, damages their personality, deadens their moral senses — in short, it makes them less human. It turns them into vengeful gods demanding sacrifice, evicting people from their homees because that’s where the “incentives” are, raiding the public treasury to keep their businesses afloat and then rewarding themselves with billions of “bonuses,” pouring more and more troops into a hopeless war in a pathetic attempt to save face rather than concede defeat, and ordering subordinates to kidnap and torture people for essentially no reason. If you or I woke up in the morning and learned that I had done all that, we would commit suicide — for them, it’s just a day in the life. Depriving those people of the chance to do more harm is the best possible thing we can do for them.

What we need, in short, is not “shared sacrifice,” but a shared rejection of “sacrifice” — a refusal to offer it up and a removal of the power to demand it.

The Poverty of Theology

Ben Myers has a post up ostensibly about the virtues of reading in a society where “progress is worshiped”. Of course reading is good and should be prized, though I’m not willing to go all the way with Myers’ assertion that reading is an act of theological resistance (whatever that might mean, we’re never told that by theologians who proclaim that Christianity is the true site of revolution and resistance).  What really struck me, though, was the antagonism towards progress, towards the idea that our global society worships progress, which strikes me both as a bit too retro (Horkheimer and Adorno did this better than any theologian) and, more importantly, wrong.

In London today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gideon Osborne, delivered the UK’s spending review. For those who don’t know, this is essentially the budget and sets the spending agenda (in this case the lack of spending agenda) for the current government’s expected tenure. Gideon announced massive cuts to education, both for schools and universities, social housing, an inadequate spending increase for the NHS, a cut in community policing, and an increase for intelligence services. This government has essentially ended, for the foreseeable future, New Labour’s restoration of a society that valued social welfare. A number of independent think-tanks have come out saying that the poorest will be hit hardest by these spending cuts (George Eaton’s blog summarizes this) while the richest in the country will continue to pay less tax and this all despite the Con-Dem coalition’s constant braying of “fairness”. Continue reading “The Poverty of Theology”

Media and martyrdom

In recent months, The Girlfriend and I have been on a kind of Aaron Sorkin binge, watching a couple seasons of West Wing, his recent play The Farnsworth Invention, and (along with only five or six people on earth) his ill-fated series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. A thread uniting them all has been an implicit media critique (more explicit in the play), which is founded in a fairly straightforward contrast between what the media could be doing and what it in effect does. In The West Wing, for instance, the media manages to hold the Bartlett administration captive to its capricious whims, even as it remains unclear who is really watching and being influenced by these news programs.

Studio 60 is interesting for the answer it gives to the question of who’s watching: namely, the religious right. The conflict between the show’s SNL-like show-within-the-show and the religious right is perhaps tiresome from the perspective of this blog’s audience — although the less religiously-involved Girlfriend did find it gutsy in context, believing that no one was really taking on the religious right during the Bush administration — but I think it brings out something interesting about the religious right’s engagement with the mass media. Simply put, the religious right is the only segment of the general public that still believes in the power of the mainstream media. In part, this is based on an extremely simplistic view of how the media affects people (perhaps best summarized in the Gaithers’ children’s song “Input-Output (The Computer Song)”), so that opinions expressed on screen are essentially brainwashing and actions portrayed on screen drive viewers to direct imitation. On the other side, the former mainstream media needs the religious right so that it can believe in itself as the embodiment of the general public, carefully navigating the troubled waters of taking seriously the religious right’s legitimate concerns while not holding all of society captive to a loud minority — as if anyone cares.

It’s easy to make fun of this dynamic, but I think that the religious right’s engagement with the media, complete with the characteristic conspiracy thinking and persecution complexes, puts in stark relief a perennial aspect of Christianity — its need for a clear public sphere, above all for purposes of martyrdom. That is to say, the religious right’s misguided fight against the godless liberal hegemony of the mass media, if understood dialectically, points us toward a problem much bigger than the religious right itself. Continue reading “Media and martyrdom”