About Nathan Loewen

My primary areas of research and publication focus on globalizing discourses within the philosophy of religion and analyzing the emerging confluence between Religious Studies and Development Studies. A third area of interest is collaborative online learning–how the emphasis on technology in higher education can be directed towards strategies for networked learning.

Our Pre- & Inter- Pandemic Teaching was Never “Normal” (p.s. nor our post-pandemic teaching, too!)

Two Perspectives

I wish to talk about specific methods I and my colleagues adopted for pre-, inter and post-pandemic teaching.* I come at this with two perspectives:

  1. Teaching – As a freshly-tenured professor of religious studies at a public, R1 university (University of Alabama). My current research coordinates and publishes research with the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project.
  2. Administration – As the faculty technology liaison for UA’s college of arts and sciences. I consult 1:1 with faculty on teaching technologies, supervise quality assurance for online course development of all departments’ online courses, participate on campus tech/computing committees, and organize faculty development events. I also moderate the Teaching Hub, a site for faculty voices on teaching and learning.

Pre-pandemic in Alabama, I helped arrange for Todd Taylor and the Adobe team visit our campus on February 7, 2020. They introduced the potential of Creative Cloud for higher-ed to a group of over 200 faculty, staff, and administrators. On March 13, our university president announced suspended on-campus teaching, and on March 17 2020 announced “limited business operations,” requiring remote work for everyone except mission-critical employees. That’s when the inter-pandemic period began.

To be honest, the changes in course delivery and teaching did not substantively circumstances for everyone at UA. In particular, several of my departmental colleagues didn’t experience a radical shift in what we were already doing. I was teaching REL490 “Artificial Intelligence in Religious Studies” in Spring 2020. My last in-person class session established how we would complete the course while dispersed across the country.

Our department didn’t fully realize just how ‘prepared’ we were for inter-pandemic teaching, which we sorted out through the summer. Most everyone at UA made the shift online quite smoothly compared to news I heard from other campuses. UA had already learned some difficult lessons before “2020.”

Academic Continuity Before “2020”

Why were we prepared? Very tragically, Tuscaloosa experienced a devastating tornado  on April 27, 2011. That day in Alabama saw 62 tornados kill 253 people, injure thousands, and destroy many homes. Among them were UA staff, faculty and students. On-campus activities were suspended. All faculty were tasked with finding ways to close out the semester.

Natural disasters are more visible than pandemics. Just a few years prior, UA established shelters and classes for students from institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina. The trauma of 2011 lead to extensive “academic continuity” preparations. IT offices were tasked to continually find ways to harden physical systems, ensure data storage, and enable distributed work. Each college set up planning groups. Since my hiring in 2015, each semester involved college-wide exercises designed to test our capabilities for “suspended operations” (e.g. staff and/or faculty would be required to work off-campus).

Going Public Online Pre-Pandemic

My department was prepared in another way, too. In 2001 our program was declared “non-viable” by its governing body. Religious studies at UA was in trouble. Russell McCutcheon, my department chair, outlines what happened in his article. The department began a process of continually reinventing itself. McCutcheon calls it ‘staying nimble.’ I joined the department long after these ‘staying nimble’ days began. Looking back, my faculty perspective allows me to see how REL’s pre-pandemic strategies came into play inter-pandemic – which is where we are currently. These strategies will continue to be useful strategies for our post-pandemic futures.

As an academic unit, REL’s made a strategic shift to 1) go public online, and 2) use that online public persona to collect and sustain a local community. The rationale was survival. Building a local community by going public speaks to what our discipline has to offer a flagship university.

Going public online developed distributed expertise about online media across the faculty. We did not necessarily develop expertise in LMS/CMS content delivery. Administrators are mistaken to think ‘going online’ means ‘online teaching.’ The desire for another revenue stream obscures taking a broader, long-term perspective. None of our courses are “flipped” in the trendy sense of the word. We apply social theory concretely to our strategy for online presence.

As I understand it, the department’s strategy is to continually develop online presence with a suite of interconnected online platforms (e.g. WordPress sites, Soundcloud, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and most recently, Minecraft).

Presidents hall in minecraft and real life

The objectives are to:

  • attract new students to our courses
  • recruit majors (p.s. few to no students ever declare “religion” majors when applying for college…)
  • highlight student and faculty achievements
  • have fun and develop camaraderie
  • find new ways to “stay nimble”
  • listen for the voices of current students and alumni

The inter-pandemic outcome of going public online was a faculty already working to sustain community through a variety of online environments. Our recent Honors Day video highlights all of the above.

Inter-Pandemic Teaching

The above applied directly to my Fall 2021 course, REL502 “Public Humanities and Religious Studies.” 502 is a microcosm of REL, where students develop their media skills to convey our department’s motto: studying religion in culture.

“…work in the Department highlights the manner in which those behaviors and institutions named as religion are elements of ordinary cultural practices.”

REL courses teach there is no ‘normal.’ Nothing is ‘natural.’ Our students learn how group and social dynamics structure ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’ As McCutcheon says, We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal. REL502 teaches students this structurally reflexive approach for going public online.

The 502 syllabus is designed to teach attitudes and skills oriented towards public pedagogy. Since 2018, we team-taught 502 using a host of digital mainstays for the course:

  1. A WordPress site hosting the syllabus and course schedule.
  2. Slack channel for inter-session preparation, communications, and debriefing.
  3. Adobe Creative Cloud tools to experiment with a variety of media and platforms (both mobile and desktop apps).

a slack dialogue among students

N.B. Students gave permission for their names and work to be shared from our Slack channel, as well as for the video at the conclusion of this post.

Making the inter-pandemic shift was somewhat simple. Instead of huddling around laptops in a seminar room, I live-streamed, weekly class sessions to demonstrate and workshop through screen-sharing.

Among the mainstays for creating a learning community were the live-streamed sessions and Slack (many of my colleagues had success with Discord, too). I used Slack for:

  • student advice posted on slackPre-class prompts (which ultimately are pre-assignment prompts) to guide the class search for examples to review and thereby assemble our methods for critical evaluation of content, form, and practice.
  • Post-class summaries of what we learned and wish to carry forward.
  • Encouragement, relevant news, and resources for our media experiments.
  • Posting the experiments as links and/or embedded content.
  • Sharing reflections on process and lessons-learned for each experiment.

Our class community is not restricted to “2020.” All four years of class cohorts use the same channel. I encourage each cohort to search back through the channel. I cannot understand the effects of current students seeing previous conversations, experiments, struggles, work-arounds and outcome. And previous students sometimes chime in on the current class to offer encouragement and suggestions.

The Results of “Never Normal” Teaching

Did it work? Yes. From the get-go REL502 – and all my other courses since 2009 – are designed from the principles I once called “effective social learning.” Shifting a course already designed for distributed online collaboration to live-streamed sessions is not logistically difficult (Here’s how a colleague used Github and Discord). The primary liability was the processing power of students’ desktops.

student comment about processing problems

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a series of snapshots from REL502:

* Parts of this post are adapted from my presentation at the Post-pandemic University conference at the University of Cambridge in October 2020.

Mining Futures for the Philosophy of Religion: What to Do with 80,000 or so Journal Articles

By Nathan Loewen and Jackson Foster

We have some questions. Given its conventional focus on topics and problems specific to Western Christianity, how might the philosophy of religion enter the 21st century, globalized world? How may researchers build bridges from those conventional approaches towards other topics and problems? Steven Dawson’s essay reviews some conventional approaches to answering these questions.

Were it useful to find complimentary research from other (sub)fields, however, how might this be done across thousands of other, specialized publications? Continue reading

7 Things I Learned at HILT for the Digital Study of Religion

view of table with laptop computers

Prof. Nathan Loewen specializes in the philosophy of religion and digital humanities among other things. This summer his research interests are taking him in a new direction at their intersection.   

Last week, I travelled to the 2019 Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching event to learn about text analysis from Katie Rawson. Here are just a few outcomes from those five days. Continue reading

Reading, Writing and… R: How I Began to Study the Philosophy of Religion with Digital Tools

Professor Loewen Presenting to two women with the help of a large digital screen.

Prof. Nathan Loewen specializes in the philosophy of religion and digital humanities among other things. This summer his research interests are taking him in a new direction at their intersection.   

In Fall 2018, I took my research in a new direction. I began learning how to study the philosophy of religion with digital tools. The objective is to determine how to quantitatively test my qualitative argument that the field is historically structured by commitments to theism in ways that challenge its cross-cultural relevance. In the future, I plan to use these tools to locate underutilized opportunities to alter the scope of the field beyond theism. Continue reading

How One Grad’s Tale Begins: from REL to Myanmar to REL to India and then on to Indiana University…

wooden table with a pocket sized world map with coffee mug

Photo by Keyur Hardas on Unsplash

Shelbie Francescon graduated from UA in the Fall of 2018 with a minor in REL and will begin working on her Master’s of Public Affairs at Indiana University in Fall 2019.

I went to Bloomington, Indiana last weekend. If you asked me last August if I knew where I would be this February, the only answer I could give would be “India.” As a graduating senior at UA in the Fall of 2018, I was stressed. I had applied for a Fulbright. I had thought about maybe being a fellow with VIA (Volunteers in Asia) or an English teacher with the Crane House back in my hometown. I had considered applying to law school or graduate school. I had no real clue where I would end up come August of 2019. Continue reading

Pssst! Check this Out: School’s in for Summer!

a street in Bologna Italy

Parker Evans graduated from REL with a BA, in the Spring of 2018, and is currently working on his MA in Gender and Race Studies, here at UA

Coming up on a year ago, shortly after the Department’s Honors Research Symposium, I applied for a couple of summer programs in Europe at the suggestion of Dr. Loewen. He and I had a short conversation in which I told him I was planning on taking a tour of Europe following my graduation. He told me about his experience at UCSIA to let me in on a secret: programs called “summer school” take place all around the world for a concentrated study of specific topics. Several take place in Europe (Hint: in New Zealand and Australia, they are called winter school; e.g. the Center for Humanities Research). Continue reading

Voyant Tools on the REL Blog: Isn’t this Ex-Site-ing?

Voyant Tools allows you to read web pages. Voyant helps you do analysis of sites, too. The kind of reading done by Voyant might be called “scraping,” which covers activities such as text analysis, statistical analysis and data mining. In order words, Voyant may help you pull things out from a site more quickly than you would by spending days reading hundreds of web pages associated with a particular URL.

The graduate students who take REL 502 at the Department likely hear about it from Dr. Altman and use Voyant before their semesters end. I was reminded of this powerful tool during a workshop at the 2018 Digital Pedagogy Lab. The facilitator, Lee Skallerup-Bessette, used Voyant to analyse the data provided to her by the participants during registration. All she did was present a word cloud. Continue reading

How to Make More from More? the Large Conference Loner Challenge

“Less is better” is a dictum that doesn’t just haunt Matt Sheedy. I feel as though that spectral proverb from J.Z. Smith may apply as much to conferences as the classroom. The phrase resonates with my cultural heritage, too.  There’s a cookbook title, famous among certain generations of Mennonites, that encapsulates the bent of that culture: “More-with-Less.”

Conferences come in a variety of sizes. Some are attended in the dozens to hundreds whereas others tip past the thousands. Each conference ranges between more and less in a variety of ways, but it seems to me that Smith’s pedagogy and my cultural heritage converge on the direct correlation between attendance and outcomes. The more the people, the less I appreciate the conference.

What follows is not theorizing that supports the claim, but anecdotal evidence accompanied by some ideas for action. Continue reading

The REL Journal Group: Reading Amid the (phenomenological) Lines


The following exchange between Prof. Nathan Loewen and Emma Gibson, a graduate student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of REL’s monthly journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Nathan: So, Emma, you have a background in the study of philosophy and you came to the religious studies department at UA in order to complete an MA in religious studies. Your first semester at UA has included plenty of coursework on critical theory as well as an independent study with me focused on major publications from Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. The faculty and graduate students in our department convened for our journal group for its third and time in order to discuss the article that you chose. What went into your decision to have us read and discuss an article from 1985?

Emma: In the article, John Caputo outlines the moves Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida make to transgress Western metaphysics. I chose the article in order to engage with the department about my interests in phenomenology. I first encountered phenomenology my freshman year of undergraduate studies in my 20th century philosophy course and was drawn into the way these thinkers considered the subject and experience rather than assuming logic, observations, and reason were sufficient in the quest for knowledge and truth. Edmund Husserl pioneered phenomenology when he argued that our own perceptions precede the object. Our perceptions (or, phenomenological experiences) come together to construct our “ideas” of objects and always refer back to other experiences and instances. If this is the case, then we would have to conclude that our knowledge of the world is primarily non-empirical. Approaches that emphasize an external, objective world are incapable of producing a complete and true narrative of reality. Phenomenology is a distinct field in philosophy, and its methods are applied differently in religious studies. While philosophy considers phenomenological experiences as a continual processes that call for a restructuring of the way we make sense of the world, religious studies uses phenomenology to argue that God can only be known by one who has encountered religious experience. In recent weeks I also recently read Caputo’s book, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derridaso this article covered several thinkers pertinent to my research interests.

NL: What does it mean to “transgress Western metaphysics”? Is that the business kind of thing that scholars of religion should be doing?

EG: Western metaphysics refers to a set of philosophical arguments about the nature of reality as fixed and predictable. That view contested by a reading of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida. Each argues reality is constructed from a multiplicity of phenomenological experiences, we are unable to form a linear, singular narrative about objects and ideas. We are always already becoming and this means that we should avoid imposing structures on thought that mask the unknowable and unpredictable qualities of existence. I have thought a lot about disrupting assumed structures and categories, which is exactly what “transgressing Western metaphysics” seeks to accomplish. I figured that an article about “transgressing” Western metaphysics would be relevant to my professors and cohort since they also use methods and theories that critique attempts to rigidly categorize and systematize concepts such as religion. I believe it is useful to discuss how the phenomenological approach considers the experience of the subject such undertakings.

NL: The article makes an argument that Heidegger has a “creative misunderstanding” about Nietzsche. The group was surprised by this claim, and we discussed it at some length. What did you see as the issue in terms of how postmodern, critical theorists work with the texts they choose to read?

EG: I enjoyed how the group debated the relationship of the philosopher to the text; Should we consider the intentions of the author or only focus on the text itself? Are we ever able to have the “correct” interpretation of an author’s work? After discussing these questions at length, I believe that Caputo’s claim that Heidegger “misread” another thinker is a rhetorical strategy to validate his argument. On the one hand, if we accept that the author is dead and there can be multiple readings of a text then we might fall into relativism. On the other, making claims that suggest one person is able to correctly interpret an author brings up questions of who has the authority to make these kinds of statements. I do not have answer to how postmodern thinkers should approach the texts they read, but I do think it would be beneficial to consider what it means to misread something.

NL: Another point of vibrant discussion was a consideration of how the article used the terms “abyss” and “mystery” in order to introduce a reference to Meister Eckhart in the article’s conclusion. Would you summarize what developed in our talk as a common concern?

EG: There was debate over whether Caputo was successful in his reading of Derrida’s abyss. This is a question that I am actually going to examine in my final paper for my independent study. Using terms like “mystery” and mentioning Eckhart was a red flag for some people in the room. Was this a signals of a theological interpretation of Derrida’s abyss that actually ontoglogized it? Isn’t this something Derrida actively tried to avoid? The idea of breaking-through metaphysics in order to reach the abyss suggests that there is only one move towards the unknown. I would argue that Eckhart’s breaking-through does not necessarily have to assume a theistic nature in the context of Caputo’s argument as long as the breaking through is continuous. There is no one event of transgression, but, rather a continuous process. This is something that I will keep thinking about!

NL: Thanks for sharing your reflections on our journal group discussion. I think it was really useful for everyone. Where do you plan to go from here? Is this journal article going to form a part of how you complete your projects this semester?

EG: I am actually going to compare Caputo’s article with the paper presented by Craig Martin at the 2017 NAASR meetings to think about interpretations of Derrida’s abyss. There was also discussion about the differences between phenomenology in the field of religion and phenomenology in the field of religious studies that I found compelling. It is a topic I am now considering for my Master’s thesis. My hope is to identify where the two fields differ in terms of interpreting concepts like “abyss” and “anxiety” and what this means for scholars in each discipline.

Damned if You Zoo, Damned if You Don’t: Mignolo and the Philosophy of Religion

Child in Seuss Landing Playground

Joe Shlabotnik (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

While the future and composition of the philosophy of religion is being challenged by several authors, I’ll wager that few are daring to teach its topics differently in their 100-level courses. For Labor Day weekend (2017), I was at Drake University for a meeting of the seminar on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion. Where mainstream philosophers of religion mostly concern themselves with topics culled from Abrahamic religions, a primary objective is to create teaching resources based on a wider range of topics for reason-giving about religion. Among the proposed outcomes are a syllabus and a textbook to promote this approach to doing the philosophy of religion.

My new colleague, Oludamini Ogunnakie, made use of the zoo as a metaphor to illustrate potentially problematic aspects of our seminar. First, the zoo business is something already practiced by the world religions paradigm. The work of Chantepie de la Saussaye is difficult to surpass in its ambition, and new intellectual projects do well to critically reconsider whether to continue such work. Everyone at the seminar agreed we should not sustain the rather simplistic premise that philosophers of religion need to merely widen their existing scope of inquiry. Just because some is good, more is not better.

There is a further reason that the global-critical philosophy of religion seminar should avoid getting into the zoo business.

Dr. Suess Zoo figurings

Wackystuff (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Dr. Ogunnakie mentioned the metaphor, I immediately thought of another acquaintance, whose collection includes If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss. Seuss documents the zoological aspirations of one Gerald McGrew. It is not my favorite book. Seuss tells how young Mr. McGrew’s finds his local zoo to be boring. As a remedy, McGrew begins a counterfactual thought experiment. He proposes what sorts of exhibits he would collect to curate the McGrew Zoo.

As I read it, McGrew uses all sorts of violent devices to capture and import oddities from afar. Furthermore, McGrew describes other people in ways that I can only qualify as racist and xenophobic. At no point does author of the book hint at any problems with McGrew’s actions and language. My conclusion is that this book is not one I wish children to read. If you wish to see, here is the story in full.

Likewise, revising the practice and contents for the philosophy of religion should avoid the notion of making a new zoo. Such a project would perpetuate orientalism and unquestioningly practice the violence of cultural appropriation. The seminar would undermine its other objectives by accumulating some impressive number exotic things to enclose and curate. That would make for precisely the sort of textbook that I do not wish undergrads to read.

There’s a sticky situation here. How can the seminar’s outcomes not appear to be in the zoo business?

One major rationale for the seminar is that our field has become all-too-familiar. Not much has changed since Ralph Cudworth coined the term at Cambridge to propose the True Intellectual System of the Universe. Inquiries in the field continue to orbit around the coherence of theism. The problematic issue is that the seminar is attempting to initiate a Copernican revolution for its field without alienating itself.

Almost anything will appear exotic to philosophers of religion whose discourses are, by and large, structurally and systematically limited to the topics of philosophical theology. The problem is manifested by a systemic reluctance to consider different data. Furthermore, the integration of different data can well be seen as a move to use existing methodologies to contain and domesticate such data. Philosophical methods pursue questions about comparative validity of reason-giving in order to set forth normative accounts or truths. And the seminar is propelled in part by a critical inquiry into why and how practices and systems of reason-giving have been excluded on the ground of their strangeness to Greco-Europoean intellectual history.

And so whatever the seminar produces, careful attention is needed to avoid the appearances of Gerald McGrew. The objectives and outcomes should not be a new zoo. How might the seminar avoid such aspersions?

Walter Mignolo’s work usefully theorizes the problem. As Mignolo argues: ‘‘There can be no others’’ inscribed a conceptualization of knowledge to a geopolitical space (Western Europe) and erased the possibility of even thinking about a conceptualization and distribution of knowledge ‘‘emanating’’ from other local histories (China, India, Islam, etc.)” (59). Mignolo notes how this creates conditions for what he calls the double-bind of border thinking (71). The risk is that either the exempli gratia and methods presented will so congruent with prevailing paradigms that their inclusion seems gratuitous, or, they will seem so strange that their validity as plausible modes of philosophizing will be cast in doubt.

I may be mistaken, but therein lies one of the sticky wickets facing the seminar. The seminar meets again at the AAR’s annual meeting this fall in Boston. I will try to keep you posted!