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.

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

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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!

Identity at the Crossroads of अवतार and Avatar: What’s Real about Hatsune Miku?

Hatsune MikuAs a young lad in the 1984, I listened to the song by Rez Band that asked “Who’s Real Anymore?” Wendy Kaiser’s answer implicitly raises Holden Caulfield’s indictment of “phony” against the evangelists of her time. According to Kaiser, their televised personalities were not really Christian because their bottom line was money rather than real evangelism.

Intellectual discussions about real versus not-real begin long before the 1980s. These discussions track along different lines, too. Questions concerning claims about reality have been topics in the histories of philosophy from around the world. Debates about realism and non-realism are debated among the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Philosophers of religion concern themselves with this issue, as well as critical theorists who variously engage arguments such as Carl G. Hempel’s Theoretician’s Dilemma.

An interesting example arose in my class, “Survey of Asian Religions,” where many students met the pop star Hatsune Miku for their first time. Miku is perhaps the most successful and prolific pop artist in human history. Already famous in Japan, Miku’s introduction to many North American fans tour was as the opening act for Lady Gaga’s ARRTPOP Ball in 2014, where she appeared just as Tupac Shakur did in 2012 at Coachella. She has hundreds of songs in English now available on Bandcamp as well as full albums on on iTunes and Amazon. She has over 4,000 commercially available songs as well as thousands more available non-commercially.

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A Modest Proposal for the AAR’s Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Scholarship

The Sneetches. Do you know the story? Dr. Seuss’ story has stuck with me. Somehow, this is what came to mind when I read through the AAR’s draft guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship. After reading through the draft, I began to wonder whether appending “digital” to the work of a scholar is akin to the differentiation made between Sneetches with or without stars.

In brief: whose scholarship is, today, not imbricated with digital technologies?

The number of scholars who care to remember how scholarship worked whilst writing on a typewriter is fading fast. I would fathom that the vast majority of scholars working on topics relevant to the study of religion are doing so with tools that function via digital information processing. Such doings as noted by the draft guidelines are “to discover, interpret and disseminate information.” I wonder, then, does the term “digital” make a useful distinction for scholars of today and the future? I also wonder what purpose the term serves in the draft AAR guidelines.

The guidelines seek to set about defining digital scholarship in the midst of a broader conversation about scholarly merit. As I read it, “digital” serves to function as a placeholder for “non-traditional” or “unconventional” in the draft guidelines. The terms that are used in the guidelines serve to construct a binary between scholarship that is “collaborative”, “multimodal” and “open-ended” versus scholarship that is “single-author”, “print” and “finished”. I am reading these as background assumptions which make authenticity claims that, I think, add unnecessary noise to discussions about the attributes of scholarship.

The draft guidelines do deploy these triads of terms to offset digital versus non-digital scholarship. I am unsure that scholars of religion would always be pleased to characterize even their single-author work as lacking collaboration and open-endedness. As the acknowledgements in many monographs will show, scholarship typically results from ongoing conversations across a variety of modalities. The guidelines therefore seem to either open with a non sequitur or set up a straw figure to be distanced from the single-author, printed and finished baseline.

The suggestions for the evaluation of so-called digital scholarship likewise seem to me as ones that should be among those applied to all other forms of scholarship. Every scholar should consider what “the medium enables that would not be possible in other formats.” I converted the criteria from the section on design (II.a.3) into point-form in order to consider whether they should be applied to every scholarly production:

  • Clarity and effectiveness of interface design.
  • Ease of identifying and accessing information.
  • Ease of navigating the resources.
  • Adherence to established standards of accessibility.
  • Ease of use for all users.
  • Coherence between the design and the argument of the project.

Any scholarly work that lacks these attributes is probably flawed. Every scholar should be able to articulate why one means of demonstrating scholarship was chosen over and against the other options now available. There must be a thousand ways to explain why someone chose to write a single-author work in print whose argument is considered finished. Why was that mode of dissemination chosen rather than others?

And so I would suggest that these guidelines be pitched as a statement of general expectations rather than simply directing them to those who do “digital” scholarship. Fulfilling these attributes-cum-criteria thereby helps any scholarly production succeed in the parameters of evaluation set forth by the proposed guidelines. In such a case, then, I would suggest that these guidelines be revised to clearly state that the document sets the bar for what is expected of contemporary scholars of religion. Whomever expects to be counted within today’s academia needs to establish capabilities to be conversant in the variety of environments for the production and presentation of their colleague’s scholarship.

My suggestion is to revise these guidelines as a statement on the general professional development of scholars who live in a world where being “computer-savvy” is a basic requirement. I have already suggested something along these lines. So, to turn the guidelines around, let’s ask a different question: who may be excused for limiting their academic literacy to single-author, finished works in print? For that, I think, no academic should be getting a proverbial “star on thars.”

N.B. The entire constituency of the AAR should pay close attention to the sections on “additional evaluative sources” and “promotion and tenure” (e.g. II.c.1 and the fifth and sixth bulleted points of III.b.).

A “Hipster’s” Introduction to the Study of Religion

I’m writing this post during the office hours of my first REL100 course, “Introduction to the Study of Religion.” During the term, my 150 students were introduced to something they clearly did not expect: the study of religion. What did they expect? Something about this… Continue reading

Theses on a Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion: Part 1

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I made a promise during the inaugural seminar on the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion that met last week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion: to apply Bruce Lincoln’s theses on method to the philosophy of religion.

The seminar itself has the objective of producing a new philosophy of religion textbook that”thoroughly integrates non theistic religious philosophies and critically engages the methodological and theoretical issues of religious studies.” Why? As I have written elsewhere, a review of the TOCs of any group of introductory philosophy of religion textbooks, from any time period, reveals a stunning degree of conformity of topics and issues that fall squarely within the confines of theism. Thus, an organization with the title “Center for Philosophy of Religion” is no outlier when its mandate includes, “to encourage the development and exploration of specifically Christian and theistic philosophy.” Continue reading

How Your Phone Defines Religion

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As the Faculty Technology Liaison to the College of Arts and Sciences at UA, I am part of a Mac Administrators forum. I was surprised to notice the exclusion of deities from emoji eligibility while glancing over an update notice. After some investigation, I was surprised to learn about the selection factors of the Unicode Consortium.

emoji criteria

In fact, the Unicode Consortium has produced a very detailed report, “Emoji and Symbol Additions – Religious Symbols and Structures,” for which “The objective has been to have symbols and structures of major belief systems worldwide represented with an emphasis on filling up existing gaps in the encoded symbol repertoire.”

The report is an excellent “common sense inventory” for what ready-to-hand assumptions exist for thinking about the study of religion. For example, the emoji for “place of worship”  is that of a person kneeling in prayer under a roof. What does this representation include or exclude from considerations about religion?place-of-worship

It is Borders that Divide Us, as well as Our Ability to Recognize Them

Last week’s conclusion of the Canadian federal election marks another milestone in the exercise of democracy. Ballots were cast. A new party obtained a majority (of seats). The election is now over.

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I did not take part in that election. Despite being a Canadian citizen, I live outside the borders of the country, and I do not plan on moving back at a definite time in the future. Therefore, at least according to my reading, I am ineligible to participate in that democratic process.

My situation brings into relief Étienne Balibar’s observation about the undemocratic constitutive element of democratic nations: borders.

“They are, in sum, the point where, even in the most democratic of states, the status of a citizen returns to the condition of a “subject,” where political participation gives way to the rule of police. They are the absolutely nondemocratic, or “discretionary,” condition of democratic institutions. And it is as such that they are, most often, accepted, sanctified, and interiorized.” (author’s emphasis; We, the People of Europe: Relfections on a Transnational Citizenship. 2004, 109)

canadian-border-quebec-city-canada+1152_12866659878-tpfil02aw-29940One of the hot-button issues of the election, that of policing “barbaric cultural practices,” also brings Balibar’s observation into acute focus. Every now and then, democratic societies express the wish to recognize their borders more clearly. They ask that border-control practices circulate among themselves in order to secure their perception that their society is sacrosanct.

At such points in time, the absolutely nondemocratic condition of democracy comes into full view. And then, oftentimes in the denouement of a democracy’s crisis – the acceptance speech after an election in this case – the conditions of democracy slip into the shadows.

Barbarians at the Gates

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Look up! Waayyyyyy up! It’s election time in Canada and Canadians are talking about values. And it’s not because of battle flags flying over places of government or off the backs of pickups trucks. No, it is about “barbaric cultural practices.”

The crux of the matter, like so many things, plays on the oh-so-blurry situation created by discourses about beliefs or values and actions. Note that each of these are definable to varying degrees: the former remain invisible (although they can be talked about) while the latter can be made visible (by laws, for example).  In the name of what Canadians profess to belief and value, the government is asking permission to restrict what people do both within Canada and abroad (thus also blurring where the nation-state picks up and ends off, too!). Continue reading

Should We Pull at Our (Funding) Strings?

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The American Academy of Religion recently held a consultation with its membership about “Responsible Research Practices: A Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct for AAR Members.” A grand total of four scholars responded to the statement on the AAR’s website. A online quick search for responses elsewhere returned nothing, other than a series of posts by Russell McCutcheon. Unless members of this scholarly association are just waiting for the session at the AAR’s annual meeting where further discussion will be held, the response to the Statement seems to be mostly crickets. Continue reading