“Yes, but…”

If you’re paying attention to US news then you may have been seeing the recent stories leading up to the Senate vote that failed to pass the necessary financial deals to finance the federal government — which resulted in the shutdown that we’re now in. While some parts of the federal government are still open, other parts aren’t.

At present, the political drama continues. Continue reading

In Search of…

Students in REL 490 are currently reading a couple of essays by Joseph Kitagawa (d. 1992), longtime (and influential) faculty member at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (from his 1987 collection), to help set the stage for our eventual reading of some of the works by the late Jonathan Z. Smith.

In Kitagawa’s essay, “The History of Religions in America” (1959 — originally published in that once influential set of essays on methodology), we find the following:

[O]ne must remember the admonition of Tor Andrae that the origin of religion is not a historical question; ultimately it is a metaphysical one.

It’s an interesting line, I think; given that the classic History of Religions approach was rather concerned with using the comparative method to identify the universal essence of religion, Kitagawa’s repetition of this warning has an ambivalent status in both his essay and in the field — not to mention how it could also serve to retain certain sorts of key inquiries for theology alone.

But without elaborating in detail here, I admit to being curious how people today read that advise… While for me discourses on origins are an effective rhetorical technique, employed in disputes among social actors in the present, I know plenty of people who still aim to figure out the origin of this or that religion (let alone a myth or a ritual) or who are set on explaining the pre-historic origins of religiosity in general.

So it seems that the admonition didn’t have much effect, unless there are more in our field than I realize who instead think of skin care products when they hear the word.

Let’s Get to Work

Mid-afternoon today, the last day of 2017, I received word that Professor Jonathan Z. Smith, of the University of Chicago, had passed away the day before (due to complications from lung cancer). You can read the obituary his family has written, which is posted on Prof. James Tabor’s blog.

In the coming days and months there’s sure to be a number of stories circulating about Jonathan — in fact, I’ve already seen many kind remembrances posted on social media. And, like others, I too have a few of my own. But one in particular stood out to me as I sat here, thinking about the sad news that I received earlier today. Continue reading

At the movies…

Each semester, REL 360 students write a blog post on one of the films that they watched throughout the semester. The first in this semester’s posts hit earlier today and the others will be posted throughout the winter break.

REL 360 is a one credit hour course offered each semester
which looks at religion and pop culture.


In Other Words…

Like some of you, I woke today to an email soliciting submissions for a special issue of the open access online journal Open Theology. The email opened as follows:

A person who reads texts from other religious traditions sometimes encounters what the reader understands to be a transcendent encounter with ultimacy.  Encounters with the ultimate – not only with texts but also with practices and persons – need to be taken into account theologically….

Now, I’m not going to harp on why a scholar of religion received this email but, instead, say that theologians of course have every right to pursue such lines of inquiry. That many who identify as scholars of religion yet use that old Tillichian nugget “ultimacy” is indeed a problem, I’d argue, but even that’s not what occurred to me as I first read that message. Instead, two other things dawned on me: (1) how nicely the call makes evident the second order work going on when people study other people — or the things those people produce or leave behind, such as texts, and (2) how quickly we often forget that our analysis is not simply innocent description of so-called facts on the ground. Continue reading

REL’s 5th Annual Honors Research Symposium

As you finish up writing essays for the Fall semester (well, since it’s only Monday of exam week, maybe we should instead say: as you consider starting to write essays to finish up the Fall semester…), keep in mind that Prof. Bagger is once again organizing REL’s 5th annual Honors Research Symposium in the Spring. You’ll need to talk to an REL prof, perhaps the person for whom you’re writing that essay, and ensure that they’re game to help you with some revisions so as to get it ready for presentation — and they’ll let Prof. Bagger know that you’re interested in participating.

We don’t have a date yet but we try to hold our event prior to the campus-wide event, so our students get in a little practice before the big show.

Talk to Prof. Bagger to learn more details.

(By the way, if you’re writing a BA Honors thesis
then you’re expected to present…)


George and Jerry talking at a coffee shop

The last week of classes for the Fall semester is here, and my REL 100 students have some group projects to present in class, on Tuesday and Thursday.

The assignment: dramatize one of the questions/answers in Religion in 5 Minutes. It has to be a video that can be shown in class and on which every worked in some way, it can have only two speaking parts, must be less than 3 minutes long, have credits and a narrative arc of some sort, and filmed somewhere on campus — oh, and everyone in the group must appear on film in some way.

My hope is that a few will be worth posting in public (will anyone don togas for a Platonic dialogue?), so we’ll see how this all turns out. If nothing else, it should be fun and, if we’re lucky, informative too.

By the way, I had the impression others were using the book this semester,
so I’m curious what you’ve done with it…?

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.

Conference Time

Well, it’s that time of year again — when many of the REL faculty head off to attend annual scholarly meetings, to read papers or respond at panels where new work in the field is being presented or reviewed. They’ll also be meeting with publishers, hatching plans with collaborators and co-editors, getting lost in the surprisingly large book display, and generally trying to figure out a good place to meet someone for dinner, just as several thousand other people also head off to eat.

You can get the mobile app if you want to see the program (and see who, among the REL faculty, are presenting) or follow #aarsbl2017 or #naasr2017 on Twitter. The conference runs from this Friday to Monday.

And it’s is in Boston this year (and then Denver in 2018), so members of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, along with a variety of smaller academic societies (such as the North American Association for the Study of Religion) will soon be boarding jets and heading to Bean Town.