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!

The Conference: A Response

By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in American Religious Cultures at Emory University. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

The other day I was listening to the recent Dept. of Religious Studies podcast about conferences, more specifically about the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (the national conference for our field’s main professional organization) and SECSOR (the Southeastern regional AAR conference). While listening to this podcast, I related to many of the comments and experiences discussed. But before I get ahead of myself…, for those who haven’t heard it yet, here’s a few spoilers: “The Conference” considers the perspectives of Prof. Laura Levitt, an established scholar who was recently the 15th Aronov Lecturer at UA, and REL major Sierra Lawson (soon to be one of REL’s first MA students) and REL major Parker Evans, both burgeoning academics within Religious Studies. So I thought I’d offer my two cents as a person stuck somewhere in the middle of that spectrum (having just completed my M.A. and about to start my own Ph.D. degree at Emory). While I’m certainly still very early career myself, perhaps this can be a helpful guide to those just starting out. Continue reading

For Members Only

I recall, in the Fall of 2015, a job ad appearing on our main professional online site for a pastor for a church. Then, not long after, I saw an ad there for someone to co-write a “15-20 page paper … on the theology and praxis of the engineering profession for it’s Christian members.” Both times I wrote our association’s leadership questioning why our site was judged a relevant place for such a listing. And now, not long ago, news made the rounds of social media of an ad for a research projects coordinator for the Museum of the Bible. Continue reading

Research Responsibilities Revisited

Some may recall a series of posts from the summer of 2015, on what I saw as the shortcomings of a draft statement of the American Academy of Religion on their members’ research responsibilities. Their draft document was then the basis for a session at the AAR’s 2015 annual meeting, in Atlanta that year, and a final version of the document was then produced and passed, early in 2016, by the AAR Board.

Until recently I wasn’t aware of where the final version of the adopted document lived online but, thanks to the AAR main office, I learned that you can find it here.

So visit this site, if you’re interested what the document’s final form is, or if you’re wondering whether your comments on the draft might have swayed the committee in making their final revisions.

And I nominate…

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It’s not news that, over the years, I’ve critiqued our main professional organization on various occasions. I’ve been a member for a while now, and it seems to me that having a stake in the profession, and in an association that one’s membership dues helps to fund, means that one is free to offer commentary where one thinks things could (and should) be otherwise.

Maybe we could even go so far as say it’s an engaged member’s duty. Continue reading

Skillz

empty-classroom

For sometime I’ve been concerned that the American Academy of Religion would venture into the waters of learning outcomes and assessment. But now one of its committees is  working on this and its the topic of a leadership workshop, offered by the Academic Religions committee, at the upcoming annual meeting.

Continue reading

Inaugural Department Chairs Workshop

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For several years the American Academy of Religion has been the home for a group of public university department chairs, meeting annually to discuss shared challenges. But the 90 minute lunch meeting (such as last November’s) just isn’t enough time to discuss anything in any real detail.
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Continue reading

“I belong to no religion. My religion is love”: Sufism, Religious Studies, and Love

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By now you’ve probably heard about the theme for next year’s American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting, revolutionary love, and the controversy surrounding it.  Some of my colleagues, Russell McCutcheon and Merinda Simmons, have written about it, and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion is posting a series of responses.

Revolutionary love, or any kind of love, has not been considered the purview or state of being of all people.  Scholars have played an important role in using ideas about love to reassert feelings of estrangement, difference, and exclusion.  Europeans in the 18th and 19th century used love and its connection to Sufism to create distinctions between Western civilization, European culture, colonial society, and the Islamic tradition.  More recently, both Muslims and non-Muslims have used the idea of Sufism and its connection to love to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic Muslims. By uncritically adopting the theme of Revolutionary Love and positing love as universal, the AAR has overlooked how “love” has been and continues to be used to construct “the West” through the exclusion of Muslims. Continue reading

A Glimpse into Academia: My Conference Experience in Atlanta, Georgia

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Savannah Finver is currently a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas College. She is double-majoring in English and Philosophy/Religious Studies. In the future, she hopes to pursue a graduate degree in Religious Studies. Her interests lie in discourse and ideology studies, with emphasis on religions in the Americas. She enjoys reading, writing, and engaging her friends in philosophical debate.

From November 19 to November 23, 2015, I had the privilege of traveling to Atlanta, Georgia with my advisor, Dr. Craig Martin, for the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) / American Academy of Religion (AAR) / Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) annual conference.  With my graduation from Saint Thomas Aquinas College (STAC) approaching quickly and my desire to pursue a career in the academic study of religion, Dr. Martin and I felt that it would be helpful for me to have some early exposure to the kinds of work currently developing in the field, as well as to network with the scholars I may one day have the opportunity to work or study with.

It is, perhaps, an understatement to note that I was a little nervous as I settled into my hotel Thursday night and prepared for an early start on Friday morning.  After all, I was off to meet the very scholars I had up to this point only studied in my classes, or whose books I had read in my free time over breaks.  The idea of being surrounded by so many brilliant intellectuals was daunting at best, downright terrifying at worst.  I wondered what kinds of questions they would ask me, or if they would pay any attention to me at all, being only an undergraduate.  As I heard often leading up to and during my time in Atlanta, it was pretty rare for undergraduates to experience a conference as large as this one.  And despite Dr. Martin’s constant reassurances, I could not help but feel like I was, if you will forgive the cliché, quite out of my league.

On Friday morning, I was formally introduced to Dr. Russell McCutcheon, current president of NAASR and one of Religious Studies’ more controversial scholars and one of Dr. Martin’s esteemed colleagues.  Though I had spoken to him before via Facebook, I was excited to have the opportunity to meet him in person, especially after hearing so many great things from one of his former students last semester when I visited the University of Colorado at Boulder to learn more about the graduate program offered there.  I was also privileged to meet Merinda Simmons, Aaron Hughes, Philip Tite, and Matthew Bagger before NAASR’s first panel.

NASSR themed its panels this year on “Theory in a Time of Excess,” and what it means to “do” method and theory in a field which has for so long been steeped in theological and devotional research.  NAASR, at least as it is organized currently, focuses much more on the historical/critical examination of religion and culture.  The first panel presenter was Jason Blum.  His paper, “On the Restraint of Theory,” focused on the idea that scholars’ theoretical interpretations should be tempered insofar as applying a theory to data necessarily obscures the data; that is, to apply a theory to a person or group’s religious expression is to reshape that expression in the scholar’s own terms, which, Blum argues, leads to what he calls a “corruption” of data.

I was surprised to realize, as Blum moved through his paper, that I had just been dissecting this very subject in the Methods and Theory course I am currently enrolled in with Dr. Martin.  Although we had not been discussing Blum’s work, we had been unpacking the same questions that Blum sought to answer through his paper.  Not only could I follow the arguments of the paper with more ease than I had expected, but I had already formed an opinion about the topic, one which I discussed at length with Dr. Martin after the presentation.  Although I mostly kept my opinions to myself during the panel Q&A sessions, I was somewhat surprised to find myself reacting with fervor to the different presentations, and I felt that, in a discussion with any of the scholars I encountered, I could have held my own.  In other words, I could see myself there, somewhere down the line and preferably after completing a degree, doing the same kinds of research and engaging in the same kinds of discussions.  Even amongst so many people I hardly knew, I started to feel strangely at home.

Following the panel, I got to have lunch with a few of Dr. Martin’s colleagues, including Merinda Simmons and Vaia Touna, who I recognized from the Culture on the Edge blog that Dr. Martin had introduced me to when I was a sophomore.  It was then that the question I had been most anticipating surfaced: “What kind of research would you like to do?”  It was something I had been thinking about since junior year, when Dr. Martin and I first discussed the idea of me going on to graduate school after finishing up my B.A. at STAC.  The truth was, though, that I did not really know.  I had enjoyed all of the critical work Dr. Martin had been doing as well as everything I had been learning in his classes, but I had no idea what I wanted to look at in terms of area studies.  I had been trying to figure out a way to incorporate both my English and Philosophy/Religious Studies majors, but had yet to find a way to do it.  And the idea of doing empirical studies did not wholly appeal to me either, since I was most comfortable doing critical readings of other books.  So, I mostly shrugged off the question with vague “I’m not sure”s and “Kind of something similar to what Dr. Martin is doing,” and I hoped that the answer would come to me soon.

Next, I got to watch Dr. Martin sit for an interview with David McConeghy for the Religious Studies Project.  The interview focused mainly on Dr. Martin’s newest book, Capitalizing Religion, which I already fancied myself an expert on since I had read it several times over for classes, papers, and the first time just for fun.  I have to say that there is perhaps nothing quite as inspiring as seeing a scholar you respect talk about their work.  There is a particular kind of nerdy passion that seems to drive Dr. Martin and many of his colleagues about what they do, and to know that I was not the only one who geeked out over the scholarship of the field was reassuring and quite satisfying.  I also found myself becoming fast friends with David, who was sure to tell me that Dr. Martin had way too strong of an influence over me and warned me at length about the state of the job market for recent graduates.

Since I had heard the same lecture so many times from Dr. Martin himself, this news was neither particularly shocking nor upsetting.  The truth was that I was having so much fun at the conference, just sitting in on meetings and getting to meet so many really intelligent and encouraging people, that my fears about the job market in fact subsided the more I heard the warning.  It sounds paradoxical, but I could not deny to myself the kind of elation I was experiencing at being around so many like-minded people, so many people who were equally fascinated by and dedicated to the study of religion as I was.  I was meeting people whose names I had only seen before on the covers of books or various Religious Studies blogs, including (among those mentioned above) Leslie Dorrough Smith, Brad Stoddard, Dennis LoRusso, Rebekka King, Hugh Urban, Erin Roberts, Steven Ramey, and Jennifer Eyl to name a handful; and not only was I amazed and impressed by them, but I found myself able to talk to them regarding the things that I have loved learning about most throughout my time at STAC.  Everyone I spoke to seemed eager to engage with me, and they were just as excited to discuss the field as I was.  If anything, being at the conference in Atlanta helped to curb my doubts, not because I am somehow misguided about the state of the job market, but because I found myself among a group of people that I felt like I could fit in with; I could see a place for myself there sometime in my future.  It was that enthusiasm I felt my entire time at the conference that made me decide for certain that graduate school was the right next-step for me.

Having decided that, I knew that I would need to solidify at least a general direction for my research before I begin applying to graduate schools.  I was surprised that after being asked enough times and sitting on enough panels, a way in which to mix the skills I had gained through both of my majors at STAC occurred to me; that is, to focus on ideology and discourse studies.  That way I would not necessarily need to pick a particular group, but could focus on expanding my knowledge of method and theory, and work on applying those skills across not one data set, but many.

Coming to this conclusion filled me with a new kind of vigor in lieu of the many doubts I experienced before the conference.  I had suffered many an existential crisis in Dr. Martin’s office, wondering whether or not changing my major from Childhood & Special Education in sophomore year had been the right decision.  For a time, it had seemed like I was being introduced to something I loved only to be told repeatedly that there was no future in it (I can only imagine what actresses and musicians must endure on a regular basis).  But the conference, mercifully, had shown me another side of the work I was doing, had introduced me to a community that I could see myself being a part of.  It was difficult to say goodbye on Monday morning, but it was bittersweet in that it felt rather cheesily like a “see you later.”  I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to have been able to experience such a rare and wonderful opportunity, especially as an undergraduate.  I gleaned so much valuable insight into a field I really enjoy, and more importantly, discovered some important things about myself and my future research in the process.