“A confidential informant is not a spy…”

The title of this post is a quotation from US Senator Lindsey Graham, during a recent radio interview — find more details here, in a recent Washington Post report, along with a transcript of that portion of his interview. It concerns the President characterizing someone who is now much in the news as being a “spy” planted in his campaign by the FBI. That others understand this person as an informant — someone who, of their own volition, apparently decided authorities needed to know something he himself knew — is one among many current examples in US politics where it ought to be profoundly obvious that, yes, classification matters. 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

“Who said names were supposed to be easy to say? What are you, a candy bar?”

Picture 2Students in REL 237 are watching Avalon this week, a 1990 film about the changes that take place within a family of early to mid-20th century Americans who, like so many of our ancestors, came to this continent from somewhere else.

“I came to America in 1914…, by way of Philadelphia. That’s where I got off the boat,” says Sam, one of the film’s protagonists, recollecting an epic past for the grandchildren.

One of the reasons that I like using the film is the chapter on it that Bruce Lincoln contributed to a 1996 collection of essays, Myth & Method. If we watch the movie then we also read the chapter afterward. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 6: Irrevocable Commitments

cakeandeatThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

This is, at least to me, perhaps the most troubling of all the bullet points in the document, because of the way it fails to take a stand despite providing the impression of taking a very strong one.

irrevocablecommitmentAs with other portions of this document, there’s a contradiction here that’s left unaddressed. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 4: Research on Human Subjects

Picture 18This is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The previous post ended by citing the fourth of Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” — specifically, his call for scholars always to contextual, historicize, what they study by asking “who speaks here?” and “to what audience?” Among my difficulties with the AAR’s draft document is that it reads as if its authors had never read or taken seriously comments on the field such as Lincoln’s. Again, while I have no idea what debates took place between the members — or better yet, what compromises were required — reading their draft’s second bullet point’s advice that we “promote good” by, among other things, “telling the truth” flies in the face of Lincoln’s own widely read thoughts on what we ought to be doing in this field when we do research. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 3: Do No Harm

hippocraticoath This is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The previous post — concerned with a group of Academy members who, I argued, are necessarily absent from the draft statement on responsibilities (why necessarily? If they were explicitly acknowledged it would likely undermine our ability, as an Academy, to advocate for academic freedom) — was implicitly about the lack of systematicity of this draft document. Although I am, of course, unaware of what the committee discussed, what they produced and distributed does not suggest they itemized a complete list of the groups to which they think a researcher owes something (i.e., has responsibilities). After all, church hierarchies are oddly absent from the document despite many members within our big tent surely working in private religiously-affiliated schools that sometimes require faculty to sign and follow a statement of faith (which likely has a direct impact on what they teach and study). But acknowledging this to be one such constituency likely undermines some of the ways that the AAR seeks to authorize itself as an academic organization.

The absence of self-awareness for what, in principle and in practice, the Academy is therefore seems to be a strategic necessity to make a document such as this work. Continue reading

Our Highest Ideals

Picture 6I recall a close friend, almost 30 years ago, to whom I asked the following often-heard question, when they’d just had their first child:

Is he a good baby?

His reply?

We don’t believe in making moral judgments about our child.

I admit that the answer came as a bit of a surprise, since I was simply interested in knowing if the baby was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok; but, sure, after I thought about it for a moment, it was pretty evident that the old “good baby” trope wraps up an awful lot of unstated things and I had asked it pretty unthinkingly. After all, I could have just inquired if he was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok.

I thought of that exchange yesterday when I first read through the American Academy of Religion’s draft statement on responsible research, posted online for member commentary. (Click the graphic to read it.) Continue reading

Self, Society, & Religion

rel237fall2015Prof. McCutcheon’s Fall 2015 REL 237 will introduce and explore the application of social theory in the study of religion by reading and then applying the work of Prof. Bruce Lincoln, at the University of Chicago (and REL’s onetime Aronov Lecturer), to a specific episode of what we will come to term “affinity and estrangement” as represented in Dennis Covington’s well-known book, Salvation on Sand Mountain.

The class is limited to 30 students.

The Eternal Return All Over Again

Picture 8I wrote a post recently in which I critiqued a new book by Brent Plate, saying it (along with other developments in the field, such as the turn toward so-called embodied or lived religion) was evidence that the work of Eliade was still representative of the field, no matter how much distance some may claim separates us today from when he first wrote many of his now famous studies in the history of religions (that is, back in the 1950s). I was lucky enough to have Brent comment on the post and a brief back-and-forth resulted, during which he posted the following comment:

I may be an unwitting Eliadean. So be it.

Continue reading