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.

Tales from the Secondary Classroom: Discovering Normative Vocabulary

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By Kim Davis
Kim earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and French from
the University of Alabama in 2003. She went on to earn her
Masters in French Linguistics and Literature in 2007 and
a Masters in Secondary Language Pedagogy in 2010,
both from UA. Kim now teaches French and Mythology
at Tuscaloosa County High School.

A while back, I wrote about how an early morning Culture on the Edge Facebook post and subsequent conversation with one of its members helped me to think deeper about one of my classroom lessons. Well, that same post inspired me to create a new lesson for my unit on Asian mythology in which I would ask my students to think about the ways normative language would influence the way they construct knowledge of things they are learning for the first time.

I often complain that students in secondary classrooms are not challenged unless they are taking an AP class. My mythology class is composed of a wide range of grade levels, 9-12, with students who are taking a full course of advanced and AP classes to regular classes. While many teachers might argue that the lesson I provided is college-level ideas and therefore not cognitively appropriate for students in regular classes, I have never subscribed to that belief. My students proved me correct.

I started the class by showing them an article from the BBC on the history of Tibet and pointed out how the words used to describe Tibet were very positive and the words used to describe the Chinese government were negative. Then, we read the Culture on the Edge post by Craig Martin and defined the term normative vocabulary. After that, each group read a different NPR article about Buddhism and folk religion in China. I asked each group to highlight words when they felt they were being used normatively and sort them into positive and negative columns. Finally, I asked them to answer the following questions:

  1. How is this article presenting the religion described?
  2. Who benefits from the way the religion is being described?
  3. If this article was the only time you have ever read anything about this religion, what would you think about it? Would you accept this article as fact without questioning the description or the agenda behind the words being used?

My students did a fantastic job of picking out the normative vocabulary and identifying the ways in which it created a positive and negative view of religion in China, the Chinese government, and their relationship. They also did an outstanding job of predicting who benefitted from the articles’ descriptions. Some of the best responses to question three are as follows:

Beijing Finds Common Cause with Chinese Buddhists

“I would think that Buddhists are greedy and money-hungry.”

“I would think that this group of people [Buddhist monks] were a bunch of savages who learned [to fix] their wrong ways with the help of the Chinese government.”

In age-old Buddhist scripture, help for modern woes

“That it is a happy and peaceful religion.”

China’s Leaders Harness Folk Religion for Their Aims

“I would think of the religion as beautiful and joyful because of the words chosen…But the author made the Chinese government seem greedy and only interested in making proceeds off of the local’s religion.”

So, what have I concluded from this two day activity? That secondary students of all levels are completely capable of performing the type of critical analysis that is typically reserved for undergraduate students. I have to send many thanks to Craig Martin for the initial article that gave me two ideas, to Russell McCutcheon for helping me network with the group, and to Steven Ramey for helping me locate the articles and answering questions about the ideas I was exploring. I look forward to incorporating more of the content and ideas from the Culture on the Edge group into my mythology curriculum.

Photo credit: Tibet-5573 by Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

The Sociology of Individuals

capitalizingreligionMy REL 245 course presses on and now we’re about to tackle Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie.

So I’ve got some weekend reading to do.

The course is asking whether the study of religion ought to be founded on the assumption that the public, observable, material elements of religious life are but secondary manifestations of prior immaterial things — usually called beliefs, experiences, feelings, meanings, etc. Calling this common assumption into question is a way to further complicate how scholars (especially Americanists studying the pluralism of the US) often talk about religious change, such as the supposed decisions that so-called individual, rational actors are said to make when they convert or “shop for” a religion. Continue reading