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

Problems in the Big Tent

Photo of old curcus tent with two peaksOn social media yesterday a variety of people posted a link to a recent First Things blog post by a theology professor at Nortre Dame who made the argument that religions other than Christianity do not have theologies.

For although “[n]on-Christian piety is real and profound,” or so she claims, she defines the term theology in such a way, taking into account it’s so-called pre-modern usage, as to exclude anyone but Christians from having it. She writes:

Non-Christian piety is touching, because it does innocently and naively touch on the reality of God. The piety of pagans is like the love of virginal girls, who have yet to kiss the Bridegroom and yet fervently desire Him.

Her conclusion? Continue reading

Revolutionary Love?

revolutionaryloveA colleague at another school sent me the email that recently went out to all program unit chairs for the American Academy of Religion (AAR), our field’s largest professional association. Because the president sets a theme for the upcoming year’s annual meeting, our incoming president has written the following text to explain her choice of theme for 2016 — one that all program units are then invited to focus on, to whatever extent, in their own calls for papers. Continue reading

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

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 2.12.23 PM

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

The Tremendous Irony of it All

vpelectionLast week there was some chatter online about the nominations put forward for the leadership of our field’s main professional association. (Question: why does the nominating committee exercise a monopoly on determining the organization’s leadership?) Apart from a variety of posts on Facebook and Twitter, the blogs I saw were those by Mike Altman, Aaron Hughes, Finbarr Curtis, and Elesha Coffman.

They’re all well worth reading.

The issue, for some, seems to be that the VP nominees are both Christian theologians of a particular stripe (maybe also their gender and race are relevant to some — just what criteria does this nominating committee even use?), leaving little difference between them and thus making a bit of a mockery out of the thought of choosing one over the other.

Sure, Coke and Pepsi are different in some regards, but…

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A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 8: Diverse Approaches

journalsThis 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 seventh bullet point concerns the Academy’s common description of itself as being devoted to religious studies and theology, for it reads as follows:

diverseapproachesBut what exactly are these guiding principles that rule scholarship in or out — in a word, what makes it “responsible”? To rephrase: what might irresponsible scholarship look like? For with the inclusion of the word “may” — as in “responsible scholarship may be conducted ‘both from within and outside…'” [emphasis mine] — I assume they’re entertaining that, in some cases, it may not.

So under what conditions might scholarship carried out from within a so-called community of belief and practice not?

Working within the bounds of the document, I’m not sure how to answer this, for so far, as several of the previous posts have made plain, I’ve only found undefined terms with no plainly stated criteria to adjudicate, say, a fair from an unfair interpretation. Which is pretty ironic, as I’ve also said already, for here we have a statement on research responsibilities that fails to define any of its own technical terms or make its own presuppositions explicit… So, much like the eventual downfall of the positivists’ verificationalist criterion, I’m not sure this document lives up to its own ambitions. And now, halfway into it, we find a bullet point that cites the document itself as providing clarification on one of the most foundation issues of our entire field. But it turns out to be rather Kafkaesque, if you think about it, because we here have a document that justifies a stance on a crucial issue by citing things it doesn’t actually say. Continue reading

The Devil Made Me Do It

devilmademedoitI assume that by now you’ve seen either the original video, or the subsequent apology of the principal of TNT Academy in Stone Mountain, Georgia — it concerns an incident at this past Friday’s graduation in which the principal mistakenly ended the ceremony before the valedictorian’s address. In her efforts to call the audience back, to hear his speech, she chastised the people who were standing and leaving, tried to get the venue’s doors closed, called a person a “little coward” and a “goober” and finally, now infamously, added:

Look who’s leaving: all the black people.

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Everyone Should Major in Religious Studies (Or At Least Take the Intro Class)

what rel majors do

Emily Vork is a sophomore from Ojai, California triple-majoring in History, Religious Studies, and American Studies. Her hobbies include eating and reading Internet comments.

After declaring my second major in Religious Studies, I got asked a lot of questions from home. Whenever I’d tell someone about my new major, I’d always—without fail—receive one of two responses: “Oh, Religious Studies? That makes sense. You’re pretty religious,” or, “Religious Studies? That doesn’t make sense—I thought you were religious!”

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Working Miracles

black-jesus-sacredDid you catch Bart Ehrman’s interview about his new book on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” the other day?

No? Then have a listen.

While there’s lots here to consider if we want to entertain what a truly critical, historical study of religion might look like, what a critical approach to how we talk about the past would look like — one that avoids anachronism, as if we can read back present day identities into the dim past — and even what it means for a scholar to “go public” with his or her research, consider just this one response to Terry Gross‘s question, beginning at 3:41 of the interview; Ehrman replies:

Well, what I argue in the book is that during his lifetime, Jesus himself didn’t call himself God and didn’t consider himself God…

So, at least judging by book sales, we have here one of the most famous current scholars of the New Testament telling us what a textual figure about whom we know nothing other than what we learn in a small number of ancient writings by a variety of subsequent authors who, of course, all had their own agendas in creating their narratives, writings that are themselves copies of copies of copies, and so on, and so on, that, yes, are the results of subsequent editors and copyists with agendas of their own, and so on, and so on…, telling listeners what he thinks this figure actually thought and actually said about himself.

“Jesus saw himself as…”? Really?

Is this what the work of a historically nuanced, critical, i.e., non-theological, scholar of religion looks like? (Better question: Is this what it inevitably looks like when writing for a mass audience?) For although Ehrman aims to be a rigorous historian — something he stresses in the interview, such as when he tells Gross, a little later

… there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer.

— telling us what you think a character we only know from texts actually said and really thought sounds an awful lot to me like something other than doing history. For, as I understand writing history, to do so requires a time traveling, mind-reading miracle — but he repeatedly rules miracles as out of bounds for an historian.

So, if it wasn’t a miracle, then just how did we move so quickly from what is nothing more or less than a discourse on the character (the Jesus sign, as Bill Arnal phrased it in what I take to be a far more rigorously histrorical work on the same topic) to an actual historical actor whose thoughts we can somehow know? How did we transcend time and space to get to answers to the old “What did Shakespeare mean…?” question so easily, in only the first minutes of an interview that’s over half and hour long? For I’d hate to speculate on what my grandfather really thought about this or that, let alone what my 21 year old self might have thought, much less a character diversely portrayed in a collection of ancient texts who, though profoundly important to many today, is — at least for the critical student of religion — still just a character in a collection of texts.

(By the way, was that the “right” picture of Jesus for this post?
Perhaps you see my point…?)