On The Politics of Spirit: An Interview with Tim Murphy (Part 2)

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This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Tim Murphy about his new book, The Politics of Spirit; see part 1 here.

Tim Murphy (1956-2013) was Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His books include Nietzsche, Metaphor, Religion (SUNY Press, 2001) and Representing Religion: Essays in History, Theory, and Crisis (Equinox Publishing, 2007). His research has followed two tracks: a critical genealogy of the field of Religious Studies and constructive attempt to theorize religion using concepts derived from poststructuralism and semiotics.

His book, The Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion, shows how, since Hegel the science of consciousness, or phenomenology, has taken the form of the study of Geist or “spirit,” which is always defined in opposition to nature. A genealogical rereading of major texts traces this Hegelianism as it is found in the phenomenology of religion. Using colonial discourse theory, these rereadings demonstrate how phenomenology’s representations of religion replicate the structural relations between colonizer and colonized: non-Europeans of color are “nature,” while Europeans are Geist. The very idea of “consciousness” turns out to be a kind of latent politics. These rereadings call for a radical rethinking of the foundations of Religious Studies.

Craig Martin: In your book you argue that the Eurocentrism or ethnocentrism of the phenomenology of religion is neither arbitrary nor contingent—you argue that it logically follows from its central concepts, which involve a normative essence/manifestation or center/periphery distinction. I would argue, to the contrary, that someone like Vivekanda uses the same concepts in a way that seems designed to usurp European dominance. That is, it seems to me that the possible uses of these concepts are variable and could be turned around to sanction a wide variety of things. My center is your periphery and vice versa—and nothing about these concepts makes Europe necessarily central. What do you think?

Tim Murphy: Yes, but he’s reconfigured the network of ideas. Of course that is going to change things. My point is that phenomenology of religion as configured in this specific tradition generates those pathologies. If you think of it this way, Tiele through Eliade are all located inside the empire and speak from there. Vivekanda, I would hazard a guess, is at the other end of the gun, so to speak. Classic phenomenology of religion’s location, both geographically in the European metropoles but more importantly in discourse, makes it inevitably Euro-centric. The same set and order of philosophemes binds “consciousness” to “Christianity” and so Geist to Europe, etc.

CM: I know it is early yet, but do you have any sense of how your book is being received?

TM: None whatsoever. (Laughs)

CM: Is there anything you would change about this book in hindsight? Anything that you wished you had spent more time developing?

TM: Many things. It was written too quickly. I’d love to redo the chapter on Eliade. However, my explorations into the genealogy of this tradition, as well as my critical work, are complete now (from the viewpoint of my career and intellectual concerns). Time to turn the page.

CM: What about this book are you most proud of? What did you reread during proofs that made you say “Yes!” to yourself?

TM: The cover. Just kidding. I am really bad, even terrible, about assessing my own work. All I can see are the negative aspects. So that is a uniquely hard question for me. That being said, I think the chapter on Dilthey is well done. Chapter Two on method has some pretty fun stuff.

The genealogy of how Geisteswissenschaft worked was also an important insight to me. Finally, my evisceration of Otto, which he richly deserves, is a contribution to the study of religion everywhere. We need to throw that book out of the academy!

CM: I know there was a lot left out of this book due to constraints on length and time. Can you give us a hint?

TM: Schleiermacher! He is a major contributor to this vein of thought. One of my reviewers mentioned that. I also underplayed the connection which hermeneutics has to this discourse. Finally, although it may sound odd, a chapter on Husserl would have been helpful.

CM: I know you’re a person with strong opinions. Can you comment on what irritates you most about the discipline of religious studies today? What drives you crazy? By contrast, what do you like most? What avenues of research look most promising? Who or what should we be reading or studying?

TM: Strong, or as I prefer to say definite opinions, but not inflexible ones. In all seriousness, I am as willing as anyone I know in this business to admit when he’s wrong. And here’s an example: I used to be a Husserlian phenomenologist! I loved The Sacred and the Profane when I first read it. I stated in The Politics of Spirit that if poststructuralism proved to be wrong, I’d drop it in a heartbeat. I’m not out to develop a position to which I am wed for the rest of my career. Too many people do that, and it is to the detriment of theory. For anything to happen, you have be able to say, finally, “yes” or “no.” I am willing to do that. Pushing hard on arguments is the best path to clarity. As such, all the fudging that goes on at nearly every level of this business drives me crazy.

Another major problem I have with Religious Studies is the way some people use their religious identity, or “faith stance,” as an argument for truth in its own right. This does real harm to the field. Not only is that logically absurd, it seriously limits the scope of inquiry. One is certainly free to celebrate and affirm one’s identity but not in place of an argument. I find the whole thing insufferable. I’d love to see this type of approach as clearly separated from any connection with the academic study of religion as possible. The academy is not the ecclesia: again, a decisive, if nuanced, distinction serves everyone best. I am all for identity politics and am not anti-religious (I’m quite neutral towards it), but the same thing applies. Neither your identity nor your religion gives you any kind of privileged position vis-à-vis argumentation.

My basic operating principle comes from Socrates, viz., we must always let the stronger argument prevail over the weaker. That’s not a popular stance to take in committee meetings, book reviews, etc., but I say if we’re not abiding by that principle we need to close up shop and forget all about the project we call the “university.”

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On The Politics of Spirit: An Interview with Tim Murphy (Part 1)

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Tim Murphy (1956-2013) was Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His books include Nietzsche, Metaphor, Religion (SUNY Press, 2001) and Representing Religion: Essays in History, Theory, and Crisis (Equinox Publishing, 2007). His research has followed two tracks: a critical genealogy of the field of Religious Studies and constructive attempt to theorize religion using concepts derived from poststructuralism and semiotics.

His book, The Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion, shows how, since Hegel the science of consciousness, or phenomenology, has taken the form of the study of Geist or “spirit,” which is always defined in opposition to nature. A genealogical rereading of major texts traces this Hegelianism as it is found in the phenomenology of religion. Using colonial discourse theory, these rereadings demonstrate how phenomenology’s representations of religion replicate the structural relations between colonizer and colonized: non-Europeans of color are “nature,” while Europeans are Geist. The very idea of “consciousness” turns out to be a kind of latent politics. These rereadings call for a radical rethinking of the foundations of Religious Studies.

Craig Martin: I get the impression from reading the book and from some comments you’ve made that you see this book as a part of an ongoing project—continuing the work you did in Representing Religion and looking forward to another book on the semiotics of religion. Can you comment on what prompted you to write this book and how it fits into your larger project?

Tim Murphy: What prompted me to write this book is a long, long story with many twists and turns. The short version is that I started this as research project with my late advisor, Gary Lease in my first year in the History of Consciousness Program. The idea was to apply the poststructuralist critique of phenomenology to the phenomenology of religion. No one had really done that back then, so that was even more incentive. The middle part of the story is messy, but the project sat in a desk drawer for years and I wrote my dissertation/first book, Nietzsche, Religion, Metaphor instead of pursuing this project. Bryan Rennie graciously invited me to submit something to his SUNY series, Issues in the Study of Religion, and we agreed that this project would work well for that series. If this had been my first book, it would have been much timelier. By now, the field has somewhat caught up to these ideas.

The intellectual reasons for doing this project were clear to me: the phenomenology of religion, and all its residuals in the academic study of religion, was not only wrong, but an obstacle to the discipline. If we were going to understand religion we had to get rid of it and all its vestiges. I stand by that even now.

So that’s the critical component of my work. I am embarking on a constructive phase in which I am using semiotics as the basis for developing a full-blown theory of religion with Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy and Roland Barthes’ Elements of Semiology as rough models for a future monograph entitled, “By this Sign You Shall Conquer”: Elements of a Semiotic Theory of Religion. That is the larger project you rightly recognize.

CM: In the book you relate the origins of the “phenomenology of religion” to Hegel rather than Husserl. Before reading your book I was struck by how little the phenomenology of religion had in common with Husserl, and I was persuaded by your argument that it really goes back to Hegel (or a least a certain right-wing Hegelianism). If you’re right, how do we account for the popular misperception that phenomenology of religion is Husserlian at bottom?

TM: In order to understand Hegel’s influence you must see that the Geisteswissenschaften were, for all intents and purposes, predicated on Hegel’s vision, especially as articulated in the Encyclopedia—which most Americans never read. That was gospel in the German academy in the 1830’s and for a long time after. A genealogy of Geisteswissenschaft allows us to see how Continental scholars came to think about culture, history, literature, and religion. From the Geisteswissenschaften, Religionswissenschaft emerged. You have to remember that since its inception Geisteswissenschaft was at war with positivism. This war shaped the discourse considerably. We will never understand these scholars if we do not grasp this important fact.

It wasn’t “right wing” per se, but only as positioned and described by Marxist readings. It is easy to let the Marxist narrative of Hegelianism distort much of the latter’s impact. While it was mostly conservative, there were a few Liberals in that crowd. But it was within the virtually unconscious, assumed Hegelianism that German scholars worked. You might think of it like this: “Hegelianism” became something like the notion of the episteme as Foucault describes it.

Husserl also was trying to develop a “science of consciousness.” The Religionswissenschaft people found a couple of things in Husserl. One was the air of scientificity. This was attractive because, again, of the conflict with positivism. Second, the epoché. This was extremely useful for getting out of the “myth is bad science” model. Eliade repeatedly said: “the sacred is a structure of consciousness, not a stage of history.” It liberated Religionswissenschaft much of which quickly became phenomenology of religion. Seeing the Husserlian terminology without knowing the genealogy of Geisteswissenschaften, people assumed that the phenomenology of religion was Husserlian. In reality, it was the study of Geist with a few Husserlian trimmings.

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Creating History

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by Steven Ramey

* This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

History-making involves the creation of connections between events that generate meaning and order. It is really the same as any storytelling, where the creator of the (hi)story decides what characters, actions, and elements fit together to construct a meaningful narrative. These storytellers, whether historians, journalists, or novelists, have significant power to construct the narrative of events in ways that reinforce preferred ideologies, assumptions, and stereotypes.

A Facebook post in response to the earthquake in Nepal became one egregious example of this. Along with expressions of concern and discussions of charitable efforts to address the tragedy, one person promoted a different take, connecting the earthquake to a ritual last fall to suggest that the Earth was taking revenge for “the world’s largest animal sacrifice.” This account references a festival to Gadhimai, a goddess of power in Nepal, that takes place every five years. This storyteller asserted,

During the 2014 festival, an estimated 205,000 animals and birds were sacrificed. and NOW they are Suffering as #Nature takes revenge of your past bad actions, unfortunately #innocents suffer too.

This festival has sparked protest and complaint, with animal rights activists succeeding in placing restrictions on the transport of buffalo from India before the 2014 festival. The history propagated in that Facebook post appears to be an extreme version of the concern for animal rights, a version that most animal rights activists, I suspect, would find abhorrent. Perhaps the author was even writing hyperbolically to express disdain for the festival. Whatever the author’s intent (which is inaccessible to us), finding such connections between events is how the creative history writer generates a narrative that supports ideological and moral convictions.

A less far-fetched version of history story-telling is evident in the media coverage of protests in Ferguson and, this week, Baltimore. Critiques of media coverage repeatedly have emphasized the selection of images, such as the front page photo in the Baltimore Sun this weekend that highlighted violence on a day when thousands marched peacefully. Such history-writing, of events that just happened, constructs a narrative of lawlessness that reinforces particular views of society and some of its members.

Unfortunately, violence in Baltimore increased further on Monday, possibly in response to rumors on social media or the “preventative measures” of officials. Do the various narratives constructed in the media influence the responses of both police and protestors to the actions of the other group? How does it naturalize the idea that violence “will not be tolerated” when the citizens and not the state are the actors? As Craig Martin wrote yesterday, which protests do our narratives validate, and which ones do our narratives marginalize? In these ways, the history-writing in some media reinforce particular ideologies of tough enforcement, state power, and personal responsibility. Of course, my analysis above, and the critiques of the media, are also efforts at writing history, creating connections between a different set of elements to make a meaning that fits a different view of the world. When we judge a narrative as convincing (or not), how much of that judgment reflects our own preconceptions and view of the world?

The historical narratives carefully laid out in a history textbook are no different. We might find them more reasonable, especially if they confirm our preconceptions, but they still involve someone deciding which events and images are significant to construct the narrative that makes sense to them, that they wish to promote. Whether textbook controversies in India or Texas or the debates surrounding Howard Zinn’s work in Indiana, the person who writes the narrative chooses how to create that narrative, just like any storyteller.

Posted in Craig Martin, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, South Asian Studies, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion, SORAAAD 2015

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Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion, SORAAAD 2015

Friday, November 20, 12:45-5:15 p.m. Atlanta, GA

“…in any given society, the social practices of reading and writing are systematically regulated. The social effects of this regulation are produced, therefore, by the concerted operation of social institutions, not only by acts of individual judgment.

Once this point is given its due, it should be possible to shear away the philosophical problem of aesthetic value from the historical problem of canon-formation is one aspect of a much larger history of the ways in which societies have organized and regulated practices of reading and writing…”

John Guillory “Canon” in Lentrichia and McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary                   Study, 239, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990 (1995).

In canon, the canon would limit me. We students are the laboratory of canon, the experimental space of working on, working out, and augmenting what it is. In metaphor canon is a limitless language I use, whose origins are my origins. To paraphrase Baruch Spinoza, nothing is canonical in an absolute sense apart from the mind. A canon is an act of the mind. It is a metaphor. The aporia, the opportunity, is the question of the relationship of the two metaphors of laboratory and canon; the relationship, further, of the two canons of laboratory and metaphor. Course, canon, introduction: In what sense am I bound? And to what?

Nancy Levene, “Courses and Canons in the Study of Religion (With Continual            Reference to Jonathan Z. Smith)” JAAR, December 2012. Emphasis ours.

In year five, SORAAAD will focus on the role of canon. Twenty-five years after Guillory, what does canon mean as a conceptual valence of research design? How is canon, its creation, imposition and contestation meaningful for those we study? We will look at the implied and overt canons we deploy in designing qualitative research, the canons deployed by the subjects of our research, and the politics of representation and classification. Topics will include canon and canon-making in the study of Early Christianity, Indigenous Religions, and Science Fiction.

Participants and panelists in this year’s workshop will explore questions crucial both to their areas of specialization and to religious studies as a discipline. How can we track the varied and dynamic ways that ‘canon’ morphs as an assertion of hegemony across space and time? How do we relate deep studies of relatively small populations to larger discourses without distorting particular expressions as definitively representative? Who gets to canonize? How do we track factional fixations within canon? To what end and with what pivots can we productively compare canons? How do we continue to integrate research that demonstrates how canonical concerns have warped our study of religions both in- and outside a “Western context,” e.g., by privileging some forms to the detriment of scholarly understandings of factionalisms, esotericisms, indigenous religions, fictional religions, and new religions? Beyond text and logocentrism, how can we talk about canons of emotion and art?

“Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion” will be of interest to scholars who already enact social science and critical humanities research methodologies; to those who want to develop techniques to denaturalize canon; and to anyone who wants to rethink how canons materialize, function, and are used to normalize specific power structures.

The SORAAAD workshop is sponsored by: the AAR’s Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group, the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group, the SBL’s Metacriticisms of Biblical Scholarship Group, and the Redescribing Early Christianity Group.

SORAAAD’s committee would like to thank Matt Sheedy and The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog for their ongoing support of the workshop.

Registration Opens Monday May 11, 2015. Please send an email to soraaad@gmail.com. Place “registration” in the subject line, and include your name, indication of rank (independent scholar, graduate student, professor etc.) in the body of the email. We will announce speakers prior to the opening of registration.

Registration is free.

Registration Limit: 55

SORAAAD is on Social Media

As some of the suggested readings are posted on this network by the authors, we encourage all participants, panelists and those interested in the topic to use academia.edu and to list Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline as a research interest.

This announcement is available as a PDF, all updates including the final program will posted to the same URL. We recommend downloading the PDF for smart phones and tablets.

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Yoga Doxa: On the Illusion of Free Expression

by Matt Sheedy

While sitting in the waiting area of local yoga studio the other day, I read through a book that the studio had recently published entitled, Moksha Yoga: Expressions of Accessibility, which contained a mission statement along with pictures of local practitioners in a variety of poses, replete with pithy quotes in their own words on what Moksha yoga means to them.

The mission statement contained 7 pillars, which claim to “root our practice on and off the mat.” They include,

Be Healthy – We work to support lifelong health for the body and mind

Be Accessible – We endeavour to be accessible in our language, postures, and systems

Live Green – We live to protect and serve the natural world

Sangha Support – We believe in the power of community

Outreach – We use our creativity and effort to help others

Live to Learn – We commit to lifelong learning

Be peace – We offer the benefit of our practice to the benefit of all beings everywhere

The statement goes on to note that these pillars are symbolic and “unite every Moksha student and teacher,” while pointing out that the book itself reflects what every practitioner is doing – “working hard, sweating lots, and caring deeply about creating a more peaceful, fun, healthy, creative, inspired world one posture at a time.” Following this are 37 pictures of different practitioners in a variety of poses along with their own personal reflections on what yoga means to them. All of this, it is made clear, is meant to emphasize the book’s mantra that, “Yoga is accessible to everyone—creativity should be too.” Here the notions of accessibility and creativity are presented in such a way that individual choice and free expression are said to represent the ultimate authority for this studio and it’s particular ethic or practice. The doxa, in short, is that yoga is all about you and what you want it to be.

Before offering some thoughts on some of the ways in which this doxa of free expression   serves to mask and reinforce authority, I have provided two quotes from practitioners on what yoga means to them and distilled the remaining 35 responses into 5 categories, with several sub-categories in brackets accounting for variations:

Example 1: “I discovered that my breath can foster a compassionate response instead of a reaction.”

Example 2: “I always use to focus on the outside first. With my yoga practice, I discovered myself from the inside.”

Aggregate taxonomy of all 37 responses

Fitness (posture, healing, endurance, flexibility, health, longevity)

Meditation (calmness, equilibrium, mindfulness, compassion)

Friendship/community

Knowledge/wisdom (humility, self-acceptance –awareness –confidence -discovery, overcoming adversity, individuality)

Mind-body connection

What interests me here is not so much how this taxonomy aligns with some larger generic category within the field, but rather how the very notions of individual choice and free expression are circumscribed by the studio’s own 7 pillars, where each “individual expression,” while no doubt freely given and presented as one’s own, just happens to correspond with the doxa that is laid-out at the beginning of the book.

My point here, quite simply, is to draw attention to an instance of how discourse and doxa functions within a particular social formation toward the selective privileging of certain ideas or representations of yogic expression and to police boundaries of what is deemed acceptable behaviour, despite the professed mantra of individual choice and creativity. While it may be perfectly true that practitioners do embody and perform what they say they do—I personally find that yoga does do for me at least some of the things mentioned above—the professed ideals of openness and flexibility are limited by the same sort of constraints that are familiar to most (if not all) social formations.

In this case, authority is simultaneously derived from both the tenants of the practice (the 7 pillars) as well as from the (relatively) closed community itself that purports to revere certain beliefs and practices that are ostensibly of their own making. And so while participants were presumably “free” to say that they practice yoga in order to ogle all those fit bodies in tight spandex–a professed motivation that I’ve heard on more than one occasion–most end up parroting what has already been deemed acceptable by the community itself. In this way, the illusion of individual choice and free expression serves to mask the authority behind the practice and creates a sense of autonomy while the rules remain in place. This type of process may be also be true of other purportedly “autonomous” social formations, such as so-called “new age” movements and even more diffuse groups like Occupy Wall Street. In all cases, it is worth considering how social formations that claim to offer individual choice and free expression will always find ways to enforce the rules. That is, after all, how they become “formations” in the first place.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his PhD in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. 

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

NAASR Notes: Russell McCutcheon

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NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

by Russell McCutcheon

In terms of my own writing, I published a couple collection of essays last year, one a set of responses (with Equinox) that I’ve written over the years, either replying to others’ criticisms of my work or as a respondent at a conference, and the other a collection of articles (with Brill’s new Supplements to MTSR book series), a few of which are published there for the first time (including two on some of the difficulties I see in New Testament and Christian origins scholarship and one on troubles with how the field is portrayed in recent volumes of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion). As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to have ended up being an essayist for a variety of reasons, one of which was that, given how much I disagree with some work carried out in the field, it afforded me a series of discrete opportunities to tackle a specific issue in specific situations (hopefully always making evident how it was but an instance of a wider problem). Critics Not Caretakers (published in 2001) was the first time I had enough to collect up and that seems to have set the model for me ever since.

Given that a number of younger people now find the study of religion to be a worthwhile focus, seeing the sociology and politics of category formation to be interesting (case in point, just why do we [i.e., members of the media, politicians, and yes, scholars as well] worry so much over whether this or that group is, as they say, authentically Muslim?), I decided to collect up some of my responses over the years (a couple are newly published there) because they seemed to me to nicely represent the sort of challenges that sometimes (often?) greets scholarship on scholarship. And I explicitly had earlier career scholars in mind when I thought about my intended audience, as I wrote the introductions to each of its chapters, hoping they’d see here one way of addressing colleagues who inform you that your work isn’t real scholarship (a response I’ve heard, in one form or another, on more occasions than you’d think and it hardly subsides as you get older). But hearing, over the past few years, those same tired, old lines being tossed around with regard to the work of some newer writers in the field was particularly frustrating to me and it prompted me to think about collecting up the responses I’ve penned, seeing it all as a bit of a record of the back-and-forth that constitutes an academic field. After all, whether we agree or not, we’re both going to put our responses on our C.V’s and citation indices will log how many times I cite you even if it’s just to show how not to practice the study of religion. So taking seriously the way we’re all entangled in the formation of our own field seemed to me to be an interesting exercise, to try to make evident that critique is good for the health of an academic enterprise (even good for the C.V’s of those who say there’s no legitimate place for it).

Otherwise, I continue to blog, whether at my Department’s own site (which posts the work of profs, students, and grads as well, along with a guest or two every now and then—a recent post of mine was why I even blog in the first place) or at Culture on the Edge (a site devoted to identity studies, which involves 7 scholars in total, a few of whom are also NAASR members). Although I think publishing peer review articles and books is still crucial for the life of our enterprise, critiques of pay portals and the need for scholars to write for wider publics also strikes me as relevant, so I decided a couple years back to start writing online regularly, for good or ill. It’s something our Department takes pretty seriously too, especially trying to get students writing in the public domain, and it’s had a really positive effect within the unit. In fact, we do a lot of novel things in our Department, all aimed at injecting energy into it. It’s been a pretty successful experiment, I must say: like our university’s enrollment, we’ve doubled in size over the last decade (all tenure-track lines), a time during which my colleague Ted Trost and I have been Department Chair. Given how many people seem to, at least from my point of view, rush through something I’ve written and then conclude that I’m out to kill the field, well, taking a look at our successes here in Alabama might prove interesting—especially at a time when Humanities majors in the U.S. feel under siege. While we certainly have our share of challenges on our campus, we pay careful attention to as many factors as we can identify, factors that play a role in recruiting and retaining students as well as those that enhance the quality of life for those working in the Department—we’re even starting to experiment with podcasts now (Mike Altman and I were in a studio recording one not long ago), something to add to the movies our students are already making about life on the second and third floors of Manly Hall.

In terms of new projects, like everyone, there’s a variety of things I’ve got in pots and pans on burners with various flames under them, some boiling pretty hard and others just bubbling a bit now and then. The trick is to get to each before they either boil over or go cold, of course—so I’m knee deep in that and teaching classes, just like everyone else. I’ll be heading to Switzerland sometime in the Fall 2015 semester, to teach for a week or so, and hopefully also heading to Iowa and Rochester too, to give papers; I’ll be on a panel at the annual AAR conference in Atlanta, devoted to issues of academic labor and the work conditions of non-tenure track appointees, and, speaking of Atlanta, I’m really looking forward to the NAASR program this coming November, which prominently features a diverse group of early career scholars who, it seems to me, all have something to say about where the field ought to be going. (A workshop for ABDs and early career scholars on the job market has now been added to that program, by the way.) And Aaron Hughes, our Vice President (and MTSR’s editor), will even be collecting up all of these papers into a book. (Perhaps future programs can follow this same model?) Regrettably, I won’t make it to the IAHR World Congress in Germany this August—the first I’ve missed since Mexico City in 1995; I’ll sure miss seeing some old friend there and meeting in person some new virtual friends, so I’d really encourage anyone to go if they’re able to attend.

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You Say Spiritual; They Say Political

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* This post originally appear on the Culture on the Edge blog.

by Steven Ramey

We often assume that actions are either political or spiritual, that those two categories are easily discernible and inherently distinct, but are they different? At times the distinction is legal, centering on the separation of church and state, while at other times the distinction reflects a personal judgment about the actions of another. Whatever judgment is made, however, reflects the assumptions and interests of the observer rather than an inherent difference, as two recent events illustrate.

The US Ambassador, on behalf of Obama and the US government, presented a ceremonial cloth to a shrine in India associated with the founder of the Chishti order, commonly associated with Sufi Islam, while on Saturday, British Prime Minister David Cameron participated in a festival at a gurdwara in Kent.

A leader at the shrine in India, who is also a descendant of Moinuddin Chishti, who is recognized as the founder of the Chishti order, interpreted the donation of the ceremonial cloth (a common gift to the tomb of a Sufi) as “spiritual greetings of peace” from Obama, the first non-South Asian country’s head of state to make such a gift to celebrate the death anniversary of Moinuddin Chishti. He further declared, “The underlying message is to promote spiritualism through harmony, peace, and love for all,” the very values that he attributes to the Chishti founder and his own life work. Of course, others probably view this gift as a part of a diplomatic effort to connect and promote groups that present Islam as a religion of peace and harmony. I can also imagine some in the United States who still believe Obama is Muslim could interpret this as a confirmation of Obama’s religious identification. The interpretation is about the person interpreting, not the action itself.

Cameron’s visit to the gurdwara included participation in a procession and other rituals during Vaiskahi, a festival recognized both as a Punjabi New Year and the commemoration of the founding of the Khalsa, a group that now represents orthodox Sikhism for many. In the midst of an election season, Cameron’s participation can easily be seen as a campaign photo opportunity. In contrast to the rhetorical use of Obama’s gift, the ritual leaders at the gurdwara saw Cameron’s participation as a distraction from “spiritual” concerns, forcing him to move his speech to a side room so that he did not interrupt the devotional practices.

In either of these examples, how people interpret and classify the events reflect their own assumptions and preferences rather than some innate character in the actions. The gurdwara leaders chose to distinguish their ritual practices from Cameron’s presence, while the Chishti leaders emphasized Obama’s participation in a spiritual act. Such assertions reflect the interests that an individual wants to promote, as people describe and classify things in ways that help achieve their overall goals, whatever their personal understanding of the event might be, what I often describe as a political act (as it negotiates different interests among groups of people). So, classifying an action as political or religious is itself a political act, but of course, my statement about classification being a political act is itself a form of classification, making it a political act itself. In that sense, it is all political.

 

Photo of Ajmer Sharif dargah of Moinuddin Chishti by Shahnoor Habib Munmun [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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