“Methodological Considerations in Religious Studies” Guest Lecture

Guest Lecture for Dr. Jennifer Otto’s seminar “Methods in Religious Studies,” University of Lethbridge. February 24, 2021.


Hi Everyone,

Thank you very much for having me in your seminar, and for the introduction. In the next ten minutes or so I am going to say a bit about Religious Studies, before giving an outline of my current research projects and outlining the methods I use in my work.

But before I talk about methods that are specific to Religious Studies, I want to give you a sense for the big-picture paradigm I use to judge work in my field, including my own.

Suspicion and Sympathy

I think it is helpful to evaluate work in the humanities and social sciences using two lenses. I picture a pair of 3D glasses through which one would see and evaluate the methods and topics in one’s discipline. I think of one lens as being critical, negative, and suspicious – always asking questions that suspect there is more going on that what first appears. In contrast, I think of the other lens as being charitable, positive, and sympathetic – always giving the benefit of the doubt to whatever I’m looking at and trying to step into the shoes of others before judging them. My approach to evaluating work in Religious Studies is to balance these two lenses so that my criticisms come from sympathetic and rich knowledge of what I critique, and so that my descriptions of texts and traditions are not naïve or idealized.

So that’s my big-picture orientation. I try to be both suspicious and sympathetic in somewhat equal measure when I read texts, learn about traditions, and engage in academic writing.

Religious Studies

Before going any further I should also say a bit about how my work fits into the discipline of Religious Studies. I was trained in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University where the discipline of Religious Studies is understood in a very broad, pluralistic, and interdisciplinary way. Scholars in my department study Buddhism, Jewish philosophy, Ancient Greek political thought, health and healing, death and dying, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Christian theology, and many other things.

At McMaster there is no one singular way to do Religious Studies. Professors and graduate students in my department take up different disciplinary frameworks (many of which you are learning about in your textbook for this course). We have anthropologists of religion like my friend Jeremy Cohen. Through ethnographies and field interviews Jeremy studies ‘transhumanists’ and ‘immortalists’ who believe that with the right diet, technologies, and ways of thinking, they will live forever. We also have Christian theologians like my friend Zac Klassen. Through a reading of theological texts and concepts Zac studies how Christian doctrines interact with the Jewish texts and traditions they revise. These are my colleagues in the ‘western’ field. Our department further divides its work into Western, Biblical, and Asian fields, and so I have friends like Anna Phipps-Burton and Gerjan Altenburg who closely study Buddhist monastic law codes in the original Sanskrit, and I have colleagues in the Biblical field who study early Christian and Jewish cultures and texts – for example Matt Thiessen has recently published a very well received book on Jesus and ritual purity.

My work is different from each of these approaches. I’m not an anthropologist because I don’t go out and do fieldwork or interviews with a religious population, and I’m not a Christian theologian because I do not seek to do my work for the specific benefit of the Christian tradition, and I am not a biblical scholar who works with ancient Greek and Hebrew texts, or scholar of Buddhism or Chinese traditions.

Instead, I engage in social critique while working in two subfields of Religious Studies. The first field I work in is called the “Philosophy of Religion” which focuses on the interaction between philosophical and theological ideas. I also use methods from a field called “Political Theology” which analyses how religious concepts become secularized and critiques the use of big categories like “religion” and “secularity.”  

That’s where I am situated under the broad and pluralistic banner of Religious Studies. In my education at McMaster, I was trained to undertake close and detailed readings of important theological, philosophical, and literary texts, and to analyze both ideas and their histories. So my work focuses on both the descriptive history of ideas and also takes up certain concepts for the purposes of normative social critique. As an aside, I think that the relationship between description of “what is,” and normative prescription that says “what ought to be,” is so important for scholars (and I look at this distinction in another lecture).

Projects and Methods

Right now, I’m at a juncture in my academic career where I have three very different but connected projects coming to fruition at the same time. In each project I have a particular object of study and a methodological approach that I use to understand that object. The three projects are my dissertation on violence, a book manuscript on time and history, and a research project and journal issue on Mennonite political theologies.

Dissertation: “Ontologies of Violence”

My dissertation on violence studies the early work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, debates involving philosophical Mennonite pacifists, and the late work of feminist philosopher of religion Grace Jantzen. The objects of study in my dissertation are three sets of source texts that are philosophical, theological, and critical. My first chapter interprets a long essay by Derrida called “Violence and Metaphysics,” my second chapter returns to a debate between Mennonites and Anglican theologians in the early 2000s, and my third chapter analyzes a trilogy of books by Grace Jantzen called Death and the Displacement of Beauty.

My dissertation shows how each of these sources are connected in ways that have not yet been articulated, and so one way to think about my method is to picture it as me hosting a conference roundtable discussion with my sources where I ask them questions and put them in dialogue with each other.

So those are my sources. A long essay by a French philosopher, a debate involving Mennonite pacifist theologians, and a trilogy of books by a feminist philosopher of religion. I chose these three sources because I saw significant connections between them that were not being discussed, and I thought that I could show how they mutually challenge each other. The main connection between these three sources is that each of them think of violence as something more than physical violations like war or murder. Unlike many thinkers, Derrida, Jantzen, and the Mennonites see violence as something that starts with how we think about the world.

So I began work on my dissertation several years ago, only to find that each of my sources used the word “violence” in a different way – disagreeing not only about whether words or thoughts could be called violent, but also disagreeing about how we should judge whether something is violent in the first place. I soon realized that my method would have to account for the fact that they each use the key term “violence” in wildly different ways. So, after reading a great book on alienation by a critical theorist named Rahel Jaeggi, I decided that it would help to think about the concept of violence as a “diagnostic concept.” Rather than thinking of the word “violence” as having an essential definition with one fixed center and one proper use, and rather than suggest that some of my sources use the term rightly and others of use the term wrongly, I decided that my method would be to examine what their use of the term revealed about their priorities and values.

Violence is a term that names a violation, and points to the crossing, transgression, or profanation of some boundary. Every time we call something “violent” we are saying that a boundary around something important has been violated. If I did not think that human life was valuable, I would not call murder “violent.” It stands to reason then, that uses of the term violence would reflect the values and priorities of their users. I found that when I looked at the boundaries and values that my sources sought to protect when they used the word violence, I learned a lot about what they think is important.

Book Project: “Postsecular History”

So that is my methodological approach to the three major texts that my dissertation explores. I do something similar in my forthcoming book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). This book collects several of my essays and articles on a variety of thinkers and shows how religion and secularity are very difficult to distinguish. My main argument concerns the term “postsecular” which refers to a social and academic movement beyond the idea that secular ways of thinking are neutral and objective.

In each of the essays in the book I undertake a close and careful reading of major texts in the field of Political Theology or the Philosophy of Religion. These close readings reflect the methods I was taught at McMaster, and in each chapter I try to give rich and textured account of major philosophical, theological, and literary works. I try to provide interesting and deep interpretations that don’t reduce complex texts and ideas down to ‘isms’ or vague categories. Instead, I show how texts and ideas that may initially seem to be opposed can resonate with each other. For example, in Chapter 4 of my book I show connections between Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra – two texts that seem completely opposed (because one is written by a very important Christian theologian and the other is written by one of Christianity’s greatest critics), but which share some interesting connections that are revealed only after a close reading.

Whereas my dissertation unfolds one linear argument over the course of 250 pages, my book project provides six chapters that each approach religion and secularity from different angles, using readings of different thinkers to show how we have not definitively moved past religion in our contemporary world.

Research Project: “Mennonite Studies”

My third project focuses on how Mennonites – predominantly pacifist Christians who trace their roots to the radical fringes of the Protestant Reformation – have expanded their approaches to politics in a variety of directions. This week I am putting the finishing touches on a book chapter and a special issue of the journal Political Theology that showcases how Mennonites are not only a theological and historical tradition, but also have interesting philosophical, secular, literary, and feminist minority traditions within the major tradition.

My methodological approach in this project is a little different than my dissertation and book project because I am not providing detailed close readings of texts or unfolding a single argument. Instead, I am approaching the theological tradition of the Mennonites while trying to find the minority traditions within it that have been ignored or pushed aside. My work is focused on showcasing the ways that Mennonite thinkers have not only been theologians and historians, but have also seen themselves as secular, used philosophical materials, become entangled with politics, and engaged in feminist critique.

Questions

1. I think that one difference between my research project on Mennonite Studies and my dissertation and book is scope. One major consideration when we are thinking about method concerns how we limit our projects. These questions are especially important when we’re writing research essays. Where do we start and stop? How do we decide what to include and what to leave out? Do we want to focus on small textual details or big picture ideas? Perhaps a more important question is: How do we move between the big picture and the specifics of our research?

2. In this course you have been studying from Hilary Rodrigues and John Harding’s Introduction to the Study of Religion. I really appreciate this textbook and when I use it to teach (as I will this coming Spring term at McMaster), I notice that it periodizes the history of thinking about religion in interesting ways. The book covers philosophical, theological, anthropological, sociological, political, economic, phenomenological, psychological, feminist, historical, and comparative approaches to the study of religion. In my course I encourage students to look critically and sympathetically at each of these perspectives, and so I am interested in hearing about the major benefits and blind-spots you see in the perspectives you’ve studied so far?

3. My final question is whether you have questions for me about my methods and how I might fit or not fit into the perspectives you have studied so far? I’m happy to clarify.

Two Upcoming Talks

In the next two months, as I make my final revisions on the Postsecular History book manuscript, I will be giving two online talks on material from the project.

The first talk, in late February, will be part of an upper year methodology seminar in the Religious Studies program at the University of Lethbridge, taught by Dr. Jennifer Otto – whose project on the Radical Reformation looks fascinating. I’m looking forward to sharing about the methodological challenges I encountered in the book, and exploring some of the normative problems in Religious Studies and Political Theology.

The second talk, on March 8th at 4:00 PM, will be a contribution to a panel on posthumanism and spirituality, convened by the Posthumanism Research Institute at Brock University. My presentation will draw on the fifth chapter of my book – an earlier version of which is published here – to examine how the prefix ‘post’ that precedes both the postsecular and the posthuman is a way of periodizing time and history that owes some of its power to theological-political concepts.

January 2021: Works in Progress


For those of you who check this space or those who encounter it in the wild, I find it helpful to give an update on my research and writing every few months (for the benefit of myself as well as others). As 2021 begins I am looking back on the work that I was able to do in 2020 and forward to the final 6 months of my PHD. Because so much of my scholarly interest is in philosophies and theologies of time and history, I will divide this survey into past, present, and future – conscious, of course, that the present is a moving target, the past is a construction, and the future is unknowable!

Past

In early 2020 I gave a presentation at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre that summarized my research project on Mennonite Studies. Surveying philosophical, political, secular, and literary Mennonite works, my presentation knit together several of my articles under the banner of a “secular Mennonite social critique.” I’ve since revised the presentation and it will likely be published as a book chapter in a volume on Anabaptism and culture in 2021.

Three of the last in-person academic events I attended pre-covid-19 were (1) a research sharing session with the Niagara Anabaptist Colloquium hosted by Mike Driedger (where I shared a version of my encyclopedia entry on Mennonites and philosophy), (2) a public talk by Miriam Toews at McMaster (which I have since reported on in Hamilton Arts and Letters), and a consultation on peacebuilding at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (where I gave a response to Malinda Berry’s political theology, which will also appear in the aforementioned book chapter).

In December I was honored to be a co-recipient of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre A. James Reimer Scholarship (see here for my statement of appreciation), and since then my Mennonite work has involved digitizing and editing some historical source documents from the tradition.



In October I published an online edition of a 1976 pamphlet called In Search of Peace that collects Metis, African American, Chicano, and Native American articulations of Mennonite pacifism. In a few days, my edition of an important but neglected Mennonite pamphlet will appear on the Anabaptist Historians site. The title is Let’s Talk About Extremism (1968), and its author Edgar Metzler – who kindly supported republication – provides a fascinating expression of what has since come to be called “pacifist epistemology.”



Toward the end of 2021 I also gave two online webinar/seminar talks: one for the CSSR that summarized my dissertation project, and one for a methodology course that reflected on the role of normativity in the interdisciplinary study of religion.

Present

Presently, I am revising the later chapters of my dissertation “Ontologies of Violence,” and revising my book manuscript Postsecular History. These two large projects have taken up most of my time and will be my focus during the first of half of 2021.

My dissertation on the place of violence in the works of Derrida, Mennonites, and Grace M. Jantzen focuses on the normative foundations of the term and the metanarrative orderings of origins, essences, and ends that underpin its use. In connected ways, my book project focuses on the powerful confluence of theological and political strategies of legitimation in periodizing gestures that divide time (past, present, future) and history (Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Postmodern), especially in ‘postsecular’ thought. I hope to defend my dissertation in the Spring, and I expect to submit my final manuscript for the book project in the next few months (for publication in the Palgrave Macmillan series “Radical Theologies and Philosophies“).

Future

The coming months will also bring several other projects to fruition, including an article on Plato, Adorno, and the dialectic, an essay called “Factory Time,” and an essay on the methodological resonances between Internal Family Systems therapy and the study of religion. I am slated to review Daniel Loick’s A Critique of Sovereignty and two anthologies of work in political theology, and I am also hoping to see another review of the manuscript by Robert Friedmann that I edited in 2017. As well, I am excited to write a popular review of this book on Mennonite engagements with aboriginal peoples.

I am currently editing and introducing a special issue of the journal Political Theology that will be published in March 2021. The issue includes historical, secular-literary, theological, and feminist expressions of Mennonite Political Theology – which I argue is, at its best, a broad and pluralistic discourse that far exceeds capture by traditional and institutionally bound Christian theologies. Once peer review is completed I will post the very exciting table of contents here!

Beyond that, I have some hope that 2021 will see the publication of a few more articles (one on technology and posthumanism, one on fanaticism and historiography, and one one violence and displacement), and perhaps news of a postdoctoral fellowship…

Religious Studies and Normativity


Guest lecture for the McMaster University, Department of Religious Studies methodology seminar “Issues in the Study of Religions,” taught by Dr. Dana Hollander. December 9, 2020.

Readings:

Atalia Omer, “Can a Critic be a Caretaker Too? Religion, Conflict, and Conflict Transformation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79.2 (June 2011).

Selections from Rainer Forst, Normativity and Power: Analyzing Social Orders of Justification. Trans. Ciaran Cronin (London: Oxford University Press, 2017).


The following text is my prepared material for the seminar and although it does not reflect the entire discussion, it does contain the major questions that I posed to the group.


I have selected Rainer Forst’s work on normativity to discuss in this seminar because I think that a key question for the discipline of Religious Studies is:

  • How should Religious Studies scholars understand the relationship between normative prescription (advocating for something, or arguing that something ought to be the case) and description (giving an account of what is the case)?
Continue reading “Religious Studies and Normativity”

August 2020 Work-in-progress

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The past six months and the course of the covid-19 pandemic have been a strain to say the least, but amidst the adjustment to working from home, the stress of family health crises, and ongoing political upheaval, I have found that writing continues to be therapeutic – even cathartic.

Concurrent with my dissertation, I am working on several other larger projects (which are not ready quite yet), and so below I’ll point to a few smaller pieces of writing that have recently been published or are coming out this Fall. Hopefully these links give those of you who encounter this site some idea about my current work.

So far this year I have published two online contributions that extend my work on Mennonites and philosophy. The first is an update to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) entry on “Philosophy” – the original of which was authored by J. Lawrence Burkholder in 1989 (see here for my review of his autobiography).

The second piece was recently published on the Anabaptist Historians blog, and it is called The Philosophical Legacy of Robert Friedmann.” The essay extends my biographical work on historian Robert Friedmann, whose manuscript on existentialism and ethics Design for Living I edited and published in 2017. The blog post gives a sense for the ambiguities of Friedmann’s ‘confessional’ identity and points to his deep connection with his Jewish background. 

My work on the complexities of Mennonite identity continues, and most recently my 2019 Literature & Theology essay “Violence and the Romance of Community” received the 2020 Julian Gwyn Prize in Baptist and Anabaptist History and Thought from the Acadia Centre for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies.

Looking ahead with this part of my research in mind, I’m excited to say that this Fall’s special issue of Hamilton Arts and Letters will publish my account of Miriam Toews’ visit to McMaster earlier this year, titled “Secular Mennonites and the Violence of Pacifism: Miriam Toews at McMaster.” The issue is on Mennonites, literature, and art, and it is edited by Grace Kehler whose work on Toews is extensive

My broader work on Mennonite identity will be laid out more fully next year – if all goes well – when I expect to publish a long programmatic article that lays out my approach to Mennonite Studies and connects each of my Mennonite essays thus far. It is called “Secular Mennonite Social Critique: Pluralism, Interdisciplinarity, and Mennonite Studies,” and it is slated for publication in a volume called Liberation and Responsibility: Anabaptism and Cultural Engagement, edited by Lauren Friesen and Dennis Koehn. The collection will also feature an essay by Daniel Shank Cruz whose literary-critical work pushes existing boundaries of Mennonite identity in exciting new ways.

This Fall will see the publication of a few other articles including a study called “Plato, Adorno, and the Dialectic” which is forthcoming in the Macedonian journal Identities. The article compares dialectical thinking in Plato’s Republic and Adorno’s lectures, while following up on some of the ontological themes of my 2016 article, “Identity, Ontology, and the Two” (chiasmus, dialectic, intertwining).

A little closer to home, my opinion essay “Religious Studies and Internal Family Systems Therapy” will be coming out in the journal Implicit Religion sometime in the near future. The piece explores some methodological connections between Religious Studies, Political Theology, and an approach used by counselors and psychotherapists called “Internal Family Systems” in which the self’s multiplicity is affirmed rather than pathologized. I’m grateful to my partner Amy and her colleagues for their help as I try to understand major approaches in their field, while making (hopefully non-reductive) connections with my own area of study.

Beyond that, I have some reviews in various stages of great books like Daniel Shank Cruz’s Queering Mennonite Literature, David Newheiser’s Hope in a Secular Age, an edited collection called Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision, and a collection of essays by Jacob Taubes called Apokalypse und Politik.

Lastly, and most importantly, in October I will be fielding the argument of my dissertation at a webinar panel put on by the Canadian Society for Studies in Religion. The talk is titled, “Ontologies of Violence: Deconstruction, Pacifism, and Displacement.” See below for the poster:

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