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:
See here for my review of an excellent and recent book by Agata Bielik-Robson, Another Finitude: Messianic Vitalism and Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2020).
It’s been a strange time since the COVID-19 epidemic began, and stranger still as philosophers have responded to it with varying degrees of thoughtfulness and clarity (better examples being this piece by Elettra Stimilli, and this piece by Robin Celikates).
Because it is so difficult to do anything helpful from home, except continue to work on my dissertation and other projects, I’ll include a brief update and log of my work below, for what it’s worth in these times (time having much to do with how isolation influences us, and time having much to do with the way that this pandemic will retroactively serve as a periodizing marker of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’).
Having the privilege to be able to carry on working form home, I have recently submitted an updated entry on “Philosophy” for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) – a survey that outsources some of the literature review for the second chapter of my dissertation project, and extends my work on Mennonites and philosophy in my 2017 “Mennonite Metaphysics?” article.
At the same time, my broader work on reconceptualizing the field of Mennonite Studies continues, and I have updated my recent TMTC paper on Mennonite Studies here for those who are interested.
Apart from these larger projects and a few book reviews in progress, before the outbreak I was able to attend and contribute to a few interesting events.
On February 21st I gave a brief overview of my encyclopedia entry, titled “Mennonites and Philosophy: A Brief History,” at the Niagara Anabaptist Colloquium. Organized by Michael Driedger, the symposium also included fascinating contributions from John D. Rempel (on his new book), David Neufeld (on his book project), Vic Thiessen (on his translation of some fascinating German Mennonite correspondence), and Jonathan Seiling (on his co-translation of Jakob Hutter‘s complete works, forthcoming from Plough Publishing).
On February 25th, Canadian novelist Miriam Toews visited McMaster and was interviewed by Grace Kehler and Travis Kroeker about her new novel Women Talking. As a self-described ‘secular Mennonite’ whose artistic works express a kind of antipatriarchal pacifism, Toews is a fascinating and helpful voice in the conversations on Mennonite identity and Mennonite writing, and I think her work is a potential source for further reflection within Mennonite Political Theology.
In early March I also had the opportunity to travel to the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, for a peacebuilding consultation where I responded to a working paper by Malinda Berry. Although Malinda’s political theology differs from the Mennonite Political Theology I am interested in developing, being invited to respond to her methodological approach was a great chance to reflect on the problem of dissociation in political theology, especially on the question of oikonomia and the relationship between abstract and personal ‘household economies.’ My response was titled “Political Theology and Dissociation” and I hope to work it into a future piece on Mennonite Political Theology.
Lastly, this term I audited two fascinating courses, one comparing Melville’s Moby Dick and Augustine’s City of God, taught by my supervisor Travis Kroeker, and another on Fanaticism, taught by Mike Driedger (see here for an interesting crossover).
Thanks to those who keep an eye on this space,
More to come!
Shortly I’ll be giving a paper at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre that summarizes much of my research and sets forth a paradigm for my work in Mennonite Studies (see here for the presentation). The forum at TMTC allowed me to consolidate and summarize much of my work, and I’m grateful to Kyle Gingerich Hiebert for his efforts in showcasing Mennonite-related work around Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Hamilton.
As far as future events are concerned, I’m quite excited for the Mennonite/s Writing Conference in Goshen this coming October, especially since I have begun reading Daniel Shank Cruz’s book Queering Mennonite Literature. Cruz’s book does something unique with Mennonite identity that I’m very interested in following, and I am looking forward to Grace Kehler’s forthcoming review of it.
I’ve also received exciting news about the book by Robert Friedmann that I edited in 2017. It has recently been reviewed in the Mennonite Quarterly Review by Justin Heinzekehr (whose excellent book The Absent Christ has also just come out [see my review here – 2020/04/11]). See here for a PDF of the review, courtesy of John Roth, and below for an excerpt:
“Editor Maxwell Kennel has provided us with a new window into Friedmann’s thought with the publication of Design for Living, a manuscript that originated as lecture notes from an undergraduate course taught in 1954. This book reflects Friedmann’s attempt to articulate a meaningful philosophy of life by translating the values of Anabaptism into a public, secular context. As such, Friedmann builds an argument for a life oriented toward values of regard, concern, service, and love without assuming a prior commitment on the part of his audience.”– Mennonite Quarterly Review 93.3 (October 2019): 569-570.
With Friedmann in mind, as well as Heinzekehr’s recent revival of the question of metaphysics for Mennonites, I am also working on expanding the 1989 “Philosophy” entry in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. It has been exciting to look back further than I did in my 2017 article on the topic, and to discover philosophical writing by Dutch Mennonites like J.A. Oosterbaan (for example, his article “The World and its Wisdom” and his dissertation on Hegel).
I have also been thinking more about the relationship between Religious Studies as a discipline, and the sub-field of Political Theology – especially the normative tensions in both discourses. And so in the next few months I will be writing a review essay for Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses that compares two recent anthologies in Political Theology (Wiley-Blackwell and T&T Clark) and considers how this conversation intersects with Religious Studies.
On November 23rd 2019 I will be on a panel discussing the work of Adam Kotsko at the American Academy of Religion meetings in San Diego (along with An Yountae, Laurel C. Schneider, and Jared Rodriguez). Although my response is focused on the specific ways in which time and history are periodized in neoliberalism and Kotsko’s critique, my paper puts to use some ideas from the broader paradigm that I have been trying to develop in my work on ‘postsecular history.’ It’s very exciting to be presenting on the panel, and I’m looking forward to the conversation that will follow.
And then in January I will be presenting some of my work at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre. In the talk – tentatively titled “Secular Mennonite Social Critique” – I will be summing up some of my articles on secular, philosophical, political, and literary Mennonite scholarship, and fielding the core argument of my dissertation, “Ontology of Violence.”
A few weeks ago my most recent article was posted on the Literature & Theology site. It’s called “Violence and the Romance of Community: Darkness and Enlightenment in Patrick Friesen’s The Shunning,” and it explores some themes in Friesen’s work and in Miranda Joseph’s book Against the Romance of Community. Perhaps it will be of interest!
The new issue of Telos has just come out, and I have an article in it called “Periodization and Providence” that compares the philosophical and theological narratives of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and Augustine’s Confessions. I have a few thoughts that I’d like to add to my article now that it is public and published and partly summarized by David Pan in the introduction to the volume.
Pan begins his introduction by pointing to the connection between global political order and theology, claiming that “it has become clear that religious conflicts drive political ones” (3). Being situated in the conversation on political theology, I think that statements like this one need more unpacking, because in a way, the claim rests on a clear and causal distinction between religion and politics. Now obviously Pan doesn’t think that these categories are simple or separable. His argument is that in order to understand the ‘political’ we need to understand the ‘theological,’ and he rightly points out that the postsecular turn names the persistence of certain theopolitical visions within and beyond secularization. I appreciate the way that Pan’s introductory comments point to the limits of political and military calculations as keys to understanding global order – for theological and religious powers are always also at play.
That the Fall 2019 issue is mostly composed of articles on Islam is heartening (although I still need to read them through). A few issues ago, Telos published a review of Michael Ley’s 2015 book Der Selbstmord des Abendlandes: Die Islamisierung Europas. The reviewer recounts Ley’s argument that “only an Islam without Sharia is compatible with human rights” (187), and sympathetically engages with Ley’s notion of the “Islamicization of Europe” while pointing to the author’s previous work on antisemitism. I found the review disturbing. At each turn it attempted to anticipate the reaction of the reader who would level charges of Islamophobia against the book, using Ley’s credentials and previous work to deflect anticipated attacks. The reviewer then writes that, “Ley also predicts that there will a rude awakening for gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and adherents of gender ideologies of all sorts: they will disappear from the landscape of an impending European caliphate. The political future of Europe will instead mirror the present-day realities of Lebanon, parts of the former Yugoslavia, the present states of the Middle East, and parts of Africa.” (189). The reviewer then summarizes Ley’s conclusion that “The solution can therefore only lie, according to Ley, in a return to the basics of European cultures: the national, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity and the European values of humanism and the Enlightenment.” (190).
The prediction that Islam will cause LGBTQ* people to disappear from Europe is Islamophobic – not least because it conveniently returns to a general representation of ‘Islam,’ and allows all the author’s previous distinctions between Sharia and moderate Islam to disappear. Whether this is an accurate summary of Ley’s book or not I am not sure, but the fact that a sympathetic review of a book like this appeared in Telos was concerning to me because I knew my article was also coming out in the Fall issue. This is why I was glad to see work on Islam in the most recent issue of the journal – especially work that makes and maintains the necessary fine distinctions between different kinds of Islam (just as there are different kinds of any other religion).
The idea that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Secularism are categories whose content can be evaluated wholesale is something that I hope most scholars of religion fundamentally question, not because any of those grouped under these categories should get a free pass for the use of violence, but because each term attempts to collect such a massive tradition that is so interiorly diverse that it cannot be subjected to evaluation in a singular way (much less prediction). This returns us to categories like ‘the religious’ and the ‘political’ – categories that the new issue of Telos concerns itself with – for these categories too are often blamed for problems by those who want to preserve one general category and denigrate another (as if to say, ‘religion is the problem, not politics!’ or the reverse). I think, in its own way, my article approaches some of these problems of representation.
Pan provides a summary of my article in the introduction after narrating the arc of the articles on Islam, and for the most part he presents my work accurately. I do attempt to provide an alternative model for thinking about history that takes the postsecular situation seriously, and I do think that Nietzsche and Augustine differ fundamentally in their treatment of the way that the past, present, and future are drawn together in the present moment (Zarathustra’s Augenblick and the tension of Augustine’s distentio animi). However, it’s not quite right when, concerning my reading of Nietzsche, Pan states that: “With the falling away of intentionality, there is no more basis for a trajectory and there is only repetition.” (6). Rather than focusing on intentionality or using it as a key term to delineate the difference between Zarathustra’s Augenblick and Augustine’s distentio animi, the article focuses on the theopolitical power of periodization, showing how Augustine’s pilgrimage and Zarathustra’s wandering both divide time and history into periods. Whereas Augustine’s peregrinatio is a kind of guided providential journey that is retroactively laden with meaning, Zarathustra’s lonely hike is a journey without a telos.
Both Zarathustra and the Augustine of the Confessions are messianic figures who present visions of lived time and make broader claims about history, doing so in literary, philosophical, and theological ways (while disturbing the boundaries between these categories in the process). My aim in the article is to show how both Augustine and Zarathustra divide up their time, periodizing their journeys using terms like ‘conversion’ and ‘metamorphosis’ respectively, and further periodizing history: Zarathustra’s time is like a gate between two paths in which the gate is the Augenblick that divides past and future, and Augustine’s time is a tension, intention, and distention in the soul that gathers the past and future into the present moment. Both figures mediate and periodize time in significant ways. Augustine’s time is teleological, and Zarathustra’s time is circular (He says, “All that is straight lies.”).
I hope that my article will also be read with this in mind. At the end of the article I praise Augustine and critique Zarathustra’s journey because the latter seems to fall prey to alienation (and I use this in the sense developed by Rahel Jaeggi), and not because Augustine is more intentional and teleological than Zarathustra (or Nietzsche for that matter). These distinctions are important, because the last thing I want to do is to set up a debate between Nietzsche and Augustine and have Augustine come out as the winner because he is more intentional and teleological. Instead, I think that Augustine’s providential pilgrimage is too coherent, and Zarathustra’s aimless wandering is not coherent enough – and here I am thinking specifically about the way that both periodize their autobiographical and cosmological narratives.
When I write about a postsecular history, I am trying to find a way between and beyond theopolitical periodizations that make either providential meaning or ateological meaninglessness compulsory. At the end of the article I do claim that “Zarathustra’s journey seems too incoherent and fragmented to lend anything constructive to the present postsecular situation.” But now I am not so sure. Although I think that Nietzsche does not give good resources for overcoming alienation, I do think that his critique of the straightforwardness of teleological time is a help to those who want to address the alienating aspects of modern, postmodern, and neoliberal life. I’m interested in finding ways to talk about providence that don’t fall into the simple distinction between the meaningfulness of all experiences and the meaninglessness of all experiences. I see Zarathustra and the Confessions as influential texts that have provided scaffolding for these questions, and which may still serve as guides for thinking about periodization and providence in the relationship between autobiographical and metaphysical time and history.
This article is also part of a larger project that attempts to articulate a postsecular history by making connections between political theology and the politics of time using periodization as a key term. My dissertation, on the other hand, is about violence. And so, I am attentive to the ways that violence can get covered over by historical, political, and religious abstractions. Reading Klaus Theweleit’s Männerphantasein has me thinking about the ways in which violence is explained away, avoided, and reduced, by interpreting violent acts using overdetermining categories or by making certain violences about something else (ex. ‘the violence of murder is really about an abstract or natural desire that men have for competition’). My current dissertation work attempts to address the problem of using abstract, linguistic, or natural categories to talk about violence – meaning that when I worry about Islamophobia I am worried about how representations of Islam that generalize and homogenize translate into very real cultural sentiments that have materially violent effects. In the swing to the right – analyzed by Francois Cusset, for example – representations of Islam are always being manipulated, especially in obscured movements from specific instances of violence to the broadest possible category called ‘Islam.’ My worry about the review in Telos is connected to my worry about the production and reproduction of enmity in political theology, as a result of the persistence of Carl Schmitt’s categories. The problem of misrepresentation – and here I mean the manipulation of representation such that some events or groups are made exemplary of large categories like ‘Islam’ or ‘Religion’ and others are ignored – is a constituent part of the desire to divide the world into friends and enemies, whether by demonization or scapegoating or desiring a ‘return’ to Enlightenment or Christian values, as if these values were not produced at the expense of so many. Perhaps an example will help.
In his recent book The Demons of Liberal Democracy, Adrian Pabst begins by dignifying the resentment of western liberal democracy (2), while at the same time proclaiming “the failure of dualistic thinking” (3). A few pages later he constructs a caricature of “hyper-liberals” who reject national identity, are self-righteous, and can’t be reasoned with, unlike “most people” (6). In the book’s central critiques of oligarchy, demagogy, anarchy, and tyranny, Pabst returns to this figure of the “hyper-liberal” in order to authenticate his claims. Complaining that traditional values have declined (33) and opposing both demagogic manipulation and conspiracy theories (73), Pabst accuses liberals of either reducing the world to the facts of instrumental reason or resorting to a hands-off ‘agree-to-disagree’ world of irreducible values (74). Advocating for a return to truth (99), Pabst eventually divides up the political world into ‘illiberal liberals’ and ‘anti-liberal insurgents’ (150) and plays into the dichotomous logic he condemns at the beginning of his book by feeding back into the polarization he condemns (ironically demonizing in an effort to cast out demons). My worry is that Pabst – who is a contributing editor to Telos – has made the production of enmity and resentment central to his work by using cheap representations of ‘liberals’ or ‘hyper-liberals’ to argue that his position marks the clear middle between the extremes of “doubling down on abstract liberal cosmopolitanism or a retreat to nationalism and even atavistic ethnocentrism” (87).
I’m as concerned about social fragmentation as anyone else, but I don’t think that the answer is returning to truth and tradition, much less the values of the Enlightenment. In some ways, the very figure of a return is a theopolitical periodization that puts to use the restitution of a supposedly better time in the past for the purposes of advancing a present order. This is the sort of problem I am trying to address with the notion of theopolitical periodization. The invocation of a ‘return’ to truth, values, or tradition, is a particular expression of power that rests on theological and political structures of legitimation. Whether by manipulating the relationship between part and whole to produce exemplary events and stable identities (as in Ley’s misrepresentation of Islam), or by manipulating the relationship between past and present by calling for a return to truth (as in Pabst’s argument), the configuration of part and whole often relies upon the construction of a representative enemy: the Muslim who wants to take over Europe, or the hyper-liberal who can’t be reasoned with. In both cases the implicit (and sometimes explicit) argument is that there is an enemy out there who cannot be reasoned with – a fanatic who isn’t reasonable like ‘us’ (here I am thinking of Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence and Toscano’s Fanaticism). But this doesn’t take seriously enough the real conflict in values faced by liberal democracies, nor does it treat each party involved as having real reasons for their values and actions amidst the profound conflict of normative orders in the globalized and globalizing world.
Overall, I’m pleased to see the article in print in Telos. I think the journal can be a place for thinking past some of the problems mentioned above. At the same time, I have serious reservations about some of the problems of representation that I see – specifically representations that demonize, scapegoat, and produce enemies by moving from the specific to the general. I hope that the argument of my article and some of the reflections can help to remedy some of these problems of representation, and I hope the article is helpful for those who are interested in the problems of postsecularity and its often implicit negotiations between Christianity, religion, and secularity.