The full article is available here!
I have just heard that the proceedings of the launch event for my book Postsecular History will be published as a mini-symposium in the journal Political Theology, including reflections from my friend Jen Otto, my doctoral supervisor Travis Kroeker, and my postdoctoral supervisor Pamela Klassen (and my own response, titled “Beyond the Postsecular?”). I couldn’t ask for more generous engagements with my work.
I have also just received an email with the first review of Postsecular History, written by Paul Doerksen (whose dissertation was also supervised by Travis Kroeker). Paul’s review is also generous, and amidst his supportive comments he points out the structural limits of the book that I too would have noted if I were reviewing it. Postsecular History is an essay collection that collects published and unpublished graduate school essays of mine, united under the banner of a critique of the postsecular. But its unity is questionable, and my attempts to unify it were at times forced – all of which I’m happy to accept, now that the book is published, public, and being read.
But I have more thinking to do about how criticism features in scholarly book reviews, especially because in the same issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review I reviewed Layton Boyd Friesen’s new book Secular Nonviolence and the Theo-Drama of Peace. Whereas Paul’s review of my book was almost entirely positive, my review of Friesen’s book was predominantly critical. I don’t enjoy writing critical reviews, and I don’t take pleasure in criticizing the hard work of others. Instead, I try to reserve my critical voice only for those areas of inquiry that have high stakes. For me, in this review, the stakes are high because the distinction between secularity and religion is so often used by Christian theologians to prop up caricatures of ‘bad secularity’ and ‘good religion’ without critical attention to the ambiguities of these terms and the profound limits of using the religious-secular distinction to explain things in the world. I have too often seen this distinction used as a normative and polemical means to write off entire fields of study and forms of life, and I found Layton’s approach to the distinction to be too simplistic, and potentially harmful inasmuch as it contributes to the gatekeeping and boundary maintenance that underpins Christian orthodoxy (which is so often constructed by processes of implicit and explicit demonization and heresy-making).
That said, it is disorienting to read such a generous review of my own – very limited – book, just a page after my highly critical review of another scholar’s first book, and I hope that my criticisms do not shut down, but instead open up, the discourses that I am trying to intervene in (political theology, Mennonite Studies, etc.). The theme of openness, and the difficulty of critiquing violence without repeating the violence of critique, are central to my next book, which I aim to submit to Brill by the end of the year. In Ontologies of Violence I argue that concept of violence is defined by the violation of value-laden boundaries, and that treating violence as a diagnostic concept that reflects the values of its users and critics is a helpful interpretive strategy for reading the approaches to violence taken by Jacques Derrida, Grace Jantzen, and Mennonite philosophical theologians. I see this paradigm intersecting with my work in Postsecular History because each of my main sources in Ontologies of Violence uses theological and political terms to periodize the relationship between origins, essences, and ends, as part of their critiques and metanarratives. So too with the forms of conspiratorial thinking I will attempt to delineate in my postdoctoral project, but more on that another time…
My work with the Centre for Social Accountability at NOSM University continues, and I would like to share this piece I wrote on the launch celebration for the centre earlier this year. I’m continuing to link my work on violence, conspiratorial thinking, and political theology, with social accountability, and I am excited to see where these connections go. The conversation on social accountability has already made some connections with the study of religion and critical theory, via the social determinants of health, but I’m eager to go further and examine the character of the social bonds that compose socially accountable institutions.
I’m pleased to say that my programmatic summary of my ongoing Mennonite Studies project has just been published as a book chapter. The piece dovetails nicely with a recent lecture I gave on the topic, and I hope its a helpful contribution to the conversation on Mennonite Studies and Mennonite identity.
Many changes have occurred in the past few months since our move to Thunder Bay, and most all of them for the better!
In April 2022 I joined the Centre for Social Accountability at NOSM University as a part-time Research Associate. The Centre is led by an interdisciplinary group of medical doctors, researchers, and scholars, and its aim is to improve health and wellness in Northern Ontario through policy leadership and advocacy, research and innovation, and education that better aligns medical training with community needs. It is situated on the Anishinabek Nation and hosts several programs including NORTHH, MERLIN, and an Indigenous data sovereignty working group.
The team I work with is currently developing a unique approach to social accountability in medical education and health care, and my work with the Centre is focused on writing, communications, and the epistemology of social accountability. I am also interested in how my work on violence and conspiratorial thinking bears upon issues of public health, from the complexities of the World Health Organization’s definition of violence to the severe and negative effects that conspiracy theories continue to have on public health.
In another vein, in late 2021 I took over operations of a publishing company called Pandora Press that specializes in scholarly works in the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. The press has published landmark books like C. Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology and Astrid von Schlachta’s From the Tyrol to North America: The Hutterite Story Through the Centuries.
As the new Director of Pandora Press I am interested in working with authors who write critically, creatively, and rigorously on topics related to Mennonite Studies and the history of the Anabaptist groups. See here for a catalogue of our titles, here for a brief history of the imprint, and here for covers of our recent and forthcoming titles.
Beyond that, my work as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto continues, and I am currently revising my dissertation for publication and writing my postdoctoral book on conspiracism and critique!
What hath Menno to do with Athens, and what hath the Radical Reformation to do with the philosophical Enlightenment? In his forthcoming novel Menno in Athens, Ron Tiessen narrates the travels of a young Mennonite on the islands of Greece, and stages what may be the first sustained literary-philosophical encounter between Mennonite and Greek thought. In a key moment, the narrator asks his father, “if you have the proclamation of a truth in one case that is considered divine revelation, and the same proclamation is found in another culture, must we assume that one is divinely inspired and the other not?” The questions Tiessen raises are at the heart of this roundtable series where we place Anabaptism in dialogue with the traditions of western philosophy. How are we to treat the resonances and oppositions between Anabaptist Mennonite identities and philosophers?
In this presentation I argue that the way forward for this dialogue is to fully dignify the similarities and differences between its two ‘sides’ without the comforts of syncretistic unity or the paralyses of irreducible difference. To do this, I will articulate a ‘secular Mennonite social critique’ that uses the critique of redemptive violence to deconstruct rigid oppositions between religion and secularity, theology and philosophy, and ‘the church’ and ‘the world.’ Beginning from the assumption that these terms do not name stable phenomena, but instead are conceptual tools that are used and abused for diverse purposes, this presentation critiques the imposition of enmity and competition onto the names and concepts we use to make sense of this discourse and this world. The wager of this lecture is that if the Anabaptist Mennonite community is truly committed to the critique of violence and pursuit of peace, then a critical reconceptualization of interdisciplinarity is essential, lest we allow suspicion, fear, and reactivity to define the terms of our encounters with others and ourselves.