It has been an extraordinarily busy month: two weeks ago I submitted the final revisions to Postsecular History to the publisher, submitted my dissertation “Ontologies of Violence” to my committee for defense in early May, and submitted the corrected proofs for my guest-edited special issue of Political Theology on Mennonite Political Theology, which is a key part of my Mennonite Studies project (for a brief preview of the special issue see here and for a longer summary see here).
Looking ahead, past my defense, in Spring term I will be teaching an introductory course on Religious Studies at McMaster University, and in July and August I will be taking some time off.
This coming Fall I am excited to begin a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Supervised by Dr. Pamela Klassen, my project is called “Critique of Conspiracism” and in it I will extend my work on ontologies of violence and the politics of time by examining how conspiracism can be a violent way of thinking and how conspiracism uses and abuses history to serve present aims. I will also be teaching a course called “Conspiracy Theories & Religion” in the University of Waterloo Arts First program (I’ll be sure to post the syllabus here for those who are interested!), and presenting a prologue to the project called “Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking” at the American Academy of Religion meetings in November 2021.
I’m very excited to announce a project that myself and several authors have been working on for the past year or so. In mid-April 2021 my guest-edited special issue of Political Theology on “Mennonite Political Theology” will publish contributions from confessional, queer, secular, and feminist Mennonite scholars.
This special issue of Political Theology collects four exemplary contributions that showcase the interdisciplinary breadth of political theology done by and about Mennonites. Although there are many ways to conceptualize political theology from within established academic disciplines – including Christian political theologies that use theopolitical terms to refine and advance ecclesial aims, and self-consciously secular political theologies that analyze powerful confluences of theological and political concepts – my approach to framing this special issue is to suggest that Mennonite Political Theology is at its very best when it is interdisciplinary and pluralistic. The great benefit of political theology is that it can include under its auspices both normative theological projects with constructive aims and critical projects that cast suspicion upon normativity itself, all while allowing scholars to work with the depth of theological and religious concepts without necessarily conforming to predetermined visions of theology or the political.
Susanne Guenther Loewen’s essay “The Personal Is Political: The Politics of Liberation in Mennonite-Feminist Theologies” provides the reader with a thorough evaluation and extension of Mennonite-Feminist Theology that demonstrates its political and liberative character. A theologian and pastor on the leading edge of the feminist turn in Mennonite theology, Guenther Loewen follows her dissertation on Dorothee Sölle and nonviolent atonement and builds upon the work of foundational Mennonite feminist theologians like Lydia Neufeld Harder with her unique voice – especially in her forthcoming work on peace theology and sexual violence. In her essay, Guenther Loewen demonstrates how the personal and political comingle at intersections between Mennonite and feminist identities. Drawing from Malinda Berry’s shalom political theology and Doris Janzen Longacre’s theopolitical cookbook and simple living guide, Guenther Loewen shows how traditional women’s work around food and home has consequences for the pursuit of peace and justice that patriarchal political theologies pass over.
Daniel Shank Cruz’s essay “Mennonite Speculative Fiction as Political Theology” also cooks up suggestive and experimental readings of queer Mennonite literary works that demonstrate their theopolitical and theapoetic character. Building upon his ground-breaking work in Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community, Cruz’s essay shows religious resonances within speculative fiction, and follows the works of Casey Plett, Sofia Samatar, and Miriam Toews to find acts of resistance that embody Mennonite values like peace and community. Considering Mennonite speculative fiction, in which being ‘in the world but not of the world’ becomes something ‘out of this world,’ Cruz shows how a Mennonite literary ethics is really quite queer and ideally suited for apocalyptic times.
Russell Johnson’s essay “Building Peace in a Culture War” then provides a constructive account of how Mennonite ethics, broadly construed, can contribute to the clear and present need for political depolarization. Gathering insights from his dissertation on communication ethics and nonviolence and addressing the social and cultural conflicts that define American political life, Johnson’s essay treats polarization as a power and principality that calls out for theological remediation. Insisting that dissenting voices be heard rightly, while challenging the persistent resentments that underpin partisan politics, Johnson’s article seeks to prepare the ground for a peace that privileges liberation, justice, and reconciliation.
Lastly, we provide a translation of a controversial sermon by the German Mennonite literary figure Johannes (Hans) Harder, titled “Between Bourgeois Existence and Violence.” Translated by Vic Thiessen, and appearing here for the first time in English, Harder’s sermon gives the reader a glimpse into the tensions that Mennonite pacifists sought to address in postwar Germany. Delivered at the funeral of a ‘Mennonite terrorist’ – Elizabeth von Dyck, a member of the Red Army Faction who was shot and killed by police on May 4, 1974 – Harder’s sermon problematically navigates between the poles of apathetic bourgeoise class privilege and revolutionary violence. As I point out in my introduction to the sermon, Harder’s work is complicated by his involvement and complicities with the Nazi SS, and his legacy remains a matter of controversy and mystery that is currently being examined by Mennonite scholars who have undertaken a reckoning with historical connections between Mennonites and Nazism.
Webinar Panel. Posthumanism Research Institute. Brock University. March 8, 2021.
Thanks very much for having me on this panel. For my contribution to our discussion of posthumanism and spirituality I am going to say a bit about my forthcoming book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time. Among other things, the book approaches the main themes of this panel by focusing on what it means to be ‘post’ in the first instance, and then by examining religious and theological ways that the prefix ‘post’ is configured and used. The book is primarily concerned with the specific prefix ‘post’ that precedes the term ‘postsecular,’ but I hope that my critique of postsecular thinking can also be relevant to the conversation on posthumanism, and I will make some of those connections in tentative ways at the end of this presentation.
Guest Lecture for Dr. Jennifer Otto’s seminar “Methods in Religious Studies,” University of Lethbridge. February 24, 2021.
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.
In the next two months, as I make my final revisions on the Postsecular Historybook 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.
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!
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)?