Presentation for the Religion and Popular Culture Unit at the American Academy of Religion meetings held online and in San Antonio, Texas on Monday, November 22nd 2021.
In his preface to the Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, Michael Barkun writes that,
If we look at the most sweeping conspiracy theories, they insist that nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; and that everything is connected. Yet these salient characteristics are strikingly similar to the features of many religious belief systems. To be sure, this is not to say that religions are conspiracy theories, only that there are structural similarities that sometimes lead them to join hands.
But I fear that in our current social and political environment, only a few years after these words were published, Barkun’s claim seems very understated. Connections between religions and conspiracy theories are much stronger than is accurately communicated by the image of joined hands, not only because many American Christian evangelicals have fully embraced QAnon conspiracy theories, but also because the underlying vision of these three claims – “nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; everything is connected” – is very religious.
The launch will begin with an introduction to the book by Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, followed by responses from my dissertation supervisor Travis Kroeker (McMaster University, Religious Studies Department), my postdoctoral supervisor Pamela Klassen (University of Toronto, Department for the Study of Religion), and my colleagues Jennifer Otto (University of Lethbridge, Religious Studies Department) and Michael Driedger (Brock University, History Department).
The manuscript by Mennonite historian Robert Friedmann that I produced an edition of has recently been reviewed in the Conrad Grebel Review by Astrid von Schlachta – a scholar of the Hutterites who is a lecturer at the University of Regensburg and directs the Mennonite Research Center in Weierhof, Germany.
In the end, Friedmann calls for seeking a mature life that is concerned with learning “the art of meaningful living and the art of making responsible decision[s].” His quest, as outlined in this book, aims at a holistic education of the human being and the education of the heart, in a long process of searching in which the person is not satisfied with stereotypical answers and rote knowledge. Knowledge must be put into practice. This path excludes empty generalizations and calls upon us to be mature, free, and personally responsible, yet always in contact with God and oriented towards the community.
I’m excited to begin my SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship this Fall in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. I give some initial details about the project here, and I will be presenting some of my work at the American Academy of Religion meetings in San Antonio this November.
The presentation is called “Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking,” and it is part of a panel on “Cancel Culture, Climate Denial, and Conspiracy Thinking” in the Religion and Popular Culture unit.
Conspiratorial thinking has recently become a prominent matter of public and popular concern, taking root in different but important ways during the COVID-19 pandemic and the violent end of the Trump presidency. However, scholars of religion and violence will recognize conspiratorial thinking as a constituent part of long-standing prejudices, from antisemitism and racism to scapegoating and social conflict. This presentation examines continuities and discontinuities between conspiracism and violence, suggesting that the patterns of thinking and uses of the past that structure conspiratorial thinking can lend themselves to violences ranging from physical and political violations to structural violence and social prejudice. This presentation will also highlight some limitations of major works on conspiracy theories and address the problematic lack of attention to religion in the discourse on conspiracism.
I am pleased to say that my dissertation and PHD are now complete, and for those who are interested, the dissertation can be accessed here – although I am already becoming more aware of its limits as I revise it.
I am currently finishing the final grades for the introductory course “What on Earth is Religion?” that I’ve taught for two Spring terms at McMaster, and I am looking ahead to the Fall and thinking about how to deliver a University of Waterloo Arts First course called “Religion and Conspiracy Theories.”
This Fall will bring a new stage in my research where I hope to bring the work I have done on violence (in my dissertation) and history (in my book) to a more present and pressing social problem. I am very excited to be presenting on my postdoctoral project, “Critique of Conspiracism,” at the AAR in San Antonio this November, and I hope to gather some helpful resources in the meantime as I read through the Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion and the work of Michael Butter. In the conspiracism project I hope to turn my theoretical work on concepts like “violence” and the “postsecular” toward a critical analysis of social narratives that make meaning through political, theological, secular, and religious ways.
In the meantime, I’m excited that several other pieces of my writing will appear in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Implicit Religion, and a volume on the Anabaptist tradition and the arts.
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.