Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Annual Review Panel Today

Each year the lucky research students of the Religious Studies department undergo a 'review by panel,' to make sure that our thesis actually is a thesis, to keep us on track with writing up, and to act as some kind of a practice for the viva. Mine's today at 3pm. Bit nerve-y.

I usually spend the Easter holidays madly writing stuff to hand in for it. In addition to a self-assessment form, a list of training modules we've taken, a detailed thesis plan, and a timetable for completion, we have to submit a writing sample of at least 5,000 words. I've kind of been going about it the wrong way round; in my first year I handed in about 30,000 (four papers - one on Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, on one Critical Realism and Radical Orthodoxy, one on the postmodernism of the Emerging Church, and a methodological one on the Emerging Church and Critical Realism), in my second year about 20,000 (a paper I gave at a conference on Theo(b)logy and the construction of identity, theology and society, and a chapter on the postmodern turn of Christianity which contextualises my research questions), and in this, my third and (hopefully) finally year, I'm handing in, at most, 7,000 words:

  • The "Truth and A/theistic Orthodoxy" paper from Boston (3,000 words), and

  • A hashing out of ideas concerning a persistent problem with my thesis (about 4,000 words): "Truth, Representationalism, and Research."

This latter piece of writing I hope will stimulate some useful discussion in my panel review, regarding what I see as a BIG HOLE in my project that relates to the underlying philosophical assumptions of the sociology of religion.

My research explores a social phenomenon (the emerging church milieu) through a philosophical question (how is truth conceptualised?). But this always brings me back to this problem:

  • Can my research be said to present “the truth,” i.e. the external reality, about how the emerging church milieu conceive of the notion of truth, if many of them (and I) are sceptical about

  • a) the extent to which reality can be represented in language (representationalism) and

  • b) the extent to which truth is a correspondence between language and reality (correspondence theory of truth)?

See my persistent problem?

So I'm trying to think through the ways in which I can acknowledge this problem and address the difficulties in combining sociology of religion with post-strucutralist philosophies concerning truth, representation, and research. And I'm circling around several literary devices which might help me in this endeavour. I could...

  • "Translate" the rather dry, concise, representationalist, and (of course, given it's history) scientific sociological discourse into Derridean vocabulary and syntax - a both daunting and exciting proposition; OR

  • Write the different chapters (sociological, philosophical, etc.) in the language of their respective disciplines and allow the resultant jolt when reading from chapter to chapter to occur as an event in the reading experience which might highlight that the different disciplines are operating within different language games; OR

  • Attempt to produce different introductions for readers with different understandings of truth (a little like Brian McLaren writes introductory paragraphs for different readers of his Generous Orthodoxy) - for example, readers who hold a correspondence theory of truth, which can be said to be the majority of conservative emerging church critics, might assume that my writings relate fully to the reality that is the emerging church milieu. If such readers do not like what they read, they can either question my academic credentials and research abilities (i.e. the methods I used to discover reality), or they can use my research for further evidence of the dangers of post-modernism. Either way, for them, there is a “truth” of the emerging church out there, waiting to (certainly) be discovered by (perhaps) more astute or discerning (or “biblical”) researchers than me.

What I've decided to do is to write a sociological chapter enumerating what I see as six ideological commitments open to those involved in the emerging church milieu - a classical sociological approach to a social fact.

But, simultaneously, I am going to problematise a number of the assumptions just made in such an approach to the emerging church milieu. There are, however, still a number of ways in which to present this "undercut."

  • I could include what could be called an Interlude between this sociological chapter and the rest of the thesis chapters - considering the other alternatives, this option is a bit tame (!) and Derrida's work suggests a further two possibilities.

  • In Derrida's (1986) Glas, the pages are divided into two columns, each column taking a different subject matter, so that the reader has to decide whether or not to read all of one first and then return to the beginning of the book and read all of the other.

  • Writing alongside (or, rather, below!) Geoffrey Bennington's "Derridabase," intended to systematize Derrida's work, Derrida has constructed another piece of writing, "Circumfession," intended to slip out of such an endeavour. "Derridabase" occupies the top of the pages, whilst "Circumfession" is positioned on the bottom of each.

  • Taking into consideration the format of the doctoral thesis, however, a fourth possibility presents itself:

Doctoral theses are printed only on one side of the page, on the right, with a blank page (the back of the preceding page) opposite it on the left. Pagination ignores these blank pages, with readers only paying attention to the pages with words on them as they turn and read. I have decided, therefore, to write a piece which delivers a post-structuralist blow to the sociology of religion and to print it on the pages opposite to the sociological Chapter One, Emergence. The reader will, first (foremost?), be shocked to find print on this side of the bound thesis, and will then have to decide which way to read it: sociology, then critique?; or critique first?