Monday, October 27, 2008

I/conic Interdisciplinarity

In January, Durham's Department of Theology and Religion is hosting a postgrad conference themed around issues of interdisciplinarity. My cousin is currently an MA student at Durham (studying the portrayal of victims of sexual assault in Athenian law and literature) so I might well borrow a bit of her floor for this one!

Entitled, "Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Religion: How to Tie Knots that Will Hold," the conference will look at "what interdisciplinarity has entailed, what it means in current research, and what directions it may take in the future." It will be "of particular relevance and interest to postgraduates working on the cutting edge of theology and religious studies." Cutting edge? Why, that's me! Rev. Prof. Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, will give a keynote entitled "Knots and Nots: Interdisciplinarity, Good and Bad"; there will be one workshop on "Collaborative Interdisciplinarity" by Prof. Douglas Davies, Durham University, and one by a representative of Intute: Arts and Humanities at Oxford, on the electronic dimensions of research; there will be papers presented on current interdisciplinary research by postgrad students; and an informal poster competition which aims to "hone skills in alternative presentation methods."

The call for postgrad research papers suggests some broad themes which "seem to generally benefit from, if not absolutely require, an interdisciplinary approach":

  • "Truth & Interpretation

  • "Community/Relationship/Conflict

  • "East/West/South(?)

  • "Church/Academy/World

  • "Ancient/Contemporary

  • "Tradition and the Future

  • "History and Eternity

  • "Ecology

  • "Death

  • "Identity."

My research questions (how is truth conceptualised in the UK emerging church milieu and what are the implications of such understandings of truth?) require me to float around in the sociology of religion, philosophy, theology, ethics, and politics; and I've blogged before about the difficulties I've had traversing a dialogue between sociology of religion and post-Enlightenment philosophical thought, particularly regarding sociology after the death of sociology and the problems of representational writing. In my Introduction I have a section where I muse on the possibility of understanding my thesis as an i/con, so I might work that up into a paper.

On the one hand, my thesis may be something of an icon: perhaps not in the sense of pointing outside of itself to an external reality that is the UK emerging church milieu (although this may be the case, we cannot know; such is the nature of undecidability), but in the sense in which Paul Ricoeur notes that the meaning of a text always points beyond itself – "not behind the text [to a reality beneath it] but in front of it" to a different mode of living, to a "possible world" of existing otherwise (Ricoeur 1976:87), of having been transformed.

Simultaneously, however, my research may be something of a con: due to the inherent difficulties in representing phenomenon after the critique of representationalism, it may not represent the social, philosophical, theological, or political realities of the milieu at all.

Further than this, the undecidable nature of my research’s location leads me to articulate it as an "i/con," existing on the Derridean slash of undecidability that is a recurring theme throughout the thesis. My depictions of the UK emerging church milieu should not be taken too seriously; after all, this thesis might just be a con.

But what does the troublesome interdisciplinary relationship between the sociology of religion and contemporary philosophy's critique of the ideology of representationalism mean for research? For starters, the criteria for the validity of a doctoral thesis are destabilized, not least the requirement that the research undertaken and presented be an accurate reflection of the subjects under study. What does "research as i/con" do to the research process? I might steal from the conference title to argue that, the "knots" do not hold.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Day Conference on Belief

Next year the Religion Graduate Students Association of Columbia University, New York, will host a day conference entitled "Belief Matters: Reconceptualising Belief and Its Use." Here's the blurb and why I'm sorely tempted - even though its only a day!

"In recent decades, sociologically- and anthropologically-minded scholars of religion have attempted to shift scholarly attention away from belief and doctrine to rituals, practices, identities, and institutions. This turn away from belief-as-doctrine has helped scholars see religion as a dynamic phenomenon that exists beyond the confines of peoples' heads. At the same time, however, has this shift kept scholars from examining other ways in which belief and believing remain central to how people conceptualize what religion is and how it operates in the world? By re-examining what it means to "believe," this conference explores if and how belief matters.

"We invite paper submissions (400-500 words) related to any of the following themes:

"Belief vs. Practice
"Papers on this theme might sharpen the critique of belief-centered paradigms, or defend their importance. Are ritual and practice better ways of conceiving religion and identity? Should belief play a role in studies of religious practice? Papers might address the ambiguous (and sometimes seemingly inconsistent) relationship between belief and behavior.

"Belief in People and Places
"Papers on this theme might focus on the notion of believing in something--as opposed to believing that something is true. Objects of belief may include charismatic leaders, saints (hagiography), and sacred places (e.g., pilgrimage sites).

"Ways of Believing
"Papers on this theme might focus on cultural, historical, and sectarian differences or developments in what it means to believe. Papers may examine, for example, post-enlightenment developments in western notions of belief and believing, the role of law in structuring acceptable ways of believing and belonging, or issues relating to how groups and individuals conceive and present their "beliefs"--including varying uses of such terms as "spiritual" and "religious." Papers might address atheism, science, or nationalism as alternative modes ofbelief.

"Conflict, Cosmopolitanism, and Social Reform
"Papers might address the rhetoric about belief and believing that governments and political and humanitarian groups use to justify or engender support for their policies or actions. How have groups in various cultural contexts situated their own beliefs or those of others in relation to "universal" human rights? How have social reformers in various historical contexts used language about beliefs in tactical ways?

"Counting Believers
"Papers on this theme might discuss questions about the role of belief in determining community membership--both from the perspective of practitioners and scholars. Papers might focus not just on modern communities (who, for example, count as "evangelical Christians"?) but also on communities from the distant past (who, for example, count as "early Christians"?).

"Belief and Science
"Scientific critiques of "religion" often frame their critiques in general terms but in fact focus their criticism on certain beliefs or modes of belief. How do alternate ways of thinking about belief unsettle conventional oppositions between religious belief and science?

"Belief and Ethics
"How does belief and believing inform decisions regarding right and wrong conduct in the world?"

Submission deadline: Monday, December 1st.

This conference has piqued my interest because recently I've been thinking about the aspects of my doctoral thesis which I would like to develop into my next research project. One of these possibilities is the way in which the nature of "belief" is shifting. Paul Heelas has been chatting to me recently about this, thinking about how belief in something inarticulated or inarticulatable is emerging - in contrast to determinable belief in some doctrine, person, place or thing. This dovetails quite interestingly with some of my research findings, partcularly how "belief" functions within communities which emphasise either "holding beliefs lightly" or "belief in the undecidability of belief." I'd like to do my next project on the ways in which the new nature of belief makes academic a/theology possible to practice "on the ground," and how this changes the ways in which ritual and particularly prayer are conceptualised and function. So this conference on belief might be a good starting point. Gonna REALLY be in trouble for money by April next year so we'll have to see!!!

Paul T.

I went to London for the day yesterday to meet up with Paul Teusner from the School of Applied Communications at RMIT University, Melbourne, whose research into Australian emerging church blogs I've been following for the last couple of years. It was great to meet him in person and to spend a good number of hours chatting about our work and lives. Paul had a camera handy to "pap" me outside Buckingham Palace but I didn't - so I had to steal this one from his online CV. If you want to see me displaying my transcribing injuries follow this link.

Paul's research explores how emerging church bloggers in Australia are constructing individual religious identities, how the Australian blogosphere networks to collectively determine emerging church identity online, and how these online constructions impact the offline identity of the Australian emerging church. His research site is here.

Paul has just been to the Association of Internet Researchers' conference in Copenhagen, "Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place," and for the first time there were a good number of researchers working on religion. Among them a few people I met at the "Religion, Media and Culture: Exploring Religion and the Sacred in a Media Age" conference in Oxford last April: Heidi Campbell, Mia Lovheim, and Tim Hutchings. Heidi recently launched a research wiki called Studying Religion and New Media. You can find the PowerPoints for Paul's papers ("Web 2.0 Rhetoric and Realities: Authority, Technorati and Religious Bloggers" and "Religious Podcasting: In Between Religious Audiences and Podcasting Communities") here and here. The paper I wrote for the Oxford conference is scheduled to be published in a book Exploring Religion and the Sacred in a Media Age mid-January.

It was great to talk with Paul about the differences between the Australian emerging church and the UK emerging church milieu, and interesting to hear more about the conservative emphases of Christianity (and politics) in Australia. It seems like the OZ emerging church milieu is more theologically conservative and often prefers to articulate its identity in the language of mission and missional to distinguish it from the US emerging church milieu and particularly Emergent Village. Paul met Pete Rollins a while back in Melbourne and it was great to hear a bit about reactions to what Pete and ikon are about. Once we got bored of our theses and moaning about the inner workings of postgrad life, we chatted about Neighbours (of course), horror movies and zombies, Simon Pegg, Brighton, and the pains of not really knowing where we're going to fit when we've submitted. We'll see, eh?