Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Refuting the Allergy to Determinacy

My paper at the "Towards a Philosophy of Life" conference, "Making Good on the "Good" of Life: Emerging Logics and Poetics of the Kingdom" (see here for my abstract) was well received. A few people who hadn't been there had heard from others who were that it was good, which was really nice to hear. Jack Caputo called it 'sizzling,' but I don't really know what that means! He said he completely agreed with my analysis of James K.A. Smith's work, particularly the logic of incarnation (see blog post here about Jack's paper, "Bodies Without Flesh: The Soft Gnosticism of Incarnational Theology"), and said again that I read him very well (he had positive things to say about my Boston paper too, see here for an overview of what I said). But I guess it's easy to get those kinds of reactions when the person whose work you are reflecting on is a lovely guy and when you're saving favourable things! I'd love to get Jamie Smith's take on what I'm doing. Maybe I could email him? He's working on a trilogy (first part to be published this September, entitled Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation) on a theology of culture, but I'm particularly intrigued by his methodological work arguing for the importance of liturgical practices as the site for philosophical reflection on religion.

Anyway, this paper forms parts of my doctoral thesis, particularly chapter Six, "Truth and Fictionality." But, as slightly tangential to my main argument, it is something that could easily be turned into a journal article with some more padding out and the like. As you can see from the paper's abstract (here), my main concern is to refute the criticisms Jamie Smith levels at Jack Caputo's Derridean deconstructive theology. Jamie's criticisms can be found most accessibly in his "The Logic of Incarnation: Towards a Catholic Postmodernism" in Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody's The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion, pp.3-37. Smith identifies in both Caputo and Derrida what he terms a 'logic of determination.' (See here for more details on all this). My paper argues that the operative logic at work in Caputo's theology is that of the call or the promise which, far from being allergic to particularity, as Smith contends, seeks to release the promise in particular determinate religious (and "non-religious") traditions.

My argument runs basically thus:

  • A presentation of Smith's characterization of the 'logic of determination.'

For Smith, the Derridean/Caputian logic of determination results in an interpretation of particularity that assumes, first, the finite nature of human life to be structurally (that is, necessarily) regrettable and, second, the interpretive visions of life and hopes for life of humanity’s determinate religious traditions to be exclusionary, violent and unjust. Thirdly, for Smith, the consequences of such a logic include the translation of Derrida’s undeconstructible justice into an indeterminate, not specifically Christian, kingdom of God that is similarly structurally always to-come, never present.

  • A defense of Caputo's theological project against these criticisms (in an alternative order).
Firstly, Caputo’s reflections on the name of God are associated with several particular determinate traditions, including the creation narratives and the kingdom parables of the Christian scriptures. Secondly, an exploration of these creation and kingdom themes reveals that finitude is affirmed as part of the "goodness" of creation, no matter what, by God's "good," his "yes," at the moment of creation, and that the kingdom of God is our second "yes," our affirmation of the task of "making good" on the goodness of creation, no matter what. Thirdly, then, a (mis)interpretation of the kingdom of God as a concept that corresponds to a literal reality that will either arrive (Smith) or never arrive (Smith's reading of Caputo) (mis)characterizes it as a concept that aims to be representational rather than as a concept that aims to be transformational.

  • An argument that Caputo's theology is preferable to Smith's.
In reflecting phenomenologically on the general structure of religious experience, both Caputo and Smith emphasise the undecidability of life, the contingency of our interpretations of it, and the fictive nature of all hermeneutics. However, Caputo more successfully retains these phenomenologcal insights in his particular, determinate Christian theology than Smith.

You can view my powerpoint presentation below, and email me if you'd like a copy of the paper I gave; but I'm thinking seriously about turning it into a journal article. Over the next year (once I've finally submitted my thesis) I will be attempting to get a publishing contract to turn it into a book, but this little nugget of the argument could easily be slotted out and published in article form. At the moment, I'd entitle it: "Refuting the Allergy to Determinacy: Determining the Theo-Logic of the Call in Weak Theology."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Philosophy of Life Conference Round-Up

I got back last night from Liverpool Hope's "Towards a Philosophy of Life: Reflections on the Concept of Life in Continental Philosophy of Religion" conference, having had a thoroughly enjoyable (if not totally follow-able) weekend. My own learning style is not comfortable with listening to people read written papers. I'm much more at home with people presenting, rather than reading, work. But philosophers tend to go for the practice of writing a journal paper or book chapter or whatever, and then just reading it out - rather than thinking about their audience's learning styles and altering the piece in order to facilitate rather than alienate others! Only very few of the papers this weekend were easy to follow (even if you knew the material they were talking about) which was disappointing. But I have always felt that sociologists of religion are much better presenters, thereby actually helping their audience follow their argument. Didn't mean to start this post off with a bit of a moan, but philosophers' styles of presentation do tend to detract from the enjoyment of philosophy conferences.

I met a cool bunch of people, including Simon Scott (PhD student at Warwick), Shahida Bari (How To Live blog), Aaron Landau (University of Hong Kong), Todd Mei (University of Kent) and Chad Lackies (Concordia Seminary, here's his blog). It was particularly great to meet Colby Dickinson (KU Leuven) whose paper on Agamben, the messianic and canonicity was really stimulating because of a resonance with my own work. Canonicity, Colby writes, is "the 'desire' for the canonical over and beyond any canon," clearly mirroring the hope against hope for the messianic given voice in but not restricted to determinate concrete messianisms. My paper also charted this dual movement, but in relation to Jack Caputo's historical association with Christianity (I was looking particularly at creation and kingdom in order to refute Jamie Smith's characterization of Caputo's work as allergic to determinate particularities, more of which in a later post) and messianic disassociation. Colby made some intriguing connections with identity formation, and Jack, Colby and I had a useful discussion after his paper about how communities that adopt deconstructive theologies actually do (ir)religious community. It's what I'm hoping to work on next, getting together a proposal for a research fellowship after I've finished my thesis.

Anyway, Jack's paper on "Bodies Without Flesh: The Soft Gnosticism of Incarnational Theology" was very thought provoking, though I know there were a lot of people that were very disppointed that John Milbank only came for his own paper, rather than engaging with Caputo's criticisms of Radical Orthodoxy's incarnational theology. His excuse was that he had, apparently, been stuck on one of the amphibious vehicles (duck) that take you on tours round Liverpool and brokedown (lame). Well, Jack's paper draws from his work towards a sequel to The Weakness of God, currently entitled The Weakness of Flesh. He argued that incarnational theology's incarnation is not radical enough. It is a theology of in-carnation, rather than a theology of carnality. It places "the life of flesh within an economy of bodies without flesh." Like contemporary robotologists, incarnational theology attempts to transform bodies of flesh into bodies without flesh, in the process "betraying" flesh, harbouring a secret "horror of flesh." Instead, he asked, "What would a theology of carnality itself, before or without In-carnation, look like?" "Instead of a transaction between fleshly and fleshless being, I propose a more radical conception of incarnation as an event of flesh itself, of becoming-flesh," of taking, therefore, Christianity seriously, at its word, as the Word made flesh. Caputo is, as I intimated above, not removing himself from the Christian tradition but trying to make the tradition "make good" on its promises. Looking forward to The Weakness of Flesh already!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Congratulations to Dr. Carr

See? It can be done!!! Our friend, Patrick Carr, passed his viva on Thursday, June 11th. His thesis was entitled, "Moral Perception and Meditation: A Secular Study of Spiritual Exercises and the Cultivation of Compassion." Here's little bit from his abstract (hope he won't mind!):
"Forces of distraction and disorientation in contemporary culture which undermine moral engagement make the need for systematic means of cultivating moral agency particularly pressing. Whilst for many people today, religious frames of reference no longer remain convincing, religious traditions remain the repository of some of the most effective forms of self- and moral formation ever developed, so-called ‘spiritual exercises’. This thesis develops a naturalistic philosophical and psychological framework by means of which the form and content of one such historical spiritual exercise, Christian meditation, can be reformulated and applied to the challenge of moral formation in a post-religious context." If that's whet your appetite, you can hungrily await its publication!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Being a Young Theologian Today

In November, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland, are hosting a conference called "Interface: Being a Young Theologian in the World," from the 6 - 7th. Here's a bit of blurb: "The conference is aimed at young theologians and has two objectives - to explore the role of the young theologian and to explore the role of theology in contemporary society." That really is a bit of blurb. The only other information I can find about this conference is that abstracts (of no more than 25o words) are to be submitted to interfacemaynooth@gmail.com (along with applicant's educational status: Institution, course, year, etc.) by September 7th, and papers should be 20 minutes in length.

I'm thinking of submitting an abstract but, due to its subject matter, it may well not get accepted. It stems from my supervisors persistence that she thinks what I am doing is theology. Maybe it is. But I don't want it to be. And I don't want to be a theologian... Why is that? I thought I'd interrogate my thoughts about theology and being a theologian today a bit more and see where they got me. The reason that such a discussion may not get accepted is because its more about not wanting to be a young theologian in the world than being one! But maybe this perspective would be of use to others... Maybe not.

But how does one "be" a theologian? Am I one? Do I even know what I am, in order to say I am, or I am not, a theologian? There are clear parallels here with Jacques Derrida's thoughts on "being" an atheist. He tells us he "rightly passes" for one. But "is" he one? Does he know whether or not he is "one"? Is he "one" of anything? Are we not radically plural in our selves? Is there both atheist and theist (and more besides) within him? Is there both a theologian in me and another self, or even other selves, that are not, that do not want to be, and that hate the theologian in me? Maybe I "pass" for a theologian? But that is up to other people, not me!

Maybe the problem I have with being a theologian has to do with the status, or nature, or interpretation of theology itself? Jack Caputo used to refuse the label of theology and of being a theologian, because (in his Derrideanicity) he equated it with "onto-theology" (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, pp.288-289), with a project that "takes God as an object of conceptual analysis - rather than the addressee of a prayer - and is awash in institutional power" (The Weakness of God, p.301, footnote 1). Now, however, Caputo equates such dreams of a "calm and objectifying" discipline with Religious Studies, whereas Theology is a "disturbing passiong for God" which he loves madly (The Weakness of God, p.301, footnote 2). So maybe I do want to be a theologian? Afterall, Jack Caputo is my kind of theologian.

But, then again, the kind of theologian that Jack Caputo is, is an a/theologian. His theology exists on the slash of undecidability between atheism and theism; his is a theology, for sure. It names God within a determinate tradition - Christianity. But it never forgets that names are subject to endless translatability and substitutability (differance, Derrida would say) such that his theology remembers that it can be determined otherwise. Caputo does not say that he has named God once and for all; damn those who disagree to hell. Instead, he recognizes that what goes under the name of God also goes under other names. So maybe I want to be a/Theologian? (I reflect further on the nature of theology itself in my thesis, particularly on theology as fiction; its also something I cover in my paper for the Towards a Philosophy of Life Conference, which I haven't finished yet!)

Maybe I assume theology lacks humility about itself, about its status as theology, and maybe my presumption of theology as dogmatic is what makes me nervous about it, and about being one. In the West's pluralistic context, is this not how theology is viewed in the world today? Is this not how young theologians are viewed in the world today? As having "the truth" all sown up; damn everyone else's truth?

I don't know. But I thought it would be interesting to interrogate this presumptions a bit further, and to try and get a paper on it accepted to a conference on being a young theologian today. I think I'll call it "On (Not) Wanting to be a/Theologian."

I thought about doing an informal survey of undergrads starting theology and religious studies courses next year, asking about their preconceptions about the disciplines, the boundaries between them, and how they are/how they think they are perceived by "the public." Some useful resources on these topics from the Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies includes Angela Quartermaine's "Theology and/or Religious Studies? A Response from Graduate Students."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Listen to "Studying Religion and the Internet"

You can (if you really want to!) download an MP3 of my session, "Studying Religion and the Internet," at the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies' study-day "Exploring New Challenges and Methods in the Study of Religion," from the Birkbeck webpage here. I've done one other podcast - a reading of my chapter, "Theo(b)logy: The Technological Transformation of Theology," for Voices of the Virtual World: Participative Technology and the Ecclesial Revolusion - and already knew that I hated the sound of my voice, so I was really not looking forward to listening to this. But it's not as bad as I remembered it being!

I had thought that it was the worst presentation I've ever done. Partly because we were waiting for another participant which meant that the time we had for discussion at the end was truncated; partly because I felt rushed anyway, getting everything in that I felt was valuable to know about studying religion and the Internet (which could have had a whole day to itself!); and partly because I felt I had written so many different things on religion and the Internet and in so many different formats that I got lulled into a false sense of security regarding my material: I felt that because I had already written particular points (and written them, of course, so well!) that I was loathe to change it; the result was that I felt I was reading my notes much more than I usually do when presenting. I should have had more confidence in my own abilities to make sense of sparse notes, rather than trying to convey that "already written perfectly" point, if that makes sense! Nevermind. It's there if you want it!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Back from Paris

So Sim and I got back from Paris, after a very hot few days wandering around looking at pretty things. We loved the Louvre and Musee Rodin, and watched the sunset from the Eiffel Tower. But my French is incredibly rusty and what I've picked back up from reading deconstructive theology isn't exactly helpful. Only the first half of Je ne sais pas, il faut croire is actually useful!!!

I heard back from Sexualities, to whom I had submitted my "Queerying The Spiritual Revolution: Religious Mediation among LGBT Christians" article (see here), and the editor and reviewers asked me to revise a few things. As I'm madly trying to complete my thesis, however, I'm quite uncertain as to whether or not to spend time on it and resubmit it. The revisions they asked for really would transform the piece into something much more socially scientific, with methodology sections and tonnes of data, whereas the piece is more theoretical than that, dealing with broader implications rather than the specifics of my study. My supervisor suggested Theology and Sexuality, but I'm not sure that's quite right either, possibly still too specialist. There are important implications to draw from this piece beyond the boundaries of sexuality studies. I was thinking of aiming high and going for the Journal of Contemporary Religion, which is a broader journal in which more people will be engaged in the mapping of the contemporary religious and spiritual landscape that will bring them in contact with Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead's The Spiritual Revolution in the first place. This means they might be more my audience, than a sexualities journal. JCR deals with

  • "classical topics in the study of religion, such as secularisation and the vitality of religion or traditional sectarian movements;
  • "more recent developments in the study of religion, including religion and social problems, religion and the environment, religion and education, the transmission of religion, the materialisation and visualisation of religion in various forms, new forms of religious pluralism, the rise of new forms of religion and spirituality, religion and the Internet, religion and science, religion and globalisation, religion and the economy, etc.
  • "theoretical approaches to the study of religion;
  • "discussions of method in relation to empirical research;
  • "qualitative and quantitative research and related issues."
My article seems to fit well here. Here's the abstract (again):

This article uses small-scale studies among LGBT Christians to “queery” the dualistic framework of Heelas and Woodhead’s The Spiritual Revolution. Theories of mediation are required to explain the practices and beliefs of those negotiating both subjective-life and life-as modes of living. Identity integration strategies among LGBT Christians suggest ways in which individuals and communities might navigate these categories of religious significance and authority. Data confirms that different forms of life-as religions-cum-spiritualities are making the subjective turn; that participants nevertheless alternate between rather than ‘fuse’ internal and (albeit reconstructed) external authorities; and that Heelas’ more recent God without/“god” within distinction is a clearer marker of whether practitioners are already affiliated to either transcendent theism or inner-life spirituality and of when a transition from one to the other has been or is being undertaken.

Key words:

  • Christianity;
  • Heelas and Woodhead;
  • LGBT;
  • inner-life spirituality;
  • spiritual revolution.