RSP Master Archive -- Responses

Field Name Response to Episode , Telling the “Back Stage” Stories of Men, Religious Work, and Play
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PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/telling-the-back-stage-stories-of-men-religious-work-and-play/”
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DATE 2021-10-15 06:00:00
TITLE Telling the “Back Stage” Stories of Men, Religious Work, and Play
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Catholicism, Devotionalism, ethnography, gender
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Responding to our Season 10 episode with Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada, Kristy Nabhan-Warren furthers the discussion on inadvertent feminization of Catholic devotionalism and ways in which it can be reimagined.
SUMMARY:

When I was asked to listen to The Religious Studies Project podcast featuring Dr. Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada, I accepted right away, as I am a big fan of her work for many reasons. First, Dr. Maldonado-Estrada is a fantastic ethnographer. She has serious ethnographic street cred and puts in the hard and necessary work. The care and concern she has for her interlocutors comes through in each page of her book, Lifeblood of the Parish, as well as in the lively and enjoyable podcast. Maldonado-Estrada conducted multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Brooklyn over a period of six years. She spent hours upon hours within parish spaces of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (OLMC), as well as inside and within extra-parish places—parishioners’ homes and the streets upon which they live in the everyday. Second, and related, Dr. Maldonado-Estrada is a gifted storyteller in written and aural formats. She writes—and talks in the podcast—in a way that sweeps her reader up into Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, the annual feast, and the fascinating basement writes evocatively in a way that transports the reader onto the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the basement spaces where the statues are made, the room where the money is counted, and at the at the food stands and carnival rides.

We most certainly get a sense of Dr. Maldonado-Estrada’s gifts at storytelling in the way she talks about her interlocutors in the podcast. Listeners of this podcast, much like the reader of Lifeblood of the Parish, can imagine themselves as being a part of this community. When I read the book late last year, and when I listened to the podcast a few weeks ago, I was transported into a Brooklyn summer when the feast takes place, as well as the months and weeks that lead up to the big event. I could feel the heat of the summer pavement emanating into and through my body, I could smell the sausage sizzling, the sweet tang of cotton candy, and hear the carnival rides whirring. I could see the fun and colorful toys and plush animals at the feast carnival. I wanted to be there.  And in addition to these more public visuals, I was left wanting to be in the basement where the action was taking place—where the statues of the saints were being made and later on, where the money was being counted. I could smell the plaster molds and the paints as they were applied to the many statues crafted and re-crafted by the men, whose devotion to Jesus and Our Lady is literally made by their hands.

As I read the book and later listened to the podcast, I could see the men at work making the Giglio, the giant tower of devotion to Saint Paolino, the patron saint of Nola, Italy, as well as to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I could hear and visualize these men pointing to and talking about their tattoos, joking about their neighbors, and talking about more serious subjects such as family issues and what happens after we die. Maldonado-Estrada does an excellent job taking us through, on the printed page of her book and with her voice in the podcast, the men’s gendered “bodily techniques,” those that are public and private. Here she invokes the late and great sociologist Erving Goffman’s sociological concept of “back” and “front” stages, and applies it to her own research with men’s devotional labor. At OLMC, it is the men’s back stage labor that intrigues Maldonado-Estrada as it has been largely overlooked by scholars and laypersons alike in favor of the front stage embodied devotional labor such as the literal carrying of the enormous 70-foot tall and heavy Giglio. This meticulous attention to the men’s backstage work, tells us a lot about devotion, labor, and what gendered labor looks like.  We learn a lot about men’s devotions and that their devotional praxis is through their work in the basement.

With her careful and sensitive attention to the devotional labor of men, Dr. Maldonado-Estrada offers us a way out of what we might say has been an academic overcompensation on women and devotionalism to the exclusion or occlusion of men. We have, Maldonado-Estrada points out in the podcast, and I agree with her, inadvertently feminized and perhaps even fetishized Catholic devotionalism as female/women’s labor. Most certainly women have and continue to demonstrate powerful devotions in both domestic and public spheres, but in our careful attention to women, we—and I include myself here in the “we”—scholars of religion (especially Roman Catholicisms) have oftentimes left men out. We have done so not necessarily intentionally, but our ethnographic and historical optics have had some blind spots, and we have tended to relegate men to our peripheral vision. I think that Maldonado-Estrada is right when she writes and says that scholars have been a bit “precious” about religion and devotionalism. Most certainly women have been at the forefront of public devotions and behind-the scene as well—but men, too, participate in the production of devotionalisms in and through their bodies, their words and actions. This is the beauty of the book. Maldonado-Estrada delicately points this out in her book and podcast alike—and that the preciousness has also been weighted down with a seriousness. Indeed, devotionalism have been serious, sad, and well, heavy… but as her fine work shows us, devotionalism can be and is playful, joking, and fun—as well as serious at times, too. Devotionalism and devotional labor can be raucous, rowdy and made and remade by men, too in homosocial settings where tattoos are as sacramental as rosaries. Devotionalism can be drunk. It can be happy and sad-happy. It can be really loud, as in “99 bottles of beer on the wall” loud. It need not be quiet and serious—and no offense meant whatsoever here to the quiet and serious devotionalisms. I thank Maldonado-Estrada for prompting scholars of religion to think more deeply about gender, what constitutes “sacred” and “devotional” spaces, and for modelling excellent ethnographic research and writing. I am looking forward to Maldonado-Estrada’s next book.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Kristy Nabhan-Warren


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/kristy-nabhan-warren/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/persons_nabhan-warren_2021.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: Masculinity and the Body Languages of Catholicism

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/masculinity-and-the-body-languages-of-catholicism/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , The Cycle of Conspiracy Theories
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/the-cycle-of-conspiracy-theories/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/response_radford_featured_s11.jpeg
DATE 2021-10-01 06:00:00
TITLE The Cycle of Conspiracy Theories
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Conspiracy, Conspiracy Theory, covid-19, narrative, Pandemic, Power
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In his response to our interview with Carmen Celestini, Raymond Radford builds on Celestini’s discussion of conspiracy theories as “history repeated” in his analysis of social responses to pandemics “then and now.”
SUMMARY:

A response to “History Repeated: Religious Conspiracy Theories Then and Now” with Carmen Celestini

When I was growing up, I was into conspiracy theories and legend tripping, both things I now get to study and write about from an academic point of view. While I never believed in them (when you have a family that is full of Freemasons and none of them are particularly fun or the sort of person that might secretly be part of a Satanic cabal of flesh eaters type, you learn that not everything you read on the internet is correct), one thing I always noticed even way back in teenage years, were these theories being utilised and repeated over and over ad nauseum for whatever murky shadow that needed to be filled out. Much of this peaked after September 11th, when it wasn’t a bunch of Saudis who had hijacked the planes that had flown into the World Trade Centre—oh no, it was the Illuminati, at the behest of the Freemasons and the nefarious New World Order, all shadowy groups that were easily able to be held aloft as the invisible monsters in charge of not only running the earth, but also responsible for the positions people found themselves in. When Adam Weishaupt established the Illuminati in 1776 (an offshoot of Freemasonry dedicated to perfection and order), I doubt that he could have foreseen that his club that only existed for seven years would be subsequently linked to every nefarious deed that goes against the rationale of (apparently) civilised society. 

When it comes to conspiracy theories and why people believe what they believe, I always go right to the mindscape of Alan Moore. Moore once stated:

The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory.

The truth is far more frightening – Nobody is in control.

The world is rudderless.
1

The more things change the more they (ultimately, inevitably) stay the same. 

After World War I ended, the Spanish ’Flu ravaged the globe. It was a virus so deadly that it wiped out more people than died in World War I. This was a global pandemic that within two years had managed to kill half a billion people world-wide. The current Covid-19 pandemic has just managed to overtake the fatality rate of 675,000 deaths due to the Spanish ’flu in the United States of America (admittedly, there is some uncertainty about the number of deaths for both pandemics). In fact, many of the issues we have today with virus deniers, anti-maskers, and anti-lockdown protests were things that the governments and populace also had to contend with during the Spanish ’Flu outbreak. In a New York Times article Christine Hauser quotes an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times in 1918, where the wearing of masks was lamented by the famous of the time “because it was ‘so horrid’ to go unrecognized.”2 Yet the usage of masks is considered a preventative medicine technique, it steps in to stop the spread from person to person and everyone else, and it does work. This was proven in 1918, and it has been proven again in 2021. 

As Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulus’ conversation with Dr. Carmen Celestini emphasises, conspiracy theories continually get repeated, and no other time has this it more prudent and pivotal to tackle them than now, with anti-vaccination, Covid-19 denying crowds joining with the alt-right, white supremacists, and other malcontents in protests around the world. It’s fascinating to think that just as the Freemasons have been at the centre of numerous conspiracy theories, the arguments surrounding masks and viruses remain identical a century apart. In ‘Vaccination,’ a letter to the editor of The Ballarat Courier, dated Wednesday 22nd June 1881, a concerned citizen writes “I SAW with my own eyes many children attacked with the disease, but very few cases ended fatally, and, moreover, children that were allowed to remain in the open air did the best.”3 This letter referred to the smallpox virus, and the vaccines being distributed after Edward Jenner discovered inoculation with cowpox was effective in 1878. The usage of “very few cases ended fatally” could be interspersed with current rhetoric of “Covid has a 99% survival rate”. Sure, the survival rate for Covid may be high, but long term effects for those unlucky enough to have caught the virus (affectionately referred to as “long Covid”) are still largely unknown. And to be honest, having seen pictures of children infected with smallpox and the terrible effects it left on those small bodies, the vaccine (while presented as the Devil) did amazing work. So, yes, Covid-19 survival rates may be high, but there may not be much living involved. The 1878 letter continues, “The Professor gives reasons why the practice of vaccination should be discontinued(!) and which your readers can consult for themselves”; a polite Victorian way of saying “do your own research”, yet another catch cry of those that find themselves on the conspiratorial side of the vaccination debate. 

Another oft-repeated phrase we seem to be hearing a lot recently is, in the words of Mrs. Lovejoy from the Simpsons:

Climate strike in Melbourne, AUS. Person holding sign with Simpson's quote "Won't somebody please think of the children!"

In a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Monday 22nd November 1886, concerned citizen Albert Fraser suggests that it is only the elite whose children are receiving a legitimate inoculation against smallpox, and that the vaccine was being used as a weapon against the poor and working class. He argued, “This was the doctrine with which the gullible children of the world were in those days, as now, rocked to sleep — too often, I may say, to a fatal sleep. It was in this plausible shape that vaccination had an immediate triumph.”4 Again we find a close parallel of a resilient conspiracy theory, that of the ruling elite and the utilisation of some sort of weapon designed against the underclasses (usually designed to keep them subservient and the elite at the top of the pyramid, so to speak). Subjugation and being ruled over by the shadowy elite (Illuminati, Freemasons, etc.) was and still is a theory being posited by many anti-vaxxers, under the guise of ‘The Great Reset’ or ‘the new normal.’ 

As Carmen stated in the podcast, “for [a] conspiracy theory to take hold, there has to be distrust of the institutions in society. And there has to be distrust in the media and those ideas that you think that someone’s not being completely transparent, or that perhaps the government body isn’t serving your best interests—they’re serving their own self-interest.” This, as both Maxinne and Carmen point out, is not new. There appears to be a seemingly cyclical response to events in which the same arguments are posited against the same shadowy powerbrokers, holding the media to sway, and endeavouring to make life difficult for all of those who are blind. What do people gain from these beliefs? Well, that’s a good question. Often people seemingly enjoy knowing things that others do not, almost as if secret knowledge is worth the price of admission to an exclusive club (that not everyone would like to join). If nothing else, the conspiracist mindset will endeavour along with society into the future. It is up to us as scholars and academics (and even, dare I say, fans) of conspiracy theories to keep the critical thinking elevated enough to see over the mountains of new conspiracies that will inevitably emerge as technology, society, and the world advances. And who knows, perhaps a conspiracy theory that is born this year might make a comeback in a hundred years, and become a fixture in a strange new world.

References

  1. DeZ Vylenz et al. (2008). The Mindscape of Alan Moore: A Psychedelic Journey into One of the World’s Most Powerful Minds (United States: ShadowSnake Ltd. : [Distributed by] Disinformation Co., 2008).
  2. Hauser, Christine (2020). “The Mask Slackers of 1918,” The New York Times, August 3, 2020, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/us/mask-protests-1918.html.
  3. Cuming, Stephen (1881). “Vaccination,” The Ballarat Courier, June 22, 1881. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/249291629.
  4. Fraser, Albert (1886). “Correspondence. Vaccination.” Daily Telegraph, November 22, 1886. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/149531747.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Raymond Radford


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/raymond-radford/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Ray-Radford-1.png


Responses

RESPONSE: History Repeated: Religious Conspiracy Theories Then and Now

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/history-repeated-religious-conspiracy-theories-then-and-now/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Correcting Misperceptions at the Intersections of Evangelicalism and Climate Change
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/correcting-misperceptions-at-the-intersections-of-evangelicalism-and-climate-change/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/response_featured_bloomfield_s11.jpg
DATE 2021-09-24 07:00:00
TITLE Correcting Misperceptions at the Intersections of Evangelicalism and Climate Change
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: apocalypse, climate change, Evangelicals, Individualism
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In this week’s response to our interview with Robin Veldman, Dr. Emma Frances Bloomfield challenges the oversimplification of the category “evangelicals” and employment of apocalyptism in climate change discourses.
SUMMARY: The story of climate change, like many stories, is more complicated than it first appears. Many assumptions, stereotypes, and dismissive attitudes in climate conversations can lead to roadblocks in pursuing collective climate action. As a wicked, interdisciplinary topic, telling climate change’s story naturally involves politics, economics, media, personal experiences, culture, and religion, among other factors. In The Gospel of Climate Change, Dr. Robin Veldman explores the various influences on Evangelicals’ climate change beliefs that challenge our assumptions about this relationship. Overcoming these assumptions is a worthwhile pursuit to move forward on climate solutions and one to which Dr. Veldman’s work contributes. While Evangelicals are a shrinking proportion of the religious makeup of the United States, they are still a powerful voting block that has faithfully supported Republican leaders such as George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump. Consequently, analyzing Evangelicals provides insight into how a politically powerful group thinks about and understands one of, if not the, most pressing topic of our time. Of the many key points covered in the podcast about Dr. Veldman’s book, I see the most important being the challenging of two common misperceptions: 1. Evangelicals are monolithic and 2. Apocalypticism leads to apathy. Dr. Veldman’s work is informed by focus groups and grounded theory, meaning that these insights come straight from the source as opposed to official discourse from representative groups. This difference between “official” and “vernacular” discourse (as explored by Primiano) enables an understanding of how Evangelicals as individuals understand climate change in their everyday lives and through their personal observations. When we challenge misperceptions, we not only gain more accurate and richer understandings, but we also chart in-roads for environmental activism. Let’s explore each of these misperceptions in more detail.
1. Evangelicals are monolithic.
Even in my paragraph above, I use “Evangelicals” as a useful stand-in for what is a heterogenous group of various denominations and beliefs. In the podcast, Dr. Veldman briefly refers to a useful political science chart developed by Lyman Kellstedt and John Green that shows the complexity of Christian denominations. This is an important insight because it is easy to dismiss an entire group if we see them as all being the same and as all being climate skeptics. When we recognize Evangelicals as varied and multi-faceted, the work becomes harder but also potentially more fruitful in finding ways to align existing beliefs with environmentalism. The stereotype of Evangelicals being against climate change has some support in polls and surveys, but such conclusions miss how some Evangelicals advocate for the environment. For example, work on the Creation Care movement studies how Evangelicals and the larger Christian community unite environmental activism with their faith. The group, the Evangelical Environmental Network is one of the main groups in the United States that “educates, inspires, and mobilizes Christians in their effort to care for God’s creation,” including running campaigns under “pro-life” labeling. Such moves expand the concept of “life” beyond the issue of abortion; the EEN discusses being “pro-life” as being part of clean energy initiatives, reducing pollution, and protecting public lands. On their website, the EEN notes: “Pollution harms the unborn, causing damage that lasts a lifetime. Dirty air and water have serious consequences for the health of our children and other vulnerable populations like the elderly.” Groups such as the EEN further challenge the notion that Evangelicals are monolithic and that they are all climate skeptics.
2. Apocalypticism leads to apathy.
In one of the foundational writings of Christianity and the environment, Lynn White Jr. argued that Christian apocalyptic beliefs foster anthropocentrism and discourage care for the environment by painting this world as temporary. In more recent work, surveys conducted by David Barker and David Bearce support this conclusion by providing evidence that Christians with high apocalyptic beliefs are less concerned about the environment. These studies, however, only tell part of the story. While apocalypticism can lead to fatalism, a feeling that things are predetermined and one does not have an ability to change them, other work, including Dr. Veldman’s and my own, points to different interpretations. Some interpret the End Times as opportunities for transformation and renewal; others do not center apocalypticism in their faith; and some see it as more transformative than as a reason for fatalism. For me, White Jr.’s and Barker and Bearce’s work are important parts of the larger story of climate change and religion, but they overstate the influence and universal adoption of being deterred from present environmental care due to a looming End Times. Both of these misperceptions connect to a central point — if we do not see Evangelicals as a homogenous group, then we must come face to face with the idea that the relationship between religiosity and one’s environmental beliefs is non-deterministic. In my own work, I’ve studied how the Bible, as a common resource for crafting beliefs, can be interpreted in many different ways to support quite varied environmental attitudes. In this sense, one’s religious interpretations are informed by other values and beliefs, which cyclically inform future attitudes and behaviors. In other words, our hermeneutics are wrapped up in larger social, political, and cultural influences, which makes a deterministic thread from faith to the environment (and perhaps all topics) nearly impossible. Dr. Veldman’s work and her discussion of it on the podcast offer reason for hope, but also concern. In terms of reason for hope, Dr. Veldman’s work centers “embattlement” as playing an important role in Evangelical skepticism of climate change, which is a useful insight to try and work around and with to find alternative ways to advocate for the environment to that audience. There are other reasons to be optimistic, including the shrinking proportion of climate skeptics and apathetics in the United States. Research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication report consistent trends of more people becoming “alarmed” about climate change and less dismissive and doubtful. These shifts further point to the need to address Evangelical audiences as potential climate advocates. Unfortunately, there are also reasons for continued concern and vigilance. As Dr. Veldman discusses in the podcast, there are many public figures in Christian media and politics that have an outsized influence on people’s attitudes and beliefs, which could foster continued skepticism. Additionally, the spread of misinformation through media, especially social media and the Internet, poses problems for increasing climate change belief and encouraging bipartisan and collaborative policy change. These competing hopes and worries only further center the importance of Dr. Veldman’s work and the continued value of work regarding religion and the environment. Dr. Veldman noted in the podcast that she sees Katharine Wilkinson’s work about the promise of green Evangelicals as part 1 and her book on why that promise was not realized as part 2. What, then, is part 3? I believe the next chapter in the ongoing tale of climate change and religion (and climate change research writ large) is the need to develop communication strategies to capitalize on the opportunities and overcome obstacles to climate skepticism and apathy.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Emma Frances Bloomfield


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/emma-frances-bloomfield/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/persons_bloomfield_2021-scaled.jpeg


Responses

RESPONSE: Understanding Evangelical Opposition to Climate Action

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/understanding-evangelical-opposition-to-climate-action/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , “A Jesus Before Paul?”
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/a-jesus-before-paul/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/response_walsh_featured_s10.jpg
DATE 2021-09-17 06:00:00
TITLE “A Jesus Before Paul?”
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 11
TERMS: Anachronism, Canon, Christian Origins, Early Christianity, Gospels, Historical Jesus, methodology, narrative, Origins, Tradition
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Kicking off our Season 11 Response essays, Robyn Faith Walsh builds on Willi Braun’s discussion of the emphasis on origins in New Testament studies to explore the strategic use and employment of Paul’s letters in the history of Christianity.
SUMMARY: A Response to “Comparing Methods in Christian Origins with Willi Braun and Andie Alexander by Robyn Faith Walsh  
In the Protestant myths of Christian origins, it is Paul who stands at the centre and is the holder, the keeper of the myth of an imagined, pristine, pure Christianity. Paul holds it. Paul protects it… I’m a bit, as you know, a bit of a bird photographer… And the perfect bird picture is when you isolate the bird on a branch and there is separation from the bird and the background, which might be a forest or a field, so that when you take the picture, the bird is in perfect, sharp focus and the background is entirely blurred, like creamed honey… I sometimes see backgrounds in those terms. You know, here we have Christianity standing in all its glory and precision and detail and largeness against a very blurry background. It seems to want to show that Christianity is unique. – Willi Braun 
Willi Braun’s Religious Studies Project interview with Andie Alexander regarding Braun’s recent essay collection Jesus and Addiction to Origins; Toward an Anthropocentric Study of Religion poses a number of arresting and pointed challenges, both to the field of early Christian studies and to the study of religion more broadly. Among his well-founded and exacting critiques of the “almost fetish-like” pursuit of “origins” within the guild and its attendant “protectionism,” is his observation that “Protestant scholarship… [places] an extraordinary emphasis on Paul.” By preserving Paul as the anachronistic figurehead of “an imagined, pristine, pure Christianity,” scholars deploy Paul as an avatar for legitimizing proto-orthodox opinion and theological aspirations for the beginnings of Christianity— a particularly salient point given the continued domination of Protestant-influenced interpretations and methodologies in the field. 

The best evidence in support of Braun’s position is in the fact that scholarship on early Christianity has gone to great lengths to separate Paul conceptually from our other “earliest” extant evidence for the so-called Jesus movement: the synoptic gospels. Integral to the field’s preoccupation with origins is the claim that Paul is “at the centre” of a foundational myth and of a landscape littered with competing leaders and apostles, rival Jesus groups, itinerant preachers, rogue scribes, circulating sayings-sources, various oral traditions and translations, multiple

redactors, and cohesive communities. It seems it is not enough for early Christianity to be unique—in “sharp focus” against a blurred cultural background “like creamed honey”—it must also be multiple, widespread, and diverse. It is not enough for Paul’s letters to represent a self-evidently “pristine, pure” version of Christianity; Paul must also vie for authority and win. Yet, as Braun notes elsewhere in the interview, there is no concrete evidence for any established groups beyond those to whom Paul writes. “We have absolutely no information, no evidence for communities that stand behind the Gospels, for example,” says Braun. Nonetheless, scholars posit that there are communities behind the gospels for little reason beyond blind assumption.

Stan Stowers’ “The Concept of ‘Community’ and the History of Early Christianity,” which appeared in the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion in 2011, offers a convincing critique of the gospel communities hypothesis. I attempted to build upon Stowers’ thesis in my own recent book The Origins of Early Christian Literature (CUP, 2021). In it, I argue that the most influential social networks on the gospel writers were not a community of fellow Christians. Rather, the gospel writers were most influenced by other authors and associated literate agents and networks. A central conceit of this research is that we must simplify our understanding of how gospel literature was produced. Putting aside the overly elaborate—and highly theological—scenario of eyewitness, oral tradition, and so forth, what materials can we conclude were actually at the gospel writers’ disposal?  It is perplexing that we have largely excluded Paul as a piece of comparanda for the gospels. Paul is most often analyzed as a separate entity, as a predicate for Christianity’s later breadth and cohesion. Thus, we find scholarship that speaks of firm distinctions between Pauline Christianity, Johannine Christianity, Thomas Christianity, and so on. Each of these so-called “Christianities” is then linked to a unique set of interests, texts, and groups. Terms frequently used to describe this phenomenon are “trajectory” or “diversity,” meaning that Christianity rooted and developed in various geographic spaces throughout the Mediterranean world. In practice, this description of early Christianity is akin to religious pluralism, a modern category that fits much more comfortably with contemporary Protestant taxonomies than with the first-century Jesus movement.  A truly historical description of the first century Jesus movement and the plausible processes of the gospel writers must begin with the possibility that the earliest extant details about Jesus, his teachings, activities, and the significance of his death were based on our only secure data point: the letters of Paul. Like any ancient source, Paul’s letters are not without their problems (e.g., a complicated manuscript tradition, imprecise translation and terminology issues, and so on). However, by retroactively casting the Jesus of the gospels as the origin point of early Christianity, we misunderstand where our evidence begins. Yet the gospels remain the starting point even for the most widely-used textbook in our field. I would like to use the occasion of Braun’s interview as an opportunity to engage in a thought experiment. Is an “extraordinary emphasis on Paul” justifiable if we recognize that his letters were likely used by the gospel writers? And is it possible to do this without resorting to the fanciful notion of a diverse, pluralistic, and widespread network of cohesive early Christian groups? The ahistorical nature of our traditional social models is evident in scholarly discussion about Paul’s quoting of Jesus. While there are several examples, allow me to focus on what is traditionally called the Last Supper. In 1 Cor 11:23-25, Paul details the events “on the night [Jesus] was betrayed,” including his words as he broke bread and offered wine as a “new covenant.” This same description of events—and nearly the same wording—also appears in Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-29, and Luke 22:15-20. One common argument against the idea that the gospel writers could have been using Paul to inform this passage is that, when quoting Jesus, Paul frequently discloses that he has received these sayings “from the Lord” directly. In other words, Paul indicates that he is receiving these commands through some form of divination. He does not attribute these sayings to any other authority in a position to have spoken directly to Jesus or to have been present at the events described (e.g., James or Peter). In short, scholarship has tended to gloss over the significance of Paul’s claims that he is, evidently, receiving privileged intel from the risen Christ. Indeed, Paul is clear that his knowledge of this event and Jesus’ words is supernatural: “For I received from the Lord (γὰρ παρέλαβον ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου)…” (1 Cor 11:23). Here Paul utilizes language found elsewhere in his letters (e.g., Galatians 1:12) to indicate his knowledge is via “revelation” (xἀποκαλύψεως) and “neither from another human being, nor was I taught (οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐγὼ παρὰ ἀνθρώπου παρέλαβον αὐτό, οὔτε ἐδιδάχθην).”  Curiously, the HarperCollins Study Bible includes the following comment: “Paul repeats and comments on the words with which, according to tradition, Jesus at his last supper distributed bread and wine.” The note continues: “From the Lord, not from Jesus directly, but by way of the church’s liturgical tradition.” “Liturgical tradition” is often assumed to be a primary source for the gospel writers, not Paul’s letter(s). In making this assumption, scholars have been highly selective in their recognition of Paul as a “source” for the gospels. They seem to favor awkward, anachronistic explanations or theories about oral tradition to get at the historical Jesus, rather than considering the data in front of them. Again, that at least one of the Greek-speaking gospel writers would have used Paul to help construct their bios is a much more linear argument than one that relies on oral traditions, itinerant preachers, ambitious scribes, “trajectories,” and cohesive religious communities. Another scholar noted by Braun in his interview, William Arnal, offers the following caution in his piece “The Collection and Synthesis of ‘Tradition’ and the Second-Century Invention of Christianity”, also found in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (2011):
“… by identifying the scattered, distinct, and theologically unrelated documents that happen to appear in the New Testament as collectively originary for that later social movement known as ‘Christianity,’ we imply some sort of unity of conception or agenda behind them, and so assume that to at least some degree the ideas or at least core commitments and convictions found in one text might be taken for granted in other texts in which they do not actually appear.” (194)
The concern Arnal expresses here is well-founded. Our historical analyses of the New Testament should not reinforce the anachronistic, invented traditions of subsequent generations. However, I would add that attributing the literary content of our first-century, post-War Jesus bioi to “pre-Pauline” oral traditions, “trajectories,” and so forth is an even more overt method of inventing tradition. Rather, I suggest we should ask ourselves what strategies second century inventors of Christianity might have had in mind when compiling the letters of Paul with certain bioi of Jesus into canon. It is tempting to believe that these writings were chosen because their content was clearly built on the only writings about Jesus we know pre-dated the War. So, then, perhaps the protagonist of the gospels was necessary to ‘pave the way’ for Paul. But we should not mistake this second century reinvention of these writings as the beginnings of their history.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Robyn Faith Walsh


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/robyn-faith-walsh/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: Comparing Methods in Christian Origins

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/comparing-methods-in-christian-origins/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Using Archaeology to Learn about Christian Diversity and Martyr Shrines
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/using-archaeology-to-learn-about-christian-diversity-and-martyr-shrines/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/response_featured_griffis_s10.png
DATE 2021-07-01 07:00:00
TITLE Using Archaeology to Learn about Christian Diversity and Martyr Shrines
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Archaeology, Early Christianity, Identity, Martyr Worship, Martyrdom, Paganism, Shrines, Social Group Formation
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Sarah Griffis highlights how Morehouse demonstrates the central issue of studying diverse social groups in antiquity: “how do you get something new out of what’s already there before it? Whatever it is that’s new needs to be intelligible enough to be compelling and persuasive.”
SUMMARY:

Nathaniel Morehouse’s interview on early Christian diversity and martyr shrines in the fourth century was such a delight, and wove together multiple topics that interest me both in my research and in my teaching. I want to tie together two insights he offered: first, Morehouse remarked that shrines of martyrs can teach us about the lives of regular Christian worshippers. Second, early Christians in all of their own diversity were really comfortable in and familiar with a religious landscape that itself was incredibly diverse. I want to use one specific example as a way of building upon both of these really important themes that can help us think about Christianity in the fourth century, and by doing so I want to exercise a methodology that’s been really influential in my work and training: archaeology. 

Morehouse used the helpful example of Rome in his interview, a city that offers us rich evidence of Christianity in its first few centuries and is associated with ritual practice around the remains of Peter and Paul. I want instead to use the example of Philippi, a small town in the ancient province of Macedonia—that’s in northeast Greece, pretty close to the western Turkish border. Philippi is well known to Christians because it’s a town the apostle Paul visited and we still have a letter addressed from Paul to the congregants there; it’s in the New Testament. It’s also the perfect site to explore the topics from Morehouse’s interview to which I’d like to add more data. 

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Aristotelis Mentzos Archive

At Philippi the footprint of a fourth-century church called “the Octagon” was excavated. It’s named for its shape, which will become important in a moment. 

The church is part of a complex whose prominent placement in the center of the town tells us it was busily trafficked and highly visible. What’s super interesting about this church is that throughout its multiple building phases it continued to incorporate the preexisting structure of a “pagan” heroon (pronounced “hero” [rhymes with “pharaoh”] + “on”): a shrine dedicated to a traditional Greek hero. This shrine was really old by the time the Christian church began to be built—it was probably built in the second or third century BCE, which means it had enjoyed a lengthy history as a site of cult worship by the time Christian structures started to spring up. And I don’t mean that this hero worship site and the Octagon were just built side by side—I mean that the south wall of the hero shrine was the north wall of this church. The church literally built the hero shrine into its material structure, and we know it was intentional because the first church onsite, a basilica, burned down, and even in rebuilding it, the heroon wall was retained as a wall of the church. 

The octagonal Basilica, Philippi (“File:The octagonal Basilica, Philippi (7272953626).jpg” by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0″)

Here’s where we get to see the principles at work that Morehouse introduced, at one individual site: the merging of religious identity that Philippi’s archaeological remains puts on display illuminates the lives of ordinary Christian worshipers, and what it shows us about them is that these early Christians had no difficulty existing—materially even—right alongside non-Christians. This is because the towns in which Christianity first developed were simply incredibly religiously diverse. It’s just how things were. Some scholars are convinced that these two cults were celebrated side by side at the same time. And here’s where the octagon shape of the church becomes important. We know that the octagon shape is especially associated with martyria—that is, the same kind of hero-worship at a shrine, but now devoted to a Christian martyr. We don’t know whose it was (some scholars are convinced it was Paul’s!), but what the archaeology puts on display to us is an overlap, temporally and spatially, in worship of heroes, both Christian and non-Christian. Some scholars think the worship of Christian martyrs supplanted hero worship of an earlier time, but if that’s true, it was a gradual process. Certainly simultaneous side-by-side practice is plausible, and to bring a figure into the discussion whom Morehouse also referred to, Julian the Apostate remarked on the astonishing similarities between hero and martyr worship. What this teaches us is that while Christians were one internally diverse group among a large number of different religious groups living alongside one another in ancient cities, their practices around the remains of their beloved dead had much in common with those of their differently-affiliated neighbors. We can infer from this that the lives and practices of early Christian worshippers were really legible to non-Christians as well.

The general concept here is something all historians are concerned with, especially historians of the ancient world who often attend to a long stretch of history and its changes in empire, politics, and religion: how do you get something new out of what’s already there before it? Whatever it is that’s new needs to be intelligible enough to be compelling and persuasive. Christians, internally diverse groups on their own, would argue over how to relate to their past. At the same time they could be seen on the whole as a separate group in a larger landscape of incredible religious diversity. Philippi’s delightful and strange architectural remains help us to ponder this diversity through specific attention to the practice of hero worship. 

For studying Philippi, Charalambos Bakirtzis’s chapter “Paul and Philippi” in Philippi at the Time of Paul and After his Death is crucial reading; so is Eduard Verhoef’s article “Syncretism in the Church of Philippi.” More broadly on archaeology as a way of learning about religious diversity in antiquity, especially around death-related practices, I’ve learned so much from my teacher, Laura Nasrallah, and my colleagues, especially Sarah Porter. If you want to learn more about what archaeological remains can teach us about the early Christianity we read about in texts like the New Testament, Nasrallah’s book Archaeology and the Letters of Paul is such an excellent starting place. Porter introduced me to a book that touches on the topic of gender and practices around martyrs’ remains, a topic Morehouse also briefly discussed: Nicola Denzey Lewis’ The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Sarah Griffis


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/sarah-griffis/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: Power and Diversity in 4th Century Martyr Shrines

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/power-and-diversity-in-4th-century-martyr-shrines/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Ritual Theory at the Margins of a Minority Tradition
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/ritual-theory-at-the-margins-of-a-minority-tradition/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/response_featured_bordeaux_s10.jpg
DATE 2021-06-25 07:00:00
TITLE Ritual Theory at the Margins of a Minority Tradition
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Canon, Categorization, Mantra, Monasticism, Ritual, South Asian religions, Tantra
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: In this response, Joel Bordeaux notes that Ellen Gough’s focus on the ritual components and “tantricization” of Jain ascetic practices offers a new way of thinking through and contextualizing the “notoriously slippery notion of Tantra” in the subcontinent.
SUMMARY:

This episode marks the second occasion in about as many weeks that I have found myself lamenting my lack of familiarity with Jain tantra. When asked recently whether I could identify a mandala a colleague had chanced across, I could only reply with a shrug, “I’m stumped. Must be Jain.” So while I was especially glad for a preview of Dr. Gough’s forthcoming book, let the reader beware: I am by no means an expert on Jainism. Fortunately, as this is clearly a work concerned with the notoriously slippery notion of Tantra as a distinct register of Indic religiosity —sometimes called ‘Tantrism’ to distinguish the category in the abstract from the eponymous genre(s) of revealed texts with which it is most commonly associated— we can take the conversation in that direction. I suspect Dr. Gough has already addressed many of these issues at length in her book, but for now we have at least the opportunity to savor the anticipation. 

The idea of Tantra as something distinct from ‘whatever is written in the tantras’— that is, as a coherent form of esoteric Hinduism at least conceptually distinct from the Bhagavad Gita’s tripartite enumeration of [orthoprax] ritual, philosophical inquiry, and devotional worship as means of ‘union’ (yoga) with the Divine Self; and/or as a rarefied fast-track to enlightenment for the Mahayana Buddhist elite, is itself a subject of considerable controversy. For the 15th century Tibetan scholar Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, imaginatively assuming the form of a deity was the fundamental aspect of Tantra, while in the early 20th century John Woodroffe, the so-called Father of Tantric Studies, treated Tantra as synonymous with occultism. Arguably the most famous contemporary scholar of tantra, David Gordon White, asserts that “sexualized ritual practice is the sole truly distinctive feature of South Asian Tantric traditions,” and I myself have suggested that in Bengal at least, blood sacrifice is commonly taken as its most characteristic [publicly observable] feature. Presently, polythetic definitions of Tantra are probably the closest thing to the norm, or else the term itself is taken as an object for discourse analysis.1 For her part, Gough adopts the eminently defensible position that initiation into the use of mantras (revealed verbal formulae, often regarded as sonic manifestations of deities) capable of both soteriological (viz. eliminating one’s accumulated karma) and pragmatic ‘magical’ applications such as healing is fundamental. This is consonant with the longstanding tendency of Sanskrit authors to refer to Śaiva and Buddhist tantric traditions as the Path or Vehicle of Mantras (mantra-mārga/mantra-yāna), respectively. 

Jain protector deity Ghaṇṭakarṇa flanked by mantras and magic squares. Ghaṇṭakarṇa is especially known to grant worldly powers to his devotees. “yantramantra” by romana klee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Similarly, her observation that Jain tantra “emerges from asceticism,” though perhaps counter-intuitive in light of the prevailing assumption that many characteristically tantric practices originated in ‘tribal’ or otherwise liminal communities of non-celibate ‘exorcistic visionaries,’ actually mirrors earlier developments in the subcontinent including the way the Śaiva ascetic Ati-mārga (‘Path Beyond’) gave rise to the Mantra-mārga.2 That said, there is a surprising and somewhat perplexing idiosyncrasy in the relationship between ascetic and tantric forms of Jainism: outside of Jain contexts, there are typically separate ritual initiations into monastic life and into the use of liberatory mantras, whereas in this case a single ceremony accomplishes both. An exploration of the extent to which this rite is structurally speaking a fusion of these two forms of initiation, as opposed to ‘just’ a monastic ordination onto which the bestowal of a mantra has been appended, could show us a lot about how Jains understand (at a ritual rather than purely discursive level) the interface between what appear to be two distinct ways of neutralizing karma and its effects.

In broad, ideal-typical terms, South Asian monasticism is a process of withdrawal. The monk or nun, in theory, not only renounces their previous identity but opts out of socially-constructed personhood altogether. The restrained lifestyle of the ascetic can then be seen as an attempt to reduce one’s ‘karmic footprint’ so that meditative practices and/or bodily mortification can burn off karmic reserves. Over time, running this karmic deficit can exhaust the causes that perpetuate the cycle of life and rebirth, resulting in liberation at the time of physical death. Conversely, tantric models for liberation tend to be expansive. Although the prototypical initiation itself eradicates all non-essential karma, it immediately orchestrates the candidate’s rebirth into a divine lineage with all the privileges attendant thereto. From this point, the newly qualified initiate can and indeed must regularly employ the mantras imparted during the ceremony, effectively reenacting their initiation to fully actualize this ‘already-not-yet’ liberated state. By implication, the mantric option for dealing with karma obviates the need for asceticism, allowing the initiate to act in the world without becoming ensnared by it, and to wield deific powers as well. 

Padmavatī, a popular Jain goddess commonly worshipped in a tantric manner.
“File:Trilok Teerth Dham – Exterior – Padmavati Devi.jpg” by Pratyk321 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

To be sure, Indic religions tend to assume that superhuman abilities manifest naturally as a side effect of asceticism, and reports of wonder-working monks on that basis alone are commonplace. It is true too that many members of organized monastic communities also receive tantric initiations with the understanding that these traditions are complimentary, but the divergent theoretical underpinnings of ascetic and tantric practice make the apparent collapse of the two initiations in Jain contexts especially striking. And if the operative logic there is so overwhelmingly ascetic so that, as Cort writes, there is no “full-scale alternative Tantric path to liberation” in Jainism,3 we have a different problem: how to explain the efficacy of mantra without recourse to the basic theory behind tantric initiation or the [fundamentally Hindu] notion of the Sanskrit language as intrinsically capable of manipulating reality? If nothing else the conundrum illustrates once again how ritual can operate independently of doctrine. 

Of course the simplest historical explanation for potential incongruities between the logic of these rituals and the larger Jain tradition is that Jains appropriated them from Śaivas while leaving behind the relevant theological underpinnings. Dr. Gough alludes to this phenomenon herself but chooses for theoretical reasons to focus here on the tantricization of particular “ritual components.” I am extremely curious to read a fuller rationale for this strategy, since it would seem as if the possibility for tracking the tantricization process in Jain contexts comes at the cost of reducing the ‘tantra- ’ part of the equation to abstract ‘ritual tech’ unmoored from history such as can be attested in dateable sources. The main risk in so doing is that tantra itself fades away into the so-called ‘Indian religious substratum’4 taking the analytic utility of tantricization with it. Conversely, if ‘tantricization’ ultimately means becoming more like things initially or most typically described in Śaiva or for that matter Vedic texts, why not just say that?  

Not that I think we should allow texts to drive the conversation entirely; in fact I very much appreciate her approach of reading and indeed leading with contemporary ritual manuals and ethnography, working backwards to ‘classical’ canonical sources. The present is arguably the least arbitrary starting point for diachronic research, and the result in a case like this (though again, at the risk of sacrificing a certain kind of historicity) is more likely to be guided by a logic internal to the tradition under consideration. Based on what I’ve been able to glean from this preview, that strikes me as an advantageous trade. 


References
  1. On the difficulty of defining Tantra, see Padoux, “What Do We Mean by Tantrism?” For Khedrup’s rather technical discussion see Mkhas-Grub Dge-Legs-Dpal-Bzan-Po, Lessing, and Wayman, Introduction to Buddhist Tantric Systems. 163-171. On Woodroffe see Strube, “Tantra as Experimental Science in the Works of John Woodroffe.” White makes the claim quoted above in Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts. 13. On sacrifice see Bordeaux, “Blood in the Mainstream.” A recent and thorough polythetic definition can be found in the introduction to White, Tantra in practice. Urban’s post-colonial analysis of Tantra is in the introduction to Tantra.
  2. See Sanderson, “The Lākulas: New Evidence of a System Intermediate between Pāñcārthika Pāśupatism and Āgamic Śaivism.”
  3. Cort, “Worship of Bell-Ears the Great Hero, a Jain Tantric Deity.” 417.
  4. The debate between Sanderson and Ruegg (among others) over whether e.g. Buddhists ‘appropriated’ Śaiva tantric traditions or whether both Buddhists and Śaivas both drew on a common repertoire of deities, ideas, and practices is extensive and ongoing. Their most thorough cases are made respectively in Sanderson, “The Śaiva Age” and Ruegg, The Symbiosis of Buddhism with Brahmanism/Hinduism in South Asia and of Buddhism with “Local Cults” in Tibet and the Himalayan Region.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Joel Bordeaux


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/joel-bordeaux/"


HEADSHOT: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/persons_bordeaux_2021.jpg


Responses

RESPONSE: On the Tantricization of Jain Ascetic Rituals

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/on-the-tantracization-of-jain-ascetic-rituals/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , “A Space of Encounter:” The U.S. Military and American Religious Pluralism
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/a-space-of-encounter-the-u-s-military-and-american-religious-pluralism/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/haberski-2.jpg
DATE 2021-06-18 07:00:00
TITLE “A Space of Encounter:” The U.S. Military and American Religious Pluralism
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: American religion, Evangelicals, pluralism, Symbols, US Military
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Raymond Haberski, Jr. writes that our interview with Ronit Stahl about Military chaplaincy “provides a nuanced picture of pluralism” in the United States. This reveals how massive institutions like the U.S. military operationalize pluralism to “both incorporate difference and flatten distinctions.”
SUMMARY:

During a radio broadcast in 1954 for the American Legion’s “Back to God” program, President Dwight Eisenhower famously observed: “In battle, [soldiers] learned a great truth—that there are no atheists in the foxholes. They know that in time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for new courage and peace of mind.” Ike made this appearance as part of his larger strategy to leverage American religiosity to benefit his administration’s Cold War foreign policy. As historian Harry Stout points out, conflating religion and war has a deep history in the United States, they are, he writes, “symbiotic and grew up inextricably intertwined.” Ike played his role in this history well and presided over a period in the 1950s rife with references to the theological implications of military sacrifice. Not surprisingly, then, Ike also mentioned the story of the “Four Chaplains,” asking his listeners to “remember that, only a decade ago, aboard the transport Dorchester, four chaplains of four faiths together willingly sacrificed their lives so that four others might live.” The president could assume that his audience understood the symbolic significance of those four chaplains and the easy link between politics and religion. But this history is not quite that simple.

Thankfully, historian Ronit Stahl expertly dissects and analyzes all that Americans and their leaders have poured into the role of military chaplains. In particular, she gets the complexity of the chaplaincy (both symbolic as well as real) by relating the history of this position to American religious pluralism. In a podcast episode, “The U.S. Military Chaplaincy and Twentieth-Century Society,” Stahl speaks to host Dan Gorman about her first book, Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America. The book is both a chronological and thematic accounting of how the U.S. military attempted to recognize and use the diverse and often conflicting faiths of soldiers. And the podcast allows Stahl to describe how she managed a story that involves the largest institution of the federal government and the deeply personal and idiosyncratic nature of religious faith. To do this, she settled on an evocative metaphor of the military as a “space of encounter.” I found that term especially useful because it is at once a social construction (the military needed to deal with the tangible issue of faith), and a fluid situation (even the military cannot order soldiers to practice their faith in a certain way). And organizing the book around the history of military chaplains allows Stahl to give readers a cast of characters in whom this complexity of faith and military sacrifice coexist and develop. In short, Stahl translates Eisenhower’s message in history rather than allowing it to sit as an advertisement for Cold War politics.

A simply stated American religious pluralism fails to capture the conflict and contributions of the nation’s multiple faiths. Many observers have emphasized that point, but among the most significant came from sociologist Will Herberg in 1955, when his book Protestant, Catholic, Jew entered the debate over American postwar religiosity. Herberg rather caustically argued that the Cold War had finally compelled political and religious leaders in the United States to acknowledge other faiths might have near-equal status to the nation’s dominant Protestant churches, thus creating a three-faith construction. Ike had demonstrated how to use a “tri-faith America” (as historian Kevin Schultz called it) to generate a wartime-like unity during a peacetime struggle against communism. But his reference to the Four Chaplains tipped Ike’s hand—he knew especially well (as America’s greatest living general) that the military had already addressed how to operationalize American religious pluralism. 

Stahl explains, though, how the military often had to strike a very tricky balance between acknowledging multiple religious traditions and organizing them through a chaplaincy that still had to be efficient enough to work. Stahl notes in almost humorous aside: “the chiefs of chaplains are kind of throwing up their hands and are like, you know, if we allow every group to be recognized as their specific denomination or their specific group, we’re going to have upwards of 250 or more religious groups and how on earth are we going to manage that? It’s a management problem from the military’s perspective.” But institutions, she points out, both incorporate difference and flatten distinctions—it’s an insight that, it seems to me, provides a nuanced picture of pluralism that usefully demonstrates how we as Americans function with it. 

One of the treats of listening to Ronit Stahl is to hear an expert historian describe the craft of thinking and writing about the complexity of the past. With her first book, Stahl joins other scholars such as Kevin Schultz, whose Tri-Faith America provides a baseline for understanding religious pluralism, and Jonathan Ebel, whose G.I. Messiahs and Faith in the Fight deepens our understanding of how the faith of soldiers and the religiosity of a nation interact. And Stahl demonstrates the conflicts and tensions inherent in our benighted notion of pluralism. For example, before the Second World War, three out of the five Black officers in the military were chaplains. At the same time, those three could only minister to Black troops. So, the military was at once, more progressive than most of the country but still in the grip of segregation. During the Vietnam War, anti-war chaplains had to minister to soldiers killing and, some ultimately, dying in a war they morally opposed. Such tensions, Stahl notes, show how the military paralleled and foreshadowed similar developments in civilian society, including the rising power of evangelicals in post-Vietnam America, the liberalization of Mainline Protestants, the secularization of American society, and the promise of a multi-lingual, multi-racial country.

Among the benefits of listening to a scholar speak about her work is learning how she grapples with balancing interpretation with understanding—Stahl explains that a “winking ecumenism” can coexist with a sincere practice of faith. Stahl’s podcast gives insight into how historians operate as both social critics and chroniclers of lives. And, she helps us see the human agency in institutional policies and comprehending how a massive institution like the military can also reflect the most human need of practicing faith.

Other Sources

  • Jonathan Ebel, G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion (Yale, 2015)
  • Jonathan Ebel, Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War (Princeton, 2010)
  • Raymond Haberski, Jr., God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (Rutgers, 2010)
  • Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf, 2012)
  • Kevin M. Schultz, Tri-Faith America, How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford, 2011)

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Raymond Haberski, Jr.


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/raymond-haberski-jr/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: The U.S. Military Chaplaincy and Twentieth-Century Society

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-u-s-military-chaplaincy-and-twentieth-century-society/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , On Tantra, Jain Style
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/on-tantra-jain-style/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/response_featured_gough_s10.jpeg
DATE 2021-06-11 07:00:00
TITLE On Tantra, Jain Style
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Boundary Formation, Jainism, Tantra
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: “The story that Dr. Gough is telling about the development of Jain tantra—the Jain adoption of mantra-practice, but rejection of antinomianism—thus seems to me to be a fundamentally noteworthy case-study,” writes Anne Mocko on our interview with Ellen Gough discussing the ‘tantricization’ of Jain ascetic rituals.
SUMMARY:

There is so much wonderful material in this interview with Dr. Ellen Gough

I resonated deeply to Dr. Gough’s methodology, tracing a specific ritual practice through time (rather than focusing on a particular sect or historical era). This approach is very similar to work I did in chapters of my own book on Nepali royal ritual—but I have never thought to frame the approach as Dr. Gough does, as a crucial strategy to grasp the complex multi-religious histories of South Asia. I also particularly appreciated how Dr. Gough defined tantra as the targeted destruction of karma, and then put that definition side-by-side with a description of the Jain idea of a luminous perfected soul weighed down by physical karma. This pairing of explanations helped me to understand in a fresh way the common tantric claim that serious practice can result in super-human powers (such as “the ability to fly, …clairvoyance, …the ability to cure people with their bodily fluids”1). 

Most importantly, though, I simply find the topic of Dr. Gough’s forthcoming book to be fundamentally important. It is complicated, even counter-intuitive, to include Jainism in the broader discussion of the development of South Asian tantra, and it still seems quite remarkable to me that Jains should have embraced any form of tantrism at all. 

In order to gain entry into the fundamental question as to how and why Jains took to tantra (and what this can tell us about religious processes more generally), I want to pause over an apparently minor detail from the podcast: namely, that the Jain adoption of tantra appears to begin with lay people

Dr. Gough indicates that Jain manuals seem to start including tantric mantra-practice right at the times when monastic mendicant communities are proliferating—because that is the time when mendicants need to compete with one another in order to receive lay patronage. Ascetic mendicants need temples, facilities, food, and material support; lay Jains are positioned to provide them; therefore ascetic mendicants must impress and appeal to lay people in order to secure their patronage.

This point seems important and surprising to me for two reasons. First, it reverses the direction of religious innovation that one might expect. Jains themselves tend to think of their religious knowledge as one-directional—from sacred texts to mendicants to lay people—and it is very common for lay Jains not only to defer personally to ascetics but to refer inquisitive foreign scholars to the proper authorities to get their questions answered.2 Religious studies scholars, too, often presume that religion ‘really’ happens at the level of religious authorities and the texts they write. This might encourage people to assume that new religious ideas or practices start with experts and filter downward to the masses; instead, it is noteworthy here that Dr. Gough insists it was lay people who drove religious innovation.

Second, it seems to me that Dr. Gough might actually be hinting at a more general mechanism operating in South Asian religious history. Is it possible that there are in fact many cases where lay-practitioners within one community have observed some other religion’s practices, and expressed interest/demand for something similar in their own tradition?

It is striking in South Asia how much continuity and similarity there is between the practices of ostensibly separate religions. There is obvious cognate similarity between the puja-rituals found in Hindu mandirs, Jain derasars, and Sikh gurdwaras (plus the Buddhist temples all over the Theravada world). South Asian religious communities have similar devotional singing traditions—similar astrological traditions—similar festivals and processions. Has Dr. Gough put her finger on the process that allowed that to happen? Have lay people, throughout history, been driving a broad process of borrowing, imitation, and mutual invention? If lay Jains were looking at Hindu or Buddhist tantric experts and asking for mantra-expertise from their own authorities… is it also possible that lay Buddhists were looking enviously at Hindu goddesses and asking their own authorities for feminine Buddhist deities? Is it possible that non-priestly Hindus were looking enviously at Jain dietary practices, and demanding a Hindu form of “pure-veg” purity? Might we be able to trace religious history in South Asia as a complex laity-driven process of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’—or better, ‘keeping up with the Joshis’? 

If so, though, we would still need to identify how members of each tradition innovate in ways that are distinctive to their own communities and core commitments. And this is where Dr. Gough’s project is especially important, because she is demonstrating that while Jains do hop onto the tantra bandwagon… they keep clear limits on how much they want to adopt.

Why did Jains adopt some forms of tantra, but not others?

Dr. Gough distinguishes two types of tantra: mantra-based practice (using powerful words/sounds), and transgression-based practice (using powerful rule-breaking). According to her account, Jains join Hindus and Buddhists in adopting the former… but resist adopting the latter. They enthusiastically embraced mantras, but had no appetite for the antinomian (or “left-handed”) forms of practice. 

In the interview, Dr. Gough appears to equate transgressive tantra with ritualized sex. But we might actually get more traction for understanding Jain skepticism if we consider the enormous emphasis in both Hindu and Buddhist antinomian traditions on food and the ritualized consumption of impure substances. 

Whereas tantric sex requires practitioners to develop equanimity in the face of pleasure, transgressive food requires practitioners to overcome disgust. Aghori sadhus are said to eat flesh from human corpses, and drink from bowls made of human skulls; the ‘left-hand’ goddess Matangi can be offered taboo leftover-food from her devotees’ plates. The daily nitya-puja for Kaula tantrics involves preparing a three-ingredient mix of wine, meat, and sexual-fluid.3 On the Buddhist side, there are tantric texts that exhort readers to perform rituals involving “the so-called ‘five meats’ (māṃsa)…  beef, dog, elephant, horse, and human flesh” as well as the “‘five ambrosias’ (amṛta)… faeces, urine, blood, semen, and marrow.”4 

It seems frankly inconceivable that Jains would adopt this kind of transgressive food-based practice. Jains invest eating with an extraordinary religious weight. For Hindus and Buddhists, food is a matter of convention and ritual/monastic purity, but not usually an issue of karma. For Jains, food is a constant source of karmic ‘dirt’ on the soul. Because food comes at the expense of non-human lives, eating itself entails violence (himsa)—and is thus ultimately an impediment to Jain salvation. To limit this impediment, Jains pay meticulous attention to what they eat. All Jains are expected to be vegetarians, and to restrict their diets in varying ways; most Jains (mendicant and lay alike) undertake routine fasts. For Jains, dietary rigor is a point of pride, and a significant index of religious authority.

Where Hindu and Buddhist tantrikas could ‘wow’ their lay followers with their transgressive food practices, it seems impossible for a Jain ascetic to receive similar approval. A Jain ascetic who chose to eat dog-meat would not be signaling non-dual perception and equanimity to the world—they would be demonstrating a reckless disregard for karma, and for the soul-staining power of meat. They would be further clouding their soul with karmic particles, not releasing their soul’s ultimate luminescence. 

If it was indeed lay Jains driving the tantric innovation, it makes intuitive sense that they would not have wanted their ascetics to undertake food-based transgression. 

What this example indicates is that cognate traditions within South Asian religions are not a matter of simple borrowing or copying. Instead, members of each tradition must filter new innovations through their existing core practices and sensibilities—and adjust or reject pieces that fundamentally did not fit. 

The story that Dr. Gough is telling about the development of Jain tantra—the Jain adoption of mantra-practice, but rejection of antinomianism—thus seems to me to be a fundamentally noteworthy case-study. Far from being a curiosity of Indian history, this development would appear to carry crucial implications for understanding how religions grow and change, how traditions in close proximity can simultaneously innovate together but maintain their respective distinctiveness. 


References
  1. Quoted from the minute-mark-13:58 section of the podcast transcript.
  2. I have personally noted the tendency of lay Jains to defer to mendicants, and I think it has also been noted in passing in print—but I confess I cannot easily lay my hands on a citation. Perhaps Whitney Kelting’s work on Jain lay women (Singing the Jinas: Jain Laywomen, Mandal Singing, and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion (2001))?
  3. The Kaula daily ritual (nityapūjā).(last accessed May 16 2021).
  4. Christian K. Wedemeyer (2007) “Beef, Dog, and Other Mythologies: Connotative Semiotics in Mahāyoga Tantra Ritual and Scripture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 75, Issue 2, June 2007, Pages 383–417, https://doi.org/10.1093/jaarel/lfm006.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Anne Mocko


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/anne-mocko/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: On the Tantricization of Jain Ascetic Rituals

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/on-the-tantracization-of-jain-ascetic-rituals/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Rethinking Narratives of ‘American Values’ in the US Military
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/rethinking-narratives-of-american-values-in-the-us-military/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/response_featured_cooperman_s10.jpeg
DATE 2021-06-04 07:00:00
TITLE Rethinking Narratives of ‘American Values’ in the US Military
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: Categorization, gender, narrative, Race, Religion, US Military
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: Jessica Cooperman writes that Stahl’s work demonstrates how racism shapes religious institutions and argues that “it points to the necessity of re-examining American narratives of religious freedom through the analytical lenses of both race and gender.”
SUMMARY:

As a fan of Ronit Stahl’s work, it was a real pleasure to listen to her interview with Dan Gorman about her book, Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America. Stahl’s analysis of the military chaplaincy demonstrates her sensitivity to the different ways that religion is entangled and experienced within the larger institutions of the state. Military chaplains, and the personnel they serve, have to find ways to make religion function within a complicated government system that is not fundamentally designed with their personal needs in mind. As people navigate their way through this system, they are sometimes driven to make choices that may deviate from civilian practices, but these changes create unexpected new connections. The story that Stahl opens with, about her Jewish father taking church call on Sundays so he could get some extra sleep, as well as the one that Dan Gorman closes with, about his Catholic father attending Mormon services because of air conditioning and ability to nap in the pews, are both great examples of these sorts of adjustments. One might be tempted to see these actions as insincere expressions of religion, but only if one imagines “religion” somehow existing outside of the lived experiences of people. As Stahl shows, people can be deeply sincere about what they believe and still use the religious framework created by the military to carve out space for themselves.

Just as importantly, within the military’s religious system, the pursuit of something as simple as a nap, a free-time activity, or a good meal, brings people in contact with religious traditions and practices that they may never have encountered in their civilian lives.  In 1916, for example, Rabbi Isaac Landman led Yom Kippur services for 500 men serving with General Pershing during so-called “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico, although he estimated that no more than 150 of the troops identified themselves as Jews. (Cooperman, p.31) The other men present may have simply been looking for time off, or something to do, but they encountered Judaism in ways that, for at least some of them, must have been new and unexpected. Encounters like these, regardless of whether or not they were motivated by sincere belief, reshaped how generations of Americans thought about religious traditions different from their own, and about how they understood the scope of religious life in the United States.

The American military has traditionally understood the practice of religion to be both a right of service members and a valuable tool for providing spiritual support in the morally ambiguous circumstance of war. As a result, since WWI, the military has created space for minority religious groups to be recognized, but not necessarily on their own terms. As Stahl describes, during the first half of the 20th century the military understood religion through static categories of “Protestant,” “Catholic,” or “Jewish.” This meant that communities that did not fit within those categories were often lumped together as “Protestant” or “Catholic,” regardless of whether or not this was an accurate reflection of their identities. Mormons and Orthodox Christians found themselves in this uncomfortable position, and presumably made choices similar to the ones that Stahl and Gorman’s fathers made – taking advantage of the options they had, even if it was not a perfect fit.

As Stahl demonstrates, however, minority religious communities were not content to make do with the categories offered to them by the military. They both navigated within them and worked to change the system. Even the inclusion of Judaism was not a given, in spite of the seemingly entrenched tri-faith model of religion that took hold within the World War II American military. Jewish chaplains and religious practices only became officially integrated into the military system during World War I, and then only as the result of new demographic realities following the influx of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century, and the sustained advocacy by Jewish leaders who became skilled at arguing for the distinctive rights of Jews while working to demonstrate how Judaism would contribute to the wellbeing of the military as a whole. By the second half of the 20th century, as the country grew more religiously diverse due to new immigration policies, Mormons, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims all engaged in similar processes of negotiation, working to expand the categories through which Americans understood religion, and to make a place for themselves in the systems of the military.

Stahl’s work demonstrates that race often proved a more difficult difference to navigate in the American military than religion. Certainly the story she relates, of Chaplain Luther Fuller, whose life was put in danger and whose military career was ruined for denouncing racism in the military offers a deeply disturbing reminder of the ways that racist policies often trumped other freedoms and confounded American categories for thinking about religion. The mid-twentieth idea of a Judeo-Christian America implicitly referred to white people. While recent scholarship has complicated our understanding of how this idea has been deployed politically, Stahl’s work offers a powerful example of how racism — as well as sexism — shaped the institutions through which Americans expressed and experienced religion in the United States. Indeed, it points to the necessity of re-examining American narratives of religious freedom through the analytical lenses of both race and gender.

The other really fascinating change that Stahl traces in both this interview and in her book, is the marked growth in the presence of Evangelical Christian clergy in the military chaplaincy. Stahl makes the compelling argument that political debates surrounding the Vietnam War led some liberal clergy to opt not to serve in the military, while Evangelical clergy were happy to fill this gap. Paying attention to these shifts in the composition of the military chaplaincy alerts us to the ways that the increased social and political influence of Evangelical Christianity in the late 20th century can be understood in at least two ways. It serves as an example demonstrating the shifting forms of discourse about American values, but also of the ways that by carving out a space within the religious system of the military, different communities have managed to change American ideas about religion. If Jews used the military chaplaincy as a tool through which to cement the idea of a “tri-faith America” in the early 20th century, and multiple marginalized religious groups used it as a means to expand American ideas about religion in the mid to late 20th century, then Evangelical Christians fit easily within this same pattern. Symbolically and socially, the military is one of the most powerful systems in American society. Figuring how to “work” that system occasionally offers individual service members ways to take a nap, but it has also offered diverse communities ways to assert their presence within the landscape of American religions.

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Jessica Cooperman


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/jessica-cooperman/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: The U.S. Military Chaplaincy and Twentieth-Century Society

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-u-s-military-chaplaincy-and-twentieth-century-society/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet

Field Name Response to Episode , Sovereignty, Historical Memory, and the Importance of Aliite Worldviews
EPISODE_#: This field doesn’t exist yet.
PERMALINK PERMALINK: “https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/sovereignty-historical-memory-and-the-importance-of-aliite-worldviews/”
FEATURED_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/response_featured_sesay_s10.jpg
DATE 2021-05-28 07:00:00
TITLE Sovereignty, Historical Memory, and the Importance of Aliite Worldviews
CATEGORY: Responses, Season 10
TERMS: American religion, Identity, Ideology, Memory, Race, religion and law, religion and politics, Sovereignty
TYPE: response
EXCERPT: “The processes by which the Aliites imagine their history reveal much about how state sanctioned ideas and institutions gain and maintain seeming natural validity,” writes Chernoh Sesay, Jr., in response to our interview with Spencer Dew on the Aliites.
SUMMARY:

It is a joy to comment publicly on such a thoughtful discussion about a fascinating book overflowing with careful examination, thoughtful analysis, and original comment. The recent conversation here at the Religious Studies Project between the interviewer, David McConeghy and the author, Spencer Dew, regarding his recent book, The Aliites: Race and Law in the Religions of Noble Drew Ali (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019) covered many critical issues in a short time. My response to their discussion is twofold: a comment regarding the religious and political imagination of Aliite religious practitioners and thoughts about the study of Aliite religions.

Experiential Sovereignty and Aliite Optimism

The assured outlook and activism of Aliite communities stands out. In the introduction, Dew summarized why Aliites desire that their historical and legal claims be explicitly and formally considered by state sanctioned judicial systems. He wrote that this “stance emerges from an essential Aliite optimism that the legal system, however repeatedly unjust its rulings and processes, is nonetheless patterned on and swayed by the influence of the transcendent ideal that is true law.”1 However, in the interview, McConeghy further questioned how Aliites could remain steadfast in this belief. McConeghy asked Dew to comment further on how Aliites could derive a sense of affirmation and even success from judicial encounters where, for example, Aliite pro se representation concludes with the judge ignoring, dismissing, or otherwise delegitimizing Aliite legal knowledge. Dew responded that for Aliites “it’s not just win or lose,” and that “the charge can be dismissed, you can be sent to prison, but you can still feel that you’ve accomplished something.”2 Dew further explained this sense of accomplishment in terms of what he called experiential sovereignty, a feeling that, although perhaps fleeting, provides the Aliite legal actor with an enabling sense of recognition, even citizenship. Thinking broadly about the desire for recognition, Dew surmised that “It’s something we want, it’s something, I think, we desperately need.”3

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Members of the Moorish Science Temple of America during annual gathering”
New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 15, 2021.

Rather than focusing narrowly on the efficacy of Aliite legal strategies, Dew allows us to understand how recognition within the legal system provides a particular seduction for Aliite plaintiffs and defendants. In explaining this appeal, Dew differentiated the experience and expression of experiential sovereignty from the hegemonic power of state sovereignty. At the same time, he noted that experiential sovereignty, in the American context, arises from a distinctly American notion of respectability framed by a constellation of ideas including liberal notions of self-determination and self-improvement, allegiance to the state, civic virtue, Protestant piety, capital accumulation, and the comportment of self-affirming ethnic identities within the racial category of Whiteness. Aliite optimism originates from distinctly American ideas and practices of sovereignty, but it also determinedly seeks to reconfigure American legal notions and procedures.

I am struck by the implication in Dew’s analysis that Aliite historical perspective tends not to comprehend American history as tragic.4 This is a critical point in a response to McConeghy’s question about the Aliite resolve to participate simultaneously within and outside of governmental legal epistemologies. Dew shows that the Aliite insistence on the law of God lying dormant or partial in all people allows Aliites to frame American history, and world history, as ultimately progressive. In this conception, progress connotes a steady improvement from the imperfect to the perfect, rather than a dialectical process driven forward to an uncertain, or even certain, future by irony, tragedy, and ambivalence. With captivating detail, Dew notes how Aliite thought approaches the past in ways that reinforce or at least do not trouble its vision for the future.

Aliites did not tend toward the premillennial spectrum of American religious thought, in contrast to much, but not all, of early to mid-twentieth-century Protestant evangelicals. It is not difficult to imagine how a deeply cynical worldview would have rooted itself within a racialized urban community profoundly marginalized in so many ways. Yet, Aliites married a positive certainty to a determined pragmatism. Dew locates the origins of this optimistic pragmatism in the degree of political influence that early Aliites gained within the machine politics of early twentieth-century Chicago.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Prophet Noble Drew Ali (standing center) and temple members, at religious service of the Moorish Science Temple of America.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 15, 2021.

Aliite pragmatism did not deny racist ideas and structures. However, the Aliite understanding of history as teleological and ultimately progressive aligned with a view of racism more as a problem of individual behavior than as the result of endemic systems. As I understand the emphasis within Dew’s argument, the Aliite solution to racism has much less to do with the eradication of systemic ideas and institutions and more to do with Black people themselves forgetting, or leaving behind, their racial identities to embrace new (authentic) ethnic selves. This seems fanciful at best and misguided at worst, yet there is an important and underemphasized lesson here about how forgetting, intended and unintended, is and has been a significant mechanism for reformulating identity and imagining the future of community throughout American history. Racism could be abrogated by Black people sloughing off their racial selves. Remaking the self was the first step in remaking society, and in these processes of refashioning the self and society, Aliites left little room for the tragic.

The Significance of Studying Aliite Thought

The Aliite view of history is unique, but it is also not as exceptional as it might seem. Dew’s use of sovereignty to understand Aliite worldviews brilliantly highlights why the study of the Aliites, and the Aliites themselves, are broadly significant. Dew’s examination positions the Aliites at the center, rather than the periphery, of discussion and heated debate about the intersections between historical thought, ritual, and community and their relationships to the future of American democracy. Dew’s examination of the Aliites can be situated within the ways that Jean and John Comaroff explain culture, a realm of inherent contestation that arises from the dynamic interplay between invisible hegemony and visible ideology.5 The processes by which the Aliites imagine their history reveal much about how state sanctioned ideas and institutions gain and maintain seeming natural validity. The knowledge of the law presented by an Aliite is gained from a set of circumstances both shared and contested in relation to the law as it has been codified within the American state. Dew’s thorough historicization of the Aliite’s belief in true law demands a nuanced consideration of how practiced forms of sovereignty, are always multiple, relational, and fluid. This is a significant insight for the broader field of Religious Studies and for the insistence that Black political thought, in its immense diversity, matters.


References
  1. The Aliites, p. 12.
  2. “Interview: Race and the Aliites”
  3. “Interview: Race and the Aliites”
  4. My thinking about the relationship between tragic and pragmatic thought is influenced by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  5. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa. V. 1 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Contributors

CONTRIBUTOR: Chernoh Sesay, Jr.


BIO LINK: "https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/persons/chernoh-sesay-jr/"


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Responses

RESPONSE: Race and the Aliites

RESPONSE_URL: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-the-aliites/

RESPONSE_CONTRIBUTOR: // not sure how to do this yet