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Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Theologies That Cannot Be: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Caroline Blyth

I am an admirer of Dr. Caroline Blyth’s work, most especially for her commitment to Religious Studies’ “potential… as a means of cultural critique and change.” It is a practical focus badly needed in a discipline prone to building research foci around its own definition. I was somewhat discomforted, however, to hear her in the interview adopt Rukmini Callimachi’s term, the “theology of rape.”

What disturbs me about this phrase is that, once Dr. Blyth explains it (“justifying rape through the use of religious justification, religious terms, religious rituals…”) we all somehow understand it as a meaningful expression (indeed, an “evocative” one). In truth, however, this phrase, with its implicit suggestion that one can simultaneously engage in the rape of a human being and pursue the knowledge of God, should be semantically unparsable—a colorless, green idea sleeping furiously. “Theology of rape” should be a contradiction in terms.

When it does not immediately strike us so, we must ask ourselves what strange tension we are holding in our thought to make these terms superficially compatible, and as I ask myself this, I note something interesting—while theologies of rape are diverse, theologians of rape are almost invariably men. Some statistics are certainly at work here, since theology is still a field in which men are more heavily represented, but this in itself is a perplexing point worthy of our attention, since, in modern America at least, it is only our daughters that we teach to be Christians.

You know what I mean; just turn on any children’s television program, walk down any toy aisle, or listen carefully to the comments of teachers and fathers and little league coaches. We teach girls to be deferent and collaborative. We teach them to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. We teach them to be obedient. Our little boys we teach to insist on rights and respect. We teach them to be ready for confrontation. We teach them to know what they want and to get it. Both of these lists of virtues are familiar to those versed in Christian culture. The first comes from the Bible, where God enjoins upon us “lowliness… meekness… longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “patience… kindness… gentleness” (Galatians 5:23), humility (Romans 12:14–16), and submission (Titus 3:1). The second comes from what Blyth refers to as the “godly masculinity” of men’s ministries, which uphold the ideal of a man who is “strong… powerful… heroic… authoritative… assertive… competitive… sexually aggressive.”

Taken alone and in moderation, none of those traits need necessarily be an evil, and each can be a positive good in a man (or a woman) of goodwill, but it cannot be denied that the general tenor of the second list is at odds with the first. Thus divided, there is a significant conflict between the virtues of “godly masculinity”—which are simply the virtues of the West’s hegemonic masculinity—and the virtues enjoined in Christian teaching and, for that matter, the teachings of most other religions as well.

I am far from the first person to make this observation, and I am indebted in it to my own research, centering on what Sarah Morrigan has called “the Oxford Goddess Revival” . In the 1970s, a group of young Oxonians brought together streams of thought from Guénonian Traditionalism, Marian devotionalism, and lesbian separatism to craft a unique and multifaceted theology. Among their teachings was a critique of contemporary Western masculinity as being negatively defined by the rejection of traits coded as feminine, which, in our culture, include the religious virtues of humility, meekness, silence, submission, charity, piety, and self-sacrificial love. Masculinity, in their view, was an apostasy from the Perennial Tradition—a rebellion against a necessarily feminine God.

One need not go quite so far as those ingenious young women, however, to observe that, within the context of contemporary Western culture, the term “godly masculinity” is one that should ring hollow and incomprehensible in our ears, just like the “theology of rape,” with which it is intimately connected. It is precisely in the knowledge that this term, too, has the superficial appearance of a meaning in our society that I am not surprised when, as the interview turns to the oft-neglected topic of male victims of gendered violence, we find the perpetrators to be, once again, almost entirely men. Ideas, as Richard Weaver said, have consequences, and the consequence of these pernicious oxymorons has been that acculturation to violence is a gendered phenomenon (as a quick survey of a Toys Я Us aisle or a Saturday morning cartoon lineup will once again confirm); gendered violence is an inevitable result of this.

Every discipline has both power and responsibility to contribute to the dismantling of the Patriarchy by declaring its valorization of avarice, egotism, and violence to be wrong. The particular duty and power of religious studies and theology, is to point out that that valorization is hypocritical—that the culture of Patriarchy is itself inimical to the values of the sacred social order from which it claims its authority and for which it claims to offer protection. Religious Studies is, as Blyth has said, a means for cultural change, and it is also the discipline which should recall most vividly the maxim of Confucius, that such change, to be successful, must begin with the rectification of names. It was certainly not Callimachi’s intention in coining the term to sanction the actions of Daesh, and it is certainly not Blyth’s intention in borrowing it to legitimize Deuteronomy 21:11, but to treat “theology of rape” as an intelligible phrase, rather than the incomprehensible equivalent of a “married bachelor” or a “negative surplus,” is to participate in the structural violence of Newspeak. No matter the religion, English already has a clear term for justifying rape by religion, or identifying machismo with God—nonsense.

 

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You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Conference: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

More information

Conference: 500 years: The Reformation and its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

More information

Conference: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

More information

Conference: Implicit Religion: Materiality and Immateriality

May 19–21, 2017

Deadline: March 1, 2017

More information

Conference: The Life and Legacy of Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Movements in Scholarly Perspective

May 29–30, 2017

Antwerp, Belgium

Deadline: February 28, 2017

More information

Conference: Oral History Society: Remembering Beliefs

July 14–15, 2017

Leeds Trinity University, UK

Deadline: December 16, 2016

More information

Conference: The Religious and Ethnic Future of Europe

June 12–13, 2017

Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: La magia nel mondo antico: Nuove prospettive

October 27–29, 2016

Merano, Italy

More information

Program

Conference: Women, Religion and Gender Relations

November 9–11, 2016

University of Turin, Italy

More information

Jobs

Research assistant: Religious Life Vitality

Margaret Beaufort Institute in Cambridge, UK

Deadline: October 28, 2016

More information

Professor of Religion, Law and Human Rights

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: January 4, 2017

More information

Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Popular Culture Studies and Bruce Springsteen: Escaping and Embracing Religion

Kate McCarthy in 2013, shortly after the re-release of her co-edited volume God in the Details. However, listening back to this unreleased (until now!) interview, her commentary both on the metamorphic nature of popular culture studies and on the music of Bruce Springsteen remain salient and fresh even today. With “the Boss” having just finished his tour in support of the re-released The River and a new solo album planned, it seemed fitting to unearth this interview between McCarthy and A. David Lewis, tracking Springsteen’s relationships to the Church and to women.

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 16 February 2016

Calls for papers

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Alternative Religiosities in the Soviet Union and the Communist

East-Central Europe: Formations, Resistances and Manifestations

Deadline: June 30, 2016

More information

Journal: Culture and Society: Journal of Social Research

Special issue: Religion and Belief in the Public Sphere of Eastern Europe

Deadline: February 28, 2016

More information

Conference: ISASR: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: February 19, 2016

More information

Conference: Implicit Religion

May 20–22, 2016

Salisbury, UK

Deadline: February 26, 2016

More information

Conference: Reconsidering Religious Radicalism

May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

Deadline: March 11, 2016

More information

Workshop on Gender, Religion and Family Violence

September 13–14, 2016

New Brunswick, Canada

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Conference: Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Kaunas, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

More information

Conference: Border Crossings: Exploring the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ in the humanities

June 3, 2016

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: March 20, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Cardiff University, UK

More information

Conference: Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe

April 6–8, 2016

Munich, Germany

More information

Jobs

Three PhD studentships

Lunds universitet, Sweden

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Tenure-track position in American Church History

Catholic University of America, DC, USA

Deadline: March 7, 2016

More information

Sabbatical replacement: Buddhist Traditions and Asian Religions

Vanderbilt University, TN, USA

Deadline: April 28, 2016

More information

PhD studentship

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

More information

Instructor: Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies

Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages

Deadline: May 8, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship in East Asian Religions

Washington University in St. Louis, USA

Deadline: March 16, 2016

More information

Climates of Queer Concerns

It’s that hectic time of year for academics when papers and exams pile up and the end-of-year holidays loom large. In the midst of it all, I’ve been dividing my attention between the knowledge projects that interest me most: queer feminist theory, religious studies, and feminist science studies – particularly those engaged with the climate change and the politics of our new global epoch which some have christened the Anthropocene. Responding to Mary Jo Nietz’s “Gender, Queer Theory, Religion” interview provides an excellent opportunity to bring these projects into more explicit conversation with each other.

Beginning with important basics – What is gender? How is it different than sex? – Martin Lepage expertly leads Neitz into a substantive conversation about the impact of post-structuralist thinking, particularly Judith Butler’s work, which many consider foundational for queer theory. Given the brief structure of the interview, Neitz provides excellent summaries of what she describes as Butler’s complicated liberatory project, which eschews the powerful and persuasive essentialism one so often sees in pop culture.

Having provided an introductory outline of feminist queer theory, the interview then attends to the ways it might be used in studies of religion. Neitz proposes several options. She briefly mentions (but does not provide details) that one can use queer theory to critique religion. She then moves to the question that most interests her: how might we use queer theory to find spaces of opening or possibility for playing with categories? She elaborates by asking how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups (e.g. gay men in the Roman Catholic Church).

More specifically, she is looking for places where there are “openings to the sacred” that allow people to play with heteronormative categories. She describes some of these contradictory sites and explains that, as an ethnographer, she looks for transgressions of gender norms in the social formations she studies. She then applies a Butlerian lens to these transgressions in a way that differently focuses attention on previously unmarked groups. Lastly, Neitz notes that more and more sociologists are attending to affect theory, which is rooted in queer theory. She briefly outlines her framework for understanding religious cultures in terms of (conjuring yet tweaking Weber here) ideal affects and arousal levels that she associates with different religions.

Lepage concludes the interview by asking Neitz how she sees the future study of religion unfolding in relation to Butler’s work and queer theory. Neitz remarks that while she can’t predict the future, the most influential use of Butler in the study of religion can be found in Saba Mahmood’s work, which challenges the foundations of neoliberal discourse by posing the question of just what a feminist liberatory project is.

Overall, this interview provides a useful introduction for scholars interested in becoming conversant with queer theory and its potential applications in religious studies. I concur that queer theory can be used to critique religion and/or to open up spaces of possibility for playing with categories, particularly when one attends to transgressions. Like Neitz, I also have much appreciation for current work on affect and religion. Along these lines, I recommend Donovan Schaefer’s recently published book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power.

While I generally agree with Neitz’s overview of queer theory, there are a couple of places where her religious studies language raises warning flags for me. The first concerns her statement that she is interested in how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups. Here it is the recourse to belief as the primary object of study that gives me pause. A belief-centric approach does not radically alter the Protestant-based frameworks for understanding many social formations constituted as religions. Here, Manuel Vasquez’s work on a materialist theory of religion might provide tools that better align with the material bodies at the center of queer theory.

The second instance where Neitz’s language tripped me up occurred when she explained that she is interested in places where there might be “openings to the sacred.” Here her language fails to register the many critiques that have been waged against uniform understandings of “the sacred.” The most recent iteration can be found in Russell McCutcheon and William Arnal’s book, The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of Religion. The radical understanding of discourse underpinning so much of queer theory ought to also be applied to religious studies categories so that the “sacred” is understood as yet another discursively produced category on a planet where, as Durkheim argued over a century ago, the most basic classification operation employed by religions is that which divides the world into sacred and profane.

Speaking of our planet, let’s conclude this journey through knowledge projects by returning to those regarding our current epoch. As the Earth’s northern hemisphere moves farther from the sun, the World Meteorological Organization has released a report indicating that the global average surface temperature this year is on track to be the hottest year on record and will likely reach the symbolically significant milestone of 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial era. Not a moment too soon, nearly 200 world leaders are converging on Paris for the United Nations conference on climate change.

Confronting this potential planetary catastrophe, Bruno Latour’s interviews with him recorded in Edinburgh where he elaborates on his project).

What might a queer feminist engagement with Latour’s proposals look like? If we return to the basic task of analyzing how and when gendered operations take place while also remembering Durkheim’s insight regarding the division of the world into sacred and profane, it becomes apparent that the modern constitution that divides the world into sacred and profane, religious and secular, could use some queering. This is one of the tasks I have begun to take up in my work, and I offer it as a provocation to others who may share my interests and commitments. If Neitz’s position as advisor to the Black Earth Institute is any indication, our different modes of working with queer theories and religious studies share an orientation toward what feminist science studies scholar, Maria Puig de la Bellacassa, has termed “matters of care.” As we confront the urgent problems of the here and now, these shared commitments matter most.

Suggested Reading

Arnal, William E. and Russell T. McCutcheon. The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of ‘Religion.’ New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities. 6(2015): 159-165.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. “Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things.” Social Studies of Science. 41.1 (2011): 85-106.

Schaefer, Donovan. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Vásquez, Manuel A. More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gender, queer theory and religion

When we think about gender, we often understand it as something that is utlimately socially constructed. As for sex, it is mostly understood as something biological, set by a binary opposition between men and women. But how does this intersect with the study of religion? How do these categories influence the ways in which we look at religion? What is the role of religious institutions in this promotion of the gender binary? What about sexual orientation? What connections can we make between identities, the body and emotions in religious contexts?

In this interview, Dr. Mary Jo Neitz continues the conversation about religion and gender by focusing on theories from LGBT studies and queer studies. Using her work as an ethnographer, as well as the work of American philosopher Judith Butler, Neitz distinguishes the categories of gender and sex by showing how performance and experiences are at the heart of the social construction of gender and sexual identities. Neitz also discusses the role of religious institutions and practices in the agency experienced by some of her informants, as well as the place of the body and essentialist politics in the study of religion.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, glasses cases, sonic screwdrivers and more!

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 3 November 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: Art Approaching Science and Religion

May 11–13, 2016

Åbo Akademi University, Sweden

Deadline: June 15, 2016

More information

Conference: AAG 2016

March 29–April 2, 2016

San Francisco, CA, USA

Deadline: November 6, 2015

More information

Events

Conference: Moral Horizons

December 1–4, 2015

University of Melbourne, Australia

More information

Conference: New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions

December 8–10, 2015

Queenstown, New Zealand

More information

Conference: Transnational Religious Movements, Dialogue and Economic Development: The Hizmet Movement in Comparative Perspective

December 10–11, 2015

University of Turin, Italy

More information

Conference: Religious phenomena within the textbooks at the end of the school cycle: Mediterranean area and comparisons outside

December 2–4, 2015

Université du Maine, France

More information

Seminar: SocRel Response Day

November 5, 2015, 10:00 A.M. – 4:00 P.M.

Imperial Wharf, London, UK

More information

Workshop: Religious diversity in Asia

December 7–8, 2015

Aarhus University, Denmark

More information

Workshop: Political and public approaches to gender, secularism and multiculturalism

November 11–13, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal

More information

Jobs

Visiting Lecturer: Jewish Studies

Liverpool Hope University, UK

Deadline: N/A (urgent)

More information

Ph.D. position in religion

University of Agder, Norway

Deadline: January 12, 2016 (It says 2015, but it’s obviously a typo.)

More information

Postdoctoral Researcher: Religion and Media in Contemporary Societies

Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

Deadline: November 13, 2015

More information

Gender-as-Lived: Considerations in Ethnographic Methodology

virgin-mary-pics-1119

Virgin Mary

In the Religious Studies Project’s recent interview with Dr. Anna Fedele, Dr. Fedele and her interviewer discuss several aspects of interest related to the intersections of gender, religions, and power dynamics. Fedele’s book, Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches (Routledge, 2013), is a collection of essays exploring the interaction of gender, gender norms, expressions of power, and those movements broadly identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, it is an excellent set of essays and well worth the read). Fedele’s current research involves Catholic women in Portugal and the idea of ‘spiritual motherhood.’ ‘Spiritual motherhood,’ in this context, means women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mothers, breastfeed longer than the average, give birth at home, and/or practice attachment parenting. Fedele looks at not only the experiences of the women as mothers, but their experiences as daughters and granddaughters. Fedele observes that it is very important to understand a woman’s history to know how she conceptualizes gender and motherhood.

Early in the interview Fedele offers an answer to the not-so-simple question of ‘what is gender?’ Her answer is based in both her study of classical theories of gender as well as her extensive experience as an ethnographer: ‘gender’ is what the research participants believe it to be, rather than what the researcher believes it to be. Fedele states that in her research, she tries to understand what ‘gender’ means for the people she studies, especially what gendered images they have received from their mothers and grandmothers. This relates to religion as well, because the women receive a whole set of values from their mothers, and the Catholicism in which they grew up (and still live) tells them that the mother is the center of the family, the mother must always be there for the child, as well as other notions that may not reflect the lives of the women Fedele studies.

Fedele’s approach of being guided by the women she studies resonates strongly with my perspective on studying ‘religion(s).’ The identities claimed by the individual(s) or community being researched must be acknowledged and respected by the researcher, and communicated to the audience (reader, students in a seminar, etc.) along with the researcher’s perspective and conclusions. Fedele further emphasizes this point when she observes that an academic researcher must acknowledge the power issues present in a researcher-interviewee relationship: the academic doesn’t know everything, nor is the participant ignorant. Fedele provides an example from her recent research on women, motherhood, and gendered roles conveyed via religion. The women she interviews are highly educated, intelligent, and have read extensively on pregnancy and motherhood. They are then struggling to reconcile the message of the Catholic Church (that a pregnant woman is in a state of grace, and the ideals of motherhood exemplified by the Virgin Mary) with their lived reality of physical pain and illness, sexuality, and spurts of emotions such as anger or impatience.

Sandro Botticelli - 'The Virgin and the Child' (Madonna of the Book)

Sandro Botticelli – ‘The Virgin and the Child’ (Madonna of the Book)

Fedele also cautions that scholars have an awareness of their own assumptions about the research topic. Some of Fedele’s colleagues had made a couple of highly inaccurate assumptions regarding the Portuguese women in Fedele’s study (for instance, the idea that because the women identify as religious they therefore follow all of the dictates of the Catholic Church, especially regarding abortion); the women must be anti-abortion because they value motherhood so highly, or so the assumption went. But Fedele’s research shows a much more nuanced, complicated picture: the women are not uniformly anti-abortion, owing to a distinct contrast between their Catholic upbringing, which taught that abortion is wrong, and what the women feel in their bodies and the agency they claim.

Later in the interview, Fedele emphasizes that it is crucial for scholars to have an awareness of how the religion is lived, in reality, by the people being studied. She further states that religion only exists in the lives of people and that while religion in texts can be studied, it is not alive. For example, in practice this means that she looks at living women and their stories, and shares her writing with them. She keeps an open mind regarding what they tell her and is careful to use non-judgmental language. Fedele notes that the women aren’t always interested in Fedele’s conclusions – some just read sections about themselves for accuracy or to make sure they aren’t identifiable – but some engage with the research as a whole.

These are valuable lessons for scholars of not only religion and gender, but are more broadly applicable to all scholars of religion. Whether a scholar is studying a living community, as Fedele does, or researching a text, we must be aware of the assumptions we carry with us as scholars. A person living a religion may appear different than a text would lead the researcher to believe and living communities of the same religion will differ based on location. (A point also noted by Jeff Wilson in his 2012 book, Dixie Dharma.) Fedele also leaves the listener contemplating a thorny problem related to the study of religion-as-lived (her preferred phrasing instead of ‘lived religion’): Fedele’s in-depth, ethnographic research is at odds with the pressure within departments for faculty to expediently finish research so that it can be published quickly. This hurried model of research and publication – and the constraints on conducting ethnographic research while teaching – is ultimately detrimental to the field. The trust between scholar and participant cannot be rushed or forced because the scholar is on a deadline. What valuable insights is the field missing by making it difficult for scholars to perform extensive studies on living communities?

References

Fedele, Anna and Kim E. Knibbe, eds. Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches. Routledge Studies in Religion Series. New York & London: Routledge, 2013.

Fedele, Anna. Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. (Paperback released in 2014)

Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!

 

Podcasts

Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Tiger Balm, and more.


A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 14 March 2017

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Theologies That Cannot Be: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Caroline Blyth

I am an admirer of Dr. Caroline Blyth’s work, most especially for her commitment to Religious Studies’ “potential… as a means of cultural critique and change.” It is a practical focus badly needed in a discipline prone to building research foci around its own definition. I was somewhat discomforted, however, to hear her in the interview adopt Rukmini Callimachi’s term, the “theology of rape.”

What disturbs me about this phrase is that, once Dr. Blyth explains it (“justifying rape through the use of religious justification, religious terms, religious rituals…”) we all somehow understand it as a meaningful expression (indeed, an “evocative” one). In truth, however, this phrase, with its implicit suggestion that one can simultaneously engage in the rape of a human being and pursue the knowledge of God, should be semantically unparsable—a colorless, green idea sleeping furiously. “Theology of rape” should be a contradiction in terms.

When it does not immediately strike us so, we must ask ourselves what strange tension we are holding in our thought to make these terms superficially compatible, and as I ask myself this, I note something interesting—while theologies of rape are diverse, theologians of rape are almost invariably men. Some statistics are certainly at work here, since theology is still a field in which men are more heavily represented, but this in itself is a perplexing point worthy of our attention, since, in modern America at least, it is only our daughters that we teach to be Christians.

You know what I mean; just turn on any children’s television program, walk down any toy aisle, or listen carefully to the comments of teachers and fathers and little league coaches. We teach girls to be deferent and collaborative. We teach them to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. We teach them to be obedient. Our little boys we teach to insist on rights and respect. We teach them to be ready for confrontation. We teach them to know what they want and to get it. Both of these lists of virtues are familiar to those versed in Christian culture. The first comes from the Bible, where God enjoins upon us “lowliness… meekness… longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “patience… kindness… gentleness” (Galatians 5:23), humility (Romans 12:14–16), and submission (Titus 3:1). The second comes from what Blyth refers to as the “godly masculinity” of men’s ministries, which uphold the ideal of a man who is “strong… powerful… heroic… authoritative… assertive… competitive… sexually aggressive.”

Taken alone and in moderation, none of those traits need necessarily be an evil, and each can be a positive good in a man (or a woman) of goodwill, but it cannot be denied that the general tenor of the second list is at odds with the first. Thus divided, there is a significant conflict between the virtues of “godly masculinity”—which are simply the virtues of the West’s hegemonic masculinity—and the virtues enjoined in Christian teaching and, for that matter, the teachings of most other religions as well.

I am far from the first person to make this observation, and I am indebted in it to my own research, centering on what Sarah Morrigan has called “the Oxford Goddess Revival” . In the 1970s, a group of young Oxonians brought together streams of thought from Guénonian Traditionalism, Marian devotionalism, and lesbian separatism to craft a unique and multifaceted theology. Among their teachings was a critique of contemporary Western masculinity as being negatively defined by the rejection of traits coded as feminine, which, in our culture, include the religious virtues of humility, meekness, silence, submission, charity, piety, and self-sacrificial love. Masculinity, in their view, was an apostasy from the Perennial Tradition—a rebellion against a necessarily feminine God.

One need not go quite so far as those ingenious young women, however, to observe that, within the context of contemporary Western culture, the term “godly masculinity” is one that should ring hollow and incomprehensible in our ears, just like the “theology of rape,” with which it is intimately connected. It is precisely in the knowledge that this term, too, has the superficial appearance of a meaning in our society that I am not surprised when, as the interview turns to the oft-neglected topic of male victims of gendered violence, we find the perpetrators to be, once again, almost entirely men. Ideas, as Richard Weaver said, have consequences, and the consequence of these pernicious oxymorons has been that acculturation to violence is a gendered phenomenon (as a quick survey of a Toys Я Us aisle or a Saturday morning cartoon lineup will once again confirm); gendered violence is an inevitable result of this.

Every discipline has both power and responsibility to contribute to the dismantling of the Patriarchy by declaring its valorization of avarice, egotism, and violence to be wrong. The particular duty and power of religious studies and theology, is to point out that that valorization is hypocritical—that the culture of Patriarchy is itself inimical to the values of the sacred social order from which it claims its authority and for which it claims to offer protection. Religious Studies is, as Blyth has said, a means for cultural change, and it is also the discipline which should recall most vividly the maxim of Confucius, that such change, to be successful, must begin with the rectification of names. It was certainly not Callimachi’s intention in coining the term to sanction the actions of Daesh, and it is certainly not Blyth’s intention in borrowing it to legitimize Deuteronomy 21:11, but to treat “theology of rape” as an intelligible phrase, rather than the incomprehensible equivalent of a “married bachelor” or a “negative surplus,” is to participate in the structural violence of Newspeak. No matter the religion, English already has a clear term for justifying rape by religion, or identifying machismo with God—nonsense.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 18 October 2016

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Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Popular Culture Studies and Bruce Springsteen: Escaping and Embracing Religion

Kate McCarthy in 2013, shortly after the re-release of her co-edited volume God in the Details. However, listening back to this unreleased (until now!) interview, her commentary both on the metamorphic nature of popular culture studies and on the music of Bruce Springsteen remain salient and fresh even today. With “the Boss” having just finished his tour in support of the re-released The River and a new solo album planned, it seemed fitting to unearth this interview between McCarthy and A. David Lewis, tracking Springsteen’s relationships to the Church and to women.

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 16 February 2016

Calls for papers

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Alternative Religiosities in the Soviet Union and the Communist

East-Central Europe: Formations, Resistances and Manifestations

Deadline: June 30, 2016

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Journal: Culture and Society: Journal of Social Research

Special issue: Religion and Belief in the Public Sphere of Eastern Europe

Deadline: February 28, 2016

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Conference: ISASR: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Conference: Implicit Religion

May 20–22, 2016

Salisbury, UK

Deadline: February 26, 2016

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Conference: Reconsidering Religious Radicalism

May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

Deadline: March 11, 2016

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Workshop on Gender, Religion and Family Violence

September 13–14, 2016

New Brunswick, Canada

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Conference: Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Kaunas, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

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Conference: Border Crossings: Exploring the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ in the humanities

June 3, 2016

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: March 20, 2016

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Events

Conference: Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Cardiff University, UK

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Conference: Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe

April 6–8, 2016

Munich, Germany

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Jobs

Three PhD studentships

Lunds universitet, Sweden

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Tenure-track position in American Church History

Catholic University of America, DC, USA

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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Sabbatical replacement: Buddhist Traditions and Asian Religions

Vanderbilt University, TN, USA

Deadline: April 28, 2016

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PhD studentship

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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Instructor: Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies

Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages

Deadline: May 8, 2016

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Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship in East Asian Religions

Washington University in St. Louis, USA

Deadline: March 16, 2016

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Climates of Queer Concerns

It’s that hectic time of year for academics when papers and exams pile up and the end-of-year holidays loom large. In the midst of it all, I’ve been dividing my attention between the knowledge projects that interest me most: queer feminist theory, religious studies, and feminist science studies – particularly those engaged with the climate change and the politics of our new global epoch which some have christened the Anthropocene. Responding to Mary Jo Nietz’s “Gender, Queer Theory, Religion” interview provides an excellent opportunity to bring these projects into more explicit conversation with each other.

Beginning with important basics – What is gender? How is it different than sex? – Martin Lepage expertly leads Neitz into a substantive conversation about the impact of post-structuralist thinking, particularly Judith Butler’s work, which many consider foundational for queer theory. Given the brief structure of the interview, Neitz provides excellent summaries of what she describes as Butler’s complicated liberatory project, which eschews the powerful and persuasive essentialism one so often sees in pop culture.

Having provided an introductory outline of feminist queer theory, the interview then attends to the ways it might be used in studies of religion. Neitz proposes several options. She briefly mentions (but does not provide details) that one can use queer theory to critique religion. She then moves to the question that most interests her: how might we use queer theory to find spaces of opening or possibility for playing with categories? She elaborates by asking how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups (e.g. gay men in the Roman Catholic Church).

More specifically, she is looking for places where there are “openings to the sacred” that allow people to play with heteronormative categories. She describes some of these contradictory sites and explains that, as an ethnographer, she looks for transgressions of gender norms in the social formations she studies. She then applies a Butlerian lens to these transgressions in a way that differently focuses attention on previously unmarked groups. Lastly, Neitz notes that more and more sociologists are attending to affect theory, which is rooted in queer theory. She briefly outlines her framework for understanding religious cultures in terms of (conjuring yet tweaking Weber here) ideal affects and arousal levels that she associates with different religions.

Lepage concludes the interview by asking Neitz how she sees the future study of religion unfolding in relation to Butler’s work and queer theory. Neitz remarks that while she can’t predict the future, the most influential use of Butler in the study of religion can be found in Saba Mahmood’s work, which challenges the foundations of neoliberal discourse by posing the question of just what a feminist liberatory project is.

Overall, this interview provides a useful introduction for scholars interested in becoming conversant with queer theory and its potential applications in religious studies. I concur that queer theory can be used to critique religion and/or to open up spaces of possibility for playing with categories, particularly when one attends to transgressions. Like Neitz, I also have much appreciation for current work on affect and religion. Along these lines, I recommend Donovan Schaefer’s recently published book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power.

While I generally agree with Neitz’s overview of queer theory, there are a couple of places where her religious studies language raises warning flags for me. The first concerns her statement that she is interested in how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups. Here it is the recourse to belief as the primary object of study that gives me pause. A belief-centric approach does not radically alter the Protestant-based frameworks for understanding many social formations constituted as religions. Here, Manuel Vasquez’s work on a materialist theory of religion might provide tools that better align with the material bodies at the center of queer theory.

The second instance where Neitz’s language tripped me up occurred when she explained that she is interested in places where there might be “openings to the sacred.” Here her language fails to register the many critiques that have been waged against uniform understandings of “the sacred.” The most recent iteration can be found in Russell McCutcheon and William Arnal’s book, The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of Religion. The radical understanding of discourse underpinning so much of queer theory ought to also be applied to religious studies categories so that the “sacred” is understood as yet another discursively produced category on a planet where, as Durkheim argued over a century ago, the most basic classification operation employed by religions is that which divides the world into sacred and profane.

Speaking of our planet, let’s conclude this journey through knowledge projects by returning to those regarding our current epoch. As the Earth’s northern hemisphere moves farther from the sun, the World Meteorological Organization has released a report indicating that the global average surface temperature this year is on track to be the hottest year on record and will likely reach the symbolically significant milestone of 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial era. Not a moment too soon, nearly 200 world leaders are converging on Paris for the United Nations conference on climate change.

Confronting this potential planetary catastrophe, Bruno Latour’s interviews with him recorded in Edinburgh where he elaborates on his project).

What might a queer feminist engagement with Latour’s proposals look like? If we return to the basic task of analyzing how and when gendered operations take place while also remembering Durkheim’s insight regarding the division of the world into sacred and profane, it becomes apparent that the modern constitution that divides the world into sacred and profane, religious and secular, could use some queering. This is one of the tasks I have begun to take up in my work, and I offer it as a provocation to others who may share my interests and commitments. If Neitz’s position as advisor to the Black Earth Institute is any indication, our different modes of working with queer theories and religious studies share an orientation toward what feminist science studies scholar, Maria Puig de la Bellacassa, has termed “matters of care.” As we confront the urgent problems of the here and now, these shared commitments matter most.

Suggested Reading

Arnal, William E. and Russell T. McCutcheon. The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of ‘Religion.’ New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities. 6(2015): 159-165.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. “Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things.” Social Studies of Science. 41.1 (2011): 85-106.

Schaefer, Donovan. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Vásquez, Manuel A. More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gender, queer theory and religion

When we think about gender, we often understand it as something that is utlimately socially constructed. As for sex, it is mostly understood as something biological, set by a binary opposition between men and women. But how does this intersect with the study of religion? How do these categories influence the ways in which we look at religion? What is the role of religious institutions in this promotion of the gender binary? What about sexual orientation? What connections can we make between identities, the body and emotions in religious contexts?

In this interview, Dr. Mary Jo Neitz continues the conversation about religion and gender by focusing on theories from LGBT studies and queer studies. Using her work as an ethnographer, as well as the work of American philosopher Judith Butler, Neitz distinguishes the categories of gender and sex by showing how performance and experiences are at the heart of the social construction of gender and sexual identities. Neitz also discusses the role of religious institutions and practices in the agency experienced by some of her informants, as well as the place of the body and essentialist politics in the study of religion.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, glasses cases, sonic screwdrivers and more!

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 3 November 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: Art Approaching Science and Religion

May 11–13, 2016

Åbo Akademi University, Sweden

Deadline: June 15, 2016

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Conference: AAG 2016

March 29–April 2, 2016

San Francisco, CA, USA

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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Events

Conference: Moral Horizons

December 1–4, 2015

University of Melbourne, Australia

More information

Conference: New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions

December 8–10, 2015

Queenstown, New Zealand

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Conference: Transnational Religious Movements, Dialogue and Economic Development: The Hizmet Movement in Comparative Perspective

December 10–11, 2015

University of Turin, Italy

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Conference: Religious phenomena within the textbooks at the end of the school cycle: Mediterranean area and comparisons outside

December 2–4, 2015

Université du Maine, France

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Seminar: SocRel Response Day

November 5, 2015, 10:00 A.M. – 4:00 P.M.

Imperial Wharf, London, UK

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Workshop: Religious diversity in Asia

December 7–8, 2015

Aarhus University, Denmark

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Workshop: Political and public approaches to gender, secularism and multiculturalism

November 11–13, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal

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Jobs

Visiting Lecturer: Jewish Studies

Liverpool Hope University, UK

Deadline: N/A (urgent)

More information

Ph.D. position in religion

University of Agder, Norway

Deadline: January 12, 2016 (It says 2015, but it’s obviously a typo.)

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Postdoctoral Researcher: Religion and Media in Contemporary Societies

Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

Deadline: November 13, 2015

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Gender-as-Lived: Considerations in Ethnographic Methodology

virgin-mary-pics-1119

Virgin Mary

In the Religious Studies Project’s recent interview with Dr. Anna Fedele, Dr. Fedele and her interviewer discuss several aspects of interest related to the intersections of gender, religions, and power dynamics. Fedele’s book, Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches (Routledge, 2013), is a collection of essays exploring the interaction of gender, gender norms, expressions of power, and those movements broadly identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, it is an excellent set of essays and well worth the read). Fedele’s current research involves Catholic women in Portugal and the idea of ‘spiritual motherhood.’ ‘Spiritual motherhood,’ in this context, means women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mothers, breastfeed longer than the average, give birth at home, and/or practice attachment parenting. Fedele looks at not only the experiences of the women as mothers, but their experiences as daughters and granddaughters. Fedele observes that it is very important to understand a woman’s history to know how she conceptualizes gender and motherhood.

Early in the interview Fedele offers an answer to the not-so-simple question of ‘what is gender?’ Her answer is based in both her study of classical theories of gender as well as her extensive experience as an ethnographer: ‘gender’ is what the research participants believe it to be, rather than what the researcher believes it to be. Fedele states that in her research, she tries to understand what ‘gender’ means for the people she studies, especially what gendered images they have received from their mothers and grandmothers. This relates to religion as well, because the women receive a whole set of values from their mothers, and the Catholicism in which they grew up (and still live) tells them that the mother is the center of the family, the mother must always be there for the child, as well as other notions that may not reflect the lives of the women Fedele studies.

Fedele’s approach of being guided by the women she studies resonates strongly with my perspective on studying ‘religion(s).’ The identities claimed by the individual(s) or community being researched must be acknowledged and respected by the researcher, and communicated to the audience (reader, students in a seminar, etc.) along with the researcher’s perspective and conclusions. Fedele further emphasizes this point when she observes that an academic researcher must acknowledge the power issues present in a researcher-interviewee relationship: the academic doesn’t know everything, nor is the participant ignorant. Fedele provides an example from her recent research on women, motherhood, and gendered roles conveyed via religion. The women she interviews are highly educated, intelligent, and have read extensively on pregnancy and motherhood. They are then struggling to reconcile the message of the Catholic Church (that a pregnant woman is in a state of grace, and the ideals of motherhood exemplified by the Virgin Mary) with their lived reality of physical pain and illness, sexuality, and spurts of emotions such as anger or impatience.

Sandro Botticelli - 'The Virgin and the Child' (Madonna of the Book)

Sandro Botticelli – ‘The Virgin and the Child’ (Madonna of the Book)

Fedele also cautions that scholars have an awareness of their own assumptions about the research topic. Some of Fedele’s colleagues had made a couple of highly inaccurate assumptions regarding the Portuguese women in Fedele’s study (for instance, the idea that because the women identify as religious they therefore follow all of the dictates of the Catholic Church, especially regarding abortion); the women must be anti-abortion because they value motherhood so highly, or so the assumption went. But Fedele’s research shows a much more nuanced, complicated picture: the women are not uniformly anti-abortion, owing to a distinct contrast between their Catholic upbringing, which taught that abortion is wrong, and what the women feel in their bodies and the agency they claim.

Later in the interview, Fedele emphasizes that it is crucial for scholars to have an awareness of how the religion is lived, in reality, by the people being studied. She further states that religion only exists in the lives of people and that while religion in texts can be studied, it is not alive. For example, in practice this means that she looks at living women and their stories, and shares her writing with them. She keeps an open mind regarding what they tell her and is careful to use non-judgmental language. Fedele notes that the women aren’t always interested in Fedele’s conclusions – some just read sections about themselves for accuracy or to make sure they aren’t identifiable – but some engage with the research as a whole.

These are valuable lessons for scholars of not only religion and gender, but are more broadly applicable to all scholars of religion. Whether a scholar is studying a living community, as Fedele does, or researching a text, we must be aware of the assumptions we carry with us as scholars. A person living a religion may appear different than a text would lead the researcher to believe and living communities of the same religion will differ based on location. (A point also noted by Jeff Wilson in his 2012 book, Dixie Dharma.) Fedele also leaves the listener contemplating a thorny problem related to the study of religion-as-lived (her preferred phrasing instead of ‘lived religion’): Fedele’s in-depth, ethnographic research is at odds with the pressure within departments for faculty to expediently finish research so that it can be published quickly. This hurried model of research and publication – and the constraints on conducting ethnographic research while teaching – is ultimately detrimental to the field. The trust between scholar and participant cannot be rushed or forced because the scholar is on a deadline. What valuable insights is the field missing by making it difficult for scholars to perform extensive studies on living communities?

References

Fedele, Anna and Kim E. Knibbe, eds. Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches. Routledge Studies in Religion Series. New York & London: Routledge, 2013.

Fedele, Anna. Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. (Paperback released in 2014)

Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!