Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism

In his work Auf De Hohe, Jewish poet and author Berthold Auerbach famously wrote “music is a universal language, and needs not be translated. With it soul speaks to soul.” (1865). Music plays a numerous roles in many religious traditions, Judaism being no exception. From piyyutim to zemirot to Yeshiva acapella groups in the United States, the use of music in the Jewish faith is numerous and varied. In this interview, Breann Fallon of the Sydney Jewish Museum chats to Dr Ruth Illman of Åbo Akademi University and Uppsala Universityi about her research on the role of music as an agent of change within the progressive Jewish community in London that appears in her most recent monograph Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London: Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. In particular, Dr Illman discusses the power of music to fuse the traditional and the liberal in a forward movement of progressive Judaism. Additionally, the connection of this movement to particular locations and other potential issues such as gender provide a stimulating discussion around this innovative display of both religion and creativity.

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

Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism

Podcast with Ruth Illman (25 February 2019).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Illman_-_Melodies_of_Change_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Today I have with me Dr Ruth Illman. She is Docent (associate professor) of Comparative Religion at Åbo Akademi University. And she’s also Professor of History of Religions at Uppsala University. She is currently director of the Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History in Turku in Finland. Together with Dr Karin Hedner Zetterholm she is the editor of the open access, peer reviewed Journal of Scandinavian Jewish Studies. Dr Illman has published more than 30 peer reviewed articles in journals such as Contemporary Jewry, The Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, and Journal of Contemporary Religion, as well as monographs and edited volumes with Routledge, Brill and Equinox. Her most recent work is Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London: Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. So, thank you very much for joining us today.

Ruth Illman (RI): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

BF: Great. I thought we’d just start off by talking about your most recent monograph: Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London. It looks at religious change in relation to music in the context of contemporary progressive Judaism. I thought we could begin with just talking about music in Judaism. I thought you could maybe give us a bit of an insight into what role music plays in the Jewish faith, and is there any sort of difference between progressive or orthodox denominations amongst the Jewish community?

RI: Well, thank you. That’s a very huge question. I’ll try to answer it the best I can from my point of view. Now I’m not an expert on all forms on all forms of Judaism in all times and all over the world, so to say. So I’ll mostly speak now from the context that I have been researching and try to make some parallels from there. But as a scholar of religion and especially contemporary religion I could say that I think that music in general is relevant to religiosity, not just within Judaism but all over. And I think we can see, especially today, that for many people who seek forms of religious engagement today, that they can somehow side with and feel comfortable with music . . . it’s playing a more and more important role, so to say. Because music somehow seems to capture many of the dimensions that people seek in a religious engagement today. Which is that it’s not just an intellectual way of engaging with a religious faith, it also has emotional and embodied sides to it. It can be very individual and very sort of personal – but also something you do, tied to community. And music is not always as words . . . as clearly fixed to structures and to interpretation. But it’s more open for everybody. But still it is meaningfully grounded in a tradition, just like the Jewish traditions I have been researching. So it’s creative but it’s also very constitutive of certain traditions. So it gives you freedom to form your own religious engagement. But it still ties you to a community and to a history. So that’s the first point I’d like to say, is that music is more relevant to Religious Studies all over than we maybe think. Because I think, in our research fields we’re always so preoccupied with the words and with the texts. And sort-of looking at music as a secondary aspect to it. But I wanted to produce it in the centre, here. And if we’re thinking about music within Judaism, of course this is an immense topic. And the first question, of course, is what do we count as music in a religious Jewish setting? Is it just the liturgical singing? Is it the nusah? The cantillation modes? Is it the traditional chants? Is it, maybe, the cantorially-led music that we have in some congregations? In some places we have a choir – we might even have communal singing in the more progressive denominations. So it is a great variety and it is a great mix today. But I think as I have been focussing on these progressive denominations in a British context, I think what more and more of them are saying, in the interviews I have made, is that they feel that music and musical engagements, singing and music overall has been lacking from their tradition. They feel that it’s been impoverished as so much has been focused on the spoken word (5:00). And on the benefit of taking away these elements that were seen maybe to be obscure and old fashioned and mystical – not in a positive sense. So I think, here, this also proves the fact that different kinds of music are more and more appreciated all over the line. And also when we speak about Jewish music in this context, which I think shows very well in my interviews, is that I think as researchers there’s some . . . we don’t have the possibly to really, any longer, to try to define this kind of grand narrative of Jewish music: so what is Jewish music? What is not Jewish music? And what music belongs to which part of the Jewish world? And so on. We cannot draw these clear boundaries any more. But Jewish music instead, I think we have to look at the context that we are researching. So it’s a question of how we interpret the music; what associations are made; in what context it’s presented; what intentions are tied to it? And there we can sort of try to circle in on what we mean with Jewish music. This was a very broad answer to your question!

BF: That’s ok. Maybe we should hone in a bit now – as you say, circle in – on your particular group you’ve been looking at which is progressive Judaism. My first sort of question, when you were talking there, is you talked a little bit about the revival of music in progressive Judaism. What sort of timeline are we looking at in terms of this revival? Is it a relatively recent phenomenon that we’re seeing?

RI: Well, both yes and no. I have made my interviews between 2014 and 2016. So, of course, that’s very recent. And the persons I have been talking to, they have rather broad age spans. So they’re born between the 1940s and the 1990s. So I have both rather young, and people who have grown up and come of age in the sixties. And what most of them, who use this historical language, say is that this process of change has a lot of roots in Jewish revival movement, which of course was tied, was a phenomenon of the sixties. And especially in the United States where the whole idea of reviving Judaism, of finding a more spiritually engaging way of practising Judaism arose – along with a lot of other New Age movements and the hippy movement and the whole counter-cultural milieu that we find in the late Sixties. So many would say that we saw it already here, in certain forms, these more embodied and engaging musical practices within Judaism. But I would say that, in my material, most people would talk about the change in a much shorter perspective – maybe talking about the twenty-first century, more. But I think we can see relevant ties to a process that began already in the sixties.

BF: And what sort of function is this music having as part of this revival? What role was it playing?

RI: I think . . . the subtitle of my book is Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. And I think this captures it quite well, the role of music here. Because, for the people I have interviewed, they would not be interested in trying out and exploring a more orthodox or traditional theology. They are very comfortable in their liberal progressive theological values which are very inclusive and very, sort-of, very open to liberal values. But what they want is a more traditional way of doing the Jewish stuff. I mean, how you go about the way of expressing your Jewish tradition, and what kind of things . . . in manifest ways you become Jewish. And here I think that music plays a pivotal role. Because somehow it’s through the music that you can try to connect to more traditional ways of  . . . especially more traditional ways of singing. Bringing in the cantillations to the services for example, not just reading the text, but chanting them in traditional Jewish ways. And then also bringing in more Hebrew besides the vernacular languages which are very broadly used in the progressive services in Britain (10:00). Trying out the sacred language, the Hebrew language, and sort of bringing all the dimensions that it can bring. My special interest was in a musical practice called nigunim which is means melody in Hebrew, or tune. Which is actually a tradition that derives from the Hasidic tradition where instead of singing with words you just skip the words and use onomatopoetic syllables like “lai-lai”. So that the singing itself becomes the prayer, not the words that are spoken. And this is explored in many different kind of progressive settings today. And this would not mean that the persons who are interested in adapting nigunim to liberal services, that they would be interested in Hasidic theology at all. But more the way of expressing these . . . the way of expressing and the way of using music to build a more comprehensive relationship to the liturgy. So here I think we can see the role of music as something that gives you an open space to combine and connect to tradition, but still hold on to the theological values that you want to preserve – the liberal values. So I would say that the role of music is rather big here, in this situation. It’s somehow a tool that is . . . well it’s not just a tool but it’s a context and it’s a way of being and doing Jewish that is available and useful in combining liberal values with traditional ways of practising.

BF: It really sounds like it’s trying to bridge that gap between, I suppose you phrase it as the old and the new. Which I think is quite a bit of a hot topic in Religious Studies at the moment. This sort of difference between very traditional streams of faith practice and more liberal and open, if you want to put it that way. This music seems to be a way that those two things are combined in modern Jewish practice.

RI: Absolutely. And I think it’s also a way of acknowledging that religion is not a static thing. And that it’s always changing. I mean what we would call traditional today is of course always also something that is adapting and changing, with the context and with the time. And when I say that liberal Jews in London sing nigunim they are, of course, adapting it to their own needs and practices. We have the whole issue of men and women for example, singing together at all: kol isha is that the voice of the woman shouldn’t be heard at all. And I would also say that many of them, most very consciously are not saying that they are reviving something that they’re going back, you know, to tradition. It’s not a move backwards. It’s a move forwards. But it’s a creative and free way of using tradition as a well to find inspiration in. But then to develop it to something that goes along with your own practice and your own values, and your own ethical standpoints. So it’s very much not going back to tradition. And I think it’s very much going forward but with inspiration from the past. But I think that’s what you were also saying about here, and which I think is very relevant: where we end up is as researchers we have to question the idea of institutional engagement at this sort of . . . .That it’s a very clear line where we have, for example, orthodox and traditional in one end of the scale, and then we have the liberals at the other end of the scale. And then we have a clear line here of development and you can place people somewhere on this continuum. Because what these creative new combinations show is that you can actually combine a theological position which is very liberal with practices that are very traditional. And what you get is personal outlooks on how to be and do Jewish that do not fit these models that we try to squeeze people into.

BF: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about this sort-of specific community that you looked at. This sort of community in London. Is there anything specific about the reason why it has popped up in London? Is this happening in other places? What’s interesting about that specific landscape?

RI: Yes, thank you I think this is a very important question. Now, as you mentioned in your introduction, I’m based in Finland, and I lead a research institute in Finland. And well, first of all the practical reason: the number of Jews in Finland is so small (15:00), it’s . . . well, officially we have 1500 persons in Finland who belong to Jewish communities. So this kind of research would not have been possible to do in Finland. But I wanted very much to do research that would focus on European Jewry, because I feel that much of the research on Judaism we have today is focussed very much on the large centres of Jewish population, so North America, and Israel. And much of what is going on in Europe or in Australia for that matter is not given as much focus as it could be. So I wanted to focus on European Jewry. And I also wanted explicitly to do research on progressive and liberal Judaism today, because also I think much of the research that we do on Judaism today is either focussed on the history, or then it is very sort of orthodox communities – of course, because they offer the most sort of controversial and specific contexts. So I wanted to focus on the liberal side. The reason that I ended up doing my research at Leo Baeck College well, it was first of all a practical reason that I had connections there. But I wanted very much to focus on a college community. It’s quite a special congregation we have there, because among my interviews are students who are studying to become rabbis, both in the liberal and in the reform movements in Britain, but more largely in Europe. So I have the students, and I have the teachers, and the alumni, and other people who are connected to the college. And of course the college is quite a dynamic place. It’s during your studies that you try out different ways of leading Jewish services, for example. When these people will move out into the congregations in Britain, and then as congregational rabbis, maybe, they will need more to adapt to the traditions of the specific community where they work, and all these things. But during your studies you are still quite open to try out lots of different visions that you have for how to use music in your Jewish life. So the college was really a marvellous place to do this research. And even though this Leo Baeck college, physically it’s in North London and most of the students and teachers that I talked to were British in origin, some of them had been liberal Jews for four generations. Some of them had converted from Christianity. Others had an orthodox background, for example. And they also had their roots in lots of different countries: Germany, Russia, Romania, France, Canada, United States, Israel, just to mention it. So it was a very cosmopolitan and very dynamic and very interesting milieu. But still the college somehow is the connecting context for all of them. So that’s how I ended up doing the research at Leo Baeck.

BF: And what do you think was . . . . Was there anything specific about London itself, apart from that college environment?

RI: Well, of course, London is one of the most international and multicultural places on the earth. So in that sense it was very interesting to see how these developments take place in this extremely sort-of multicultural milieu. But I still think, also, that Britain can function – and London especially now can function – as this very specified prism through which we can see developments and have a perspective, also, on different developments that we see. I think it’s a good reflection of what is maybe coming to the Nordic countries, where the Jewish communities are rather small and have quite unified backgrounds. We can also . . . . We have in Europe, of course, the other large centre of Jewry is France where we have a different development going on. But then, also, the British development is very closely tied of course to what is going on in North America. But still I think many of the British Jews also had a very conscious wish to form their own interpretation of the lines of development that come from the United States. So in that sense, I think it’s a good mirror for different kind of development we see in other parts of the Jewish world.

BF: So do you think that this sort of movement could happen in perhaps less progressive areas? Perhaps somewhere like Israel? (20:00)

RI: Well there are, of course, in Israel these kind of developments going on. I haven’t specifically been studying in the Israeli context, but there are a lot of very progressive and very innovative small communities in Israel that work along these same lines. And many of the cantors and the rabbinic students that I’ve talked to also find great inspiration with different small communities in Israel. So I would say that it’s also very central there. Yes, in different ways, I think that this is a movement that you can see all over the spectrum, so to say. And I think it was very interesting with the focus especially on the role of music here, and what it enables and how it speaks to people today. And I think that that goes over the line. But of course it has very different parameters and different enablers when you move to more traditional communities – especially when it comes to gender issues, and issues of inclusion, and so on.

BF: I think I would like to just briefly touch on this concept of gender. Because I think what I’ve taken from this interview so far, is that your research is really helping to break down a lot of sort-of categories that may traditionally have been part of Religious Studies. It’s breaking down the idea of orthodox and traditional, it’s breaking down the idea of even more orthodox spaces and places, you know, and we can see the sort of liberal movements popping up throughout the world. It’s not as though it has to be in a particular space or place. And this idea of the boundaries of gender is something that I think is particularly interesting. Is this music helping break down that barrier? Is that a role that it’s taking? Or is that a separate idea altogether?

BF: Well, yes and no, I would answer to this. At the first glance I think you might get the feeling that music is a very inclusive space where the role of gender is sort-of toned down, or being given less of divisive role. But on the other hand, in my interviews I can also clearly see that there is still a gender difference. For example, if you are a male rabbinic student you have much greater possibilities to just enter any Jewish space that you want to, and take part of very orthodox rituals if you want to. As a woman you still cannot do that. And especially my interviews with the women who were a bit older, who were born in the forties and the fifties: for them, many of them felt that they had to leave an orthodox Jewish background behind if they wanted to be part of . . . have an active role in the liturgy, for example. Because women were not allowed those kind of positions. But then if they . . . then they moved from an orthodox congregation to a reform congregation, they would feel very much at a loss with the whole of the liturgy and the ceremony because it was so different. And they could even today tell about how they longed for the music, and the recitation, and the liturgical form that they wanted to have, which they could not be included in the orthodox settings, because they were women. And, of course, all the chances for this is much greater today and women are being included more and more. But still I think we shouldn’t . . . women are not free to experiment with their spirituality. And not all these interesting aspects of the tradition are open to them in the same way as the male students. And I think one of the teachers said that she also felt a bit of a caution against students who very actively experiment with very orthodox practices. Because somehow, when they are rooted in a theology that is non-inclusive, when it comes to women or converts or people of other kind of minority positions within the community, it’s somehow hard to divorce the music from the background where it comes from. So you always need to be aware, also, that you do not import theological positions that you wouldn’t like to defend when you try out the music (25:00). So, both yes and no, I would say. We might think that music is very useful in this discussion, but it’s not without its problems either.

BF: Your research seems to highlight a lot of different areas of Religious Studies that perhaps we need to maybe tweak, or look at more broadly. We’ve looked at the idea of different categories, orthodox or liberal, in this interview as well as the idea of space and place, and the idea of music more generally. When you wrote this monograph, did you have sort-of an idea of the broader impact of your work on Religious Studies as a field?

RI: Yes. I mean my background in Religious Studies, I have done . . . most of my research has dealt with issues of interreligious dialogue and cultural encounters. And also of contemporary religiosity in sort of ethnographic research on religiosity today. And then the arts has been a central focus of my research. I’ve done a lot of research on art as an arena for both for religious identity formation but also for encounters and so on. And what I wanted to show – and which I think has a broader bearing not just on Jewish studies but on Religious Studies more generally – is the fact of what role we can allot to other dimensions of the religious engagement than just the texts, and the intellectual dogmas, and this part of the religious engagement. Rosalind Hackett, Professor Rosalind Hackett, in the United States, she had called for a more “sonically aware” Religious Studies and I think that’s a brilliant way of putting it. And that’s what I hope I can also contribute with this study. That we need to realise that music, and the arts in general, are not just ornaments or illustrations of something more profoundly important to religion. But that they are aspects of the religious engagement in their own right that we need to give serious scholarly attention. So I think that we need to take it not to say that we need to have more emotional and embodied Religious Studies, which we do, but we should see this as an opposite. Not that you have an intellectual engagement which is sort of more sincere, with the tradition, and then you have all this nice music and arts that come as ornaments to make it more interesting. But to really see that these are, can be, put on the same level and they both speak about religion in ways that we as scholars also need to be able to take seriously and listen to. So it’s not an anti-intellectual stance, it’s more like a call for a more nuanced study, that is not just falling into these black and white boxes. And to see how we can sort-of have a more nuanced and plural idea of what religion and religiosity mean, by taking these aspects of the religious engagement more seriously.

BF: Just before we finish up, I have a bit of a left-field question for you. I don’t how familiar you are with the world of sort of Jewish pop music on YouTube, but there are some very fun I suppose you would put it, sort of YouTube clips of sort of Jewish cover bands sort-of covering pop music and sort of changing the lyrics. I just wondered if you have any thoughts on these sort-of very popular interpretations of music amongst Jewish communities.

RI: I know some of them especially with the chabad outreach that have this really great hits of boy bands which they make into sort of information music about different Jewish holidays and so on. I think it’s great fun. And, of course, music is a creative tool and I think we’re wrong to say that something is more authentic than something else. Or that some way of using music is wrong and something else is right. I think it just illustrates very well what a powerful tool music is, and how much it speaks to people. And also, from my own material, if I think about this nigunim singing and just singing lai-lai, (30:00) so most people say, “Well this is just like using a Buddhist mantra.” And or “the Taizé tunes we have in Christianity”, which is the same idea that you sing short syllables to repetitive music in meditative way. But still, the fact is that you can point to it that it has a connection to the Jewish tradition. That the nigunim and lai-lai singing, it comes from part of the Jewish world. It somehow ties these traditions closer to the heart of the people, and makes them more meaningful. And I think that’s just what you can see in this pop music, too. That sort of referencing to and alluding to the sources, the tradition, to something that is felt to be very authentically Jewish. It’s a very powerful tool. So I would say it’s just a good illustration of the power of music.

BF: Well thank you very much for joining us today, Dr Illman. I think this discussion of music has just opened my eyes to the amount of sort of creative energy that is out there in terms of religious practice, particularly in terms of you know, the sort of bridging the boundaries between the different worlds, different traditions maybe. And I urge everyone to go check out the world of Jewish music on YouTube!

RI: Well, thank you very much for this interesting discussion.

BF: Great. Thank you so much.

Citation Info: Illman, Ruth and Breann Fallon. 2019. “Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/melodies-of-change-music-and -progressive-judaism/

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Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

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, banners, flags, teapots and more.

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

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

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