Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

[Martin] alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

By Raphael Lataster, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Dale Martin on Religious Studies and Biblical Studies (21 January 2013).

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was published earlier today with a couple of minor but important changes made by Chris and mistakenly not communicated to the author. These unauthorised changes have been removed, and the version presented below meets with the approval of both Mr Lataster and the editors. The RSP would like to apologise to Mr Lataster, and to our readers, for any unintended misrepresentation of this important piece.

Around the half-way mark of Jack Tsonis’ interview with Professor Dale Martin, a contention was raised, that if true, is damaging to Religious Studies (and related disciplines), and betrays the value and one of the key initial purposes of the field. It is obvious to many of us that Religious Studies is useful, due in part to the critical, secular, etic approach to religion that it encourages. (Although this does not necessitate that Religious Studies scholars be irreligious, or be forbidden to or encouraged to avoid teaching or researching their own personal faith). Tsonis questions Martin on criticism that many Religious Studies scholars are effectively arguing for the usefulness of religion, demonstrating a pro-religious agenda. Tsonis mentions one academic claiming that Religious Studies scholars “claim the prestige of the university while following the rules of the seminary.” Tsonis wonders if this is a real phenomenon, and what effects this may have on our colleagues’ methodologies, funding, and employment prospects. Martin’s answer is thoughtful, but also damning.

In attempting to deny the claim, Martin acknowledges that many scholars working in Biblical Studies are Christians, and many of them are of the conservative type. He then says that the claim does not align with his experience, citing examples of scholars teaching on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, without personally practicing or arguing for those faiths. It seems that not only has Martin acknowledged the issue in a roundabout way, but also alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor. This discussion prompted me to reminisce about my own experiences in my first year of working in the scholarly world, particularly in initiating my Master’s research dissertation.

I faced opposition from within the department to the extent that I had considered abandoning the project. These challenges presented themselves despite the fact that I had not yet decided the angle, or of course, the conclusions. What was the topic that proved so challenging to research? Jesus mythicism, the contention that there may not have been a ‘historical Jesus’. I would eventually pass, with the examiners – themselves scholars of Religious Studies – agreeing that a review of the methods of many Biblical scholars is necessary (for example, the increasingly-maligned Criteria of Authenticity) and that it is entirely rational to be sceptical over the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Such conclusions should not necessarily be so controversial in a field dedicated to the critical and non-confessional study of religion. More worryingly, there were instances where I felt pressure to alter the direction of the project, in order to allow for more ‘Christian-friendly conclusions’.

But why would such respected scholars wish to interfere with the most fundamental of academic freedoms? It may have had something to do with their personal religious beliefs about Jesus. Interestingly however, such belief is not actually required for such a reaction. One example is provided by noted Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, one of many secular New Testament experts. Professor Ehrman is an outspoken atheist, yet dogmatically defends the historicity of Jesus and the usefulness of his teachings, while harshly and fallaciously (Lataster 2013) criticising those scholars that are audacious enough to be more sceptical than he (Ehrman 2012). Hector Avalos argues that even many non-Christian scholars are influenced by the political power, and finances, of pro-Christian organisations (Avalos 2007). Avalos claims that positive attitudes towards the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general, is often seen as necessary in order to keep these academic disciplines relevant, and funded.

Hoping that Avalos’ gloomy conclusions were wrong, and that experiences such as my own are rare, I would then discover a powerful Christian undercurrent in a related – and perhaps more esteemed – field; ancient history. While studying the historical Jesus under one of Tsonis’ colleagues from the Ancient History department of Macquarie University, I ‘learnt’ that there is a “resurrection-shaped dent in the historical record.” I would then participate in a public debate against one of my own Religious Studies postgraduate colleagues, and another Ancient Historian from Macquarie University, where my (Christian) opponents used their authority as subject-matter experts in attempting to convince the audience that it is perfectly rational to believe that a miracle-man was brought back from the dead by an unproven deity. It didn’t matter to this ancient historian that his resurrection claim is burdened by a crippling prior probability, is supported by extremely poor sources, or that there are far more probabilistic – and naturalistic – explanations, despite his agreeing with my reasonable claim that history is probabilistic. Christian influences can even be found in Philosophy departments, once great bastions of rationalism and scepticism, via Philosophy of Religion (Quadrio 2009).

Back to the interview, Martin further addresses the contention that Religious Studies scholars border on being crypto-theologians, and defends his ‘insider’ status. He argues that his Biblical criticisms ought to be given more weight (compared with a non-believer’s criticisms) as he is a Christian, and might be expected to aggressively defend his faith and agree more with his fellow adherents. As with the speculative criterion of embarrassment, Martin’s criticisms are partly interesting due to their counter-intuitive nature. These relatively small criticisms however, must be weighed against the fact that Martin still believes the unsubstantiated and question-begging claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, by God. Fortunately, in a recent debate, he correctly acknowledges that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be established historically, though this belief does form a part of his worldview (Licona et al. 2012), his values, and ultimately, would be expected to directly or indirectly affect his researching and teaching on Christianity. Martin might indeed offer the occasional criticism here or there, resulting in minor conflict with his fellow believers, but he stops short of, and would not be expected to, criticising and renouncing Christianity and Christian beliefs as a whole.

Further commenting on what became the dominant theme of the interview, Martin offered a surprising and seemingly unreasonable counter to the claim that Religious Studies scholars are apologising for religion. Instead of denying this claim, he accuses English, History, and Political Science scholars as being apologists for modern liberalism. Rather than outright denying or acknowledging what may be a vitally important issue in education, Martin offers a tu quoque justification. i.e. “Everyone else does it.” With the discussion drawing to a close, Martin demonstrates an example of my claim that what he offers is only relatively benign pseudo-criticism of his faith. He criticises researchers who attempt to show the similarities of Christianity to other religions and myths (an important and historical foundation of Religious Studies), while asking scholars to be more open-minded to the potential truth of supernatural events and experiences. I am not arguing that the perspectives of ‘insiders’ are not valuable, that religious believers are unwelcome in Religious Studies departments, and related fields, or that religion is not a force for good in the world. I merely wish to share my own experiences on the matter, and to encourage scholars to leave their personal beliefs at the door, as they enter the sacred grounds of the University.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

With a background in pharmacy, medicine, and finance, Raphael Lataster is a hopeful PhD candidate, having recently passed his Master of Arts (Research), undertaken in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, with Distinction. His main research interests include Christian origins, logic, epistemology, justifications and social impacts of secularism, Taoism, overpopulation and sustainability concerns, pantheism, and pandeism. Raphael wrote his Master’s thesis on Jesus mythicism, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a sceptical attitude towards the ‘historical Jesus’. For his doctoral work, Raphael will analyse the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as argued by William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Aquinas), attempt to demonstrate the logical impossibility of the monotheistic concept, explore the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, and formulate a conditional logical argument for a pantheistic weltanschauung. Raphael is currently writing and attempting to publish numerous articles summarising his Master’s dissertation, and exploring the themes of his proposed doctoral project. Raphael is always open to – and encourages – feedback and advice, especially regarding the politics and processes of academia and publishing, and alternative worldviews.


Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Lataster, Raphael. Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories. Master’s thesis, Sydney University, 2013.

Licona, Michael, and Dale Martin. Did Jesus Rise Physically from the Dead? Arva, ON: The Navigators, 2012. Video recording.

Quadrio, Philip A. Kant and Rousseau on the critique of philosophical theology: The primacy of practical reason. Sophia 48, no. 2 (2009): 179-193.


Multiplying The Modernities: Reflections on the 2012 AASR/AABS Conference

Multiplying the Modernities: Reflections on the 2012 AASR/AABS Conference

By Morandir Armson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, Australian Association for the Study of Religions – 28-30 September 2012 – Sydney, Australia

I first attended the annual AASR conference in 2006. Although I was a good eight years older than my  fellow honours students, I felt very small and alone, talking about my Honours thesis topic; UFO-based religions and religious discrimination.

I have maintained since that Critical Discourse Analysis, does not an entertaining topic make. But I survived, and going drinking afterwards with Doug Ezzy, Marion Dalton et al. helped to dull the pain.

I’ve been to more AASR conferences since and have a lot of positive memories gathered therefrom. I would like to share some of my experiences from this year’s conference.

AASR/AABS 2012 – Multiple Religious Modernities.

After gathering at the University of Western Sydney (Parramatta Campus), nibbling nibbles, collecting our goodie bags and name tags, and milling about drinking our free wine, we were all ushered into a very nice lecture theatre to hear the welcoming speeches and the Presidential Address. (Unbeknownst to many, the Women’s Caucus and the AASR and AABS committee meetings had taken place earlier that day). Professor Douglas Pratt served us a nicely cooked address, entitled “The Persistence and Problem of Religion: Modernity, Continuity and Diversity”. Professor Pratt spoke at length, of the predicted “end” of religion, which was confidently predicted, only half a century ago, and of the religiously-based violence which seems to bedevil the world. He even delved into my areas of expertise once or twice, mentioning the Discordian Society and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, eliciting a titter or two from the audience. (Alas, only Adam Possamai laughed at my Cthulhu Mythos joke during the Q&A session). In the end, Professor Pratt presented more questions than answers – and that, it seemed, was his intention. His contention – that modern religious extremism can be seen to be a reaction to modern religious pluralism, an attempt to impose a truth, an authority, a single way, and that extremist secularists can and do exist –  was well presented and seemed to come from a man that genuinely loved the study of religion. And this kind of manifestation of genuine pleasure in, and love of religious studies was a recurring theme throughout the weekend.

A question that Professor Pratt never asked though, was what exactly modernity was. This was a question that seemed to hover unseen above many of the sessions, and sparked a fair chunk of rigorous and, dare I say it, heated discussion. And do you know, we properly nailed it down. None of us. This kind of question, involving the assumed definitions of terms, can be a little difficult. Like wading through syrup or tying knots in sand. But, as is often the case, we ended up with a group of six, passionately arguing and ending up with eight different definitions.

Overall, we had a fantastic depth and breadth of scholarship displayed throughout the weekend. Many of the presenters were students and some indeed had been students and were now out of the academy completely. All of the presenters however, were alike in one way; their love of, and immersion in, religious studies was both profound and genuine.

Alas, the conference had five parallel streams, so an unpleasant choice was forced upon us all – not “what do I want to see”, but rather “what can I bear missing”. And sometimes, it was a very unpleasant choice. What did Farjana Mahbuba have to say about the ‘invisible presence’ of Bangladeshi women? I don’t know, I was in the Paganism and Shamanism stream, listening to Michelle White (Independent) and Dominique Wilson (University of Sydney) speaking on Pagan Pluralism and the archetype of the Wise Man respectively. I’d make the same choice again, but I’d still regret it.

Overall, the conference featured ninety speakers, presenting one presidential address, two memorial lectures, and eighty-eight papers. They covered an impressive array of topics, from the spiritual aspects of home-birthing, to the phenomenon of Christians that seek membership of outlaw motorcycle clubs, to religious pilgrimage in Myanmar, and Shariah in the context of Australian law.

I was lucky enough to be presenting with two fascinating and erudite presenters. The first was John McGuire (University of Western Sydney) whose examination of portrayals of Islam and Muslims in American superhero comics, based on his PhD thesis, was worth going a long way to see. It was both heartening and slightly disconcerting to see another presenter using superhero comic books as their primary source material. John’s knowledge of his material and the depth in which he has explored the socio-religious elements thereof are both impressive and he gave us a wonderful insight into the themes of Islam in post-11th of September superhero comics. The second presenter in my stream was Lauren Bernauer (University of Sydney), who spoke on the re-enchantment of modernity, using the Percy Jackson and the Olympians pentalogy, the television series Supernatural and the MMOG The Secret World as her examples. She gave a beautifully cogent examination of hidden worlds, fan communities, and ways in which the modern world is examined through a re-enchanted lens. I for one, will be very glad if she publishes her findings. My own unworthy contribution, examining themes of occult resurrection within Golden Age and Dark Age superhero narratives, seemed to be reasonably well-received.

When one has such a wealth of material to examine, it becomes difficult to pick favourites. There were some real highlights.

  • Sylvie Shaw (University of Queensland) delivering the Penny Magee Lecture, on the religious and moral aspects of climate change. Her contention; that religious groups and climate scientists would do well to engage together, in an effort to inform public policy was argued with both passion and humour. Her arguments surrounding the role of religious groups in disaster relief and  the creation of civil religion was well-constructed and had a little of that “why hadn’t I thought of that before” feeling – always a sign of a well argued thesis.
  • Christina Rocha, speaking in the ‘Religion and Travel’ stream (the stream which also included Alex Norman and Pheroza Daruwalla) gave us an examination of Abadiânia, a tiny hamlet in central Brazil, which has been transformed by devotees of John of God, a local medium-healer.
  • Carole Cusack delivering the Charles Strong Lecture, on  “Fictional Religions and Religious Fictions: Narratives of Secularisation and Sacralisation at Play in Multiple Modernities”. I was very interested in this, as my own work has brought me into contact with the Discordian Society, the Illuminates of Thanateros, and the Church of Satan, groups that strongly value play, absurdism, and the use of fictional rituals. Dr Cusack favoured us with a lecture both illuminating and adeptly argued. It was clear that many in the audience were unfamiliar with concepts such as Discordianism, the Church of the SubGenius and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Overall, the 2012 AASR/AABS conference was delightful. And, as is usually the case, one is left with bitter-sweet memories. I would have loved to continue my discussion with John McGuire (University of Western Sydney) about the shockingly unpopular black Captain America (who was also a Muslim convert). I wanted to keep talking to Milad Milani (University of Western Sydney) and Glenys Eddy (University of Sydney) about violence and the indoctrination of men, in modern Western cultures. I wanted to talk about Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos with Adam Possamai (University of Western Sydney). But we only had two-and-a-half days. And they were pretty full days at that.

And did we ever find a satisfactory answer to the question of what is modernity? No. Like the Snark, which was really a Boojum, modernity is a slippery creature, which grows ever more elusive, the closer one draws to it. The hunt goes on!

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Morandir Armson is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. His thesis explores the interrelations between popular occultism, contemporary Paganism and online communities, connected by an examination of the role which chaos magic and paradigm shifting has had on all of these areas. Forthcoming publications include an article that examines the shifts in meaning in occult dichotomies, which popular, Internet-based occult communities have wrought.

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 27 September 2012. European Association for the Study of Religions – 23-26 August 2012 – Stockholm, Sweden

Some months ago, I was encouraged by my supervisor, Jay Johnston, to submit abstracts to the 2012 EASR and the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism. Much to my delight, I ended up attending and presenting at both of these amazing events in August. I would like to share with you some of my experiences from this intense, week-long symposium.

EASR 2012 – Ends and Beginnings

Venetia was really proud of that name-tag

To open the 2012 conference for the European Association for the Study of Religions (in conjunction with the International Association for the History of Religion) at Södetörn University, Stockholm, Ingvild Sælid Gilhus tackled the theme of ‘Ends and Beginnings’ by talking about the ‘founding fathers’ of our discipline. As we mulled over Müller and theorised Freud (what were their motivations? Where did they locate the origins of religion?) the inevitable question that kept repeating in my mind was, ‘where are the founding mothers?’ Mary Douglas, Gilhus added, could be considered a founding mother for sure, but this concession does little to address the white male dominance of the humanities in general. But as I looked around the packed auditorium at the sea of heads belonging to people of all genders, all ages, all stages of their careers, I felt some comfort. In my (albeit limited) experience of international conferences, I have been frequently mislabeled as someone’s wife or daughter, rather than a scholar in my own right, or, for that matter, a presenter intending to deliver a paper. In Stockholm for a solid week of conferencing, I made it my aim never to be mislabeled, and in this atmosphere of diversity coupled with solidarity, I don’t think at any point I was.

If I had to choose I would say my favourite thing about these conferences was seeing young and vibrant postgraduate students presenting their craft. I was continuously impressed and excited by the high quality scholarship, ideas, and conversations presented and stimulated by my peers. This year’s EASR delivered an incredibly extensive program. Four days with as many as twelve parallel sessions per session, this conference featured hundreds of speakers. Topics ranged from the Arab Spring to apocalypticism, ecology to esotericism, Pureland to popular culture, and almost everything in between. Of course this leads to the problems that plague all good conferences – one cannot get to see everything they would like to, if speakers drop out and the order is changed scheduling can be even more complicated, etc. Some rooms saw overwhelming popularity – not an inch of space could be spared for latecomers hoping to see Jörg Rüpke talk about death in lived religion! Luckily for me, my session saw no lack of seats. I was speaking in the aula, the massive main hall set aside for keynotes and network sessions.

Venetia delivering her presentation

I spoke, alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) and Sara Duppils (Åbo Akademi) as part of the Graham Harvey and Donald Wiebe), but I was pleased to see about thirty attendees making that vast space seem a little less empty. Actually, the session was very enjoyable as we three (all still students) presented on vastly different topics – Manon on gender in Wicca, Sara on ‘neo-spiritism’ and paranormal beliefs online, and I on Therianthropy and animal-human identity. The response from the audience was brilliant, with intelligent and genuinely engaged questions, suggestions, and comments. This level of interest was followed up with the exchanging of emails, soliciting of articles, and promises to publish forthwith! Nothing is so inspiring as getting the opportunity to pull your head of the proverbial arse of thesis-land to experience an international community of your colleagues understanding and encouraging your seemingly obscure area of interest.

It was disappointing to miss hearing from speakers who pulled out (Henrik Bogdan, Oliver Krüger) and even more frustrating to fail to catch the brief window given to others. Nonetheless, I saw some provocative and valuable papers. For the sake of convenience, I restricted myself to sessions that directly related to my research interests. This is always a gamble, and can be a little monotonous, but there were certainly some highlights. It was really enjoyable to see Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania present on a katabatic ritual performed by Australian neo-Pagans. His personable yet informative delivery, supported by his own photographs of the event, made this talk particularly appealing. Jonas Otterbeck of Lund University gave a very interesting paper on masculinity in the genre of ‘Halal pop.’ Franz Höllinger of the University of Graz presented some intriguing statistics on the political and social attitudes of New Agers in Austria, and Peter Åkerbäck of Stockholm University provided insights into the changing reactions toward ‘cults’ in Sweden by government bodies and ‘cult awareness’ groups. On the second day, the impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad of the University of Gronigen delivered an astute key note that highlighted the imbrication of science and religion, and specifically, the ‘scientification’ of religion, and the ‘religionism’ of science. The overlapping of these two magisteria (to misquote Steven Jay Gould) is a topic eye-opening in its relevance and insidiousness in our field of work.

The impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad

Student speakers also proffered papers that spoke to their burgeoning expertise and laudable research efforts. Sara Duppils and Minja Blom (University of Helsinki) both presented findings from their online research of discussion forums (a still woefully under utilized source pool), Manon Hedenborg White discussed information gathered from her own fieldwork and interviews with British Wiccans, Christian Greer (University of Amsterdam) exhibited his collection of rare and arcane Discordian primary materials, and Kristian Pettersson (Uppsala University) in his talk on entheogens and the spiritual experience, submitted his theory of ‘altered states of perception’ to challenge the more commonly and perhaps mistakenly used phrase ‘altered states of consciousness.’ On the New Religious Movements front, Rasa Pranskeviciute (Vytautas Magnus University) introduced me to two environmentally-minded NRMs that have emerged in the post-Soviet world, the Anastasians and the Vissarionites, while the Raëlians got a reappraisal from Erik Östling (Stockholm University) as a group that relies not only on the Bible, but several works of science fiction in constructing their UFOlogical theology. Many of the papers I saw dealt with the meeting of spirituality and popular culture, and one theme that I felt was overlooked was the paradigm shift involved in making fictional texts sacred texts – a more nuanced understanding of changing attitudes towards the boundaries of fantasy and reality was needed.

Round table on Wouter Hanegraaff’s new “Esotericism in the Academy” with O. Hammer, M. Pasi, M. Stausberg

While some student papers were less polished or analytically sophisticated than those of more established scholars, I think it is commendable that conferences like the EASR extend the opportunity for such a number of postgrads (and even the occasional undergrad) to contribute their scholarship to the broader academic community. The fact that so many of the sessions I chose to attend consisted, unbeknownst to me initially, of mostly student presenters strongly suggests that it is a younger generation of scholars that are investigating the ‘alternative’ and ‘fringe’ currents of spirituality which are, ironically, becoming more and more visible, mainstreamed, and imperative to the study of modern religion. In short, these students have their finger on the pulse, and it is events like international conferences that allow the rest of the academic world to learn from these fresh and innovative perspectives.

Of course conferences offer the opportunity for social as well as professional networking (facilitated somewhat by free, room-temperature glasses of box wine). Personal highlights here include discovering that Wouter Hanegraaff’s spirit animal is the Owl, being asked to contribute a paper to Pomegranate, and being invited to speak at the 2013 ISSR Conference in Turku. Ending up at Medusa Bar for a pint and a bit of a headbang with some of the pretty young things wasn’t a bad end to an evening either. But, after four intense days of stimulating conversation, there was little time to rest before it all had to pick up again at the Contemporary Esotericism conference at Stockholm University!

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.


In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).


Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos.  This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’

Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’

David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.

Scope and Definitions

As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.

The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon

The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.

St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.

Concluding Remarks

In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:


Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.



Baghos, Mario (2010) ‘St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History and the Eighth Day’ Phronema 25, 85-103.

Baghos, Mario (2011) ‘The Meaning of History: Insights from St Gregory the Theologian’s Existential Metanarrative’ Colloquium 43:1, 17-38.

Costache, Doru (2010) ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’ Phronema 25, 21-56.

Demerath III, N.J. (2007) ‘Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed’ in James A. Beckford and N.J. Demerath II (eds.) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Sage Publications, 57-79.

Eliade Mircea (2005) The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. W.R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fox, Judith (2005) ‘Secularization’ in John R. Hinnells (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxon: Routledge, 291-305.

Harrison, Nonna Verna (trans.) (2008) Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, in Popular Patristics Series 36, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood NY: SVS Press.

Hildebrand, Stephen (trans.) (2011) St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit, in Popular Patristics Series 42, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Le Goff, Jacques (1992): History and Memory, trans. S. Rendall and E. Claman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Way, Agnes Clare (trans.) (2003) St Basil: Exegetical Homilies, The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 46. Washington D.C: The Catholic University of American Press.

Williams, Frederick (trans.) (2002) St Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and the Two Letters to Cledonius, Popular Patristics Series 23, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion


Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

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Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

For those of you who wish to read a bit more about Anzac Day, the Anzac legend, and the relationship between Anzac Day and the Media, Zoe has written a longer version of this post which is accessible here.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane.

The dome ceiling

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.


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