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Emerging Scholars in Political Theology 2023

From July 31 to August 4th, 2023, the Emerging Scholars in Political Theology program met for a week-long workshop at Villanova. Facilitated by Vincent Lloyd, Mira Wasserman, Nikki Young, Winnifred Sullivan, and SherAli Tareen, the 2022-2023 cohort met for the second and final time to reflect on their journeys as early career scholars. Over the course of the week, each participant presented a text for collective reflection and feedback. Situated at the idyllic Villanova Inn, between group meals, visiting speakers, and a tour at a local religious site, the cohort asked large interdisciplinary questions about the nature of political theology as well as practical questions about navigating the academy as young scholars.

From these conversations, some common themes and questions emerged.

On the practical side, many questions were aired: How can scholars use their research to make a meaningful impact, whether in public scholarship or the classroom? How can scholars in the humanities navigate the professionalization process and establish their scholarly identity, especially with various competing tasks such as research, mentorship, service to the professional, and personal life? How should early career scholars think about book manuscript and article writing, editing and publishing, and experimentation and revision?

Each bucket of questions was nurtured through the week’s programming.

On the practical questions, we were glad to be joined early in the week by Mira Wasserman, a scholar at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and director of the Center for Jewish Ethics. Professor Wasserman shared about her experience conducting public scholarship through developing materials for congregations, and led the cohort in a rich discussion about the perils and promises of public facing work. Together, the group looked at a case study on the scriptural politics of abortion, and after reading the classical jewish sources on abortion, analyzed their uses of the sources in various statements by Jewish advocacy groups. The cohort was challenged to think about how they might integrate public scholarship in their own respective scholarly lives.

Turning from the public to the classroom, Vincent Lloyd led a group discussion on pedagogy, beginning with Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Published in 1987, Ranciere’s philosophy of critical pedagogy served as a touchstone for those thinking about the presuppositions and experiences students bring into classrooms and the role of educators in light of those experiences. What expertise is really required to teach? What role does the teacher play in emancipation, if at all? A mere midwife, a hindrance, or an expert with special powers and skills? The lively discussion outdoors on a sunny afternoon brought about reflections on the vexed nature of the educator amidst the seminar and lecture hall. What are the different experiences young scholars can expect of the liberal arts college or the research university? What should we make of the growth of contingent faculty across the academy? Stories of exemplary and troubled pedagogy were shared; doubts and hopes voiced. What ought to be the role of the educator in 21st century classrooms with students from different and diverse backgrounds, who arrive with different experiences of class, race, or religion?

These questions lingered in the air as we were joined in the evening by Nikki Young. A scholar of religion and sexuality and the vice president for institutional equity and access at Haverford College, Professor Young shared her experience discovering a passion for administration that works together with faculty to concretely implement effective equity and access. Professor Young also offered advice about balancing administration and research interests, and led a candid and deep discussion about the difficulties often faced by minority groups across the university, whether faculty, administration, or student. Stories of woe and silver linings were swapped, peppered with productivity tips and practical wisdom.

The group was also grateful to be joined, as it was for the past two years, by Winnifred Sullivan, who co-led the cohort last year. A scholar of religion and law at Indiana University, Professor Sullivan workshopped a fresh manuscript on religious biography, which provided an occasion to think about the recent wave of interest in writing religious biographies across political theology, as well as the more practical aspects of book writing. The manuscript provided a natural pivot to a jointly led workshop session by Professor Sullivan and Lloyd on writing practices and publishing, where the cohort exchanged concrete tips about editing and publishing, such as not using book-writing as an excuse to say no to all other projects, or allocating plenty of time to secure copyright permissions.

The discussion of these practical aspects of scholarly life wove into the more theoretically minded questions that were aired during the presentations given by each cohort member. The presentations consisted of various pieces—book chapters, articles, ideas—and ranged from Gilles Deleuze’s political theology of spirituality to the social ways that Sun Ra opened up otherwise worlds. Various kinds of feedback were offered, including structuring and tightening theses, framing arguments with an eye to relevant literature, and developing a generous but authoritative scholarly voice. These feedback sessions were complemented by visitors: a piece from Laura Simpson of Villanova University and selections from Professor SherAli Tareen’s forthcoming book Perilous Intimacies: Debating Hindu-Muslim Friendship After Empire. Together, these texts not only offered a concrete example of writing at various stages of the publication process, they brought out sharply the various dimensions of the demands of writing about political theology, and difficult theoretical questions. How might political theology help us rethink unacknowledged secularisms implicitly lurking in the histories we write, or help us rethink the spectacular possibilities that otherworldliness brings about to ordinary life, or challenge us to rethink the nature of tenuous categories like the political, friendship, or memory? How might biography as a method or a focus on aesthetic artifacts illuminate ideas or elicit affects otherwise unnoticed? And finally: how useful is political theology as an analytic category, a critical or reparative tool? When the provocations have ended, what are its limits, its blindspots?

These and other theoretical questions found its way into the coffee breaks between presentations, followed us into friendly conversations over meals and drinks, and into the night in bar banter and rumination.

Yet it was outside of the seminar room, on a field trip sandwiched between days of programming, that perhaps proved to be the one of the most memorable sources of conversation for the cohort. A mere twelve minute drive from our conference center stood the Woodmont, a grand hilltop estate and one time residence of Father Divine, an American spiritual leader in the early 20th century who founded the International Peace Movement and proclaimed to be God. Throughout his life he was frequently credited for making many contributions to his follower’s economic independence, racial equality, and world peace.

On a warm afternoon, the cohort was given a tour of the property by a member of the International Peace Mission, which included a museum, the manor, and the shrine to Father Divine. The museum offered a chronological walk through of the life of Father and Mother Divine; the manor showed his preserved study and dining space; the shrine showed the reverence offered by his followers, some of whom lived on the property. On the whole the presentation gave a sweeping narration of the energy of a religious movement that had been a significant force in the early 20th century. Throughout the tour, members of the cohort engaged each other and the guide with a generous curiosity that marks the best of religious scholarly sensibility, from asking questions of the details—What is a Rosebud? What kinds of programs did the Mission run?—to the abstract—Why did Father Divine choose the term “Americanism” for his politics? How did gender and racial equality operate in this movement, in both ideals and reality? No doubt some of us were left with more questions than answers, if not a sense of intrigue and mystification. Here was a political theology in the flesh, a living archive, seated on a meticulously manicured hilltop in shades of pleasant Philadelphia summer green. Under the shadow of a luxurious Châteauesque mansion, kept by welcoming and hospitable hands who followed a man claimed to be divine, the cohort was met with the same questions found in our seminar room five miles away, though perhaps this time with a greater sense of it’s charismatic force, and it’s unignorable weight.

Cohort Members:

  • Bevin Blaber, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion, Bard College, interests in religion, literature, and Continental philosophy
  • King-Ho Leung, Research Fellow in Theology, St. Andrews, interests in Christian theology, Continental philosophy, and Hong Kong politics
  • Matt Harris, Postdoc / Assistant Professor, University of Chicago Divinity School, interests in Black religion and aesthetics
  • Peng Yin, Assistant Professor of Theology, Boston University, interests in Chinese religion, politics, and sexuality, and comparison with Christianity
  • Aseel Najib, Assistant Professor of History, Dartmouth College, interests in Islamic history and politics, and contemporary political theory
  • Ahona Panda, Assistant Professor of History, Claremont McKenna, interests in South Asia, religion, and decolonization

Graduate Assistant: Darren Yau, doctoral student in Religion, Ethics, and Politics, Princeton University, interested in the politics of nonviolence

Shared Texts:

  • SherAli Tareen, Perilous Intimacies: Debating Hindu-Muslim After Empire
  • Jacques Ranciere, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation
  • Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
  • Winnifred Sullivan, The Making of a King: The Political Theology of Joan of Arc
  • Nathan Snaza, Animate Literacies : Literature, Affect, and the Politics of Humanism
  • Classical Jewish sources on Abortion: Exodus 21:22-25, Mishnah Oholot 7:6, Yevamot 69b, Arakhin 7a

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