Three members of the Political Theology Network community remember Tyler Roberts, who died on June 3, 2021 at the age of 61 (memorial notice). Roberts was a professor of religion at Grinnell College with research interests in religion, politics, and critical theory.
My colleague Tyler Roberts passed away, suddenly, unexpectedly, on June 3rd. Tyler was in his early 60s, but still retained the youthful energy, charm, and countenance that I recognized when I took a class with him decades ago at Harvard Divinity School. Tyler was then Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Education after having finished his dissertation on Nietzsche as a religious thinker.
In Tyler’s course, “Discipline and Spirit: Rethinking Philosophy and Religion,” we were exposed to Jean-Luc Nancy, Julia Kristeva, and John Caputo alongside Nietzsche, Emerson, Freud, Foucault, and Heidegger. At the time, Tyler’s bad-boy attitude of crossing boundaries between the study of religion and au courant European philosophy felt transgressive but also part of a larger dialogue—just starting, we thought—between postmodernist thinkers and philosophy of religion. Edgy wisdom! It was a transformative class for me and my fellow Divinity School classmates. Last year, as I reconnected with Tyler to replace him while he was on leave, we, his old students, found ourselves remembering with fondness the class in a Facebook discussion, delighted as we recalled the seminar, its works, and the impact Tyler had on us.
From Harvard, Tyler decamped to Grinnell College in Iowa where he taught in the Religious Studies department for more than two decades. The pandemic delayed Tyler’s sabbatical leave, so I got to watch him in action, via Zoom, during faculty and department meetings. In his last few weeks, Tyler and I communicated over one final senior thesis project, emailing afterwards to discuss the student, his project, and a grade. The disconnect between Tyler’s vitality and tragic sudden passing is made all the more maddening by his outsized presence at Grinnell as an esteemed member of the faculty and as a beloved teacher. I was privileged to have been influenced by Tyler at the beginning and—I type this with incredulity and mourning—the end of his career.
Tyler’s approach to the study of religion was humanistic, retaining an ever-curious and appreciative attitude towards theological works. To demonstrate the “religious” aspects of Nietzsche’s thought was one such move. From Tyler’s earliest scholarship we can see an agenda that holds the study of theology and of religion as important for skeptical, philosophically-minded readers, and vice versa, blurring the boundaries between philosophy and religion, the secular and the religious. Over the years, Tyler would push back against those scholars who would maintain a high wall between theology and religious studies, culminating in his 2013 Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism. Tyler helped decades of secular students approach theological literatures from positions outside of specific traditions, encouraging them—and us—to “encounter” religion, not merely as cold data, as illusion, or from a critical stance of suspicion. Tyler’s generosity of spirit was contiguous between the classroom and his scholarship. May his memory be a blessing.
By Elliot Ratzman, Visiting Assistant Professor, Religious Studies (2020-2021), Grinnell College, now chair in Jewish Studies at Earlham College.
From Secular Criticism to Critical Fidelity
What a wonderful surprise it was, in December 2016, to receive a notification that Tyler Roberts had submitted a manuscript to Political Theology. I met Tyler a handful of times, and he struck me as thoughtful, learned, and wise. When I read the manuscript that would eventually be published as “From Secular Criticism to Critical Fidelity,” I saw Tyler was not just a scholar of religion but an exemplary scholar of political theology. His sensibilities precisely matched our aspirations for the journal: animated by a deep concern for justice, Tyler took religious ideas seriously and he took the insights of the secular humanities seriously. In writing that was careful and generous, Tyler modelled scholarly excellence in our field.
Reading through Tyler’s manuscript, I could feel his attachment to the authors with which he grappled – authors to which I was also attached. His article is occasioned by Stathis Gourgouris’s wonderfully provocative book Lessons in Secular Criticism. Tyler appreciated the power and appeal of Gourgouris’s challenge to religious thought, launched on behalf of a critical sensibility that desired to bend the world toward justice. But Tyler also realized that Gourgouris’s understanding of religion – like so many accounts of religion from those outside of religious studies and theology – overlooked the complexity of religious thought and practice, feelings and images, virtues and suspicions.
Tyler assembled a constellation of thinkers, secular and religious, to show how Gourgouris’s intuition could be pursued while taking religion seriously. With the help of Judith Butler, Rowan Williams, Rita Felski, Christine Helmer, Seyla Benhabib, Ted Smith, and others, Tyler demonstrates that the most thoughtful Christian theology and the most thoughtful critical theorists are working in similar ways, toward similar ends. In response to Gourgouris’s account of revelation as a conversation-stopper, Tyler writes, “Some Christian thinkers view divine revelation not as a force of transcendental authorization but as an interruption of our attachments to the social formations in which we are embedded” (700). Such religious thought challenges the supposed completeness of secular political and legal order, not from the perspective of an alternative order but from a commitment to an elusive notion of divine justice that calls us and binds us but that we cannot name. Rather than muting thought, religious doctrine forms individuals so that they have the capacity to discern the limits of secular political and legal order.
But challenging the status quo is just one element of the political-theological perspective – really ethos – that Tyler develops. Another crucial element is his account of us as essentially bound to each other and to forces in the world. For Tyler, the practice of criticism, and the work of political theology, must attend to our involuntary attachments; indeed, it is the work of negotiating those attachments. Simply exposing that we are dependent on others does not lead to liberation. Criticism ought to “help us to identify, cultivate, and enact bonds that draw us together in liberating ways” (703). This talk of dependence and formation may sound specifically religious, but Tyler shows how secular theorists including Judith Butler, Seyla Benhabib, and Rita Felski move in this direction.
In short, Tyler shows how Christian theologians embrace something that looks very much like secular critique and how secular critics embrace something that looks very much like a theological sensibility, what he quotes Butler calling an “ethic from the region of the unwilled” (704). While Tyler’s article is ostensibly about Gourgouris’s book, it actually announces a program for the field as a whole, putting words to the sensibilities animating the journal Political Theology, this website, and the broader Political Theology Network. When religious thinkers and secular critics converse with each other, both are enriched – and the supposed divide between the two groups begins to fade. What results is a program for thought pulled forward by the call of justice, thought that necessarily takes place in community, navigating together our difficult attachments.
Tyler writes with confidence and grace. His article in Political Theology manages to meet the norms of scholarly discourse while at the same time directly communicating basic truths. It is tempting to read it, today, as valedictory. Here are some of Tyler’s words:
“The good life is less a matter of interrogation and autonomous ‘choice’ than the ability to give oneself over to others, to causes, to meanings. It requires vulnerability, dependence, and risk. It even requires certain kinds of passivity and the discernment that enables one to negotiate complex interrelationships between activity and passivity” (704).
“We need to think beyond the binary of autonomy and heteronomy if we are to think adequately about the complexities of love, commitment, and meaning. And if we are to think criticism anew” (704).
The article’s final words: “Criticism is not just discourse. It is an existential stance and spiritual exercise. The challenge here is not just the abyss but recognizing the possibility of the abyss while still moving out into the world with trust and affirmation” (707).
By Vincent Lloyd, co-editor of Political Theology and associate professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
June 11, 2021
What does it mean to write a letter to the dead? The epistle form dissents from prevailing genres in our fields. It is particular, stamped with a date, making sense only in the back-and-forth of a relationship. Familiar stuff.
But a letter to a friend who has died? This is something else. I had never thought about it before I found myself writing one to you. I suppose it embodies a kind of hope. But hope for what? That you receive this? That you respond? That our friendship continues in some way? That we enjoy the momentary, imagined, real communion that writing a letter brings between the one writing and the one addressed?
I don’t know what kind of hope informs this writing, beyond the hope that the writing is more than mere remembering. Or, that if it does unfold entirely as an act of memory, that memory is more than the representation of finished facts. More alive.
But I should tell the truth of the production of this letter. I’m not writing out of hope. I’m just writing in the only way I can. I tried to write like I was supposed to. But I could not give an academic eulogy. You deserve dozens of them, and I hope they will be written and spoken for years to come. But I could not write one now. I have given eulogies, academic and otherwise; I know the form. But I could not bear it now. I needed to write to you, not about you. This combination of aversion and need is pushing me into performing a hope I can’t quite articulate, and am not entirely sure I have. I think you’d understand.
One risk of writing like this is that it could seem to be more about my grief and memory and hope than about you. I worry about this. I wonder what you’d say. But then it was writing about you that felt so impossible. And if the letter is not about you, it is deeply to you. It does not conjure your presence like an academic essay might, but you are surely present. I could not write like this to anyone else. The “I” here is a person I have been able to be only in conversation with you. And the “you” is singular. Unutterably singular. I miss you, Tyler.
P.S. I didn’t get Girl Ray at first. But you were right. Ditto Cavell. Thanks.
June 14, 2021
The letter above is partly for you, too. I was writing to Tyler. But I had to write my way into that connection, and I could not sustain it with anything like purity. You flickered in and out of my consciousness as I wondered if I would submit the letter for publication. I know Tyler would spot the seams and doublings. I expect you will, too. But when I tried to erase them, to make the letter more purely what it wants to be, it was even less for Tyler and even more for you. And so I share the version written in tears, in all its mixedness. My hope is that Tyler would appreciate all the layers here, even this one, and that the attempt to write something like this will honor his memory, send readers to his writing, and ring true to those who knew him best. (Tyler: As I thought on this, I thought about Lambchop. Once Kurt realized he could not sing with the kind of authenticity Americana demands, and that there was nothing less authentic than pretending that he could, he pushed his voice through Auto-tune. And it came to life. Call it authenticity for selves like ours. Or do you have a better word?)
By Ted Smith, Almar H. Shatford Professor of Preaching and Ethics, Candler School of Theology, Emory University