Introducing the Network… Anastasia Scrutton

26 04 2013

[Anastasia is a member of the network steering committee, a philosopher at the University of Leeds and author of Thinking through Feeling: God, Emotion and Passibility.]

 

I worked in analytic philosophy of religion during my MA and PhD, but have branched out into the intersection between philosophy of religion and religious studies in my postdoctoral research through an ongoing project on ‘Christian interpretations of depression’. That was partly as a result of having some itchy misgivings about the distance between the propositions/beliefs being analysed in philosophy of religion, and what religious people actually believe. It also arose out of a desire to contribute to discussions and policies about mental illness and religion using the valuable tools of conceptual analysis philosophy of religion has taught me. In particular, the catalyst for my current project was hearing people tell me that they had mentioned experiencing depression to a church minister, and had been told that this was the result of a past sin – it seemed to me that these kinds of beliefs demanded some kind of philosophical analysis and response.

My current project looks at different Christian interpretations of depression – not only that depression is a result of sin, but also that it is bound up with demonic possession or, on the contrary, is actually a sign of the person’s holiness and a gift granted by God (as in the case of some of the mystics). I am also very interested in narratives – usually found in spiritual autobiographies – that adopt a more naturalistic explanation for depression (or where naturalistic and spiritual explanations overlap), but that nevertheless think it can become an opportunity for personal transformation.

One of the challenges for me is working out to what extent my work includes an empirical study of Christian interpretations of mental illness (say, through semi-structured interviews) and to what extent it is purely a conceptual analysis of somewhat abstract and caricatured views (more typical of philosophy of religion). While it would be great to bring together the best of both, it can be difficult conceptually to analyse a belief with any clarity if one is also trying to be true to the fact that that belief is (for the people who hold it) rarely as ‘pure’ or contextually abstracted or consistently held as one would like. In Weberian terms, it is about navigating the study of average and ideal types – and this, I think, gets to the heart of some difficult questions about how we can do philosophy of religion (and perhaps particularly analytic philosophy of religion) with due attention to lived religion. I’m excited to be part of this network and looking forward to discussing these and other important and fascinating questions in the interface between philosophy and religious practice.

Advertisements




Introducing the Network… John Reader

22 04 2013

[John is a member of the Philosophy and Religious Practices steering committee and is helping put together the final conference. He is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in Oxfordshire, as well as a Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation. He has published widely on the intersection of practical theology and philosophy, including the recent Heterotopia.]

Being a member of this network is, for me, the latest stage of what has become a lifelong journey in the quest for understanding the relationship between reason and faith. This began when I was a teenager and happened to pick up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”. This got me thinking that perhaps using one’s intellect could be a means of both analysing and controlling one’s emotions. My subsequent interest in philosophy led to an undergraduate course in Philosophy and Theology at Oxford. Needless to say, I found the philosophy boring and largely sterile, but I did encounter more contemporary philosophy in the philosophical theology aspect of the course, notably through the work of Tillich which led me to Heidegger. I recall then struggling through “Being and Time” for myself at theological college, and even trying to write an external BD on Tillich and Heidegger as I began my first curacy.

So the “madness” continued as Heidegger led me to Gadamer, Ricoeur and then Habermas, and a search through philosophical hermeneutics into critical hermeneutics, and an attempt to establish if one could derive clear and definitive criteria for the interpretation of texts. As I wrote my M.Phil for Manchester using this material, I came to the conclusion that what I was engaged in as a front-line “religious professional” was critical, emancipatory Christian practice.

By this stage my philosophical studies were shaping both practice and theory. Tillich’s model of being on the boundary between different disciplines continued to inspire, and I looked at his ideas on the method of critical correlation and then David Tracy’s development of this into mutually critical correlations, and their respect for the relative autonomy of different disciplines became a guideline for my own work. The nature of the encounter(s) between philosophy and religion, reason and faith, theory and practice has continued to be the golden thread of my academic and pastoral journeys. After coming across a book called “Discipline and Punish” by a thinker I had then never heard of, I decided that the interplay between Habermas and Foucault would be challenging and creative. In due course this led me to Derrida, and then an external Ph.D on the subject of “Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. Once again, the encounter was the thing, and I developed four criteria for engagement building upon the work of both these thinkers, those being: the search for truth and trustworthiness; the tension between the universal and the particular; understandings of human subjectivity; the messianic and links to the notions of democracy and indeterminacy. The basic argument was – and will still be – that there are always already entanglements and or connections between the apparently distinctive and separate spheres of faith and reason, and that all attempts to contain them within watertight compartments by treating each as “the other”, are a misunderstanding of how things are.

One can see how such an approach is anathema to Radical Orthodoxy which wishes to subsume the non-theological in all forms into its own version of theology. Early personal encounters with John Milbank along those lines proved unproductive! Putting these ideas into practice led to the notion of “blurred encounters” as one way of describing my approach in both theory and practice, itself then leading to further publications and conferences as others began to find this way of describing their ministry creative and useful. Of the original four criteria, the one that has occupied most time in the last 10 years has been the debate on human subjectivity, and I might now see the main task as “reassembling the human”.

Having left Habermas and Derrida behind, the work has taken me into the writings of Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, Meillassoux and others sometimes known as “Speculative Realists”, and then also to Bruno Latour who has become perhaps the major conversation partner, even though he is  an anthropologist and originator of science studies and actor network theory. My main quarrel with most theology and religious practice is that they move too quickly and easily through encounter and then into their own theory, without engaging with the hard graft of working with the detail and complexity of what Latour might call “matters of concern” and that both he and Deleuze would term the “assemblages” or “gatherings” which are the real content of both human and non-human life. By listening to and learning from the unfamiliar and challenging discourse of some of these later thinkers, one can perhaps develop a discipline of more considered, provisional, humble and realistic value-shaped practice, rather than assuming that a particular religious understanding has already “got the answers”. One must not assume in advance that any specific encounter will prove productive or creative. There can be “relations of non-relation”; disjunctive syntheses, occasions where neither side can impact upon the other, as well as ones where both sides are changed but still retain their identity and integrity. There is no substitute for the Latourian process of entering the world of circulating references in specific instances in order to see what will emerge, and no room for either a philosophical or theological imperialism.

I believe that this new network will show the importance and legitimacy of this more open approach through a contemporary philosophy of religion.





Strange Encounters: Steven Shakespeare on Putting Philosophy and Religion into Dialogue

16 04 2013

One of the aims of this network is to think about how philosophy of religion can be brought into dialogue with religious practitioners and contemporary research on religion. However, putting it in those terms already raises some issues (and yes, this is where I become an irritating philosopher).

For one thing, it obscures the fact that philosophy of religion is itself a material practice. By that I mean that it does not exist apart from institutional contexts, from political and gender dynamics, from a very specific Western history. For instance, it is arguable that philosophy of religion in its modern form was invented by the 19th century philosopher Hegel, at the point when critical distance from church tradition allows ‘religion’ to become thinkable as a discrete object with its own nature and essence. However, this universalised concept of religion was still understood very much in terms of Christianity.

Things have changed. Hegel’s attempt to read the history of religion as finding fulfilment in Christianity as the Absolute Religion (however heterodox his understanding of Christianity was) may not find much favour in contemporary study of religion. But the way ‘religion’ as a category is defined and marked off from what is not religion still bears within it the traces of that Christian past, and its often difficult mutation in post-Enlightenment Europe. Religion as a universal essence, as propositional belief, as private commitment, as non-rational passion, as marker of communal or personal identity – all of these varied understandings represent ways of trying to accommodate religion with modernity (even if by way of opposing it to modernity).

My interest, then, is in how, in the encounter between philosophy and lived religion, we aren’t just seeing how two well-defined fields can link up (or not). We’re intervening, mutating the way each field is understood, hopefully in a more self-critical, more attentive way. This will involve being aware of imposing Christian (or Christianised secular) universal ideas of religion on actual practices, whilst also avoiding any romanticisation of the religious other as ‘exotic’ and beyond critique. My hope is that the result will be new possibilities for life and thought which break down the tired divisions between practice and theory.

 

Steven Shakespeare

Liverpool Hope University





Introducing the Network… Katharine Sarah Moody

12 04 2013

[This is the third in a series of posts in which those closely involved with the new network introduce themselves]

Katharine Sarah Moody

Katharine Sarah Moody

Working with Dan and Chris as a Research Associate for the Philosophy and Religious Practices (PRP) network, I’ve been affiliated with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Liverpool since January 2013. As the RA, my role is to take the lead on the network’s mini-project, a small-scale study of the ways religious practitioners engage with philosophical texts.

My background is in Religious Studies but I’m increasingly working at the intersection of continental philosophy, radical theology and religious practices.

My doctoral studies at Lancaster University focused on the ‘emerging church’ – a new religious movement that explores Christian belief and faith in contemporary culture. The ‘emerging church conversation’ is diverse, but it often has a particular interest in how the so-called ‘postmodern turn’ in philosophy and theology might influence individual and communal life, and the cultural and philosophical contexts of ‘emerging Christianity’ are especially shaping the ways in which religious truth is being conceived in this conversation. This meant that I could take the philosophical notion of truth as a site from which to examine the generative relationships between postmodern or ‘post-secular’ philosophical theologies and material, lived, or everyday religious discourse and practice.

Read the rest of this entry »





Introducing the Network… Chris Baker

3 04 2013

 

 

I am the Co-Investigator on this project and I work for two centres: One is as Director of Research for the William Temple Foundation (www.wtf.org.uk) and the other is as Senior Lecturer in Public and Urban Theology in the Dept of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. I am also Director of the Centre for Faiths and Public Policy which is run out of that Dept: (www.chester.ac.uk/cfpp).

My role in the team is to anchor some of the perspectives of practical and public theology within the network, since it is these branches of theology that are perhaps most committed to making sense of how religion is actually performed with in the public space of a diverse and pluralised society like the UK. This often involves empirical research not only into the practices of religious communities but also their impact on wider society. To that end I have been involved for many years in the empirical study of religion and its relationship to public life, including projects for the Church Urban Fund, AHRC, ESRC and Leverhulme Trust. The main areas of my work have been engaged with ideas of religious and spiritual capital, faith groups and moral freighting (i.e. how faith groups freight or carry out their morals into public life,) and the post-secular city. So as you can see I am bit of a Jack of all trades (I refrain from completing this well-known maxim!), engaging at the boundaries of research  between theology, human geography and sociology of religion. I feel practical theology will benefit a huge deal from engaging more specifically with philosophical ideas concerning the nature of reality, virtue and ethics and I am learning so much from Dan and Katharine – it’s a real joy to be part of a dynamic and inter-disciplinary team. One thing that seems to be shaping all our work is the idea that the potential impact of philosophy and religion on public life has never been more timely as we look for signs of substance, hope and cohesion upon which to build a more just and sustainable social order in the current politics of austerity and despair. For full details of what I currently do please visit my webpage : www.chester.ac.uk/departments/trs/staff/bakeriversity of Chester. I am also Director of the Centre for Faiths and Public Policy which is run out of that Dept: (www.chester.ac.uk/cfpp).