On Spiritual Nones

‘Every day I add another piece to the religion that is my own,’ Dr. Moore writes. ‘It’s built on years of meditation, chanting, theological study and the practice of therapy — to me a sacred activity.’ At the very least, we might conclude that ‘spiritual but not religious’ isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.

"Examining the Growth of the 'Spiritual but Not Religious," -

Religious History on Australian Secularization

The interwar years saw the initiation of a number of important periodicals that reflected the emerging vitality of public intellectual life in Australia. One such publication was The Morpeth Review, a quarterly that appeared between the years 1927 and 1934. Edited by three Anglican intellectuals — E. H. Burgmann, Roy Lee, and A. P. Elkin — it included contributions from prominent historians, political scientists, anthropologists, cultural critics, and theologians. Though its range of concerns was broad, it was guided by a basic vision of intellectual and social life that aimed at reconciling the conflicting elements of modernity. Such conflicts included the divide between the world of work and the family, the divide between classes, between nations, and between church and state, or more broadly, between the secular and the religious spheres. This article will suggest that in the endeavour to reconcile such competing elements The Morpeth Review expressed a kind of political theology that was modernist in inspiration (welcoming science and the critical consciousness) and drew on several overlapping traditions of thought including liberal Anglicanism, Christian socialism, and British idealism, all of which rejected the modern tendency to compartmentalise life and with it to relegate religion to the private sphere.

Ian Tregenza, "The Political Theology of the Morpeth Review, 1927-1934," forthcoming and available on early view in The Journal of Religious History, which is publishing a special issue on secularization in Australia. Of particular note is this article, which looks at the history of radical thought arising in the Newcastle area. Dr. Tregenza also contributed to the forthcoming edited collection on Religion in Australian Political Life which was part of our University of Newcastle funded research on the subject.

On Heidegger's Black Notebooks

We already knew that Heidegger’s institutional involvement with the Nazi party — in particular, his agreement to become rector of Freiburg University in 1933 — was motivated less by political enthusiasm than by a long-held ambition for university reform. The inadequacy of modern universities (which, Heidegger complained, were becoming mere polytechnics), and the squeezing of philosophy departments by efficiency reviews on the one hand and church control on the other, had worried him since the beginning of his university career. At the time of Heidegger’s rectorship, the Nazi party had not yet developed a unified education policy, and it is clear from his inaugural address and the letters surrounding his acceptance of the post that Heidegger was hoping to seize the moment to put into action the intellectual renewal he had been writing and lecturing about for a decade. That he was soon disillusioned becomes clear both in a series of disappointed letters to friends (complaining that a very differently-minded candidate had been appointed minister of education and that he, Heidegger, had not been invited to any education policy meetings at the higher level), and in his premature resignation from the rectorship in early 1934. Heidegger never dabbled in party business again.

Judith Wolfe - "Caught in the Trap of His Own Metaphysics," Standpoint Magazine - 

This is an nteresting and excellent public note on the recent publication of Heidegger's black notebooks. Wolfe was recently appointed at St. Andrews University Divinity School, and a brief interview on her recent Heidegger and Theology with Bloomsbury can also be found here: This latter book looks to be an exceptional edition based on two years of archival research at Humboldt and Freiburg Universities.

On Polydoxy

This special issue of Modern theology stages a critical conversation around the multifocal texts composing Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation, edited by Catherine Keller and Laurel Schneider. That volume is in part the product of a Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium at Drew University entitled, ‘Polydoxy: Theologies of the Manifold.’ In order to introduce, expand, and refine this vibrant set of theological possibilities, it is our hope in this issue to bring a diversity of perspective to bear on some of the positions enacted in and as ‘polydoxy.’
— Mary-Jane Rubenstein, "Introducing Polydoxy" Modern Theology, vol 30 no 3, July 2014

Interesting volume of Modern Theology on Polydoxy -

On the Aleppo Codex

I am not sure I expected the story of the long-forgotten Aleppo Codex, the perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible, to occupy me for very long after the publication of my book on the subject in 2012. I thought I would soon be on to other things, which is the way journalism tends to work. But, as sometimes happens, the story has taken on a life of its own: a cover-up energized by the fallout from my book; the rejuvenated activities of a small group of codex loyalists ranging in age from 36 (me) to 82 (former Mossad case officer Rafi Sutton); and a recent edict issued against me by a prominent rabbi in New York. In short, the story of the Aleppo Codex is alive today as it has not been in many decades, and I believe an update on developments over the past two years is warranted for those who find themselves fascinated by the strange and ongoing saga of one of the most important manuscripts on earth.

Matti Friedman "The Continuing Mysteries of the Aleppo Codex," Tablet -

An interesting read for anyone interested in the history of codex books.

Kant Confusion

My answer is that, for Kant, to respect personhood requires us to respect or promote various more empirical features of human beings: their happiness, their choices and the natural purposes that (so Kant believes) they find within themselves. We must also act in ways that are expressive of our respect for that value of personhood, so we must not allow ourselves to behave in a supine or submissive manner and we must not demean or disparage others. Between them, I think, these different ways of respecting humanity in our persons cover Kant’s views about the different duties that we have...

Michael Rosen, "Kant Confusion," Times Literary Supplement -

Rosen's suggestion, it seems to me, echoes Levinas' appropriation of Kant in that he also collapses the transcendent into the ethical imperative to treat others as ends in themselves.

A Philosopher's Cognitive Empathy

Traditionally, God’s necessity is not logical necessity but some kind of metaphysical necessity, or aseity. Unlike Hume, I don’t think this is a silly or incoherent idea, any more than I think mathematical Platonism is silly or incoherent. As it happens, I am not a mathematical Platonist, and I do have conceptual difficulties with the idea of metaphysical necessity. So in the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls ‘the God delusion.’

"Does Evolution Explain Religious Beliefs?" The NY Times, Philosopher's Stone Blog


In Our Time on Solitude

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophy of solitude. The state of being alone can arise for many different reasons: imprisonment, exile or personal choice. It can be prompted by religious belief, personal necessity or a philosophical need for solitary contemplation. Many thinkers have dealt with the subject, from Plato and Aristotle to Hannah Arendt. It’s a philosophical tradition that takes in medieval religious mystics, the work of Montaigne and Adam Smith, and the great American poets of solitude Thoreau and Emerson.

Melvin Bragg's In Our Time, BBC4 Podcast, "The Philosophy of Solitude,"

On Arendt and Loneliness

Towards the end of one of the seminars I taught on Jewish thought this past semester a student told a story, which seemed quite apropos to Arendt's conclusion to The Origins of Totalitarianism. They recounted the experience of struggling with heavy bags to find a seat on a train.  As they passed by, each person turned away or pretended not to notice. The student wrestled through and eventually found a place to rest. Then a man from Peru made eye contact - a moment of recognition that led to a conversation. Just four weeks prior the man had been beaten to an inch of his life by thugs, destroying his guitar in the process. Yet, of all those in the crowd, he reached out to connect.

This example perfectly sums up Arendt's notion of loneliness. Unlike solitude loneliness occurs in the experience of displacment and dislocation from others. The paradox being that loneliness requires another person and is accentuated in what Arendt calls "the masses." Part of Arendt's enduring relevance is due to this common experience in cities and factories today. Furthermore, as was the case in Melissa Raphael's work on The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, the moment of recognition is crucial to Levinas' notion of "the face." Even clearing the mud from another person's face can be redemptive if its aim is to recognize them as a human being anew and as an end in themselves. This is especially true when we find ourselves in situations where people are treated as mere things or dispensable beasts. 

Arendt's conclusion to The Origins of Totalitarianism, focused on the link between loneliness, terror and ideology. As we discussed, she asked her readers to think in their experience, not just follow the cold logic of ideas. She encouraged communication between a plurality of human beings, not just those bound together by common appearance or history.

In many respects, I hope our class discussions this semester embodied those aims.

As it happens, the Blake Prize is on tour at Newcastle University's Art Gallery at the moment. Well worth visiting, and there is one piece in particular that echoes the seminar conversations that occurred this semester. In particular, Franz Kempf's "The Outrageous Has Become Commonplace," which was this year's winner for human justice and can be seen on the Blake's website along with all the others.

On Religion in Style Guides

When The Atlantic was revising its style guide for the web a few months ago, my cubicle unexpectedly turned into a metaphysical brawling zone. Our house policy is to capitalize ‘God’ when it refers to the entity worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (Other times, it’s not capitalized—for example, when writing about how I’m the ‘god of the office candy jar.’) In my opinion, this suggests a belief on the part of the writer: Capitalizing ‘God’ means he or she believes in the formal existence of a thing called god, so that name is capitalized like any other name. My boss disagrees. Neither, he says, does capitalizing the protagonist’s name from The Big Lebowski entail belief in the existence of the Dude. So we capitalize God... Perhaps the trickiest of all is the entry for Jesus, who is described as ‘the central figure of Christianity.’ The philosophical twist is in the pronouns; unlike prayerbooks or the Bible, which refer to him as Him, the AP instructs newspapers that ‘personal pronouns referring to him are lowercase, as is savior.’ If Jesus is in the news, he can be the ‘Son of God’ or the ‘Redeemer’ (both capitalized). But when it comes to pronouns, the AP says, he’s a ‘he,’ just like any mortal man.

"AP's Style Guide for Religion, Metaphysics, and God's Existence" The Atlantic

It is interesting in particular that the editors at the Atlantic had to negotiate the theological issues at stake in the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon regarding how to communicate the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The issue is humorously echoed in Steve Martin's "Atheists Don't Have No Songs."

On Studying Religion Today

How can one understand Afghanistan without some knowledge of Islam? For that matter, how can one understand America without any intellectual curiosity about Evangelicals? Can one understand the world if one is oblivious to the stunning rise of Pentecostals at home and abroad?

Every high school and college graduate in America should, I think, have some familiarity with statistics, economics and a foreign language such as Spanish. Religion may not be as indispensable, but the humanities should be a part of our repertory. They may not enrich our wallets, but they do enrich our lives. They civilize us. They provide context.

Nicholas Kristof, "Religion for $1000, Alex" -

On Research

I'm sometimes asked why my research writing is dense and rather complex at times. I usually respond with an analogy. Some of the most complex math today sits behind that simple white box on Google's website. People like the box but rarely do the math. Like Schroedinger's quantum calculations, most people only know the paradox of the cat in the box.

So what's my box?

It's the classroom teaching in a university, which sometimes spills out into the public through open access seminars, public lectures and media commentary.

My job as an academic is relatively simple, I write and I teach. Said another way, research university staff work to create knowledge and transfer it to others. In the end, the transfer happens in the classroom and the public spaces where religion and theology are discussed. Just like Google's box, mine depends on the math in the background, which demonstrates how theological questions continue to haunt contemporary philosophical, sociological and political arguments. 

Students like taking classes on religion, because they implicitly recognize the impact of the various aggregates that can be grouped under that concept, e.g. beliefs, institutions, voting blocks and lobbies, as well as transcendental claims on street corners and Facebook walls. Scholars use the teaching spaces to explain introductory concepts for further step by step, pedagogical understanding. But when students sometimes catch a glimpse of how high the staircase goes, it can look a little daunting. This is why I typically don't recommend first year students read my research work.

Blake Prize at UoN

This coming 11-19 June, the University of Newcastle's Callaghan campus Art Gallery is hosting an exhibition for the Blake Prize, which awards excellence in Australian art on religious themes ( To launch the event, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Prof. Caroline McMillen along with the Blake Prize Chairperson Dr. Rod Pattenden will be speaking at 5.30pm on Friday 13 June. As well, an open conversation between the artist Dani Marti, Dr. Kathleen McPhillips and Rev Dr. Rod Pattenden will take place at 2pm on Saturday 13 June.

Dr. Pattenden is also teaching a course in the BTh on Spirituality, Religion and Visual Culture ( in semester two of this year. The course will provide an excellent opportunity to learn more about the intersection between visual arts, religion and theology.

On The Grand Budapest Hotel

I saw one of the most beautiful films of the year this past week, Wes Anderson's masterful The Grand Budapest Hotel. It includes his usual fanciful flourishes and is utterly imbued with nostalgia. Unlike his past films which were more focused on inner family dramas, the main characters in this film are without family. Instead, Anderson steps out to convey the life of a hotel concierge Gustav H. (R. Feines), and his young lobby boy Zero (T. Revolori), who  are caught in the throws of a verisimilar early twentieth century. The story is told from the perspective of the elder Zero, known as Mr. Mustafa (M. Abraham). The drama arises not simply from the contrast between a fading occidental civilization and new modern barbarism, but between Gustav H. and himself. One of Gustav's early pedagogical overtures to the young Zero, expresses the tension:

You see? There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant – (Sighs deeply.) Oh, fuck it.
-Gustav H.
— Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The Illustrated Screenplay. Opus Books.

Anderson is sometimes referred to as a postmodern director. It's a term that focuses upon his aforementioned penchant for fanciful nostalgia and introverted insularity. It strikes me that this attribution misses the deeper sense of pain that drove his earlier work. The various philosophical and theological movements variously called postmodern did, in some cases, lose sight of this pain. However, the idea that postmodernity ends in today's austere times, overlooks the deeper anteriority at work in the "post," in these movements. It explains the return of metaphysics, not as an alter ego of philosophical absolutism, but a more profound "after" physics, and the sense in which meta always implies a deeper dissatisfaction with reductive physical accounts of reality. Moral, ethical and political dimensions can no longer be reduced to physics after the holocaust. Rather, we are more directly returned to a fragile notion of civilization laid bare in the twentieth century's darkest moments. As Gianni Vattimo argued in a compendium on religion, it too returns in these gaping unhealed wounds.

Anderson's recent film shows the twilight between a long gone past and the new barbarisms we live with today. He does so not with an historical farce, as such, but a personal story of one man who took responsibility for maintaining the highest expression of civility in the fantastical experience of a luxury hotel. Of course, it shows how civilization did not exist as a stable established "thing" in the first place. But it also shows what a beautiful dream it was, a whisper that the people of that era once believed in. As Mr. Mustafa (the elder Zero) explains at the end of the film:

To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!
- Mr. Moustafa
— Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The Illustrated Screenplay. Opus Books.

It seems to me that we go to movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel fully alert to today's public cruelties, the threat of global catastrophe and social injustice (Cf. Darren Aranofsky's Noah). The dark fantasy, however, is no more honest because of its darkness. Wes Anderson's recent film depicts, not unlike the work of the best postmodern theorists, both the fragility of civil societies as well as the painful work that goes into breathing civility to life in our social and political conditions. It is a nostalgic lost world, but its core is not an abstraction as such. Rather, it beats within the flawed heart of Mr. Gustav H. and makes you wish there were more of them today. 

There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.... He was one of them. What more is there to say?
-Mr. Mustafa
— Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The Illustrated Screenplay. Opus Books.