Notes

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 (http://blakeprize.com.au). 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 (www.newcastle.edu.au/course/RELT2013) 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, Anderson steps out to convey a nineteenth century hotelier, Gustav H. (R. Feines) and his young lobby boy, Zero (T. Revolori) who are caught in the throws of the 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. Religion also returns in these gaping unhealed wounds (Vattimo, Religion, p. 80).

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.

Internet and Religious Decline?

But there is one blindingly obvious reason why being online might diminish religious observance and it has nothing to do with ideas. It’s simply that every hour you spend online is an hour spent not doing other things. What keeps religious affiliation alive is practice, or ritualised belief. The strongest religions are the least visible ones, because they are so tightly woven into the symbols of every day life. And someone online is almost by definition not performing collective religious acts. Mobile technology might change this, but it hasn’t yet. It is the social function of religion that weakens. Belief is an epiphenomenon. What kills American religion isn’t argument. It’s Facebook.

"Is the Internet Really Killing Religion in the US?" - http://gu.com/p/3z9d3

This article provides an interesting critique of the idea that the internet is spreading atheist ideas. However, it then goes on to set up a rather odd dichotomy between time spent online and time in "collective religious acts." I'm not quite sure what it is about Facebook that is any less a collective ritual act than going to church or a mosque. 

The Unknown Known

Errol Morris somehow made an interview style documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known. Toward's the end of the film Rumsfeld himself isn't quite sure why he agreed to do it. The title comes from the missing combination of terms in a 12 February 2002 news briefing. There, Rumsfeld responded to questions about the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, quipping that "there are known knowns... known unknowns... [and] unknown unknowns" (defense.gov). Morris focuses in on the statement's missing combination of terms, the unknown knowns. As it turns out, Rumsfeld was a meticulous recorder of memoranda, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of memos so numerous they were nicknamed "snowflakes." In a snowflake later in 2004, he reflected briefly on the fourth combination. There, he provided a rather odd interpretation, which he retracts towards the end of the film. I've included the film's transcript below not only because it is one of the most powerful scenes, but because it is as close to anything I've seen that Rumsfeld actually agrees there were things he did not know that he knew, or, more to the point, that he refused to face and accept:

February 4, 2004
Subject: What you know.

Rumsfeld (reading): There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

Rumsfeld: If you take those words and try to connect them in each way that is possible, there was at least one more combination that wasn’t there, the unknown knowns. Things that you possibly may know that you don’t know you know.

Morris: But the memo doesn’t say that. It says that we know less not more than we think we do.

Rumsfeld: Is that right? I reversed it? Put it up again. Let me see.

Rumsfeld (reading): There are also unknown knowns. That is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

Rumsfeld: Yeah, I think that memo is backwards. I think it is closer to what I said here, than that. Unknown knowns. I think you are probably, Errol, chasing the wrong rabbit here.
— The Unknown Known - 1.32.47-1.34.50

It is interesting that even in repeatedly reading the memo and correcting his own 2004 definition of "unknown knowns," Rumsfeld does not draw the conclusions that these are the more significant dangers. I can't find any evidence that Morrris read any of Slavoj Zizek's various repetitions of Rumsfeld's omission of "unknown knowns" in the 2002 news briefing. However, I am expecting Zizek to provide some comment in this regard insofar as Morris has actually sat down with Rumsfeld and had him repeatedly read his own memo on "unknown knowns." The surreal result is that, even the film interview, Rumsfeld doesn't seem to know what he knows. In any case, it makes Zizek's assessment all the more interesting: "If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' the threats from Saddam the nature of which we did not even suspect, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the 'unknown knowns,' the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves... the situation is like that of a blind spot in our visual field: we do not see the gap, the picture appears continuous" (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 457).

Volf on Q & A in Australia

Miroslav Volf, Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, recently appeared on the ABC's Q & A discussion program this past Monday evening. As usual they discussed a range of social and political issues, but there was a particular interest  in religious questions as well. Again and again, Volf made the case for religious groups to participate in public debate and the promotion of a healthy multi-religious society. A key component of this proposal is unhinging religious groups from power, and avoiding theocratic impulses. Plural democracies should not exclude faith, but no one faith can rule. At a key moment, he was asked about the need for more interfaith dialogue, to which he responded in two ways. Firstly, to note that the twentieth century was marked by secular ideology pinned against particular religious groups. Secondly, he completely agreed and talked about an example of a course he teaches at Yale which asks students to compare the conceptions of the good life promoted by the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, John Stewart Mill and Nietzsche. You can watch the program here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/

A few points which came to mind: 

  1. It is always positive to see a professional Christian theologian speak in public in  a way that evokes cheers and agreement among other reasonable people. Volf's work is utterly exemplary amongst theologians, and he provides crucial leadership for the field at Yale. His recent books on Islam as well as the nature of the public sphere push forward on one of the key issues of our times: religion in political life.
  2. I don't know how often people in Australia watch these programs, but Volf pitched the issues in a way almost entirely consistent with how we teach religion and theology at the University of Newcastle, and our research programs on Religion in Political Life. This is important because the politicians on the program asked for this kind of education to be expanded in schools. We completely agree and provide the tertiary examples and training to do so. Our courses feature in the University of Newcastle's Bachelor of Education program and Bachelor of Arts. Most importantly, the Bachelor of Theology now includes core compulsory courses on world religions, comparative theology, interfaith dialogue and key processes of secularisation. All of our core courses are focused on helping students learn how to think theologically about the key issues discussed in this Q & A program. Our research has produced a series of edited collections on religion and radicalism, gender, colonial legacies and secularization, the capstone of which Religion in Australian Political Life should be available early next year. 
  3. There are two main waves coming towards theological education today: 1) the need to demonstrate the link between deep faith in particular traditions amidst a sophisticated ability to converse and dialogue with others in humility; 2) digital online learning which allows flexible delivery and interactive engagement with the learning experience. In Australia, the University of Newcastle is well ahead of both of these waves. The Bachelor of Theology is now completely online this year in a way that mirrors and echoes the face to face learning at the Newcastle campus. The last few years of student feedback on our online courses is amongst the highest in the university. This year, record numbers of students are enrolled in our courses, World Religions (RELT1020), Theology: Searching the Spiritual (RELT1010), Buddhist and Other Contemplative Practices (RELT1022), and The Many Faces of Jesus (RELT2010). 

In any case, I'm always encouraged when an international theologian visits to speaks so eloquently on matters of public debate, and can be heard online by as many people as possible. 

On the Trinity

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Trinity. The idea that God is a single entity, but one known in three distinct forms - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - has been a central belief for most Christians since the earliest years of the religion. The doctrine was often controversial in the early years of the Church, until clarified by the Council of Nicaea in the late 4th century. Later thinkers including St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas recognised that this religious mystery posed profound theological questions, such as whether the three persons of the Trinity always acted together, and whether they were of equal status. The Trinity’s influence on Christian thought and practice is considerable, although it is interpreted in different ways by different Christian traditions.

On Academic Writing

Professors didn’t sit down and decide to make academic writing this way, any more than journalists sat down and decided to invent listicles. Academic writing is the way it is because it’s part of a system. Professors live inside that system and have made peace with it. But every now and then, someone from outside the system swoops in to blame professors for the writing style that they’ve inherited. This week, it was Nicholas Kristof, who set off a rancorous debate about academic writing with a column, in the Times, called ‘Professors, We Need You!’ The academic world, Kristof argued, is in thrall to a ‘culture of exclusivity’ that ‘glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience’... As a one-time academic, I spent most of the week rooting for the profs. But I have a lot of sympathy for Kristof, too. I think his heart’s in the right place. (His column ended on a wistful note: “I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career.”) My own theory is that he got the situation backward. The problem with academia isn’t that professors are, as Kristof wrote, ‘marginalizing themselves.’ It’s that the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.

"Why is Academic Writing So Academic?" The New Yorker http://nyr.kr/1mGzE3P

18th C. "Book"

But then you realize that a ‘book’ back then wasn’t what we think of as a ‘book’ now. Back then, there were a plurality of book-sized formats that were, like octavo or the slightly-smaller duodecimo, pretty compact, so these ‘books’ were only a couple of thousand words long. (Like the totally fun The Art of Memory by Marius D’assigny, from 1706.) Authors who cranked out 40 ‘books’ were actually writing pieces that are closer to a long magazine article.It wasn’t until the 20th century arrived that nonfiction books started to congeal into the 300-page quantum, for a host of economic and cultural and industrial reasons.

"Why 18th Century Books Looked Like Smartphone Screens" - http://bit.ly/1e3x4uv

Theology Blindspot

...the struggle between secular critique and religious sentiments—the very same conflict we had in the Danish cartoon crisis and other freedom of speech versus moral harm-cases (see Saba Mahmood’s ‘Is critique secular?’)—is only on one level a struggle between secular and religious worldviews; on a second level, it is a conflict among religious actors. The same is true for all other possible secular-religious conflict situations. My thrust is that it is really this second level that is the most instructive in terms of empirical insights for further theory-building. In order to get access to this second level, however, social sciences have to overcome the theology blind spot and have to open up to the empirical study of theological debates. In the remainder of this post I quickly want to outline what this opening-up could look like in the three approaches to the study of religion identified by Cécile Laborde in her post: Where is theology in the critical, upholding, and disaggregating perspectives?

Kristina Stoeckl, "The Theology Blindspot" The Immanent Frame http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/?p=40240

Stoeckl provides an interesting summary of the problem of looking at religion and secularity without care and attention for theological discourse. It's a mistake rightly pointed out by this author in much of the literature, and one we are also trying to redress with Newcastle's Religion in Political Life in Australia volume forthcoming in 2015.

On Waiting for Godot

So what is it about Beckett’s weird, apocalyptic clown show that gives it such remarkable resonance, soulfulness—even, dare I say, flat-out entertainment value?... How could it not? For ‘Godot’ remains—there’s no use denying it—a profoundly atheist work, though we must not overlook the profundity for the godlessness. Beckett’s is not the blithe, hyperconfident, 21st-century atheism of Richard Dawkins, or the bland, self-satisfied scientism that constitutes a kind of default worldview in the educated West. It is instead the 20th century’s wounded, elegiac brand of letting-go-of-God—the entirely comprehensible incomprehension of intellectuals who felt poised between the Stygian maw of the Holocaust and the real probability of nuclear annihilation. For all its impish gallows humor, ‘Waiting for Godot’ has, to my ears at least, an unmistakeably valedictory timbre; it sounds like the lament of a one-time believer who once took the promise of faith seriously, or at the very least understood its high stakes. Put another way: Beckett’s is a voice that anyone conversant with the stark desert landscape of the Bible—anyone who has, so to speak, sat picking scabs with Job or eaten locusts with John the Baptist—will recognize in a heartbeat.

"A God-Shaped Hole," America Magazine - http://www.americamagazine.org/node/157753

I had the pleasure of seeing the opening night performance of this rendition of the play with Patrick Steward and Ian McKellen in the lead roles at the Haymarket Theatre in Edinburgh.

On Teaching Religion

When I first started teaching in my current institution, a decade or so ago, I was impressed by the diversity of students in lectures. Lots were believers of one sort or another, but many others would describe themselves as atheists and agnostics. Whatever they thought about religion, they shared an intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness that made teaching the best part of my job: they enjoyed being challenged in their assumptions, and they loved exploring the ways religions have shaped and been shaped by cultural, social and political shifts. Most noticeable of all, students rarely expressed a need to proclaim or defend their own faith perspectives in lectures. But things are so different now... Recently, a group of students in a lecture refused to undertake the work set because they didn’t want to apply postmodern perspectives to what for them was a sacred text. A female colleague was accused of being ‘stupid’ and ‘lacking authority’ by those who believe a woman has no right to teach others about religious texts. Other colleagues have been marked out as heretics in lectures.

Anonymous Academic, "Teaching Religion: My Students Are Trying to Run My Course," The Guardian - http://gu.com/p/3mhhf

I remember teaching religion and theology at a Russell Group University in the UK some years ago in a similar way to this academic's experience, i.e. open-minded, diverse, curious. It is sad to think that this is being eroded.

A Lesson From Auschwitz

Dr. Bronowski insisted that the principle of uncertainty was a misnomer, because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty... For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call ‘a play of tolerance,’ whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, ‘Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.’

Simon Critchley, "Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auswitz," The New York Times - http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/02/the-dangers-of-certainty

On Solitude and Writing

But also [Ingmar Bergman] was an extremely disciplined artist. He had no discipline in his personal life—I do—but he had extreme discipline when it came to his art and the way he ran his life around it. For the last 25 years of his life, he was married to the same woman, and the chaos of his life had settled. He lived on a small island called Faro, north of Gotland, where he would plan his films, write the scripts, make the screenboards, and everything. He limited his activities: Besides working and thinking, he might go for a stroll. He would only drink buttered skim milk, and have one cookie in the afternoon—his ailing stomach couldn’t take more than that. In the late afternoon or evening, he would have visitors over to go and look at a movie in his cinema. And that was his routine, every day. He didn’t try to do more.

"What Great Artists Need: Solitude," The Atlantic - http://bit.ly/1b3gDDQ

Surveillance and the Eye of God

Surveillance is sometimes spoken of as a God’s eye view of the world. This idea is explored in relation to the ‘objective gaze’ of disengaged reason in the Enlightenment and its technologically-reinforced modes in the twenty-first century. The rise of the eye-centred viewpoint is coincident with the ‘great disembedding’ of individuals from the social. This in turn also prompted the self-disciplines of modernity, which are now key aspects of the power-base of modern institutions. A crucial moment in this shift was Bentham’s panopticon proposal, in which the knowledge regime of secularism started to shape social imaginaries in relation to surveillance. While secular omniscience was sought through the surveillance gaze, and explored later in the work of Foucault, Debord and others, the eye-centred view is not without critics. We draw upon some biblical resources, notably, the story of Hagar, that query the centrality of ‘objective vision’. Instead, an ethic of care is proposed, based in part on a fresh understanding of the ‘eye of God’. It is argued that the implications of the care ethic go far deeper than current appeals to privacy, data protection, civil liberties or human rights.

David Lyon, "Surveillance and the Eye of God" Studies in Christian Ethics 27, 1, 2014 - http://sce.sagepub.com/content/27/1/21.abstract?rss=1 

I wrote about this some years ago and plan to return to it soon. Glad to see some of the main writers on the area continue to make this obvious connection between surveillance and theology.

Campbell's Law

The most common problem is that all these new systems—metrics, algo­rithms, automated decisionmaking processes—result in humans gaming the system in rational but often unpredictable ways. Sociologist Donald T. Campbell noted this dynamic back in the ’70s, when he articulated what’s come to be known as Campbell’s law: ‘The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,’ he wrote, ‘the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.’

"Why Quants Don't Know Everything," - http://wrd.cm/1aqjvdj

As I get ready for another year of metricized higher education, it's always nice to remind myself that social psychologists have already documented how policy metrics are quickly counteracted by the corrupting effects of the measure used. In the HE case, we get measured on student feedback, citations indices, and a range of other Key Performance Indicators (I was once advised to cite myself and colleagues to increase our H-index). In any case, given that the problems with this kind of thing are relatively well known, here's hoping that some wisdom may also filter into the system, as this article suggests. Campbell's 1976 paper can be found here: http://bit.ly/LZ2WcS.