Volume 1, Dossier 2: The Poetics of the Sacred and the Politics of Scholarship

This second dossier of WKO focuses on ways in which scholars shaped by the diverse realities of a particular faith tradition negotiate their own worlds and knowledges, with a view to social transformation. The dossier at heart maps six geographies of encounter between experiences of the sacred and scholarly knowledge production, and it does this across a number of academic disciplines, including religious studies, history, anthropology, theology, and women’s studies. The six authors of the narratives as well as the two respondents came together a number of years ago at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA. (As Walter Mignolo has described the location of WKO in the Introduction to the first dossier, we too consider ourselves one node in a decentralized network with many nodes, in a variety of places). We formed a research group at Duke in 2001 to focus on issues of faith and knowledge, as inflected by culture, gender, race, and power. Through intense engagement we became friends. Most of us self-identify as Christian, though we disagree about the meanings of this claim in our own lives and beyond. We do take seriously each other’s different christianities and have sought to enable each other to understand the formation of our differences. We are all committed to the tradition of the religious left, seeking to bring our particular faith commitments to the struggle for social transformation and justice.

Our subject formation is diverse indeed, disrupting the notion that Christianity is one homogenous tradition. As our narratives make abundantly clear, we name who we are differently. Richenel “Muz” Ansano was formed in the Catholic tradition of his Curaçaoan culture of origin. He was trained as an anthropologist and now describes himself as a practitioner of energy medicine . Teresa Berger, originally from Europe, is a Catholic feminist theologian. William Hart is a philosopher and theorist of religion, socialized in the Black church. Nelson Maldonado-Torres is a Latino theorist of religion and ethnic studies scholar trained in philosophy and religious thought, originally from Puerto Rico. Mary McClintock Fulkerson is a white Southern Presbyterian feminist theologian. Historian Susan Thorne, too, has her roots in the evangelical Protestantism of the American South, but has recently converted to Catholicism. Kathy Rudy is a queer, theologically trained scholar of women’s studies, again from the United States. Maurice Wallace is a scholar of English literature and African American studies as well as a local Baptist pastor in Durham, North Carolina.

In the texts that follow, the authors attend to a divide that has shaped much of modernity’s scholarly labor. This divide can be described variously as between faith and knowledge, between confessional and critical thinking, between saint and scholar, or between subject formation and object analysis. The authors interrogate this divide by refusing its explanatory power in their narratives and by weaving together autobiographical narrative; scholarly analysis of the formation of racialized, sexualized, gendered, and class-specific subjects; critical insight into the production of scholarly disciplines; and attention to cultural context and geopolitics. The essays were inspired by the hope that postmodern epistemologies might provide one way for us to hold together the discordant systems of meaning we live with, especially our religious faith and our scholarly knowledge production.

As each author maps her own life’s encounter with the poetics of the sacred and the politics of scholarship, a richly diverse terrain is rendered visible, namely plural contemporary ways of being both scholars and non-secularists. Even as the ways of faith represented here are disparate, the narratives share the conviction that our struggles to practice faith, knowledge, and justice are mutually enhancing. Our WKO dossier thus seeks to create a space in which it is possible to imagine forms of scholarly knowledge unembarrassed by commitments to the sacred. Such a space challenges the forces that relegate religious faith to the private realm of uncritical (and unstable?) emotion. Such privatization and trivialization are consequences of the sacred-secular divide typically identified with modernity. They also continue to undergird the disciplinary division of labor in academia and function to isolate progressive political forces in the academy from local activist communities, religious and non-religious alike.

We hope our struggles will be of interest beyond the Christian as well as the global faith community. We would like here to suggest that the sacred-secular divide we find so problematic has underwritten the colonial project on which modernity rests and through which globalization’s costs and benefits have been inequitably distributed. Christian churches played a central role in this process in the form of foreign missions. The complex and sometimes contradictory articulation of Christianity and Euro-American colonialism marked Christianity’s own leap into modernity, a leap that was prefigured in Christianity’s early alliance with the emergent nation-state. The modern cast of missionary imperialism lay specifically in its replication if not invention of the sacred-secular divide. Christianity’s claims over the Other’s faiths it sought to displace were predicated on Christianity’s self-representation as uniquely rational. This is but another angle from which the present can be understood in terms of a Weberian Iron Cage. The missionary hubris of modern Christianity forged the rationalist pretensions from which secular humanism has now cast out its institutional forebearer. Christians can no more foreswear the modernity from which they have been forcibly ejected than we can the colonialism on which it rests.

The solution, in our view, lies not in rationalism’s own missionary contempt for faith of all suasions. We seek, instead, to unpack the choices modernity presents. We have found helpful in this regard the work of subaltern theorist, Dipesh Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty argues that there is something missing in the bifurcation of critical secular disciplines and the participatory knowledges of the sacred. The Marxist notion of history on which he focuses secularizes and thereby reductively misrepresents the god-sustained world of the subaltern. While this is not an argument that the subaltern’s world should be left untouched by secular knowledges (in fact it must include the tools for analysis of the global power arrangements that reproduce unjust relations), the secularist paradigm must itself be subjected to the subversive force of the world of the believer.

We chose an autobiographical format for our reflections, rather than taking on the different scholarly disciplines of history, anthropology, religious studies, and theology, or attempting to find a “theory” that can map the secular/religious divide. The dossier employs narrative as a genre since narrative can bypass conflicting theories, the insider-outsider problem, and contradictorily held commitments. Narrative creates a unity out of subjective multiplicity and irreconcilable theories. If religion can be a pharmakon—both a poison and a cure, as Hart suggests in his essay—perhaps the religious narrative, too, can be a pharmakon, a poison/cure, for some of the divides of modern knowledge production. If nothing else, our narratives allow for the intersections of worlds to which secular scholarship is loathe to attend, as they chart encounters with ghosts, gods, saints, ancestors, and Jesus (or Mohammed, or Buddha, or Krishna?). Even as our narratives resist ahistorical romantizations, they suggest the occasional eruption of promise and possibility associated with faithful practice and the doing of justice.

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Ansano's autobiographical memories of growing up in Curacao, a Dutch holding in the Caribbean, illustrates Ansano's challenge, not only to himself but to his reader, to merge the spiritual and the intellectual in order to forge a path through humanity.

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This AutoBioTheoEthnoGraphy seeks to chart both the movements of the Spirit in a life of faith, and the subject-formation of a diasporic European Catholic feminist theologian. What becomes clear is that the tools of scholarly analysis and narration are not adequate to the display of this "both". The poetics of faith, e.g. of testimony and of prayer, will have to interrupt the scholarly voice, again and again, to create space for a claim that remains beyond scholarly categories: Solo Dios basta.

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Download Becoming Who I Am (pdf - 221.66 KB)

"Becoming Who I Am" is an attempt to give a purely naturalistic account of the place of "spirit" in my life. I refer to the spiritualities of sex, sport, violence, and especially religion. Thus the subtitle: "A Spiritual Auto biography in Seven Acts." Each act deals with an episode in my life that contributed greatly to my spiritual formation and deformation, to the process of becoming who I am. This "spiritual autobiography" is a response to problems of identity that arise from the from the indelible effect that Biblical narratives have had on my life in light of my evidenced-based conviction that humans are natural beings without remainder. As a corollary, I hold that religion is a sublime product of the human imagination that God(s) is our creature and that we have an ethical and political responsibility for how that creature is used.

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"Narrative of a Nice Southern White Girl" narrates the dynamics of being Protestant, white and female in the southern U.S. From its thin, moralist piety, its class vantage, to its racialized and sexualized constraints, this faith tradition can be seen as part of the larger project of Protestant civil religion. The author thinks through what is retrievable in such a piety by arguing that it would be as dangerous to reduce it to its predictable sociological effects as it is to attempt to protect religious faith from the interrogation lenses of social criticism.

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Download Southern Comfort (pdf - 118.45 KB)

Susan Thorne's essay applies the narrative conventions of social history to a white Southerner's faith journey. Religion figures in her autobiographical reflections as institutional space and social network, as site of community activism and as spiritual encounter with the divine. Her conclusions urge secular progressives to take religious subjectivity more seriously, to develop categories of scholarly analysis that don't foreclose political mobilization.

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This essay struggles through the complicated intersection of depression, anger, and spirituality as experienced by a lesbian trying to find her place in church and in life. I am trying to find, through this personal writing project, a way to talk about the spiritual entities of everyday life. While some might call these experiences psychological, the portrait I try to paint here is one that blurs psychology, God, and entertainment. As an ongoing effort to try to blur the disciplinary boundaries of human life, this essay wants to make sense of things, inside out.