Pamela Klassen

Pamela Klassen is professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, where she is Vice-Dean Undergraduate and International in the Faculty of Arts & Science. She teaches graduate and undergraduate students in areas of the anthropology and history of Christianity and colonialism in North America, religion in the public sphere, and religion, law, and gender. From 2015-17 she is Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Anthropology of Modern Religion at the Ludwig-Uhland-Institut für Empirische Kulturwissenschaft at the University of Tübingen in Germany. She currently holds the Anneliese Maier Research Award from the Humboldt Foundation, in support of a five-year international project entitled “Religion and Public Memory in Multicultural Societies,” undertaken in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Monique Scheer of the University of Tübingen. She is author of many books and articles, including Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America (Princeton University Press, 2001) and Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity (University of California Press, 2011), which won a 2012 American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence. She has two books forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press: The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indian Land, and Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church, State, and the People, co-authored with Paul Christopher Johnson and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.

Posts by Pamela Klassen:

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

Secular Christian power and the spiritual invention of nations

Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonIn the Americas, missionary colonialism prospered on the sharp edge of secular Christian power. Cutting up land with a blade that reflected Christian glory on one side and secular state governance on the other, the new nations of the Americas were made through a process of violent spiritual-political invention. New Christian-infused forms of spiritual jurisdiction—royal proclamations and constitutions—were written on top of already-existing Indigenous laws and alliances also rooted in spiritual claims. Indigenous scholars such as John Borrows and Audra Simpson have made clear that for scholars to understand ongoing Indigenous sovereignty requires attention to history, to protocol, and to how Indigenous stories are both told and withheld.

I would add that thinking about Indigeneity in North America—or Turtle Island—requires careful attention to how ceremony, protocol, and invocations of the spirit have shaped all claims to sovereignty on this land, including those of settler-colonial nations.

Read the rest of Secular Christian power and the spiritual invention of nations.
Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Divine pervasion and the change that isn’t

Pervasive presence—or just ordinary ubiquity—is one of the main strategies in Oprah’s attempt to serve as a guide through the jumble of consumer choices, spiritual makeovers, and “original individuality” that is “secular” living in contemporary North America. Reading The Gospel of an Icon gave me a heightened awareness of this ubiquity, a new recognition of the way in which Oprah really is everywhere. As Lofton puts it in one of her clarifying turns of phrase: “She is the divine pervasion.”

Read the rest of Divine pervasion and the change that isn’t.
Friday, December 17th, 2010

Blinded by the light, or, Why can’t liberals see?

Where a century ago liberal Christians (and even some anthropologists) were citing Marx and Bergson in the hope of transforming their tradition into an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movement of revolution and revitalization, the current merger of continental philosophy and what Ruth Marshall has called Pentecostal “political spiritualities” seems driven more by anthropologists’ theoretical musings than by a broad Pentecostal reception of Žižek or Badiou (although this too is changing). With this earlier liberal Christian engagement in mind, I was particularly struck by a metaphor common to several of the essays (in Global Christianity, Global Critique), in which liberals—both secular and Christian—are diagnosed with blindness, or, more broadly, with a sensual deficit that disables them from seeing the distorting effects of their own triumphalist rationalism.

Read the rest of Blinded by the light, or, Why can’t liberals see?.
Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

The spiritual politics of healing

Debates regarding health care have struck at the core of social and political imaginaries of what it means for both bodies and societies to thrive. As Obama’s health care reforms pointedly demonstrated, debate in North America about the respective roles of government and private interests in the administration of health care has been a catalyst of enthusiastic civic engagement, with different results on either side of the Canadian-American border. While much of this civic engagement rests upon a shared assumption that biomedical health care, based on Western scientific method, is the best kind of care for suffering bodies, the politics of health care is also shaped by a spiritual politics, divided along several axes.

Read the rest of The spiritual politics of healing.
Monday, July 12th, 2010

Power spots

“Shoveling fog” is Courtney Bender’s acute phrase for the work of “studying spirituality,” an amorphous term that has suffered much scorn and derision at the hands of both scholars and skeptics, nonplussed as they are by its conceptual vagueness and lack of clear social boundaries. While The New Metaphysicals does not tidy up the concepts or borders of spirituality, it goes a long way toward providing a new way of seeing its contours in the twenty-first-century United States, by zooming in on the present and past of metaphysical adepts in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Carefully attending to a network of metaphysical practices, which include past life regression, yoga, Reiki, out-of-body experiences, and a “mystical discussion group,” Bender finds that though these practices have a long and storied past in the salons, woods, and lecture halls of Cambridge, their contemporary practitioners are not really that interested in claiming, or even knowing about, such lineages.

Read the rest of Power spots.
Friday, February 19th, 2010

Fantasies of sovereignty

Montreal [site of the 2009 AAR meetings] was a particularly appropriate site for a return to civil religion. A civic polity not part of the United States, shaped by both the political traditions of Rousseau and the Roman Catholic Church, its very foreignness forced the US-based panelists to catch themselves when using what David Kyuman Kim called the “register of the collective ‘we’.” At the same time, Quebec’s own conflicted history of “civil religion,” rooted in profound contests over sovereignty, was a reminder of how civic identity is premised, at least in part, on the violence of imperial conquest—in this case, the French subjugation of the Mohawk, Cree, and other First Nations, and in turn that of the French by the English. These legacies of conquest still haunt any possibility of civic covenant in North America, and probably always will.

Read the rest of Fantasies of sovereignty.
Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

Repossessing the past

By some sort of happy coincidence—or to use the surrealist term referenced by Jeremy Biles, “objective chance”—I watched Youth Without Youth the same day that I viewed another movie about the “facts” of enchantment as they appeared in the twentieth century, Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997). Though doing so with admittedly different artistic aspirations and audiences, both movies allude to historical characters and controversies in the study of religion.

Read the rest of Repossessing the past.