Deathless questions

At a lull of conversation in class, the poet Robert Creeley would ask his students, “Any more deathless questions?” It is no easy invitation to follow; doing so might seem to imply that one’s question is weighty enough to be immortal, or challenging enough that it could never be met with an answer. Yet Creeley—as much a poet of “the things themselves” as anyone—wouldn’t be disappointed with the apparently ordinary. Those questions too, he meant to say, carry within themselves the infinite.

This TIF interview series presents conversations with some of the leading scholars, activists, and public intellectuals who are changing how we think about the lines between sacred and secular. Like Creeley’s invitation, their work is a challenge to reconfigure familiar categories, to take old questions of meaning, politics, and conflict, and ask them again in new ways.

Read Nathan Schneider’s interviews with Mark Lilla and David Kyuman Kim at ssrc.org.

October 24th, 2011

The shining and the shiny: An interview with Sean Dorrance Kelly

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Sean Dorrance Kelly is chair of Harvard University’s philosophy department and has published on topics like cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and aesthetics. For his first general-audience book, though, he teamed up with his former teacher Hubert Dreyfus and took on the Western canon. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, published this year by Free Press, is a daring proposal for a new embrace of ancient polytheism. Looking back to the epics of Homer, they find resources for thwarting the nihilism that has haunted some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I spoke with Kelly over cappuccinos in a noisy Midtown Manhattan diner, while he was waiting to catch a train back up to Boston.

Read The shining and the shiny: An interview with Sean Dorrance Kelly.
September 14th, 2011

Nothing is ever lost: An interview with Robert Bellah

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Both an influential scholar and a public intellectual, Robert Bellah is one of the foremost sociologists of his generation. His books and articles have set in motion lasting conversations about the role of religion in public life, both in the United States and around the world. Since retiring from thirty years of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Bellah has been at work on his most ambitious book yet, the recently released Religion in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press).

Read Nothing is ever lost: An interview with Robert Bellah.
August 17th, 2011

Religious liberty, minorities, and Islam: An interview with Saba Mahmood

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Saba Mahmood is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and whose work raises challenging questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, agency and freedom. Her book Politics of Piety, a study of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Cairo, questions the analytical and political claims of feminism as well as the secular liberal assumptions on the basis of which such movements are often judged. In the volume Is Critique Secular? she joins Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown in rethinking the Danish cartoon controversy as a conflict between blasphemy and free speech, between secular and religious world views. Now, Mahmood is working on a comparative project about the right to religious liberty and minority-majority relations in the Middle East. We spoke over breakfast in New York City.

Read Religious liberty, minorities, and Islam: An interview with Saba Mahmood.
August 3rd, 2011

The suspicious revolution: An interview with Talal Asad

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Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles, Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both global context and the ways in which their interaction has been shaped by local histories, in the West and the Middle East. Most recently, he co-authored (along with Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler) Is Critique Secular? (University of California Press, 2009) and contributed a chapter to the just published SSRC volume Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Read The suspicious revolution: An interview with Talal Asad.
June 7th, 2011

The Rubicon is in Egypt: An interview with Azza Karam

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Azza Karam is the Senior Culture Advisor at the United Nations Population Fund, where she has pioneered efforts to make human development work more attentive to religion. Karam was born in Egypt and grew up, as the daughter of an Egyptian diplomat, in countries around the world, eventually earning a doctorate in international relations from the University of Amsterdam. Her several books include Transnational Political Islam (2004) and Islamisms, Women and the State (1998). Prior to joining UNFPA, she worked for the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and the United Nations Development Program, among other organizations.

Read The Rubicon is in Egypt: An interview with Azza Karam.
April 26th, 2011

Reading the paranormal writing us: An interview with Jeffrey Kripal

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Jeffrey Kripal, who chairs the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, is an authority on the mysterious. His books include a wildly controversial study of Ramakrishna’s mysticism; a history of Esalen, an influential spiritual retreat center tucked away in the cliffs of Big Sur; and, now, a probing investigation of several very mysterious thinkers: Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.

Read Reading the paranormal writing us: An interview with Jeffrey Kripal.
April 1st, 2011

Implicated and enraged: An interview with Judith Butler

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Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is among the leading social theorists alive today. Her most recent books are Frames of War (2009) and The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (2011), an SSRC volume that puts her in conversation with Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West. As we carried out our conversation by email between Brooklyn and Berkeley, uprisings were occurring across the Arab world, and a U.S.-led coalition had just begun conducting airstrikes in support of rebel forces in Libya. We had discussed some similar questions, and some different ones, a year earlier in an interview for Guernica magazine.

Read Implicated and enraged: An interview with Judith Butler.
February 17th, 2011

The science of people power: An interview with Gene Sharp

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Gene Sharp is the foremost strategist of nonviolent social change alive today. He holds a doctorate in political theory from Oxford and has had positions at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Books like The Politics of Nonviolent Action and Waging Nonviolent Struggle, together with numerous pamphlets and other writings, have inspired and guided popular movements around the world for decades. They have been credited, most recently, as a major influence on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. He continues his work as Senior Scholar of the Albert Einstein Institution, which operates out of his home in East Boston.

Read The science of people power: An interview with Gene Sharp.
January 26th, 2011

What is Oprah?: An interview with Kathryn Lofton

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In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, just out from University of California Press, Yale religion professor Kathryn Lofton orchestrates an encounter between American religious history and daytime television. Oprah Winfrey and the media empire that bears here name, Lofton finds, bear the rudiments of modern, neoliberal womanhood, conveyed through a resolutely non-religious spirituality.

Read What is Oprah?: An interview with Kathryn Lofton.
January 10th, 2011

Greedy time: An interview with Patrick Lee Miller

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Patrick Lee Miller is an assistant professor of philosophy at Duquesne University and the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Continuum). His work focuses primarily on ancient Greek philosophy, albeit in constant conversation with modern thinkers. Becoming God examines the early conflict between Heraclitean philosophy and the Parmenidean metaphysics that was to become the cornerstone of Plato’s thought, and hence of the tradition of Western philosophy that followed in his wake.

Read Greedy time: An interview with Patrick Lee Miller.
December 10th, 2010

Endgame capitalism: An interview with Simon During

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Simon During is a professor at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, having previously taught at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Melbourne, and elsewhere. In addition to editing The Cultural Studies Reader, now in its third edition, he is the author of several books, including Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Harvard, 2002) and Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory and Post-Secular Modernity (Routledge, 2010). In both, he brings questions of the secular to bear on historical, literary sources both obscure and revelatory. His Compulsory Democracy: towards a literary history is forthcoming.

Read Endgame capitalism: An interview with Simon During.
November 19th, 2010

More than politics: An interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio

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As National Research Director for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Charles Villa-Vicencio was intimately involved in the historic process that followed the collapse of apartheid and paved the way for a new social order. As a theologian, prior to the commission, he had spoken out against the apartheid regime, writing and editing numerous books that helped lead South African Christians out of complacency about their government’s policies. After the commission concluded, he founded the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, in Cape Town, and now advises peacebuilding efforts around the world. His most recent book is Walk with Us and Listen: Political Reconciliation in Africa (Georgetown University Press, 2009). We spoke at the offices of Georgetown University’s Conflict Resolution Program, where Villa-Vicencio serves as a visiting scholar.

Read More than politics: An interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio.
October 27th, 2010

Romanticism, reflexivity, design: An interview with Colin Jager

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Colin Jager’s reading of the British romantics places them at the center of debates about religion, secularism, and pluralism today. In The Book of God, he traces the ways in which design arguments for God’s existence—predecessors to the current Intelligent Design movement—were developed and discussed in British literature from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. His interpretation challenges those in the habit of trying to disentangle the religious and the secular, in both the past and the present. Jager is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University and is currently at work on a second book, After Secularism: Romanticism, Literature, Religion.

Read Romanticism, reflexivity, design: An interview with Colin Jager.
October 12th, 2010

Peace from the ground up: An interview with Myla Leguro

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After spending two years earning her master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies—and having previously been a visiting fellow at the Institute—Myla Leguro recently returned to her native Mindanao, a violence-ridden island in the southern Philippines. There, for more than two decades, she has been working for Catholic Relief Services to forge peaceful relationships between rival indigenous, Muslim, and Christian groups, as well as the government in Manila. For Leguro, practice comes before theory, and the local precedes the national and the global. When she thinks about religion, too, practical, context-specific steps toward getting different communities talking with each other trump concerns about abstract doctrines or clashing civilizations.

Read Peace from the ground up: An interview with Myla Leguro.
September 23rd, 2010

The future of China’s past: An interview with Mayfair Yang

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Anthropologist Mayfair Yang teaches in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has done pioneering work discovering, describing, and reflecting on the fate of traditional culture in post-revolutionary China through numerous articles and edited volumes, two documentary films, and her book Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: the Art of Social Relationships in China. Throughout, she brings the insights of post-colonial theory and gender studies to bear on the living remnants of ancient ways of life. She is currently writing a new book, Re-Enchanting Modernity: Sovereignty, Ritual Economy, and Indigenous Civil Order in Coastal China.

Read The future of China’s past: An interview with Mayfair Yang.
July 23rd, 2010

Cosmic war on a global scale: An interview with Mark Juergensmeyer

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As director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mark Juergensmeyer brings the sociology of religion to bear on the analysis of violent conflict in the contemporary world. His recent books include Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, both published by University of California Press, and he is currently working on God and War, based on his 2006 Stafford Little Lectures at Princeton University. Together with the SSRC’s Craig Calhoun and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, he is a co-editor of the forthcoming volume Rethinking Secularism. We spoke at his home office at UCSB, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Read Cosmic war on a global scale: An interview with Mark Juergensmeyer.
June 21st, 2010

Religion, science, and the humanities: An interview with Barbara Herrnstein Smith

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Barbara Herrnstein Smith is a distinguished literary scholar at both Brown and Duke, who, since her undergraduate days, has had a special interest in the uses and misuses of scientific psychology. Her latest book, which stems from her 2006 Terry Lectures at Yale University, is Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (Yale, 2010). It explores the ways in which contemporary cognitive science and evolutionary psychology are being called upon to, once and for all, explain religion. Also, don’t miss her contributions to The Immanent Frame’s discussion “A cognitive revolution?

http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/category/a-cognitive-revolution/
Read Religion, science, and the humanities: An interview with Barbara Herrnstein Smith.
June 1st, 2010

Spirituality, entangled: An interview with Courtney Bender

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Courtney Bender is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-chair of the SSRC’s Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life. As a sociologist of religion, she pioneers novel ways of studying religion as it is lived and articulated in contemporary American culture. Her latest book, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming in June), emerged from her research in Cambridge, Massachusetts among people whose “spiritual but not religious” practices and outlooks have been unaccounted for by conventional methods used to identify and study communities of belief.

Read Spirituality, entangled: An interview with Courtney Bender.