But why, first of all, is this subject a significant one? And why does it appear especially pertinent at precisely the present moment? To begin with, growing numbers of “religious nones,” that is, people who have limited or no religious affiliation yet still claim to believe in some kind of divinity, signal an unprecedented shift in the American religious landscape, and many scholars who have sought to understand this phenomenon have indicated that something like “spirituality” might capture an important aspect of their outlook, if not their “identity.” We, for our part, certainly agree that this is a socially significant shift. Yet we also note that much of the interpretation and ensuing discussion about the “religious nones” draws upon and continues to assert uninvestigated understandings of religion and spirituality, where we would argue that the shifts underway should elicit some reconsideration of the terms that are deployed to analyze and interpret this allegedly “new” phenomenon.
Posts Tagged ‘study of religion’
Where on earth to begin with the rich but deeply disturbing material presented to us on BishopAccountability.org? (For an example, see the documents relating to the Province of St. Barbara.) How to confront the archive’s huge volume but also the extent of its moral charge?
I also have a number of questions about what we are, or should be, looking at—the proper boundaries of the object of our inquiry.
Ever since I was first asked to offer reflections on the study of religion and the Catholic sex abuse crisis, it has not been apparent to me that one could treat these events in a scholarly manner without cheapening them. How could one give a paper on this issue and not commit another violent act, by depersonalizing an act of abuse and transforming it into an abstract concept? One of the participants in the conference at Yale from which these posts to The Immanent Frame arise began by claiming “a scholarly response does not preclude a human one.” The force of this sentence comes from the scholarly audience’s wry knowledge that all too frequently a humanist scholar can be inhuman, as a result of giving a frame to complexity and flattening it so that life fits neatly into a conceptual scheme. In one of my favorite texts in the Jewish philosophical tradition, Moses Mendelssohn’s 1783 Jerusalem, Mendelssohn complained about the university professor who simply declaims “dead letter” from a podium. I am nervous that I am—that I cannot but be—that professor.
The child, as the psychoanalytic theorist Adam Phillips points out, “remains our most convincing essentialism.” By this he means that at a time when racial, gender, and even sexual identities are increasingly understood to be constructed, permeable, and ever shifting, the category of childhood—with its razor-sharp counterpoint of adulthood—remains steadfast and enduring. Legal definitions, of course, reinforce this clear demarcation, with eighteen being the moment one crosses the presumed divide from childhood into adulthood. That some adults remain perpetual children—regressed, childlike, or developmentally arrested—long after they cross the temporal barrier between childhood and adulthood is as indisputable as is our widely accepted awareness that continuums of development make childhood and adulthood highly variable, evolving, and overlapping identity positions for us all. A fifteen-year-old looks, acts (we hope), and understands very differently than a six-year-old, despite the fact that both are understood to be children.
In the discursive regime of sexual abuse, the operative silence is the victim’s. This silence stems from shame and intimidation. The speech that would overcome it is courageous, a precious gift that provides access to truth. This account of silence assumes a theory of power as repressive: abusers—who have power—silence their victims by exercising power over them; victims reclaim power through speech. As Michel Foucault reminds us, when critiquing such unidirectional conceptions of power and such optimistic assessments of speech, “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” I want to consider—briefly and provisionally—the silences operating in the public discourse concerning Paul Richard Shanley. I am particularly interested in how “sex abuse” discourses intertwine with and occlude “gay” discourses. Or, to state it more forcefully, I want to use Shanley’s case to suggest that any account of religion or gay politics in America that fails to provide a rich, nuanced description of both is an inadequate examination of either.
Many of these documents are appalling in the way that bureaucratic recitals of torture are appalling, in the way that ledgers of desecration are appalling. As I read them, I never want to ignore the mangled lives that they attempt so laboriously to contain—to conceal—within the boxes of church law or clinical psychology or (less frequently) moral theology.
I find mangled lives among those we now call the abused, but also among the abusers. I don’t say that lightly, abstractly. There are, in the identified abusers, some men who seem so far beyond our ordinary talk about ethics that they are “monsters” according to one old sense of the word. But there are other men—perfectly familiar, much sadder—who now get swept up into the same category of abuser.
Recently I am struck by the ambiguity of the concept of the religious. Reading Linda Heuman’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, and then turning to Bellah’s book itself, after having been reading Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, I feel as I have before how uncertain it is that we who write about religion in history are all writing about the same thing! Bellah’s book is an attempt to factor that uncertainty into the equation, for sure. In one part of Bellah’s overall reconstruction of “axial transitions” (including the birth of monotheism), he considers three case studies, two Native American and one Aboriginal Australian, with scrupulous care. The idea is to get a picture—before the shift to the ecumenical story, when the forces of the axial age change everything—of developmentally prior, not to say primordial, religions, without adopting anything as distortive as a model or a linear theory.
Physicians, psychologists, and criminal codes (i.e., Texas state law) largely agree on what constitutes the sexual abuse of children by an adult. It includes, but is not limited to, the sexual touching of any part of the body, clothed or unclothed; penetrative sex, including penetration of the mouth; encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity, including masturbation; intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child; showing children pornography, or using children to create pornography; and encouraging a child to engage in prostitution.
What I want to tackle, immediately, is the fraught relationship between effect and affect in this subject for those of us who seek to interpret it. It is difficult to write or think about sex abuse without being affected by its circulating effects, without feeling that the very practices of academic analysis do something suffocating to its experience. To think about sex abuse in an academic context could suggest that we might wish to think away its awfulness; to write about sex abuse could suggest that we seek to argue away its visceral trauma.