ISHS: International Society for Heresy Studies Mon, 03 Feb 2020 21:59:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ISHS Fourth Biennial Conference, Call for Papers: “Heresy: Between Choice and Compulsion” /2019/11/13/ishs-fourth-biennial-conference-call-for-papers-heresy-between-choice-and-compulsion/ Wed, 13 Nov 2019 19:10:20 +0000 /?p=1379

Continue reading »]]> Please note that we have extended this Call For Papers to February 20, 2020.

International Society for Heresy Studies

Fourth Biennial Conference 2020
Call for Papers

Heresy: Between Choice and Compulsion

Our word “heresy” comes from the Greek verb hairein, “to choose.” While the term in Greek was originally value-neutral, one method of maligning heretics as ancient as the Christian invention of heresiology itself is to depict ideological enemies as making intentionally deviant choices. Of course, individuals and groups derided as heretics might construe the origins of their belief, thought, practices, or perspectives more positively, whether as resulting from the fruits of reason, a preponderance of the evidence, or even from an innate evolutionary and biological compulsion, as has been recently argued by social scientists such as Jonathan Haidt and John Hibbing. At the same time, these lines of argumentation are equally available to those propagandizing or policing such differences as “heresy.”

For its Fourth Biennial Conference, the International Society for Heresy Studies seeks proposals navigating this gulf between choice and compulsion. Successful submissions will grapple with the degree to which their subjects have chosen dissenting views or whether their views have been compelled by different means, whether through reason, environment, culture, receptivity to new thinking, genetic predisposition, or some other force. Proposals are encouraged to approach the topic of choice from a perspective relevant to their chosen era and culture and to the sources supplying evidence for their subject, without ignoring modern research or theory on choice, freedom, coercion, etc. Submissions are sought from all disciplines intersecting with heresy, from religious studies in late antiquity to literatures, philosophy, and politics in any century of the common era. Papers using methods from neuroscience, political science, and social psychology are also encouraged.

Please submit a proposal of no more than 300 words to Robert Royalty, Jr., by February 20, 2020 to be considered for the conference, to take place June 11-12, 2020, at New York University. Submitters will be notified by March 1, 2020.

[Download a PDF of this CFP]

exCommunicated Call for Papers – Heresy and Freedom of Speech (CFP Deadline: Feb. 15, 2019) /2018/12/12/call-for-papers-heresy-and-freedom-of-speech/ Wed, 12 Dec 2018 22:20:48 +0000 /?p=1352 Call for Papers
exCommunicated, Vol. 4, No. 2

Heresy and Freedom of Speech

Every heretic sooner or later faces issues of freedom of speech (or its opposite: censorship). While there may be mute heresies of a ritual nature, most of the time, heresy expresses itself in language, and it would not be termed heresy if this dissenting discourse were not in tension with normative ways of talking about faith, doctrine, and values.

In a secular context, the principles enshrined in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) have long defined free speech as a central pillar of liberal democracy, safeguarding political rights, equal protection, intellectual flourishing, and societal harmony. However, the twenty-first century has ushered in a new phase of uncertainty about the value of free speech. Increasingly, the idea of unfettered, uncensored expression has become a polarizing issue: While the right has made freedom of speech its latest battle cry, those on the left of the political spectrum worry that free speech can be “weaponized.” Advocates of hate speech laws call for censorship of certain expressions, and many on the left would consider a free speech absolutist a heretic in their own ranks. Clearly, what for some is the heresy of free speech is for others the heresy of censorship. It is out of this clash of ideas that our call for papers emerges.

This next issue of exCommunicated wants to explore the issue of free speech and censorship from many different angles, including the artistic, religious, political, and philosophical angles. Please submit contributions of up to 1,200 words to Bernard Schweizer at  by February 15, 2019.

[Download a PDF of this CFP]

Vol. 4, No. 1 of exCommunicated is out! /2018/09/10/vol-4-no-1-of-excommunicated-is-out/ Mon, 10 Sep 2018 01:53:55 +0000 /?p=1336

Continue reading »]]> The latest issue of exCommunicated is out. This issue we are reflecting on our society’s most recent conference, held June 15-16 in London. Special thanks is owed to the Queen Mary Centre for the Study of Literature and Religion and the Institute for English Studies at Senate House, London, without whose support our Third Conference would not have been possible.

Crossing Borders:The Third Conference of the International Society for Heresy StudiesSuzanne Hobson Conference Organizer /2018/09/09/crossing-borders/ Sun, 09 Sep 2018 21:03:02 +0000 /?p=1200

Continue reading »]]> QMCRLE

The Third Conference of the International Society for Heresy Studies was organised in collaboration with the Queen Mary Centre for the Study of Literature and Religion and the Institute for English Studies at Senate House, London.8942_uol_ies_logo_AW_pos_CMYK This was the first time the conference had crossed the Atlantic and the occasion suggested the theme of the conference – Heresy and Borders. At a time when border controls are being tightened in Europe and the US, and against the background of the UK’s “hostile environment” for immigrants, it seemed important to ask what work the concept of ‘heresy’ might do as a means of rethinking physical and ideological boundaries.

Daniel Trilling, Editor for The New Humanist

Daniel Trilling, Editor for The New Humanist

Keynote addresses by Daniel Trilling and Anshuman Mondal looked in different ways at how legal and political systems intended to protect freedoms end up trapping the very people they were supposed to help. Trilling spoke about the research for his recent book, Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Polity, 2018), where he follows the ‘everyday’ lives of refugees caught up in the European migrant crisis. Mondal asked searching questions of a liberal tradition in political thought that by grounding religious freedoms on a concept of “core personhood” simply cannot think the way that a culture might be ascribed or, to quote Mondal, “socially constituted all the way down”. This has consequences, he argued, for the way in which we understand free speech and the offence caused by the exercise of supposedly ‘free’ speech to racist and harmful ends. The keynotes focused on contemporary crises in freedom of movement and freedom of speech, but there were also excellent papers focused on the same themes in the Early Modern period. Mike A. Zuber described the Moritz family who were forced to leave their native Germany as a result of Peter Moritz’s refusal to subscribe to any single Christian confession. Zuber spoke of the impact of these trials on the family as a whole and especially on Peter’s wife, Sophia Regina, who was obliged to “share her husband’s conviction” as well as his punishment. Emily Vine explored the re-emergence of anti-Semitic narratives of Jewish infanticide after 1656 when the Jewish community were readmitted to London. Vine used early modern maps of London to illustrate the proximity in which these different communities lived as well as the rigidity of the imagined and physical borders that grew up between them.

Anshuman Mondal, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of East Anglia, delivering his Keynote Address, ‘Hate Speech, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion’

Anshuman Mondal, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of East Anglia, delivering his Keynote Address, ‘Hate Speech, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion’

A Hyde Park Protest, 1867 (Source)

A Hyde Park Protest, 1867 ()

The location of the conference was pertinent to a number of other papers too. Senate House sits at the heart of Bloomsbury which has, since the nineteenth-century, been a centre of freethought and radical artistic and political expression. Matt Ingleby drew attention to the railings which make up the boundaries of many of the private garden squares in Bloomsbury. Although seeming to uphold a logic of exclusion, these railings have also been put to anarchist purposes as in the Hyde Park Railings Affair of 1866 when they were torn up and used as weapons against the police. Rob Dickens’s work in the nearby Swedenborg Society archives raised the possibility of a nascent orthodoxy even within this most unorthodox of London New Churches, while Karina Jakubowicz turned to Bloomsbury’s most famous resident, Virginia Woolf, finding suggestions of a Darwinian Eden in The Voyage Out.

Keynote speaker, Devorah Baum, author of Feeling Jewish and The Jewish Joke

Keynote speaker, Devorah Baum, author of Feeling Jewish and The Jewish Joke

The border-crossings suggested by the idea of heresy are not always physical or geographical; they might also be metaphorical, implying the passage from the orthodox to the unorthodox, the appropriate to the inappropriate, the sacred to the profane. Heresy in this mode is often understood as going too far or transgression of the proper limits. One of the themes that emerged strongly from the conference was the role of humour in testing and/or bypassing such limits as well as the dangers in assuming ‘heresy’ of this kind to be the proper and protected function of humour. Devorah Baum’s brilliantly composed and delivered keynote focused on the importance of the joke, and on the Jewish joke in particular, as a means of probing the borders of difference. On the same lines, Bernard Schweizer’s paper offered a new conceptual model for humour aiming to displace the moral judgement that seeks to discriminate between supposedly harmless and/or offensive forms of laughter.

Ulysses, James Joyce ()

The date of the conference – 15-16 June – was fortuitous, coinciding with Bloomsday and the international celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloomsday provided the background for a panel on a novel that was banned for obscenity in 1921, and that is rich in references to particular Christian heresies. Alison Grace Myers gave a virtuoso reading of a tiny moment in Ulysses (Bloom’s throwing of crumbs into the river) to demonstrate the complex layering of Jewish and Christian religious rituals in the novel. Gregory Erickson’s paper took the twentieth-century ‘rediscovery’ of Gnosticism as a framework for understanding historiography in Ulysses, while Michael J. Abraham argued for a reading of the gender-crossing in Ulysses outside the dominant theoretical paradigm of gender performativity. Ulysses is perhaps the ur-text for those who would describe Modernist literature in general as ‘heretical’, a word applied loosely in this context to suggest a range of offences against tradition, propriety and the literary and political Establishment. Papers by Christos Hadjiyannis and Henry Mead served as reminders that the use of heresy and orthodoxy as terms of artistic and literary criticism began and took on particular political weight with modernists such as T.E. Hulme and T.S. Eliot. Their papers countered the tendency to separate the heretics (Joyce, Woolf) too rigidly from the orthodox (Eliot, Hulme, Wyndham Lewis) by pointing out that, as in other contexts, the boundaries between the two are unstable.

Heresy and Borders was a fully international event involving scholars from across Europe, the US and Asia, and, as with the previous ISHS conferences, showed the value of ‘heresy’ as point of intersection and conversation between leading scholars working in what might otherwise seem disparate disciplines and fields. But, staying with the theme of borders for a moment, it also seems necessary to acknowledge those who were missing from the event because they were unable to meet the increasingly stringent visa requirements for entry into the UK, or because of the prohibitive cost of travel especially for those on precarious contracts or who are based in countries with less generously funded higher education institutions than some. As many have argued, boundaries and borders of all kinds have proliferated over the last few decades and the difficulties of crossing them have grown. It has thus become increasingly important to make space for the discussion of issues around freedom of speech, representation and freedom of movement as these spaces have become increasingly hard to establish and defend. The forum provided by the ISHS is one such space and the challenge for future society members and conference organizers will be how to protect and expand it.

Fun ScholarshipGeremy Carnes /2018/09/09/fun-scholarship/ Sun, 09 Sep 2018 20:40:18 +0000 /?p=1229

Continue reading »]]> Rigorous. Meticulous. Judicious. Trenchant. Such are the adjectives often applied to good scholarship. Rarely do we see someone’s scholarship described as “fun,” and when we do, it doesn’t sound like much of a compliment. But why should that be the case? Those of us who are scholars chose the path we did because we enjoyed it, because we found much of the intellectual work—whether our own or others’—to be, well, fun. Yet fun is often a casualty at academic conferences and in academic publications. We believe our work is a serious matter—it is a serious matter—and that seriousness of purpose seems inconsistent with a sense of fun and playfulness.

Bernard Schweizer, delivering his paper, ‘Humour and Boundaries: Rethinking the Heresy of Laughter’

Bernard Schweizer, delivering his paper, ‘Humour and Boundaries: Rethinking the Heresy of Laughter’

My most powerful impression of the Third Conference of the International Society for Heresy Studies is the openness with which this group of scholars embraces the fun they find in their work. In the first panel on the first day of the conference Bernard Schweizer discussed the humor of heretical jokes. His work makes the seriousness of those most unserious of things—jokes—perfectly apparent, while never losing sight of the pleasures both of the jokes and of the intellectual work of comprehending how and why jokes work (or, as is often the case, don’t work). That panel was followed by the first of our keynote speakers, Devorah Baum, whose discussion of Jewish jokes was simultaneously hysterically funny and powerfully incisive. I have never laughed so much during a conference presentation, and rarely have I learned so much from one.

And then there was the panel to which I contributed, titled “The Fantastic, the Gothic and the Occult.” I had thought that my paper on the early Gothic (“How Heresy Became Entertainment”) might be perceived as frivolous, but it was an excellent complement to the work on nineteenth-century mediumship and twentieth-century science fiction that my co-panelists presented. The pleasures contained in the heretical/unorthodox works of the writers and thinkers we discussed were at the forefront of our discussion, because why would we even be discussing these writers and thinkers today if they had not been appealing to their contemporaries? And all of this is to say nothing of the pleasure I took in the conversations I had during our coffee breaks and at the Society dinner on the final evening of the conference.

A depiction of women reading Matthew Lewis’s Tales of Wonder, an early text to treat Catholic “heresy” as entertainment. ()

What is most surprising about how much fun our little scholarly community had in London was that it was surprising at all. Looking back through the archives of exCommunicated, I see that I had a similar response to our 2016 conference in New York. In my reflection on that conference, I celebrated the “unorthodox” inclusion of art at a conference investigating the significance of art. Why this should be unorthodox remains as puzzling to me now as it was then, but there is no denying that most conferences on literature and the humanities only involve art at secondhand—through its analysis, rather than through direct experience of it. Again, there is a sense that fun must be excluded from the rational space of the academic conference. Here I recall another of our keynote speakers at the London conference, Daniel Trilling, editor of The New Humanist. Trilling noted that out of all of the controversial subjects on which he has received angry letters from subscribers, the subject on which he has received the most angry letters is… the magazine’s decision to publish a selection of poetry in every issue. Apparently, many of The New Humanist’s subscribers don’t believe humanism and fun should mix, either.

I will be stepping down as ISHS Webmaster soon after four years in the position. What the Society has been for me in these years—at its conferences and in the pages of exCommunicated—is a frequent reminder of how much fun it can be to do meaningful scholarship. That fact is one I intend to keep front and center in my future scholarly projects.

Post-conference dinner at Antalya. Clockwise from lower left: Saku Pihko, Matthew Ingleby, Aren Roukema, Morton Beckmann, Henry Mead, Christos Hadjiyiannis, Geremy Carnes, Trista Doyle, Gregory Erickson, Michael Abraham

Post-conference dinner at Antalya. Clockwise from lower left: Saku Pihko, Matthew Ingleby, Aren Roukema, Morton Beckmann, Henry Mead, Christos Hadjiyiannis, Geremy Carnes, Trista Doyle, Gregory Erickson, Michael Abraham

Reflections on the “Heresy and Borders” ConferenceMorten Beckmann /2018/09/09/reflections-on-the-heresy-and-borders-conference/ Sun, 09 Sep 2018 20:35:40 +0000 /?p=1226

Continue reading »]]> I attended the Heresy and Borders conference and presented a paper on how orthodoxy is created in Bible translations.

What I found particularly fruitful about this conference was the approach that was common to many of the papers, i.e. dealing with heresy and orthodoxy without a normative basis. My  field of study (Biblical Studies) often has an (implicit) normative basis, something which delimits the study of heresy and orthodoxy to a question of right or wrong.

I believe it is essential to study the work of those who are labelled “heretics” in its own right, as our perception of the “heretics” often are colored by the misrepresentation(s) made by their opponents, who, in their attempt to uphold and maintain the boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy, often draw a black-and-white picture. The insights from the conference deepened my understanding of the fact that sometimes it is not about what actually happened or what this or that person actually said. Rather, the retellings and representations often have a heresiological function which is interconnected to creating and maintaining orthodoxy.

The perspective of the conference made me want to delve deeper into this theme, and I’m already looking forward to the next conference.

Reflections on the ConferenceMichael J. Abraham /2018/09/09/reflections-on-the-conference/ Sun, 09 Sep 2018 20:31:32 +0000 /?p=1223

Continue reading »]]> What makes the biennial ISHS conference so powerful is the interdisciplinarity and capaciousness naturally inherent in the emergent discipline of heresy studies. My contribution to this year’s conference, “Toward a Fluid Theory of Gender: The Inversion of the Castration Complex in Ulysses,” was a thought experiment in which I attempted to posit the possibility that Butlerian gender performativity has ossified into a kind of orthodoxy in literary studies of gender, particularly in the context of modernism. The danger of such a project is that, of course, it imperils heresy as an efficacious term, and is itself somewhat heretical for not treating heresy as a religious category, but rather as an intellectual one, and so suggests the possibility that a heretical proposition is nothing more than a novel, subordinate, or subversive idea within any knowledge-field wherein a particular paradigm has become predominant. I found, however, that it may be possible that heresy and orthodoxy are the historiographical terms for some of the various shapes that thought takes in its development and counter-development, its progressive and reactionary forms and movements across time, within fields of great affective import to persons—such as, obviously, religious belief, but also all the other facets of individual and group identity and the politics that attach to those identities. In many ways, I felt that a similar recognition was happening across the conference’s panels this year, as religious studies, political science, cultural and literary criticism, philosophy, and social science collided in a vibrant array to suggest to us that in our reading, writing, thinking, relating, and feeling there is always the struggle to find oneself far afield of an orthodox center, always a drive to declare what each of us believes in contravention of the dictates of Belief itself. I suppose what I am really saying is that heresy is emotional, personal, beautiful, dangerous, sexy, and necessary. We might find it glimmering here and there in all of our histories if we can commit that first heresy of heresy studies: to look for it in ourselves.

Anshuman Mondal and the Specter of Orwellian Mind ControlBernard Schweizer /2018/09/09/anshuman-mondal-and-the-specter-of-orwellian-mind-control/ Sun, 09 Sep 2018 20:30:50 +0000 /?p=1215

Continue reading »]]> When I co-founded the International Society for Heresy Studies in 2013, I did so because I wanted to create a space for thinking and debating about religious matters without being bound by spoken or unspoken pieties, and I wanted to provide a forum where both religious and irreligious ideas could be expressed freely without the pressure to conform to any religious or secular agenda.

I was therefore deeply disturbed to listen to Anshuman Mondal’s recent keynote address at the ISHS conference in London, where he voiced subtle apologetics for censorship and advocated a linguistically-grounded mind control.

I consider such ideas not only philosophically repellent but quite frontally opposed to the core principles of our association. Accordingly, I voiced my dissent clearly and strongly. Here, I want to present a principled refutation of Mondal’s central arguments, hoping that it will resonate with my colleagues in the ISHS. At the least, I want to provoke a debate about what is at stake here and spark awareness about what we stand for as an organization dedicated to the unfettered study of blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege, apostasy, and other forms of dissent. For if Mondal’s dream of establishing a strict social justice hegemony came true, then the ensuing Stalinism of the mind would no longer permit any dissent, let alone heresy.

For the benefit of those who did not attend Mondal’s keynote, I here summarize some key points of his talk “Hate Speech, Free Speech, and Religious Freedom”:

  1. Deplatforming certain speakers can be justified if what the speaker is spreading is hate and disinformation. Thus, censorship can be justified in certain circumstances. (Although a questionable proposition, I will not comment on this point.)
  2. Blasphemy needs to be treated as an “act” not merely a verbal statement. If the blasphemous statement results in denigrating and demeaning the core of a person’s or a group’s inherent (i.e. non-voluntaristic) sense of identity and belonging, then blasphemy delivers an injury that is on a par with a physical injury. Blasphemy should not be judged based on whether or not it gives offense (because that would be too subjective) but on whether or not blasphemy assaults people’s sense of identity-based self-definition. If that is the case, then the act of blasphemy should have legal consequences if committed.
  3. Hegemonic mind-control is desirable. Mondal wants to eradicate injurious, inequality-based phenomena like racism by deleting the underlying concepts from people’s mental repertoire. Specifically, he said “we should institute an anti-racist hegemony that makes it impossible to think the concept of race.” Or, more broadly speaking, “you have to make that which you oppose unthinkable.”

I could not help myself after listening to the last point to exclaim “But this is Orwellian! This is newspeak! You want to delete from people’s minds what you find objectionable, thereby making dissent impossible.”

Of course, I’m not arguing that racism or misogyny should be defended or that there’s anything commendable about bias and prejudice. On the contrary! But I think Mondal’s ideas are fundamentally misguided for a number of reasons, only one of them being that they are Orwellian. Specifically, there are several unexamined premises in his suggestion to strike specific ideas from our repertoire of mental concepts, and I mention only a few here:

1984, by George Orwell (Source: )

  1. Are racist sentiments, i.e. the drawing of lines between one’s own group and others based on physical markers or behavior patterns, really dependent on the linguistic concept of “race”? I.e. even if we succeeded in Orwellian fashion to remove a basic word from common parlance and strike “race” from our conceptual repertoire, would the sentiments of supremacy, xenophobia, and tribalism automatically go away? It would be very naïve to believe so.
  2. What happens to all that great literature dealing meaningfully and humanistically with aspects of race and racial tension? Would future readers without the concept of race no longer be able to understand Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz, etc.? Would works by these authors also have to be banned because they problematize race?
  3. The slippery slope: where do we stop in the march of making that which we oppose unthinkable? I understand that Mondal “only” wants to eradicate concepts that have the power to do serious harm to people and communities. Following Mondal’s recommendation to make “race” unthinkable so as to stop racism, does that mean we have to make “gender” unthinkable in order to stop misogyny? Do we make “foreign” unthinkable to stop xenophobia? Surely, one can argue that capitalism kills people just as racism does—so, does that mean we have to make the concept “capital” unthinkable? You see where this absurd line of thinking leads.

Mondal’s dreams of hegemony would lead to a nightmare of moral infantilism, where instead of grappling with the problems and inequalities in our world, we simply erase altogether the offending concepts from our minds to become docile, compliant “nice” moral automatons. I’m not sure if this outlook is more Orwellian or Huxleyan.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (Source: )

To me free speech trumps pretty much all other rights. It is a “master-freedom” from which the other freedoms proceed and derive their legitimacy. If we can no longer speak out freely about all aspects of our society, including critiquing its government, or joking about flawed politicians, pathetic celebrities, and incongruous gods, then enlightenment ideals of informed skepticism and measured irreverence are doomed.

I also reject Mondal’s central argument that one should consider banning verbal “injuries” in light of the utter quagmire to which it would lead. Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that there is a member of the Arsenal Football Club fan community who has grown up in a family loyal to Arsenal going back three generations. That Arsenal fan would surely consider belonging to the football community as part of his inherent (i.e. not voluntarily chosen) identity, much like a religion. Indeed, members of football fan clubs are ready to go to war against members of opposing teams just like members of different religious communities sometimes are. Now, suppose this Arsenal fan receives a direct verbal insult from a Manchester United fan which deeply wounds his sense of pride as an Arsenal fan. Would he be able to legally prosecute the Manchester United fan based on a Mondal-like censorship law? If not, what makes it legitimate for a Muslim to prosecute somebody who had insulted his Prophet but not for an Arsenal fan to prosecute somebody who had insulted his club manager? Who gets to have legal protection against verbal insult and who does not? Does the community protesting the loudest get the protection? Do the blondes and Polish people not get the protection against injurious jokes but Catholics do because they have a lobby?

In response to my criticism, Mondal mentioned the idea of applying the censorship laws “forensically,” a word that did not alleviate the specter of Orwellian dystopia but seemed to go down well with the rest of the audience. May I remind everybody that attempts at “forensic” censorship have not been able to stand legal scrutiny. For instance, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a law applied just such a “forensic” approach to hate speech, outlawing expressions that would “arouse anger, alarm, or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender.” Why was this law struck down unanimously by the Supreme Court in 1992? Because it violated the principle of equal protection. By outlawing offensive statements on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender, the law implicitly sanctioned offensive language on a range of other identity markers such as age, disability, national origin, or hair color. Of course, we can endlessly extend the list of topics that must not be mentioned in a disparaging way, but now we end up with the other problem besetting hate speech regulation: overbroadness. If we include every single topic that it is illegal to make disparaging comments on, we might as well shut up altogether. The only grounds on which speech can be regulated (in the US) is when it is expected to cause specific, imminent, and serious harm, but that is not what Mondal is after.

In sum, I think Mondal not only attacked the spirit of our Society’s commitment to dissent, non-conformism, and unfettered speech, but he also violated the letter of our association. In 2014, ISHS adopted the following definition of the key term “blasphemy,” after a considered and prolonged debate:

Blasphemy shall not be understood as a punishable offence or a form of hate speech directed against a specific group of believers. Instead, blasphemy denotes the insult and attack against a deity or deities. Although it may give offence to followers of a deity, blasphemy needs to be considered under the aspect of freedom of speech.

If we agree as a society that Mondal is justified in calling for censorship and legal action against blasphemers, then we better amend this definition to reflect our new consensus regarding blasphemy. However, I will then respectfully make my exit from this organization. There are few things I consider sacred in this world. The ISHS free-speech definition of blasphemy as well as the freedom to make irreverent jokes are some of them.

Comparative Theology and Heresy Studies: Common Ground?Taraneh R. Wilkinson /2018/09/09/comparative-theology-and-heresy-studies/ Sun, 09 Sep 2018 20:26:24 +0000 /?p=1210

Continue reading »]]> We are all from the same tribe, they tell us as they hand us our name tags void of institutional affiliation. The only label besides our names is the intriguing and provocative “Heresy Studies.” I smile, delighted by the chance to explore the ways in which my disciplinary training prevents me from falling into neat and welcoming categories. After all, my doctorate was in “Religious Pluralism,” granted through a theology department at a Catholic university on the subject of contemporary Turkish Muslim thought. So, am I a secular scholar of religion? A theologian? Or something else entirely? On good days, I’m probably a little of both, even if the weight shifts from project to project. Yet, what if I am not properly either secular scholar or theologian? Back among my fellow “heretics,” I breathe a sigh of relief and think: finally, a conference where my disciplinary identity poses some interesting questions rather than imposing potential liabilities!

But first, how can we all be heretics? Heresy isn’t an arbitrary designation, not a label claimed in isolation, is it? Heretics make a choice to differ from whatever it is that was handed down to the fold. That makes “heretic” a relational term. It bespeaks a margin, divergence. A margin entails a mainstream, divergence a pre-established course to veer from. That’s not all. Often, heretics believe themselves to be perfectly orthodox, and would otherwise blissfully persist in such a self-designation were it not for the judgment of those in their community who have taken umbrage with their view of orthodoxy. In other words, “heretic” is the label the purported majority throws at the non-conforming fringe or lone trouble-maker, not a happy tribal identity that brings academics from various disciplines together into one shared conversation over coffee. Well, perhaps the times have changed. Lucky for me, I guess.

For the comparative theologian, however, heresy is still a label to be avoided. And as someone with training in both Christian theology and Islamic thought, who spends a lot of time thinking about how Muslim scholars respond theologically to Christian intellectual heritage, comparative theology is one of those dedicated subfields I look to for questions, and occasional answers. As it stands, comparative dynamics permeate most of my present research. And when those comparative dynamics fail to fit neatly into the methods and procedures of one discipline, I’ll take help where it’s offered. It so happens that comparative theology has been wrestling with the intersection of theology, other faiths, and the secular tools for studying religion for some time.

Comparative theology as it is known today took off in the 1990s and has since gained considerable visibility within theological approaches to the study of religion. Sometimes framed as “dialogical” or “conversational” theology, it puts a premium on theological conversation between faiths and confessions—generally through the medium of constructive and comparative readings of sacred texts (with reference to respective interpretive communities). This conversation not only involves a mixing of religious vocabularies and conceptual frameworks, it also involves points of interdisciplinary crossover, with requisite linguistic and area studies expertise. Importantly, the point of comparative intersection and its conceptual framing is very much left up to the individual comparative theologian. To give a sense, one example of a comparative theological study might be to take a Protestant theologian and a Hindu thinker and compare aspects of their philosophical assumptions (this has been done). Another example might be to compare Hindu and Christian representations of female figures of devotion (this has also been done).  There are academic comparative theologians of a variety faiths, but the question arises as to how comparative theologians simultaneously represent their home tradition and still maintain the freedom to navigate constructively across multiple conceptual frameworks belonging to multiple religious vocabularies—especially without a predetermined procedure. Isn’t this a recipe for heresy? I’m sure some would think so.

In answer to this conundrum, comparative theologian Francis X. Clooney, a Catholic priest and father of contemporary comparative theology, stresses the local nature of the text, creative insight, and the importance of acknowledging one’s theological starting point as hallmarks of a fruitful comparative effort. Yet it is precisely this openness about a comparative theologian’s confessional starting point that raises the deepest questions about the impact of comparative studies on the boundaries of religious traditions, especially the boundaries of a comparative theologian’s home tradition. For, according to Clooney, a comparative theologian must take the new tradition studied “to heart,” with all the implications that reflective self-transformation might entail.  This is not the disengaged comparison one might encounter in religious studies; comparative theology targets transformative acts of comparison, intended to have theological import for a theologian’s home tradition.

So how does a comparative theologian maintain her emphasis on a confessional identity while simultaneously affirming the necessity to be transformed by a theological encounter with another religious tradition? While comparative theologians like Clooney affirm that doing comparative theology is not a threat to Catholic identity, they may not satisfactorily explain where the border between a theologian’s home and host tradition lies once a comparative theologian has dutifully taken her host tradition to heart. Perhaps this is because there is no clean consensus on where the border lies, or perhaps it is because doing comparative theology necessarily blurs the boundaries between faith traditions without introducing an overarching explanatory framework to account for such indeterminateness.

Still, what is gained by a comparative theology that refuses to offer a big-picture framework for comparison? Some have argued that, unlike the blanket claims to objective neutrality left unexamined in other disciplinary approaches to comparative religion, the particular and limited focus of individual efforts at comparative theology honors the perspectival nature of knowledge by helping to cultivate deeper insights into and articulation of one’s home and host tradition’s assumptions about reality. That is, a comparative theologian becomes a subtle-assumption-detector rather than a wide-angle photographer.

What’s more, there may be some merit to embracing the inevitable ambiguity associated with comparative and interdisciplinary approaches to religion. Why? Because ambiguity is a part of life and human history, and it’s also, arguably, a productive way of being uncomfortable. The discomfort of standing in underdetermined interdisciplinary spaces or theologically murky, even contested, waters is the sort of discomfort that leads individual scholars to question basic assumptions that in neater paradigms might be left untouched or even undetected.

Even if the comparative theologian does not welcome the label “heretic,” she might have something in common with the heretic after all: the ability to stand uncomfortably yet confidently on the margin and take in the view. And while the boundaries most obviously blurred in comparative theology are those between religious traditions, this humble willingness to pursue local, limited, yet constructive comparisons may also have application at the isthmus of theological and secular approaches to the study of religion, where scholars already find themselves committing the dual heresies of being too theological in a secular space or too secular in a theological one. Perhaps theologians and secularists can aid one another in detecting unquestioned assumptions about reality.

Well, what does all that say about my presence at a Heresy Studies conference? It probably means I like the idea of a tribe that values interdisciplinary discomfort and crosspollination, and that I hope to encounter others willing to patiently consider blurred borders and contested margins. Conferences like these are spaces where I do not have to wear either a theology hat or a religious studies hat. Instead, I have the luxury of pursuing the sort of questions that arise in spaces of overlap, indeterminateness, and ambiguity.

Heresy and the Liberal ArtsBob Royalty /2018/09/09/heresy-and-the-liberal-arts/ Sun, 09 Sep 2018 20:25:03 +0000 /?p=1208

Continue reading »]]> The London conference of the International Society of Heresy Studies was a fascinating, interdisciplinary liberal arts experience for me.  The program blew me away by its breadth and richness.  Since I wasn’t presenting, I was a “free agent” to choose which panel to attend, but it was always a difficult choice.  Most of the time, when there were parallel panels, I had no idea which to go to.  If Suzanne Hobson, who did an excellent job organizing the conference, had not asked me to chair one panel on Saturday morning, I still don’t know which one I would have chosen.  The fascinating and stimulating plenaries by distinguished guests—Devorah Baum, Daniel Trilling, and Anshuman Mondal—took us into even wider fields of humor studies, journalism, and the politics of free speech.

The breadth of different fields and approaches at the conference underscores the importance of this society.  Heresy studies cuts across disciplines and departmental silos in provocative ways, upsetting power structures and hierarchies like heresy itself always does.  A society that can bring together biblical and religious scholars, historians, literature scholars, artists, and even journalists, is a valuable one indeed.