University of Agder Events

agderProf. LeRon Shults has invited me to travel to the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, for several events in September. There will be a discussion seminar on my paper “Religion and Secularism” and an open class discussion on theology of religion focusing on chapter 7 of Religion Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry. In between, there is scheduled a public lecture entitled “What would Luther do? Religious extremism and violence in the Reformation and today.” Sadly, this is a timely topic for a country Lutheran in its roots now grappling with the horrific extremist Christian violence that unfolded there only a few short weeks ago.

The University of Agder resulted from the 1994 merger of six public regional colleges, becoming a fully accredited university in 2007. The university’s activities are gradually focusing onto two locations: the campus at Kristiansand and the new campus in Grimstad. Prof. Shults is located primarily in the Department of Religion, Philosophy and History, which is part of the Faculty of Humanities and Education on the Kristiansand campus.

Norway is geographically stunning, not least because of the vast fjords on its west and north coasts–the “crinkly edges” as the award-winning planet designer Slartibartfast described them in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Trusting Slartibartfast in all things geographical, I intend to see one or two of the fjords, both from the water on a boat and from above as a hiker.

Gordon Kaufman Memorial

My colleague and friend Thomas Thangaraj write the memorial below on the occasion of the passing of his mentor and friend, Gordon D. Kaufman. Because Gordon was a friend of mine as well, I asked Thomas if he would be willing to share his thoughts more broadly and he agreed, so I am posting it on this site.

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Homage to My Guru, Dr. Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011)

By Dr. Thomas Thangaraj
Professor Emeritus of World Christianity
Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA

kaufmanOn hearing the news of the demise of Dr. Gordon D. Kaufman – my guru and my mentor – I could not but reminisce about how Gordon had influenced and shaped my career as a theologian, as a teacher, and as a person. I wrote about his contribution to theological thinking as such in 1996. (See: “Gordon D. Kaufman,” in A New Hand-Book of Christian Theologians, Donald W. Musser & Joseph L. Price, Eds., Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996, pp. 253 -260. Two of his major works were published after 1996, viz., In the Beginning…Creativity (2004), and Jesus and Creativity (2006). In these two later works one can detect a more naturalistic and less anthropomorphic imaging of God than before). This homage to Kaufman, however, is on a personal level.

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Spectrums Project Update

splogoIBCSR’s Spectrums Project is an ambitious attempt to apply what is known about ideological spectrums in politics and morality to the field of religious beliefs and practices. The Project’s goal is twofold: firstly, to deepen understanding of why human beings adopt a spectrum of religious and theological viewpoints; and secondly, to discover strategies for mitigating the problems associated with religious extremism and polarized religious discourse.

IBCSR’s main partners in this project are Dr. Catherine Caldwell Harris in Boston University’s Psychology Department. The project’s post-doctoral fellow is Dr. Aimee Radom, who recently completed a dissertation on a related topic through Boston University’s Graduate School. Two doctoral students are working on the project as well: Connor Wood and Nicholas DiDonato. Both are earning their PhDs in the Religion and Science Program within Boston University’s Graduate School. This project is funded by Boston University’s School of Theology, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion.

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First International Congress on Ecstatic Naturalism at Drew University

corringtonThe first International Congress on Ecstatic Naturalism was held at Drew University on April 1-2, 2011. Organized by Robert Corrington (pictured at right), this inaugural edition of what will hopefully be an annual event offered an opportunity to celebrate Corrington and his influential ecstatic naturalist writings.

The highlight of the conference was an evening lecture by Corrington, in which he read the latest version of his unfolding categorial scheme. In dramatic fashion that called to mind Wittgensteinian’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, the presentation took the form of reading numbered, nested propositions, moving through the various elements of his system. There was no introduction and no conclusion, just the scheme itself. A beautifully crafted dramatic event, it was a fitting celebration of Corrington’s systematic philosophical imagination.

The evening lecture by Corrington was preceded by Robert Neville’s insightful introduction to Corrington’s life and thought. The preceding afternoon and the morning after the central evening events involved the presentation of a dozen papers, mostly by students and colleagues of Corrington. This display indirectly demonstrated the reach of Corrington’s influence.

An excellent micro-account of ecstatic naturalism is furnished on the web site for the congress. A key passage from that site furnishes a compact definition.

An ecstatic naturalism is a perspective that seeks to move toward an aesthetic phenomenology of nature’s “sacred folds”—special centers of numinous meaning and power that may be found throughout nature, where “nature” may be understood to mean an encompassing reality that has no other, there is no referent “for” nature nor any outside “to” nature. Nature is all that there is: nature is whatever is, in whatever way. From nature’s sacred folds emerges a fierce self-othering, nature naturing, where “it” moves ecstatically ejecting semiotically dense momenta. Nature naturing is the inexhaustible well of nature’s atemporal creating underconscious, “it” is the not-yet-in-time mode of preordinal expression. This preordinal expression manifests itself as created nature, a plane of immanence composed of innumerable orders, or nature natured. The plane of nature natured is not without access to its depth dimension however, and the creativity of the depth dimension does not necessarily evidence a telic plan, either. Nature naturing is not the unified will or intelligence of a supreme Being, and “it” is not the sacred, for there is no “whatness” to nature naturing, but only “its” “how.” Unlike other theological perspectives friendly to the tradition of naturalism (process thought, for example) an ecstatic naturalism denies that nature naturing molds nature natured simply into pleasing shapes. Melancholy, pain, and anguish are just as much to be accounted for in the aesthetic phenomenology that an ecstatic naturalism employs. For ecstatic naturalism, naturing naturing is “beyond good and evil” and “sustains the just and the unjust, beautiful and the demonic, the fragmented and the harmonious, the honorific and the detestable, the living and the dead (via effects) and the realms of the possible and the actual.”

From the ecstatic naturalist standpoint, as noted, the distinction between nature naturing and nature natured colors and specifies almost all aspects of, and possibilities for, human life. It indicates, among other things, that the unconscious is far more important, both religiously and philosophically, than has usually been acknowledged. While the conscious represents only one set of aspects of our relation with nature natured, the unconscious is our direct connection both to wider aspects of nature natured, and in certain respects, to the potencies that emerge from nature naturing. The conscious life is much more precarious than traditional monotheisms would allow, but also more magical than traditional naturalisms could recognize.

IBCSR.org Hits 10,000 Visits per Month

ibcsrlogoThe Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion (www.ibcsr.org) is a site that brings cutting-edge research in the scientific study of religion to the general public, journalists, and researchers in the field. The web team at IBCSR has been working hard to increase capacity and speed at the site, while continuing to producing first-rate content.

IBCSR.org has also been redesigned as a membership site that offers members special benefits. These benefits include a discounted subscription to the Taylor & Francis journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, a unique online searchable database of journal articles and books in the scientific study of religion, and a variety of other benefits.

The site is easy to navigate and full of valuable discoveries presented in an entertaining and informative way. Just a few minutes browsing on the site generates ideas for articles by journalists and helps writers keep their ideas straight. Regular visits can transform understandings of the world through accumulating insights about the way religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences function in human life.

Cambridge University Press releases Religious and Spiritual Experiences

cover-relexpThis book offers an interpretation of a diverse variety of religious and spiritual experiences, from the mundane to the shocking, from the terrifying to the sublime, and from the common to the exceptionally unusual. It carefully describes these experiences and offers a novel classification based on their neurological features and their internal qualities.

The book avoids the reductionistic oversimplifications so common in both religious and scientific literatures, and instead synthesizes perspectives from many disciplines into a compelling account of the meaning and value of religious and spiritual experiences in human life. The resulting interpretation does not assume a supernatural worldview, nor does it reject such experiences as totally delusory. Rather, the book frames religious and spiritual experiences as contributing to a spiritually positive affirmation of this-worldly existence.

Along the way, the book directly addresses key intellectual and practical questions in a philosophically sound and scientifically informed way. For example, can we trust the apparent meaning of such experiences? What is the value of religious and spiritual experiences within human life? Are we evolutionarily programmed to have such experiences? How will emerging technologies change such experiences in the future?

For more detailed information about this book, look for it on the publications menu.

New Journal Announced: Religion, Brain, and Behavior

rbbA new journal on the scientific study of religion is about to begin publication. The first issue of Religion, Brain & Behavior is to appear in February 2011 from Taylor & Francis journals. Neurologist Patrick McNamara (Boston University), Anthropologist Richard Sosis (University of Connecticut), and Wesley Wildman are the co-editors, with James Haag (Suffolk University) as assistant editor.

The aim of Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) is to provide a vehicle for the advancement of current biological approaches to understanding religion at every level from brain to behavior. RBB unites multiple disciplinary perspectives that share these interests. The journal seeks empirical and theoretical studies that reflect rigorous scientific standards and a sophisticated appreciation of the academic study of religion. RBB welcomes contributions from a wide array of biological and related disciplines, including cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, evolutionary anthropology, social neuroscience, neurology, genetics, demography, bioeconomics, neuroeconomics, physiology, developmental psychology, psychology of religion, moral psychology, archaeology, mimetics, behavioral ecology, epidemiology, public health, cultural evolution, and religious studies. In summary, RBB considers high quality papers in any aspect of the brain-behavior nexus related to religion.

RBB publishes high quality research articles, target articles with about ten solicited commentaries and an author response, case studies, and occasional review articles. Issues are published three times during 2011, and four times annually from 2012 onwards. All articles published in this journal have undergone a rigorous process of peer review.

The prestigous Editorial Board of Religion, Brain & Behavior and information about how to submit articles for the journal is posted on the journal’s home page at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, and also at the Taylor & Francis site for the journal.

LeRon Shults Lecturing in Boston

leronshultsProf. F. LeRon Shults is visiting Boston University in the first week of November, meeting with colleagues and students, and delivering a public lecture.

  • Lecture title: “Transforming Religious Plurality: Applying Family Systems Theory to Interreligious Dialogue.”
  • Time: 4:30pm-6:00pm on Wednesday November 3, 2010
  • Place: 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, room B19 (in the basement lecture hall)

Dr. Shults is well known for his interdisciplinary theological work, especially integrating psychology and theology, but more recently also including religious studies and comparative theology. To find out more about Prof. Shults, visit his website.

Spectrums Project Gets Underway

spectrumsdiagWesley Wildman is working with Dr. Catherine Caldwell-Harris from Boston University’s Psychology Department on a new program of research aimed at learning more about ideological polarization in politics, morality, and religion. Ideological spectrums have been studied intensively in relation to politics, and in recent years morality has received renewed attention. Both spheres of research have yielded fascinating insights into why people adopt the political and moral beliefs they do, what kinds of personality and behavioral correlations exist for various positions on ideological spectrums, and how people change over the lifespan in their moral and political opinions and practices.

To this point, there has been much less research directed toward understanding ideological spectrums in regard to religious and theological beliefs and practices. Fundamentalism has received a lot of attention, and sociologists have given a good deal of thought to the conditions under which religious groups at various places on the theological spectrum thrive or decline. But the religious and theological spectrum itself is in need of more intensive study, integrating insights from a number of relevant disciplinary perspectives.

The particular aims of the Spectrums Project are three.

Literature Review: We aim to conducting a comprehensive literature review to assemble a definitive report on what is known about theological, political, and moral differences.

Empirical Study: We aim to gather quantitative and qualitative data from online and in-person participants that surface theological, political, and moral spectrum differences; attitudes to such differences; and interactions between such differences and other differences of culture and heritage, belief and behavior.

Educational Laboratory: We aim to develop and experiment with techniques for creatively deploying the assembled information in university programs and classrooms to allow faculty and students safely to address such issues, thus learning about themselves and others in accordance with the living laboratory concept.

This third aim is essentially a practical application of our research findings to the concrete challenges of dealing with ideological spectrums in the higher-education classroom setting. This is nowhere more perplexing than in seminary education, which conducts the training of professional religious leaders. Here above all there should be profound and sensitive understanding of ideological spectrum differences in religious beliefs and practices, but sadly these settings often consolidate wariness toward others more than they educate future leaders about themselves and others.

Seminary students bring assumptions to their theological studies regarding God, the world, and human relationships. Most students adapt more readily to the visible differences of bodies and cultures than they do to more hidden differences of viewpoint. The hidden differences quickly become evident, however, often accompanied by some degree of shock, in classroom discussions and hallway debates. These revelations of political, moral, and theological difference can cause serious problems in the educational process, even as they present important educational opportunities. Unfortunately, and despite noisy signs that such differences dominate media coverage of political and religious issues, little is known about theological, political, and moral differences than should be the case among religious people and within their professional training centers. As the intractability of culture wars demonstrates, the dynamics of ideologically and religiously loaded interactions, both among individuals and across diverse cultures and traditions, can be quite destructive.

In seeking to address these challenges, the Spectrums Project is building on a firm foundation. Dr. Wildman recently co-authored a pair of books on the subject (Lost in the Middle? and Found in the Middle!), based on a large amount of outreach to diverse groups of people. He also hosted a 2009 conference to prepare for the Spectrums Project, bringing together experts and students in the topic with a view to identifying what is already known and what has yet to be studied.

Lecture on Scientific Study of Religion to Visiting Chinese Scholars

wangFor fifteen years, Dr. Zhongxin Wang (pictured with me at right) has been running the Chinese Christian Scholars Association in North America (CCSANA), bringing professors from Chinese universities to the USA for conferences and vice versa. I have had the privilege of going on a CCSANA- sponsored lecture tour through China in 2004-2005 and I participate in the local conferences in Boston whenever I can.

This year, on Friday July 9, 2010, I will present a lecture to the most recent group of visiting Chinese scholars on the flourishing of the scientific study of religion. Dr. Wang tells me that this is a topic of great interest to many Chinese academics and researchers and I can certainly understand that.

This lecture will give the great joy of reuniting with Prof. Liu Xiaoting from Beijing Normal University, with whom I spent many wonderful days in China. I speak no Chinese and he speaks no English but we seem to understand one another just fine. An energetic, witty, and boisterous man, Dr. Liu is respected for his formidable intelligence and his determination to speak the truth as he understands it.

Dr. Wang has worked tirelessly to build scholarly and ecclesial bridges between China and the United States. CCSANA exists solely because of his energy and imagination and fund-raising skill. The lecture tour in China had a profound effect on me and I believe this is true of everyone involved in CCSANA activities.