The two years since the last publication of NEXT have been marked by numerous challenges to our contemporary life: social and political anxiety at home and abroad, the global rise of far-right populist movements, and increasingly troubling headlines announcing the rapid pace of climate change. In such worrisome times, we might be tempted to think acontextually, looking for simple solutions to complex problems as a way of inoculating ourselves from the challenges of our lives. Simplicity appeals to the aspect of our minds that craves quick resolution and easy action; complexity, on the other hand, demands that we expand our perception and thought to include diverse variables and the nuanced vicissitudes of our experience.
As young scholars we are encouraged to develop thick, nuanced analyses of the world around us, to understand that complexity is the way of things. In developing our theories, we understand that all approaches will illuminate some things while obscuring others, hoping that we manage to produce work that illuminates more than it obscures. This is one of the most challenging tasks of the scholar: to make sense of our world and our experience—infinitely complex, limitless in its variation and diversity—and hazard a framework for interpreting it in a way that advances human understanding, promotes equality, and counteracts the force of ignorance.
The essays in this volume present a range of attempts by young scholars to expand our perception of the world, pointing to the diversity and complexity that characterizes the human enterprise we call “religion.” Some of our authors challenge the relevance of established theoretical frameworks in contemporary religion, arguing that they limit our range of understanding and ought to be appended (or even replaced) by more nuanced models that attend to the lived realities of contemporary practitioners. Others adopt fresh theoretical approaches in reading religious texts, seeking to uncover the implicit operations of power and meaning in the text that have gone overlooked—and in so doing, draw our attention to a text’s impact on religious subject formation. Still others wonder about historical moments and the migration of religious traditions across geographic, ideological, ethical, and political boundaries, offering fresh perspectives on historical events. Across all contributions to this edition of NEXT, we find emerging scholars wrestling with complexity, encouraging us to move away from one-dimensional understanding.
Yasemin Pacalioglu opens this edition of NEXT with a careful analysis of the shifting dynamics of the Mevlevi Sufi order and its Sema ceremony in contemporary Turkey. By setting the contemporary discourse on authenticity in conversation with the socio-political vulnerability of the Mevlevi order, Pacalioglu encourages us to rethink the discursive role of the “authentic” when thinking of marginalized, disempowered communities. Following Pacalioglu, Renee Cyr also looks at the impact of discourse on minority communities, in this case contemporary American practitioners of Wicca. Tracing the historical development of terms used to define (and defame) Wiccans, Cyr suggests the need to reclaim “Witch” as a positive term, encouraging contemporary Wiccans to understand the complexity and richness of their religious history.
The next two contributions to the volume shift attention away from discursive frameworks to textual analysis and religious subject formation. Kara Roberts draws two major Jewish texts into conversation via a literary analysis that unpacks the centrality of suffering and the need to develop a moral response to it. By drawing out the contrasts between the two tales, Roberts points to the striking similarity in their impact on Jewish identity formation and the gravitational force of storytelling in a community’s ongoing evolution. My own contribution to the volume engages in a close textual analysis of a famed eighteenth-Century Tibetan tale of two masters of the Ri-mé, or nonsectarian, movement meeting for the first time: Do Khyentse Yeshé Dorjé and Patrül Rinpoché. Employing Connell’s framework of hegemonic masculinity, I draw out the masculine contestation between these two masters to highlight two competing tropes of masculinity in Tibetan Buddhism, drawing attention to the centrality of gender in developing heroic figures in a religious tradition.
The final two papers in this year’s volume shift our attention to the evolution of religious traditions as they meet, interact with, and refract from one another in an increasingly globalized society. Cameron Rowlett investigates the rise of the Christian Identity movement in the twentieth century, tracing its vehement anti-Semintism through the farm debt crisis of the 1980s to showcase how Pastor Sheldon Emry promoted a theology of conspiratorialism. Rowlett suggests that Emry’s “biblical economics” was able to cohere economic theory with Christian theology, pointing to the hatred and tension that can foster new religious movements. Rounding out the volume is Gregory Mileski’s insightful investigation into the relationship between Western ethics and the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. As Buddhism continues blossoming in the West, many have questioned the central tenet of emptiness in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and Mileski draws upon Western ethicists to offer a framework for understanding how emptiness has historically been misunderstood, while simultaneously providing a roadmap for understanding how it can motivate Buddhists towards action that mitigates suffering in the world.
It has been my honor to work with these young scholars to showcase their insight. Their commitment to exploring our complex world with nuance, grace, and humility has inspired me in my two years as Chief Editor for NEXT, and it is my hope that such work will continue to encourage us to think more deeply and compassionately. As we move forward together into an uncertain future that poses unique and intimidating challenges, may we always look to the rich diversity that marks human life for inspiration.