Volume 5 (2017)Vol. 5 (2017)
Scholars of religion(s) are necessarily, in some ways, students of history. If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally found yourself reading about an historical period and feeling your skin warm with envy, touched by the excited drama—and even danger!—of those significant moments that compiled into significant eras. Those who witnessed these landmarks events—how lucky! Did they realize what they were a part of? Was it exciting? Or, did it pass by unnoticed, with the implication becoming clear so much later on that it was all too close, too familiar, to see with any perspective? What would it be like to live immersed in those historical periods whose reverberations continue to echo through our texts, our universities, our media?
I have often found myself entertaining those thoughts—and then I consider our own age. Many of us remember a world in which the internet (remember: it was the capital I-Internet back then) was fringe technology, a far-off possibility full of promise and questions. Increasingly, more people find themselves traveling the globe, experiencing first-hand what could only be read about in the not-so-distant past. Individual and group identities are forming, refracting, dismantling, and reinforcing each other, revealing themselves to be more malleable than we had previously conceived. Perhaps it is the conceit of any student of history, but the changes that have shaped our contemporary world order do indeed seem significant, and generations to come will hear the echoes of our days in ways we can imagine and in ways we couldn’t possibly predict.
But, of course, that’s only a portion of the story. So many exciting developments and advances in technology have brought with them significant costs, too often borne by those with the least power to affect global responses. Our globalized experiment is powered by a fuel that has done over centuries what ecosystems have only previously experienced over millennia. Many moving from country to country are doing so as bombs fall behind them, as global superpowers wage proxy battles to keep power concentrated among the few. In countries in which they have been marginalized, Indigenous and Native Peoples remain too often an afterthought in public policy debates. And, as benign and beneficial technologies increase, so too do those used to wage war, exercise the interests of the powerful, and subdue domestic and foreign populations clamoring for fundamental human rights.
The world in which we live, the one where indelible changes seem to occur with increasing frequency, is one full of opportunities and challenges. The societies we are shaping promise benefits to some while ignoring—or worse—others. While some have sought to blur certain boundaries, others have fought to solidify them. As some aspects of our identities have become intermingled, others can seem to reveal intractable differences. Even a flawed attempt to step back and see this age with any kind of historical perspective reveals a world built of equal parts hope and fear, even as they seem to take turns at the front of our imaginations.
The offerings that follow attempt to make sense of how these phenomena are shaping and being shaped by the religions that feed our curiosity. Cristen Dalessandro begins this issue by investigating the role of religious affiliation in constructing minority identities. By interviewing Latinx undergraduates at a predominately white university, Dalessandro asks how Roman Catholicism becomes intertwined with ethnicity to shape an identity that is neither one nor the other. She also prods us to stay aware of the ways the religions we study are more than ritual, tradition, texts, or philosophy, but are also deeply intertwined with the identities of individuals and communities.
Paul Rodriguez continues our theme of blurred boundaries by considering the ways philosphers Baruch Spinoza and Alain Badiou, separated by three centuries, make use of Paul of Tarsus, a prominent figure in the first century of Christianity and one who has loomed large in Christian imaginations since. By constructing versions of this enigmatic figure to fit the philosophical case each is making, Spinoza and Badiou cast Paul as a forerunner to their own philosophical thought. Both see in Paul a kind of universalized definition of selfhood which they utilize to bolster their own claims of how one ought to understand a person. In this way, Rodriguez asks us to consider how historical narratives are shaped by those looking back, and so calls us to be mindful of our own constructions of historical figures and how we gaze upon them from our own locations.
Moving from constructions of identities to constructions of worldviews, Luke Lognion prods the thought of twentieth century Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton. Merton drew on a number of surprising sources in formulating his spiritual outlook, including literary criticism, Marxism, and existentialism. By articulating theological worldviews deeply influenced by secular thinkers, Lognion argues, Merton complicates our easy division of secular and religious matters and leads us to wonder about the ways religious thought is interwoven with broader cultural influences.
My own contribution to this volume examines the relationship between violence and nonviolence—two categories often thought to be diametrically opposed but which may be more closely related than we tend to think. In examining the movements of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., I characterize nonviolence as primarily a response to violence, with the violence of the oppressive power raising the stakes of the conflict and the responsive violence of some within the oppressed population amplifying the strategy of the nonviolent actors. In this way, the line between violence and nonviolence becomes blurred, as violence helps to contextualize, define, and elevate nonviolent strategies.
Increasingly, identities also include a digital component and Eben Yonetti tackles the blurring of spatial boundaries as religious seekers from around the globe gather in digital spaces, as understandings of “place” broaden. In investigating an online Buddhist community, Yonetti gives us a look into the ways that technology can provide opportunities for new forms of religious practice, while simultaneously introducing new complexities into what it means to be an adherent of that tradition. Yonetti’s work raises questions about the changing nature of religious belonging. If the online world allows for a greater variety of religious options, what does it mean to be a member of a religious community? Who holds authority in religious traditions in the face of the internet’s democratizing (and destabilizing) power? Yonetti’s paper provides a fascinating look at the ways different players within this dynamic navigate this new and exciting space.
This edition is proud to continue NEXT’s tradition of including poetry alongside academic articles. For those of us accustomed to entering into the lines of a poet’s imagination, I hope this space feels familiar and interesting. If it has been a while since you’ve sat with a poem, let this be an invitation to a practice that can be at once insightful and disorienting, uplifting and sobering. In the words of Tino Garcia, we are reminded of some of the real costs of our globalizing world, keeping us mindful of the ways that power is exercised destructively. As boundaries continue to blur in the ages to come, let us stay vigilant about those being swallowed, attacked, or pushed to the margins. And, in a wholly different vein, NEXT’s own Moriah Renee Arnold provides a lilting and dancing homage to the academic process itself. With contrasting and contradicting imagery, Arnold points us to the ways scholar and subject shout and whisper at one another, how an idea can seem so clear and trenchant at one moment only in the next to evaporate like a thin fog in the rays of a summer sun.
Finally, allow me to share that this edition of NEXT represents a reawakening of sorts, a return to publication after a number of years dormant. Moving this journal from hibernation to activity added to the challenges any editor faces but it has also infused these pages with a note of triumph known intimately by only a few. It is my hope that future editors of NEXT will be able to build from this small but significant step forward and that this offering will provide much momentum for a continuation of this tradition, even as they find ways to expand and reimagine this small corner of the academic world.
With humility and gratitude,
Volume 6 (2019)Vol. 6 (2019)
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.