Topic: Religious Studies

Ill Logic

Confronting the Shoddy Reasoning that Helps Perpetuate Injustice

“You’re wrong.” So easy. So futile. In the annals of philosophical, theological, religious, social, and political debate, it seems unlikely that any adversary has ever found this persuasive. When it comes to matters of justice, we need to show, not merely tell.

Personal accounts with a strong emotional dimension can be persuasive. But, especially for those who do not identify with the victims of a given injustice, these seem to have their limits. To the bafflement of many among us, some resist acknowledging that certain protest movements do in fact raise legitimate concerns. Debunking illogic may hold the key.

Below I have explained six of the logical fallacies that I myself have consistently encountered among those who struggle to grasp the current gravity of racial injustice in the U.S., although these observations are certainly applicable to other forms of denial about injustice. My labels for these logical fallacies are original. The ideas are not. My hope is that, by calling attention to them, others can help friends distinguish legitimate objections from illegitimate ones.

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The Journey vs. the Map

Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom

What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.

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The Air We Breathe

The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)

The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.

As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.

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Their Blood Cries Out to God

Reflections for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Not long after the beginning, Genesis tells us that there were two brothers. One killed the other. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10). This is the Lord’s response when the murderer denies knowing where his brother is and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We humans are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; and yet we have been disowning and killing each other since the beginning.

On this day seventy years ago, the last prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz. On this day today, we commit to remembering the more than six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others who were rejected and murdered by their fellow humans. Their blood still cries out to God from the ground.

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From Brother to Brother

Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)

Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.

And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.

Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.

I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.

You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.

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Sometimes Seeing Clearly Means Knowing When to Look Away

Grasping the Horrors of the Holocaust is a Struggle. It Ought to Be.

As a Ph.D. student, I spent the better part of three years researching the Holocaust and its legacy. While I focused on the response of a group of Protestant nuns living in its aftermath, my research was broad enough that it spanned both the poetry and theology of Jewish survivors, as well as the propaganda of those who promoted and committed it. For example, I read Mein Kampf and I loathed it, but I do not regret it. One cannot understand humanity without understanding the depths of human evil. At the same time, one can only understand the potential height of faith and hope by learning from those who confronted such senseless hate first-hand. Convinced of this necessity, I have continued to explore the theological legacy of the Holocaust and its emotional toll on the survivors and their families.

Yet sometimes the weight is more than I feel I can bear. And so it is that for the second time I will be presenting on religion and science-fiction at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Neither my initial presentation nor my latest one has had anything to do with the Holocaust. When one of the staff members at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked me if I would consider applying for a research fellowship, I answered, “I want to… but not yet. Sometimes part of seeing clearly is knowing when to look away.”

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The Danger of Hagiography as Hero-Worship

An Uncritical Appraisal of Your Heroes Is Unfair to Them, to You, and to God

It always seems like such a good idea at the time. You have a hero. Maybe it is someone who you know personally. Maybe it is someone whom you have only observed from afar. Hero worship is a natural human inclination. Everyone does it. There is a certain kind of praise that moves beyond healthy celebration of another’s achievements to self-defeating obliviousness.

The following is not a critique of hagiography as a genre of writing per se. If anything, it is a critique of my original manuscript about Mother Basilea Schlink. It was rejected for publication for being “too hagiographical” and “not critical enough.” During the revision process, I agreed, begrudgingly at first but ultimately definitively. Non-critical spiritual biography (which is what I had written) is not good scholarship.

In the words of medievalist and historical theologian Jim Ginther, “hagiography is a literary category, a form of narrative theology, and a heuristic device.” Good hagiography, good recounting of the lives of the saints should serve those functions. However, to the extent that discussions of heroes  of the faith become unidimensional — that dimension being praise and praise only — there are distinct pitfalls.

The problem is two-fold. First, only God deserves our worship. When we praise the saints, what we should be doing is praising God’s work in their lives. I accept this as self-evident in the context of monotheistic theological discourse. (If anyone would care to take me take me to task on that count, feel free to do so in the comments below.) To be fair, when most people celebrate their heroes, including their heroes of the faith, they aren’t really praising those people in the same way that they would be praising God, so this aspect of the problem may be less of an issue.

Second, the real problem is that hero worship is a kind of blindness. By elevating another human, we blind ourselves to our own spiritual potential. By remaining oblivious to the weaknesses of the so-called greatest among us, we fail to see our own weaknesses as opportunities for God’s grace. We forget that Pope Francis, Mother Theresa, and whoever you look up to are people with ordinary struggles, just like the rest of us. The writings of the saints about themselves bear this out. I’m especially thinking of the Theresas here (of Avila and of Lisieux). Their sins loomed large in their exaltation of God.

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How My Dissertation Became a Book

Vision and Revision Part II

A dissertation is not a book. Yes, a dissertation is a book-length piece of academic prose; but its target audience is, strictly speaking, limited to the people on the doctoral candidate’s committee. A proper book is written for the academy more broadly or even for the general public.

I defended my dissertation in the fall of 2011 at Saint Louis University. Text that I defended (2.0) had already undergone one full revision after feedback from all three members of my committee. Now in the spring of 2014 Oxford University Press has released Mothering the Fatherland (6.0). What follows is an account of what happened in the interim. (See the barebones timeline.)

After my dissertation defense, I quickly composed a book proposal. I slightly repackaged the remarks that I made at my defense. They were an effective summary of the work’s contents. At the behest of my advisor, I waited to submit them to my publisher of choice (OUP) until after my field’s big conference of the year (AAR) in November 2011. The proposal quickly yielded interest in the full manuscript (MS, still 2.0), which I promptly submitted and which OUP sent out to anonymous readers.

And then I waited. It was summer 2012 before I heard back and the news was not optimum. One reader rejected the MS outright and the other provided a hesitating acceptance. Both provided substantial feedback. The net response from OUP: rejection with the possibility of resubmission. They liked the premise of the book, just not the MS in its current form.

So I spent the rest of the summer revising. The most serious critique was that my voice was indistinguishable from that of the sisters. With regards to the founding mothers, my work was hagiographical. I needed to have a clear voice of my own and I needed to be critical, while remaining sympathetic. This involved a complete re-write of half of the MS and a significant change of tone throughout. I streamlined my narrative about the sisterhood’s founding and subsequent development, splitting the account between two chapters instead of the original five. (What had I been thinking?)

I conducted further research. My original account of the origins of the sisterhood had been fairly thorough, but I did little to chronicle the sisterhood’s subsequent development or to explain how the sisterhood moved from a central if ambiguous place in post-war German church life to a place on the margins. This involved me purchasing a guest membership at the libraries at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, as well as a road trip to the library at Yale. Some of the most useful books and periodicals are not available for loan on ILL.

One of the readers asked questions that only someone who was alive and attentive to German church life in the 1950s and 1960s could ask. And I had only documentary evidence available here state-side with which to answer. By assessing my original sources and conducting several days of Google searches, I yielded promising results: the discussion of Basilea Schlink in the autobiography of Jewish philosopher Schmuel Hugo Bergman, providing the most substantive critical-but-sympathetic documented response to the sisterhood from a Jewish source that I have yet found. Jewish observers are often silent or conspicuously positive regarding their Christian Zionist supporters, and the sisterhood is no exception.

I discovered that the sisterhood sought to foment opposition to the sexual revolution in the German Protestant churches. Mother Basilea mentioned the movement that the sisterhood sponsored (Aktion Sorge um Deutschland or “Operation Concern for Germany”) but not its apparent focus. The secondary literature on the sexual revolution in Germany mentioned the movement, but not its relationship to the sisterhood. All I had to do was connect the dots.

I also jettisoned an absurdly reductive chapter on Jewish identity as perceived from a Jewish perspective. It was irrelevant, apart from a few pages on German-Jewish identity, which fit just fine in the chapter on German identity.

After nearly three months of full-time revision, I submitted version 3.0 to OUP. And I waited.

Approximately six months later, in March 2013 I received the reply: unconditional acceptance. There was some feedback from the readers – both of the original readers remained the deciders for the resubmission. I could accommodate or ignore as much or as little of their feedback as I desired. Now I had no one to worry about making happy but me.

So of course, once the dust from the semester had settled, I busied myself with the revision process. This time I was looking to clarify, make connections apparent, and explore the full implications of my work. I thought this was one last going over. In August 2013 I submitted version 4.0.

I underestimated the extent of copyediting required. I was 99% there, but perfecting the remaining 1% was an exacting process. There were a number of grammatical bad habits that even I, as a precise prose stylist, possessed. Fortunately, I was in good hands. My copyeditor schooled me in the difference between “each” and “every,” though I did push back on my use of “people” and “peoples” (for Volk and Völker). I received the copyedited MS and submitted my corrections (5.0) by November 2013.

Then the indexing began. There were also a few small mistakes that I caught when the proofs went out. I almost called Hans Asmussen “Hahn Asmussen,” which is more than just a typo, I was literally calling the man “chicken.” By the beginning of 2014, I had submitted and approved version 6.0.

How I Wrote My Dissertation

Vision and Revision Part I

By spring 2008, the second half of my first year as a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Saint Louis University, it was clear that I would attempt to write my dissertation about the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. I would analyze the relationship between the practices and beliefs of this community of Protestant nuns in Germany and their historical context. That much I knew. But which practices? Which beliefs? And which aspects of their context? A dissertation needs to be a focused work, ideally attempting to answer one precise question of the author’s determining. I had some digging to do.

I learned the basics from the sisters’ website. On the night of September 11, 1944, Allied bombers decimated the city of Darmstadt, Germany. Tens of thousands of people died. Most of the city’s residents were homeless by morning. Among them were the members of a Lutheran girls Bible study. They prayed that night for God’s forgiveness in light of his manifest judgment and soon decided to dedicate their lives to him as a formal sisterhood. I later learned that this account was a simplification, but at least it was a start. Even in their most basic account, the sisters connected their origins to their experience of the Third Reich.

I dug as deeply as I could in the library and in book databases. I found a handful of works treating the broader phenomenon of Protestant religious orders in post-World War II Europe. There were in fact a few dozen such communities, many of which survive today. The literature, much of it from the 1950s and 1960s, mostly concerned the question of whether or not Protestant religious orders should exist. From a historical standpoint, this is not a relevant question. Such communities do exist. But why?

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