SBL 2017 Paper Proposal

The calls for papers for most sections of SBL 2017 are up, and I recently submitted the first of two proposals. This paper will be related to my dissertation, but it’s also intended to help me flesh out some tangents I’d like to explore in other publications. I submitted the paper to the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures section, which is focusing on theophany and the embodiment of God. My paper is titled “‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t’: The Vanishing of YHWH,” and the abstract is below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This paper will engage the problem of the development of YHWH’s invisibility on two fronts. First, it will examine passages from early biblical narratives wherein the identity of the God of Israel appears to have been conflated with that of the messenger of YHWH. It will argue that the word mal’ak was interpolated early in the history of those passages and was later accommodated to the biblical worldview through the conceptualization of YHWH’s name as a communicable vehicle for divine agency, with Exod 23:20–21 representing the clearest articulation of that conceptualization.

The second half of the paper will discuss the relationship of those interpolations to the development of YHWH’s invisibility. It will argue that the interpolation of the messenger was catalyzed by three interrelated factors: (1) the de facto aniconism of YHWH’s worship, (2) increasing concern for the dangers posed by looking upon YHWH’s glorious face, and (3) YHWH’s universalization. The first factor largely freed YHWH from semiotic anchoring in material media, rendering embodiment a much more open question. Factor 2 problematized the exceptions to the rule regarding seeing YHWH that were found in the interpolated passages. The third factor problematized YHWH’s physical interaction with humanity. These factors converged to incentivize authors and editors to obscure those interactions and restrict YHWH’s visibility to oblique visionary accounts of his form. The ongoing universalization of the God of Israel facilitated the further distancing of YHWH from human form and perception.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Cognitive Science of Religion, and CREDS

You are likely aware by now that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has agreed to perform at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th. Both support and criticism have been expressed for this decision by Church members and by non-members. Critics have largely focused their concern on the way the decision and its framing as a continuation of a proud tradition contribute to the normalization of a thoroughly abnormal incoming presidential administration that rode a belligerent wave of bigotry, lies, and depravity to a controversial electoral win. Trump is no normal president, and to treat him as such not only mitigates our ability to challenge and undermine the threats he explicitly and proudly poses to the safety and freedoms of millions and millions of Americans, but also belies the sincerity of our moral convictions. How can we signal tolerance, if not support, for an unrepentant sexual predator and then stand before our congregations and honestly tell them—with victims of sexual abuse among them, who already feel marginalized and devalued—that sexual sin is the sin next to murder?

Supporters have focused on the way the acceptance signals our patriotism. The performance, they insist, does not honor the incoming president anyway, just the office and the country as a whole. To turn it down would be seen as engaging in partisan politics, against which our Church has an ostensibly firm policy. We have never turned down an opportunity to let our light so shine at a presidential inaugural, and we’re not about to start now. Additionally, this provides a wonderful missionary opportunity. We should not turn down a chance to inspire, influence, and move those around us (and perhaps even Trump himself). These supporters of the decision are not unilaterally supporters of Trump, either. Many loathe the man but see this acceptance as a sign of our prioritization of our responsibility to our nation.

As I’m writing a doctoral dissertation right now that incorporates the cognitive science of religion, I thought I would share some thoughts on how these two reactions can be viewed through that lens. First, some background: in short, the cognitive science of religion, or CSR, applies insights and theories from the cognitive sciences and other related and cognate fields to the study and explanation of patterns of thought and behavior that we commonly call “religious.” Since the 1990s, two broad evolutionary approaches have been common: the more common approach views the features of our conventional conceptualization of religion as the evolutionary byproducts of cognitive features evolutionarily selected for other more generic purposes. The three main features are mentalization (or our ability to perceive and draw conclusions about the presence and intentions of minds in the world around us), teleological reasoning (the propensity to find purpose and reason in the things that exist and happen around us), and mind/body dualism (the intuitive belief that our minds are neither identified with or confined to our physical bodies). These cognitive features mainly served other evolutionary functions, like survival, but also contribute to the production and cultivation of mental representations of deities and other types of supernatural agents. Religion is thus a spandrel (or unintended byproduct) of other cognitive architecture.

The other approach sees religion as an evolutionary adaptation itself, primarily on the grounds that these features were selected because they contributed to greater prosociality, or social robustness and cohesion. One of the main ways they helped social cohesion was to provide mechanisms for high-cost displays of in-group fidelity (with a deity usually as proxy for the group), allowing larger populations that extend beyond normal kin-based groups to maintain trust and mitigate the free-rider problem (the problem of free-loaders who take advantage of the group’s productivity without contributing themselves). Those not willing to invest in the appropriate displays will not be considered part of the in-group. These displays have become known as CREDs, or Credibility Enhancing Displays. In performing these displays, our commitment is perceived as more genuine, which enhances our credibility within as well as outside the group, increasing the cohesiveness of the group and the likelihood of others joining as a result of that degree of cohesion. These can range from fire-walking, to crucifixion, to self-castration, to vows of celibacy, silence, and/or poverty, to food restrictions, to dress and grooming standards, and on and on and on.

These days, these two CSR approaches are coalescing into a coevolutionary model that sees the constituent parts of “religion” as cognitive byproducts that were then adapted for through the mechanisms of cultural evolution as societies grew larger and larger. If you want a very recent and very thorough case for this model, along with over two dozen responses from other CSR scholars, see here.

So how does this relate to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Both responses betray the CREDs given priority by the individuals asserting them. For critics of the choir’s performance, sacrificing that publicity in the name of our rejection of racism, sexism, and oppression would be a powerful display of commitment to those standards, both to other members within our group and to those outside the group assessing our sincerity and our values. For supporters of the choir’s decision, the acceptance of the invitation may signal to them commitment to the country, to the office of the presidency, or to conservatism/the RNC (depending on their position vis-à-vis party politics). There is an additional dynamic in play with the latter, however: opposing the choir’s choice represents opposition to the inspiration and infallibility of Church leadership, and so the position we take itself represents a display of our own commitment. Are we willing to subjugate our own feelings about the choir’s performance to our “Follow the Prophet” standard? Those prioritizing this consideration tend to be more authoritarian in orientation, and are largely concerned either with rooting out those considered inadequately committed to the group’s authority structure or with using that authority structure as a rhetorical trump card.

One more theoretical model of CSR is relevant: dual-process cognition. According to this model, our mind operates on a spectrum, with one end largely the purview of our subconscious or intuitive cognition, which is quick, automatic, and tied to those evolutionary predispositions about mental agents, teleology, etc. As we move toward the other end, we have more conscious control of our cognition, and it slows down and incorporates reason, evidence, and other considerations. Conflict frequently occurs between these two types of cognition as thinking unfolds, with two broad approaches possible: rationalization (the use of reason and evidence to try to affirm or defend our intuitive beliefs) or decoupling (the use of reason and evidence to overrule or inhibit our intuitive beliefs). These dynamics have been demonstrated in numerous different ways, with an interesting recent example discussed here.

So these different beliefs about what the choir is signaling are all in conflict with each other as different members of the Church with different cognitive predispositions, understandings of our ethical priorities, and convictions about the relationship of the Church to the United States, try to apply their reason to either rationalizing or decoupling their intuitions and their conscious ideological frameworks. We either prioritize our values related to the oppression/abuse of marginalized classes, our values related to patriotism, or our values related to the infallibility/authority of Church leaders. The second priority is inarguably not given priority in the literature and rhetoric of the Church and its leadership, but we have become so thoroughly integrated into the conservative evangelical American worldview that it has become an undeniably central part of Latter-day Saint self identity for many. To assert that the LDS Church actively avoids all displays of partisanship in light of this is demonstrably untrue, but this is the worldview I think has become intuitive for many, and so there are many who are hard at work rationalizing this, with concerns for authority or the infallibility of leadership frequently buttressing it. The assertion that the inauguration is a celebration of democracy and the office of the presidency, and not Trump himself, is an example of another factually incorrect attempt to rationalize that intuition.

I, for one, proudly and absolutely unapologetically prioritize standing against the oppression and abuse of minorities, women, and the poor. I have relationships with victims of abuse who already feel marginalized and devalued in the Church, and seeing the choir further marginalize them in the interest of celebrating democracy, maintaining tradition, or not appearing partisan has been especially dehumanizing. Donald Trump is a self-described unrepentant sexual predator who has repeatedly asserted intentions to facilitate grotesquely racist, sexist, xenophobic, and generally hateful, violent, and destructive legislation. His elevation to the presidency has already catalyzed a spike in hatred and a scurrying to exploit and protect the mainstreaming and normalization of that hatred. I believe this is the greatest threat to our nation and to its citizens that our generation has ever faced, and I will not participate in its normalization, much less its celebration, in any sense whatsoever. If you are LDS and you’ve made it this far in this post, consider where your priorities are placed, whose wellbeing is most important to you, and how you may have been trying to rationalize things.

2016 Annual Meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion

The program for the 2016 annual meeting of the NAASR has been posted on the organization’s blog. This meeting takes place in San Antonio from Friday, November 18, to Saturday, November 20. I will be responding to Naomi Goldenberg in the “Description” panel of the Method Today portion of the program, as described and outlined below:

Method Today

NAASR’s 2016 program, which will take place in San Antonio, TX, is intended to create opportunities for specialists from across our field, all of whom are at a variety of different career stages, to investigate what “method” means in the study of religion today.

With the success of the 2015 NAASR program—devoted to examining the current state of theory in the study of religion with four main papers plus responses—the 2016 program will retain the same format but turn its attention instead to the closely related topic of method. And because of the wide variety of methods used in the cross-disciplinary study of religion we’re proposing narrowing the focus to four key tools that all scholars of religion surely employ, regardless their approach to the study of religion: description, comparison,interpretation, and explanation.

The program committee is therefore inviting members to consider the place of each of these in the study of religion—recognizing that examining each opens conversations on far wider topics of relevance to NAASR’s mission, such as description being intimately linked to ethnography, viewpoint, first person authority (to name but a few). In much the same way, detailed consideration of the other three tools also leads into conversations on the basics of the field (E.g., Having survived critiques of comparison as ethnocentric, what is the future of comparative studies and how ought they to be carried out? Given the once dominant, but for some now discredited, place of hermeneutical approaches what is entailed in the interpretation of meaning today? And, despite their once prominent place several generations ago, what does one make of the continuing lack of interest in the academy in naturalistic, explanatory theories of religion?) This focus on method, by means of these four basic tools, therefore provides us with an opportunity to assess the current state of the field.

As with the 2015 program, three scholars who work in a variety of subfields will respond to each of the four main papers (thereby involving 16 participants in total). The four main, pre-circulated papers will only be summarized briefly at their sessions and a large portion of the sessions will again be reserved for open conversations; the goal is that all of the papers will then be published in a special issue of MTSR. Unlike last year, however, the Program Committee will commission the four main generative papers (based on hopes that they eventually contribute to a new NAASR book series, to be announced soon).

1. “Description,” Naomi Goldenberg (University of Ottawa)
10:00am-11:50am, Friday, November 18—El Mirador C East at the Hilton Palacio del Rio

Emily Crews (University of Chicago)
Ian Cuthbertson (Queen’s University)
Neil George (York University)
Dan McClellan (University of Exeter)

2. “Interpretation,” Kevin Schilbrack (Appalachian State University)
1:00pm-2:50pm, Friday, November 18—El Mirador C East at the Hilton Palacio del Rio

Mark Gardiner and Steven Engler (Mount Royal University)
Joshua Lupo (Florida State University)
Matt Sheedy (University of Manitoba)
Jennifer Eyl (Tufts University)

3. “Comparison,” Aaron W. Hughes (University of Rochester)
3:00pm-4:50pm, Friday, November 18—El Mirador C East at the Hilton Palacio del Rio

Lucas Carmichael (University of Colorado)
Thomas Carrico (Florida State University)
Drew Durdin (University of Chicago
Stacie Swain (University of Ottawa)

Annual Reception, Co-Sponsored with Equinox Publishing
7:00pm-9:00pm, Friday, November 18
Location TBD

Business Meeting
1:00pm-1:50pm, Saturday, November 19—El Mirador C East at the Hilton Palacio del Rio

4. “Explanation,” Ann Taves and Egil Asprem (University of California—Santa Barbara)
9:00am-10:50am, Sunday, November 20—El Mirador C East at the Hilton Palacio del Rio

Spencer Dew (Centenary College)
Joel Harrison (Northwestern University)
Paul Kenny (SOAS, UK)
Erin Roberts (University of South Carolina)

Paper Proposal Accepted for “Religio: Shaping and Defining the Notion of ‘Religion'” in Velletri

I just received word that a proposal I submitted for a conference just outside of Rome in July entitled “Religio: Shaping and Defining the Notion of ‘Religion'” was accepted. The conference is described in the call for papers as follows:

Our conference aims to provide an occasion of reflection and interdisciplinary discussion about the concept of religion and the notions related to this topic. The aim of this meeting is to investigate the shaping and the development of the notion of religion in western thought. We plan to research and analyze the various ways in which specialized literature posed the concept of religion as the object of study, together with the phenomena that have been attributed to such concept and the properties that have been deemed peculiar to this sphere, according to the views and positions of each single scholar. We will pay attention to the aims these scholars had, the classifications and theories they elaborated and the historical context they worked in.

As the first chapter I’ve written of my dissertation focuses on the concept of religion in history and in contemporary scholarship, this presents a wonderful opportunity to expose my research to an international group of scholars and refine and improve it along the way. The proposal I submitted is below.

Cognitive Linguistics and Defining Religion

The question of how religion is to be defined, if it is to be defined at all, has experienced a bit of a resurgence in recent scholarship, most recently in a 2015 volume of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which published three responses (and a rejoinder from the author) to Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell’s 2014 Journal of the American Academy of Religion article defending essentialism in approaches to defining religion. As with most other recent approaches to defining religion, Schaffalitzky de Muckadell briefly addressed prototype approaches to defining religion, but as with those other recent approaches (including in the responses to her article), she displayed a marked lack of familiarity with prototype theory and its methodological foundation, cognitive linguistics.

The proposed paper will describe the foundations of cognitive linguistics and prototype theory, and describe the relevance of the theory to attempts to define religion. An often overlooked context in this area is the Aristotelian theory of categorization that undergirds the definitional framework (Jonathan Jong’s work is a recent and notable exception). According to an Aristotelian approach, category membership is binary and is contingent upon necessary and sufficient features, which presupposes that a conceptual substructure governs the formation and function of lexical categories. As the work of several cognitive psychologists and linguists has shown, however, that is not how the human mind forms or utilizes such categories, whether or not they refer to empirically extant entities. Rather, we develop and use lexical categories based on conceptual proximity to cognitive exemplars, or prototypes. This usage is focused on the center of the category and not on potential boundaries. In fact, category boundaries rarely figure in usage until a rhetorical context of some kind or another calls for them, at which point the boundaries tend to be rather arbitrarily formulated.

The paper will conclude that most debate about the possibility of defining religion—even when it addresses prototype theory—overlooks critical aspects of category formation and usage that fundamentally undermine attempts to assert clear and objective definitions.

St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies Schedule

The preliminary schedule for June’s St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies, entitled “Son of God: Divine Sonship in Jewish and Christian Antiquity,” has been released to participants. It’s going to be quite a packed event. Three parallel sessions with three or four different groups of four papers each are scattered across the three days between the plenary sessions. My own paper will be presented last in group A of session 3, which begins at 2:20 PM on Tuesday in College Hall. See below for the schedule.

St Andrews Symposium Schedule Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 6.35.21 AM (2) Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 6.35.25 AM (2) Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 6.35.29 AM (2)

Larry Hurtado on Early Jewish Monotheism

I am reviewing some scholarship on monotheism in ancient Israel and early Judaism, and I have come across something I find peculiar, and I’m wondering if others have drawn attention to it. In his article “First-Century Jewish Monotheism” and in its reprint in How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Hurtado argues that authors in early Judaism self-identified as monotheists. Now, that word simply did not exist until after 1660, so they cannot have directly self-identified as monotheists. As Hurtado argues, though, the appeal to “one God” language counts, despite the fact that early Jewish literature did not seem to worry about scattered but explicit references to other gods. Hurtado only ever calls them gods in referring to ancient Jewish refusal to worship them, though. In the context of their appearance in literature, they are “heavenly beings,” “principal angels” that are “clothed with god-like attributes,” “divine agents,” “‘divine’ figures,” etc. Despite this reticence, Hurtado insists that viewing these “heavenly beings” as problematic for monotheism is a problem with our expectations, not with early Judaism. And here’s the part that I find particular peculiar. Hurtado seems to me to argue that the “heavenly beings” mentioned in Jewish texts somehow don’t qualify as monotheism-undermining “gods” because the exclusivity of Jewish worship reveals the true meaning of the texts (namely, monotheism). Here is what he says:

Thus, for example, scholars argue largely about whether ancient Jews conceived of more than one figure as divine, and they seek to answer the question almost entirely on the basis of semantic arguments about the meaning of honorific titles or phrases, without always studying adequately how ancient Jews practiced their faith. But in the same way that modern principles of linguistics persuasively teach us that the particular meaning of a word in any given occurrence is shaped crucially by the sentence in which it is used, and just as it is a basic principle of exegesis to understand the meaning of phrases and statements in the larger context of a passage or even a whole document, so it should be recognized as a basic principle in the analysis of religious traditions that the real meaning of words, phrases, and statements is always connected with the practice(s) of the religious tradition.

If my reading of this is accurate, Hurtado is insisting that the exclusive worship of one God absolutely precludes the possibility that early Jewish devotees read early Jewish literature as referring to “gods” in a way that undermines the application of monotheism to their tradition. It seems to me he is arguing this on the grounds that words, phrases, and statements cannot, as a principle, be understood by devotees to conflict with their practices.

This strikes me as a phenomenally bizarre way of insisting early Judaism is going to be considered monotheistic no matter what. Has this perspective been clarified or engaged elsewhere?

Atheism = Absence of Belief in God or Gods?

It’s a common trope among some New Atheists looking for more and better rhetorical tools for their identity politics that atheism is a-theism, and therefore means “a lack of belief in God or gods” and absolutely nothing else. This definition generally aids rhetorically in asserting atheism as a sort of default position for humanity. A recent example:



Apart from being a wildly naive etymological fallacy that ignores literally millennia of historical usage, the explicit denial of any qualification whatsoever renders all entities in the entire universe atheist, animate or otherwise, including all believers during the vast majority of their lives when they are not actively engaged in believing. I would suggest that this kind of petty and naive identity politics does neither service nor justice to atheism or atheists.