Lecture Six: Religion and the Politics of Explanation

Professor Stout delivered the sixth and final of his Gifford Lectures last night. My summary  is below. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can be  found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion George Walters-Sleyon will provide his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s final lecture. George is PhD candidate in Practical Theology and Christian Ethics at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout began the first section of his final lecture speaking about “ethical religion and coalitional politics.” He referred to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait (1963) and to his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in solitary confinement also in 1963. His letter was written in response to eight “moderate” clergymen who had publicly expressed their disapproval of the civil rights protests going on.  Stout then quoted King’s question to these clergymen that has been at the center of his own lectures: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” In many ways, these lectures have been an endeavor to more fully understand what King wrote here in this letter. Stout went on to note Emerson’s influence on King and King’s appropriation of aspects from “the traditions of black preaching, natural law, and personalist theology, each of which distinguishes ethical from unethical religion in its own terms.”

Stout went on to note that “King treats the separation of religion from politics as a heresy that moderate clergy use to excuse inaction in the face of oppression” and that both King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel believed the bifurcation of the sacred and the secular to be a cause of racism. Stout went on to mention that “King and Heschel used the term religion to form a political coalition of Christians and Jews” and in doing so they challenged the relegation of religion to the private realm. Stout ended the first section of his lecture by noting that Gandhi, too, was a “a multilingual coalition builder.”

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Gifford Lectures Vote of Thanks

Last night following Professor Stout’s final lecture Professor Larry Hurtado delivered a brief vote of thanks. Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh. His vote of thanks is posted below.

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In these six Gifford lectures, Professor Stout has challenged cogently the grand narrative of a “great separation” in Western cultural history in which religion was relocated from a previously public influence to a more private and hobbyist sphere, which supposedly enabled Western culture to move in liberationist directions including the emergence of modern democracy, free inquiry, and more egalitarian values.  Professor Stout’s effective challenge to this narrative has been conducted by an in-depth historical analysis of key figures who serve as case-studies of genuinely religious individuals across several centuries who each criticized then-dominant political values and practices precisely on the basis of their religious convictions.  To borrow a phrase, these lectures comprise their own “inconvenient truth” over against the romanticized narrative of secularization that has been so popularly and uncritically echoed.  I am not able to summarize the wealth of these lectures, and it would be tedious for me to attempt to do so.  Nothing could, or should, substitute for hearing them, or hearing them again (on the Gifford Lectures web site), and in due course, we hope, reading them in published form.  But I am honoured to be asked to offer a brief vote of thanks.

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RSE Gifford Discussion Forum

Last night Professor Jeffrey Stout was joined by Professor John Bowlin (Robert L. Stuart Professor of Philosophy and Christian Ethics, Princeton Theological Seminary), Professor G. Scott Davis (Lewis T. Booker Professor in Religion and Ethics, University of Richmond), and Professor Cornel West (Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard University) to further discuss his Gifford Lectures among themselves and with the audience. The event was chaired by Dr Alison Elliot, (Associate Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh). A link to the audio provided by the RSE can be found at the bottom of this post.  Professor Mona Siddiqui delivered a vote of thanks at the end of the evening, and it is posted below for those who were unable to attend and for those who would like to reflect on it again. Professor Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Inter-religious Studies and Assistant Principal Religion and Society at the University of Edinburgh. She is also herself a former Gifford Lecturer.

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Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests and colleagues.

It is an enormous privilege but also a challenge to give a vote of thanks at this event but I hope that my few words will do justice to this evening and encapsulate what many of us have been lucky enough to observe over the last few days.

Over dinner yesterday Professor Cornel West used the words intellectual integrity when he spoke of his friend Jeffrey Stout – this phrase stayed with me during the evening as I made my way home afterwards on a rather cold and empty train. How do we know and measure intellectual integrity and what value should we place on it?

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Lecture Five: Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God

Professor Stout delivered the fifth of his Gifford Lectures last night. My summary  is below. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can be  found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Professor David Fergusson will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s fifth lecture. Fergusson is Professor of Divinity and Principal of New College at the University of Edinburgh and he himself is also a former Gifford Lecturer. S. Kyle Johnson will also provide his initial reflections on some of the themes that have arisen in the lectures so far. Kyle is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology at Boston College. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout begins his fifth lecture by speaking of Nietzche’s eclipse of Emerson. Emerson spoke of many of the same themes that Nietzsche did before Nietzsche did, but Nietzsche’s version is the one most remembered today. As Stout mentioned, “Bookstores have moved Emerson to the self-help aisle. We read his sayings on greeting cards and wince. Nietzsche is in every theologian’s shoulder bag. Self-reliance is now served black, no sugar, in a Parisian demitasse.” According to Stout, most academics now only know Emersonian themes “by way of Nietzsche’s anti-democratic variations on them.” Emerson himself met with a mixed reception in his visits to Scotland, ranging from charges of “ill-disguised infidelity” to more charitable and sympathetic yet critical appreciation of him by people like James Stirling (the first Gifford Lecturer) and Lord Gifford himself. Many on both sides of the Atlantic saw something of value in Emerson. Stout ended the first section of his lecture by saying, “If we want to understand the modern ideal of ethical religion” then “we had better figure out what these and many other activists, including King, saw in Emerson.”

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Interview with Professor Stout

Professor Stout talks briefly about his work and his experience giving the Edinburgh Gifford Lectures.

Lecture Four: Abolitionism, Political Religion, and Secularism

Professor Stout delivered the fourth of his Gifford Lectures last night. My summary  is below. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can be  found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Ryan Tafilowski will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s fourth lecture. Ryan is currently a PhD student in Systematic Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout started his fourth lecture by discussing abolitionism. He distinguished two different “modes of emancipatory politics:” the antislavery movement and the secularist movement. According to Stout, the latter views religion as “essentially oppressive” while the former “distinguishes virtuous religion from its oppressive semblances.” Recognizing these two distinct modes is important as they correlate with different approaches to political engagement, both historically and today. As he said, “this basic conceptual difference correlates with differences in argument, explanation, objectives, means, and organization.”

Stout talked about Hume’s British contemporaries who, while they disagreed over the nature of rationality and other theological issues and even though they came from various religious backgrounds (Quaker, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian), they all agreed that true religion was incompatible with slavery. Stout then went on to make the claim that it was “their distinction between religion’s supernatural and mundane ends” that enabled them to cooperate with one another and that “the religiously plural nature of their coalition was essential to its political success.” Stout then gave a number of abolitionist examples to illustrate this distinct style of political engagement.

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Lecture Three: Why Religion, Faith, and Freedom Proved Hard to Reconcile

Last night Professor Stout delivered the third of his Gifford Lectures. My summary (with an embedded question) is below. The video of Stout’s lecture is also embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Nomi Pritz-Bennett will be adding her initial reflections on Professor Stout’s third lecture. Nomi is currently a PhD student in Systematic Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout began his third lecture by restating his aim in this series. Namely, “to clarify an ideal of ethical religion, trace its political history, and explain its survival in a supposedly secular age.” He sets out to do this by taking a closer look at the notions of religion, freedom, and faith and how they have related to one another. In the first section he focused on how faith has been taken to relate to religion.

He admits that nowadays the terms have become virtually synonymous; illustrated by the fact that various religions are often referred to as various faiths. As he stated, “Native American, African, and Asian traditions that are sometimes classified as religious are also called faiths. This dubious habit has something to do with Christianity’s semantic status in many modern settings as the paradigmatic instance of religion.” This phenomenon makes sense, according to Stout, given Christianity’s prevalent role in Europe and in the global spread of religion-talk, for better or worse.

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Lecture Two: Early Modern Critics of Tyranny and Oppression

Last night Professor Stout delivered the second of his Gifford Lectures. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Cameron Clausing will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s second  lecture. Cam is currently a postgraduate student at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout opens his second lecture by defining tyranny and oppression as they relate to the global spread of religion-talk (as it relates to the Latin term religio) and its ties to imperialism. A tyrant is someone who “exercises power over someone for reasons contrary to the common good.” Oppression occurs when tyrants “unjustly press a person or a group into servitude.” According to Stout, servitude is synonymous with being “subjected to domination” where this is understood as being “at the mercy of another’s will, as a slave is vulnerable to a master’s arbitrary power.” Just as superstition is false religion (and not merely a bad form of religion) a tyrant is a false king not merely a bad one. Like superstition and true religion tyrants (morally vicious) and kings (morally virtuous) are incompatible by definition.

Stout then moved on to talk at length about the early modern Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (referencing a few others along the way). He focused on Las Casas’ mediating role between the conquistadors and the Indian population amidst the many horrendous events that transpired, which were in part justified by the conquistadors through misunderstood appeals to religion as it was tied up with royal authority. The conquistadors were oppressive and they tyrannically forced the Indian population into servitude. This was incompatible with true religion, despite their delusions of being exemplars of it.

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Lecture One: Religion since Cicero

Professor Jeffrey Stout covered a lot of ground in his first lecture. This initial post consists of a longer summary than will appear in future posts. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Nathaniel Gray Sutanto will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s first Gifford Lecture. Gray is currently a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Professor Jeffrey Stout gave his opening lecture to a packed audience. At the turn of the twentieth century William James gave his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (published as Varieties of Religious Experience) and Stout related the theme of his own lectures to one of James’ lectures on the sick soul where James emphasizes cries of help as being at the core of the “religious problem.” Stout’s lectures aim to concentrate “on cries for help in the face of tyranny and oppression,” which have been, and continue to be, closely tied to various understandings of religion and embodied in various religious individuals and communities. More explicitly than many previous Gifford Lectures, Stout tied the content of his lectures to the abolitionist commitments of Lord Gifford himself.

Stout went on to further relate his lectures to the hope of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lord Gifford. They both recognized the inseparable and inevitable relation between religion and political action. The effects of religion in society can be good or bad depending on whether religion instills virtue or vice. As Stout stated, “Religion is good when it embodies the highest ideals we know. It goes bad when infected by injustice.” For example, the complicity of modern Christians in the slave-trade ought to be a cause for shame. Involvement in such injustices “bind religion to vice.” The hoped-for remedy of Emerson and Gifford “is not to secularize politics but to rectify religious attitudes and practices.” As Stout went on to say, “when religion abides by justice and liberty, rather than bowing to arbitrary power, it lifts each of us and promotes the common good.” He listed numerous examples of religiously motivated political activists who shared this hope: Continue reading

Anticipating this Year’s Discussion

Stout Gifford Poster

The 2017 Gifford Lectures are less than a week away! Professor Jeffrey Stout will give the first of his six Gifford Lectures this upcoming Monday, 1 May. Stout’s lectures promise to be of timely interest for those concerned to reflect on the relationship between religion and injustice. He gives the following overview of the entirety of his lectures:

“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”—Martin Luther King Jr.

The religious defenders of tyranny and oppression bind religion to injustice. The remedy, Adam Lord Gifford thought, is not to secularize politics but to emancipate religion from arbitrary power. Religion is not going away. It will always have political effects. The effects are good if the religion is good and bad if the religion is bad. An ideal of ethical religion animated the abolitionists whom Gifford admired and many activists since. ‘Religion Unbound’ will trace the ideal’s history and explain how its defenders have defined and criticized religion.

Public intellectuals often posit a Great Separation of religion from politics in modernity. They differ over how the Separation was achieved, whether its effects were good, bad, or mixed, and whether it was permanent or temporary. References to a recent ‘return of religion’ assume that a Great Separation in fact took place, that we know what it was, and that it set the terms in which politics was conducted where and while it lasted. Yet religiously motivated reformers and revolutionaries have been with us all along. How would our outlook need to change if we included Milton, Wilberforce, Mott, Emerson, Gandhi, and King in the story?

As in past years this blog will be active to facilitate discussion of Stout’s lectures online. I will be posting lecture summaries shortly after the lectures are given, the videos of each lecture will be posted on the blog, and several contributors will offer their initial reflections to get the conversation started.

For further details on how to join the conversation see How to Engage. As David Robinson mentioned last year, this weblog offers the opportunity to further develop our critical perspective by engaging with the content of the Gifford Lectures online. As David importantly noted, “We are not only seeking contributions from members of the academy, nor is discussion limited to those who practice a particular faith.” Anyone is warmly invited to join the discussion by sharing comments and questions on the content of the lectures.

If you are able you can also plan to attend the lectures in person (book tickets here) as well as this year’s RSE Gifford Discussion Forum hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (book tickets here). This takes place on Wednesday 10 May and Jeffrey Stout will be joined by Cornel West (Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard University), John Bowlin (Robert L. Stuart Professor of Philosophy and Christian Ethics, Princeton Theological Seminary), and G. Scott Davis (Lewis T. Booker Professor in Religion and Ethics, University of Richmond).

We look forward to this year’s discussion!