Until next time – May 2017

The University of Edinburgh Gifford Lectureships Committee would like to thank you for your interest in our Gifford Lectures and for visiting and commenting on our blog. We trust you have enjoyed Professor Kathryn Tanner’s series and this opportunity to engage with the themes and questions arising from her lectures.

We are grateful to Professor Tanner for the great care she invested in preparing and delivering her stimulating series. We would also express our appreciation to the Reverend David Robinson for facilitating this year’s blog so effectively.

The blog will now be inactive until the next full Gifford Lecture Series. This is to be delivered in May 2017 by Jeffrey Stout, Professor of Religion at Princeton University. We hope you will join us again then.

Further details on the University of Edinburgh Gifford Lectures can be found at http://www.ed.ac.uk/humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/gifford-lectures.

Which World? Lecture Six

This post offers a shorter summary of Professor Kathryn Tanner’s final lecture, after which I have invited three contributors to help us conclude the series: Professor David Fergusson will offer his ‘vote of thanks;’ Dr. Lydia Schumacher will contribute her statement from the New College Giffords seminar; and a postgraduate student, Rev. Russell Almon, will engage with the content of this final lecture. As always, I would welcome your own comments, either on this particular lecture or on the series as a whole. The lecture video is available at this link.

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Kathryn Tanner begins her final lecture by reiterating her intent for this series, namely, to dissociate Protestant Christianity from the new work ethic of finance-disciplined capitalism. To this end, she challenges the moralising and individuating effects of the new spirit of capitalism. Tanner cites examples such as performance pay, in which individuals are singled out through competition, and state welfare provision, in which people are appraised on the basis of future benefits they might provide society (rather than as part of a class, say). In these ways, finance capitalism places one in a competitive relationship with others, a dynamic that extends to more and more people with increasingly direct forms of rivalry. Even so, one remains dependent, for the ability to profit depends in ‘an unusually intense way on others,’ that is, whether they buy or decline to buy (so long as their choice is not ahead of your own!). Continue reading

Another World? Lecture Five

This post provides a summary of Kathryn Tanner’s fifth Gifford lecture, entitled ‘Another World?’ Afterwards, my New College colleagues Evan Graber and Clement Wen will be providing their appraisals of Tanner’s depiction of the future as seen by both finance-disciplined capitalism and Christianity. As always, we invite your own contributions to our discussion (see my instructions for how to post). The lecture video is also now available at this link

In this lecture, Kathryn Tanner will concentrate on how the future is depicted in the contrasting accounts offered by finance-disciplined capitalism and Christianity. She will argue that stock valuations and the related sale of derivatives have the effect of ‘collapsing’ the future into the present, employing Luhmann’s distinction between the ‘future present’ (the future that will, in fact, come) with the ‘present future’ (current predictions of how the future will turn out). Tanner will elaborate that such reduction is not only a matter of perspective but actually helps to create such a future by affecting prices and valuations. Any claims to market mastery, however, are challenged by an irreducible unpredictability of the future, as shown in market crashes. Tanner will therefore argue for a Christian view of the future that does not seek to constrain volatility, but that it approaches such uncertainty alongside belief in the disruptive effect of God’s transformative grace. In this way, Christianity’s view of ‘another world’ to come challenges predictive enthusiasm while motivating work towards ‘realistic proximate futures.’

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Nothing but the Present: Lecture Four

In this post I offer a summary of Tanner’s fourth Gifford lecture, followed by a brief critique of her characterisation of the present moment in Christianity. Two of my New College colleagues, Jo Schonewolf and Amy Plender, will also offer responses to the material, then it’s over to you for questions and commentary. The lecture video is also now available at this link.

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In this fourth lecture, Kathryn Tanner will describe the way that finance capitalism disciplines workers, managers, and traders in such a way that they become totally absorbed in the present moment. This discipline occurs through a number of means, including the conditions of scarcity imposed by market fluctuation, but its effects differ in proportion to the resources and liquidity one has at one’s disposal. In either case, the market, through corporations, reduces life to a sequence of ‘bare’ presents, isolated from past and future. Tanner will then argue that this view of the present is in diametric opposition to that offered by Christianity, in which the present moment is urgent because of its opportunity for gracious encounter with God. Tanner will then claim that divine, eternal constancy can become one’s orienting point in the midst of continuing market volatility. Continue reading

Total Commitment: Lecture Three

In this post I will first offer a summary of Kathryn Tanner’s third lecture, aiming to stay as close to her terms as possible. I will then open a critical line of inquiry on the discussion thread, asking how Tanner’s promised ‘Protestant anti-work ethic’ succeeds given its continuing (albeit ‘converted’) use of terms such as ‘project’ and ‘self-fashioning.’ So read the summary (as well as our live Twitter feed at #GiffordsEd) with a view to commenting on how well you think Tanner destabilises the total commitment required of us in a world of finance-dominated capitalism. The lecture video is also now available at this link.

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Kathryn Tanner begins by describing a corporation’s problem with securing ‘total commitment’ from its workers. A company’s controlling interest in maximising shareholder value means that each worker must provide constant, maximal intensity of effort in the pursuit of profit. It is so important to track, and motivate, such worker commitment that a company will even take on the costs of a surveillance system. Such monitoring can contribute to a worker’s motivation in that one fears for the security of one’s position or, alternately, hopes for an award of ‘recognition.’

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Chained to the Past: Lecture Two

What follows is a summary paraphrase of Kathryn Tanner’s second Gifford lecture (see also the night’s live twitter feed at #GiffordsEd). It is necessarily brief, lacking many of the vivid examples Tanner uses, but I hope it will provide a refresher for those who attended the lecture as well as a preview (of the video that is, as of Thursday morning, available here) for those who could not be with us. Whichever group you find yourself in, I invite your comments and questions in the field below.

Kathryn Tanner outlines the way in which finance-dominated capitalism structures our sense of time. She details how the past comes to constrict both present and future, as exemplified in the psychological and social effects of debt. Whether in the form of student loans or mortgages, a thirty-year commitment to debt-service does not factor in future uncertainties in the job market, creating a pressured combination of unyielding demand and instability.

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Tanner then shows the disturbing effects of a ‘core-periphery’ organisation of labour. Here, the corporation’s more profitable ‘core’ (the design & marketing team, deal-makers) is retained as company employees while the so-called inessential services (data entry, janitorial and maintenance) are outsourced or made the responsibility of subcontractors. Under the target of maximising shareholder value, ‘profits are forced ever lower as one proceeds down the nested chain of suppliers.’ Continue reading

Introducing the New Spirit of Capitalism: Lecture One

We had a lively opening Gifford lecture with Professor Tanner at the Business School tonight! If you missed it, you can review the ‘live’ rendition at the Twitter hashtag #GiffordsEdAlso, as of Wednesday, May 4th, the lecture video has been available at this linkFor this and subsequent discussion threads, consider responding to the following questions:

  • Is there a technical term, from either economics or theology, that you’d like to hear clarified? Professor Tanner has already covered a lot of ground and this is a good place to define our terms.
  • How does finance-dominated capitalism, as Tanner described it and you experience it, differ from the industrial capitalism that was the subject of Weber’s critique?
  • What element of Tanner’s proposed ‘Protestant anti-work ethic’ would you like to hear elaborated in the lectures to come?

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To get us started, Melanie McConnell, a postgraduate student from New College, has posted some thoughts in our reply section. I’ve also heard some interest about how capitalism shapes our current institutions of higher education, both in the final question of tonight’s Q&A and through comments on social media. To join the thread, see my post on how to offer a comment.
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Join Our Discussion: How to Post Comments on this Site

Our 2016 Gifford Lectures begin next week!

You are invited to join a number of contributors who will be responding to Professor Kathryn Tanner, and one another, on this blog. We’re hoping to develop a lively community discussion, both at the lectures and online, so we want you to take part. Here’s how to join the discussion in three steps:

First, while at the lectures themselves submit a question electronically either by emailing GiffordLectures@ed.ac.uk or tweeting with the hashtag #GiffordsEd. Questions submitted in this manner will be either posed live or incorporated into the blog discussion.

Second, sign up to ‘follow’ this blog using the button on the left side of the home screen. This will keep you up-to-date with posts and commentary.

Third, after a lecture that has stirred your interest, submit a comment in the ‘Leave a Reply’ field below my initial post. Here’s a quick review of how to post a comment: Continue reading

Engage our 2016 Theme: ‘Christianity & the New Spirit of Capitalism’

In Professor Kathryn Tanner’s introduction to this year’s Giffords theme, she states that contemporary capitalism can ‘hinder the development of any critical perspective on it.’ Given this situation, we are looking forward to her lectures as a mode of resistance to the influence of finance-dominated capitalism on our societies, workplaces, and ‘spiritualities’.

This weblog offers the opportunity to further develop our critical perspective by engaging Professor Tanner’s lecture content online. I will be serving as this year’s blog host (read my profile), which means that I will be posting initial thoughts on each of the lectures here, drawing on questions submitted by audience members. I will also be inviting various contributors to post reflections on what they have heard.

Join us by sharing your insights on Professor Tanner’s lectures on this blog. As the effects of capitalism are pervasive in our cultures and religions, we are looking for a wide spectrum of voices to achieve truly critical leverage. In other words, we are not only seeking contributions from members of the academy, nor is discussion limited to those who practice a particular faith. Here are a few ways to take part in our conversation:

Plan to attend one or more of the Giffords, which take place from May 2-12, 2016 at the University of Edinburgh. A description of each lecture is available here, alongside details about location, times, and tickets.

Pose a question at the lecture itself, either directly or via email and twitter at #GiffordsEd. Questions submitted electronically will be added to the queue during the discussion period to follow each lecture, as well as being integrated into my blog posts.

Write your reflections on our discussion thread in the space between lectures–perhaps later that evening, perhaps during the next couple days. You’ll see an opportunity at the base of each post to ‘leave a reply.’ If you’re currently a blogger, posting here will open up your own website to others as a means to continue the conversation.

Open up our discussion to others through social media. This is an important way that we can share the resources of the academy more broadly, as not everyone will be able to attend. Use the icons attached to each post as well as twitter hashtag #GiffordsEd.

Read key works in advance.
Professor Tanner makes the bold statement that she plans to ‘reverse the project’ of German sociologist Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The allusion in her lecture title is clear, so it would be useful to refresh on that classic work, or encounter it for the first time, to gauge whether she succeeds.
As for Professor Tanner’s own work, she has written on markets previously in Economy of Grace (2005). She is also well known for her book Christ the Key (2010), which offers a central element of her larger project. There is currently a group of postgraduate students at New College reading through the latter, so you may want to take the cue from them.

However you choose to engage, I look forward to working together to develop critical perspectives on, indeed to counteract, the ways we have been shaped by global capitalism.

2015 Finale: The Profoundly Disabled as our Human Equals

In a sensitively structured and cogent conclusion to his Gifford Lecture Series, Professor20150127_Gifford_Lecture_2_still3 Jeremy Waldron tonight set out his argument for the full, unequivocal inclusion of those who are ‘profoundly disabled’ within his schemata for ‘basic human equality’. As he described his ‘bottom line’: ‘those who are profoundly disabled are human persons too, endowed with human dignity, distinct from non-human animals, and entitled to human equality’. Continue reading