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!

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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