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!