Saturday, November 07, 2009

Boundaries and responsibilities

My first full day of AAR has been full of boundary-pushing. (Yesterday I met a friend for the reception, and before that trekked across Montréal to see a new movie which turned out to be fantastic, Montréal-based John N. Smith's "Love & Savagery." I hope it makes it south of the border.)

I started with a panel on the new "Ethics and Religious Culture" curriculum required of all elementary and high school students in Québec - even those in private, religious schools. It was inaugurated just last year, and is still very controversial. Some professors described the historical background, pedagogical and political stakes, and some of the objections (from secularists as well as some religious communities), and then two teachers described their experiences with the curriculum. The panel was long enough for me to decide this was the the most thoughtful effort to instill religious literacy ever - its aims are the recognition of others (Charles Taylor's influence, I think) and the pursuit of the common good (Canada's a different continent than the US!). And then to worry if it was politically practicable. And then finally to conclude, as the teachers enthused about their experiences with it, that it can't be put into practice, at least not in a way attentive to the concerns of religious studies - one of the trainers of the "spiritual animators" who are to administer this curriculum didn't know that some of her students wouldn't be able to eat peperoni pizza! And yet, this was the most concrete example of an effort to include religion meaningfully in civic education I've heard about, and it would be wonderful if it could be done. If one could, what would one like children (at various stages of development) to learn, and are there ways to train teachers? Because of the separation of church in state, Americans haven't had to think about these questions, but they're crucial - a whole pile of our methodological questions suddenly no longer just academic. I'd like to learn more.

After a first foray into the book displays, it was the turn of the Transhumanism and Religion panel. Unconvincing papers argued that Heidegger would worry about "human enhancement" but Aristotle might conceivably approve of "embodied" (but not "disembodied") transhumanism. A more grounded paper arguing that the imago dei "is realized in hybridity and provides resources for living wisely in contemporary technosociety" was more interesting, until someone asked what connection there was between the liberating feminist discourse of the cyborg the paper invoked and the more barren movement of transhumanism - there's hardly any. Transhumanism seems naive and asocial. A final paper on "cryptoreligious models" in Ray Kurzweil's "singularity" left me nonplused, too. I remain convinced that thinking about transhumanism isn't optional anymore - the technologies are there, the dangers and promises of a fraying conception of human nature and community - but we're going to have to do better than this. (No, I'm not bitter that they turned down the proposal one of my students and I submitted!)

I skipped out of the business meeting of the Transhumanism and Religion consultation to catch the last part of a big panel reexamining the concept of "civil religion." Mistake - it reminded me of the paper-thin theories of secularity and post-secularity I explored last year. And the hopes of that period, just a few months ago, about a magical revitalization of the American idea by President Obama.

Then it was time for a plenary panel on legacies of colonialism in religious studies in the Americas, which ended up being about the horrors of "linguicide" and quite fascinating. A Latino philosopher asked if the seeds of the humanistic study of religion didn't perhaps lie in the judgments of Europeans that their farthest-flung colonial conquests had no religion and thus no souls: if they had no souls, you could relate to them without reference to theology. A part-Apache historian argued that the loss of a language is the loss of a theology, a way of knowing the world. An African-Nova Scotian poet imagined the religion of the first illiterate African Baptists of Halifax, reading some of his poems. And an autochthonous Québecois film maker told of her childhood experiences of being told her people were ignorant savages in the 1940s. The panel as a whole suggested that religious studies can and should be in the business of preserving old language and providing venues for the creation of new meanings, as a way of asserting the value of every soul.

There's no particular program to this itinerary of panels - I chose what seemed most promising and distinctive for each session time, not the ensemble. But they do add up to an intriguing sense of the boundaries and responsibilities of religious studies, in civic education, understanding the legacies and debts of the past, and looking forward to an increasingly technological future with the wisdom of all the world's ethics and religious cultures.

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