Invited Participants

J. Kameron Carter, University of Indiana - 'Strange Religion; or, Blackness and the Sacred'

This talk unfolds that poetics of the sacred that is internal to black radical practice and that thus marks the aliveness of black social life. Blackpoetic sacrality, so I aim to display in this talk, unfolds both in relationship to the cosmic — and even the mythic, the cosmomythic — conditions of the settler colonial war and the antiblack violence that animates the project called “America” and, indeed, modernity itself. And yet, it is also the case that blackness is irreducible to this genesis or the  conditions of this violence. There is a digenesis or a paragenesis. Thinking principally with W. E. B. Du Bois in this talk, I explore this dynamic by, first, laying out the nature of the prometheanism that marks “the souls of white folk” and the settler colonial “religion of whiteness.” I’ll show that such cosmomythic prometheanism is a distinct or never before encountered iteration of the christological problem. I then will think critically through Du Bois’s positing of “strange religion,” what we might inadequately call “black religion,” as indicating a non-sovereign or insovereign mode of the sacred that exceeds that the settler form of the sacred that anchors “America” and the religion of whiteness that animates it.

Gary Dorrien, Columbia University; Union Theological Seminary - 'Making Democratic Socialism American: History, Politics, Religion, and Economic Democracy'

The convention that democratic socialism is un-American has become unsettled. U.S. Americans are losing their tolerance for extreme class disparities that Europeans do not allow. European Social Democracy has created mixed-economy welfare states that extend the rights of political democracy to the social and economic realms. The government pays for everyone’s healthcare, higher education is free, elections are publicly financed, and solidarity wage policies restrain economic inequality. In the United States healthcare depends on what you can afford, many have no health coverage at all, students enter the workforce with crippling debt, private money dominates the political system, and severe inequality worsens constantly. American politicians denigrate as socialist the goals of rectifying inequality and building a green economy, which makes socialism sound pretty good to the generation that grew up under neoliberal globalization and does not remember the Cold War. This presentation interprets the history, politics, and theory of U.S. American democratic socialism, devoting approximately equal treatment to intertwined secular democratic socialist and religious socialist traditions.

Marion Grau, Norwegian School of Theology - 'Regifting the Divine Economy - Countering Blowout Petrotheologies'

As we try to unravel the webs of consumption and corruption that extend the life of global fossil fuel dependency, anti-democratic tendencies and destructive authoritarianisms threaten people and planet further. The next few years will be crucial in how people across the globe are meeting these challenges. Equity, human rights, environmental integrity, all is under pressure and we need narratives, faith, and rituals that help us prepare and sustain each other in the times of loss and transformation to come. In order to muster decolonizing and decapitalizing resources for the transformation of society, theology and religious communities, this paper proposes a critical petro-theology that seeks to make visible the forms of economic and spiritual dependency on extractivism. Further, it ponders in what ways those who have benefited most from such extractivism let go and learn “to die in the Anthropocene” as Roy Scranton suggests and commit to a phase of letting go the ways of petrocapitalism and transition to a different economy. As theologians, and as humans, it behooves us to remove legitimation from such demonic economies and consider ways of committing to this process that do not further injure fellow creatures. Rather, it ponders how to help communities to find ways to abstain from petromania and its set of habits and patterns.   

This paper explores connections between the love of money and the love of petroleum and the various forms of exchange that power the extension of human reach and life. The dependence of neoliberal capitalism on petroleum exploitation is a major driver of both overconsumption, resource depletion, and climate change. Some have suggested an economy of the gift or of grace as an alternative framework for economic and theological relationality. Yet, theological preoccupations with gift economy have seldom considered the obligations, responsibility, and care that are involved and necessary in maintaining non-exploitative relationships, be they economic, ecological, or with the Divine. The paper proposes an ethic and economics of reciprocity and respect (Robin Wall Kimmerer) as central to the ideals of peoples of the land and those who need to become people of the land again as a way of grounding and as a way of finding empathy with the suffering of creation. As greater numbers of people seek to exit from destructive economic forms of living, some of the communities that can help people transition are spiritual and religious conversions from petroleum-fueled addiction to a different form of spiritual ecology (Douglas Christie).

Catherine Keller, Drew University - 'Creeps of the Apocalypse: Climate, Capital, and Democracy'

The temporality of climate change accelerates in an eerie mix of the eonically closing window and the daily creep of material evidence. Simultaneously the time of democracy lurches spasmodically toward the electoral deadline, casting shadows of fascism. Apocalypse now edges the most sober fears. But capitalism, driving both threats, remains itself unthreatened; it partakes of an opposite temporality—creeping from a determinist past through a continuous present reproduced in endless innovations, endlessly commodifiable as the same. No end in sight: its winning optimism monetizes melting glaciers. It whites out both the prospect of an uninhabitable planet and the edgy hope that collective recognition could yet assemble a viable future. 

In other words capitalism occludes at once the threat and the hope that apokalypsis names: the unveiling of planetary destruction, human and nonhuman, driven by the unstable coupling of imperial politics/global economics (John’s Beast/Whore). Not the closure of the world, not the calculating Endtimes of the religiopolitical right, apocalypse encodes the disclosure of a radical discontinuity of time through which an alternative collective life opens into possibility. Over and against the continuum of capital, such transformative interruption defines Christian salvation, according to Kathryn Tanner. Yet its indeterminacy characterizes “salvage communism,” according to China Mieville’s revolutionary collective. Can such seculareligious overlaps assemble new impurities of coalition? 

If the disruptive moment of our last-chance kairos invites wider solidarities, might even the transdisciplinarity of theology strengthen their opening? Resisting marketable modules of faith and knowledge, we imagine fresh democratic ecologies of lament, labor, and love. Yet ecclesial support for the practices of such progressive theology is undergoing, along with much liberal education, its own creeping demise. Is every academic effort doomed to reflexive curation of the apocalypse?

Hyo-Dong Lee, Drew University - 'Jeong, Civility, and the Heart of a Pluralistic Democracy'

This paper seeks to reinterpret the Confucian concept of emotions (情 jeong/qing) as a core political notion of a pluralistic democracy. This political reinterpretation grounds jeong in the tradition of Korean Neo-Confucian li-ki metaphysics and envisages it as a kind of critically affectionate solidarity that holds together diverse groups of people with diverging interests and concerns who seek justice, i.e., equal representation in the political life of the nation and fair and equitable share in the common resources of the nation. Understanding jeong as a kind of political and social glue to hold together often discordant and mutually conflicting demands for justice, this presentation attempts to lay the basis for imagining a thriving pluralistic democracy sustained by a public culture of civility—i.e., a public culture grounded in Confucian habits and mores and yet is pluralistic in ethos.

Kathryn Lofton, Yale University - 'Denominational Uncoupling in a Divestment Age'

This paper considers the relationship between protestant divestment and renegotiating denominational power. In February 2019 at a special general conference meeting, the United Methodist Church passed the Traditional Plan which affirmed the church’s existing bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage and added mandatory penalties for pastors who violate these bans. Nine months later Southern Methodist University amended its articles of incorporation to say the university is not controlled by the SCJC but by the school’s own board of trustees; one month after that the United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdictional Conference filed a lawsuit against Southern Methodist University to prevent the university from reconfiguring its relationship with the church. This plot is familiar to students of post-Reformation sectarianism and the forging of secular power through Protestant power. How might this plot, defined by claims to asset management and concerns about market viability, help students of contemporary politics understand the success or failure of divestment campaigns? In the past fifty years, there have been calls to divest from the Sudanese government and Chinese manufacturers; from coal companies and fossil fuel industries; from companies that operate in occupied Palestinian territories and companies that operate in South Africa. Control over assets, having the right to buy or sell them, has never been a simple sovereign power of institutions. Yet institutions do move, do divest, do change through divestment and protest. How does denominational history predict such economic decision?

Paulina Ochoa-Espejo, Haverford College - 'Our Place on Earth: Property, Territory, and the Sources of Human Entitlement'

We are running out of water, and the waters are rising. Today, water and other natural resources are controlled by states, the holders of territorial rights. But states are often blind to complex environmental processes. Should only states have these rights? This project challenges two widely held assumptions: that territorial rights belong to states, and that these rights should be modeled on the individual right to private property. It turns instead to a neglected intellectual tradition: the derecho indiano of colonial Spanish America. In this tradition, it is neither individuals, peoples, nor states, but rather grounded communities–pueblos–that have territorial rights. This project reinterprets pueblos to illuminate indigenous peoples’ land claims, and conflicts over natural resources.

Marcia Pally, New York University - 'What Does Evolutionary Biology tell us about Relationality as a Basis for Economics and Politics?'

Biologist Darcia Narvaez writes, “To approach eudaimonia or human flourishing, one must have a concept of human nature, a realization of what constitutes a normal baseline.” That is, to assemble an economy or politics, we must know the characteristics of the species and what sorts of conditions support flourishing. Aristotle said much the same: “The nature of a thing is its end.” To understand the nature of a thing (its baseline) is to understand what counts as its form of flourishing.

This paper suggests that humanity is a relational species, meaning not only that we survive and develop through our networks of relations but that each unique person becomes the singular person she is through those relations, both with those nearby and those that extend out in our paths of global connectedness. Thus, we must see and see to these others and relations. I will review relationality in concepts such as the imago/b’tselem Elohim, covenant, and Trinity.

But much of the paper looks at the contributions made by evolutionary biology to understanding relationality, especially the shift from 200,000 years of episodic aggression in a “hyper-cooperative” species reliant on reciprocal giving to the increase in aggression since the monopolizability of surpluses, new inequalities, and hierarchies emerging with agrarianism. Biology suggests that capacity for cooperativity and aggression are part of the human behavioral suite but that performance, which behaviors systemically occur, depends on local conditions, over which we have some control.

Jennifer Quigley, Drew University - 'The Costs of Citizenship: Politeuma in the Letter to the Philippians

The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act under the Modi government in India, voter roll purges in various locations across the United States, and numerous other crises of democracy reveal the current and continued instability of citizenship. What is citizenship, and what rights and responsibilities does it entail? Whose citizenship counts? This paper takes up a claim found in the Letter to the Philippians that Christ communities have “citizenship (politeuma) in heaven,” the only occurrence of this term in the letters co-written by Paul. As the first century Jew-in-Christ Paul has been invoked in recent philosophical debates over the foundation(s) of universalism (cf. Alain Badiou and Troels Engberg-Pedersen), the letters of Paul continue to be used for political, philosophical, and theological arguments about identity, belonging, and democracy. In this paper, I argue that it is worth considering why politeuma appears not in, for example, the Corinthian correspondence, where the ekklēsia, the democratic assembly, is the primary organizing principle of in-Christ community, but in the Letter to the Philippians, in which koinōnia, or venture, is the organizing principle of in-Christ community. Given the unstable and complex legal and financial context of “citizenship” under the Roman empire in the first century CE and the prominence of what I call theo-economics in this letter, politeuma for Paul has much more to do with divine financial obligations and benefits than with self-determination or voting rights. In short, heavenly citizenship is more about taxation than political taxonomy.

Joerg Rieger, Vanderbilt University - 'The Immanence and Transcendence of Economic Democracy: Alternatives to Ecological Devastation'

Ecological devastation has often been attributed to disregard for material reality, as found in certain conceptions of religion that focus on the transcendent rather than the immanent. If this analysis were correct, the solution would be to focus more on the immanent—the worldly—rather than the transcendent—the otherworldly. While capitalism fits that bill, its focus on the immanent has been no less damaging to the environment, and even its transcendent presuppositions are increasingly challenged. How might scholars of religion and theology address these problems in more constructive fashion and, in the process, reclaim both the transcendent and the immanent? What might be the contributions of economic democracy and new materialism to this conversation?

Devin Singh, Dartmouth University - 'Sacred Obligations: On Debt, Slavery, and Sovereignty'

This paper explores the triangulation among debt, slavery, and sovereignty, asking what role theology plays in legitimating and challenging this nexus. I consider some of the archaic links between debt practices and the mobilization of enslaved labor seen at the inception of states in the ancient world, as well as the concomitant operation of sacred ideologies and theologies of debt slavery and debt cancellation. I explore Christian thought’s problematic inheritance of economic and political theologies that have served to undergird such regimes and seek tools for assessing to what extent these links remain active today and for refiguring this relation in more salutary directions.

Kathryn Tanner, Yale University - 'Theology of the Commons'

The notion of the commons is resurfacing in both anti-capitalist activism and political/economic theory as part of the effort to resist monetized forms of human exploitation and environmental degradation. Some theological attention has been given to the relevance of the doctrine of creation to such discussions, especially as the idea of creation bears on questions of land use; this paper hopes to extend the theological conversation with reference to Christian beliefs about grace and benefit that are of relevance to an often underappreciated feature of the commons: giving without expectation of work in return.


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