Senior Spotlight: Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Rebecca Friedlander in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Rebecca Friedlander, ’17

I majored in religion because I took a world religions class in high school and realized how much I didn’t know. I really wanted to learn about new places and new people and I was already planning on majoring in anthropology so religion seemed like a good second major to really give me a broad world view.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years I’ve hopefully completed a masters and maybe even further schooling but I’m keeping my options open right now. Currently I’m thinking about graduate school in archaeology but I’m taking a year off to work and really get a plan together.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would definitely say take at least one class with every professor if you can and don’t miss out on office hours. That’s one thing I wish I had done more of when I was in college because the few times I went it was super helpful and it’s amazing how much you can learn outside of the classroom when you’re just having a conversation and how much you can improve your own work and your life.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

I’m reading a lot of dystopia right now so if I could write a book it’d probably be something along those lines. I really like novels that look at how simultaneously expansive and small the world really is in terms of how much everything is connected and impacts everything else but also how much the world contains. So I guess it would have characters vastly different from one another but that have intertwining storylines.

 

Senior Spotlight: Aphaia Lambert-Harper ’17

Aphaia Lambert-Harper in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Aphaia Lambert-Harper ’17

I have always been fascinated, and often, perplexed with the enigmatic force of what we call religion. Initially coming into UVM, I declared a Global Studies major with interests in International Relations and politics. I was fascinated by the ways in which history had been told, and given the then political conflicts in the Middle East, I was even more conscious of how conventional understandings of religion affected the media and political consensus in American politics. I then switched to Political Science as it was a bigger department with more options. Still, something was missing; I longed for something more, something that was concerned with the “Why?” questions. My grandfather on my father’s side was an Episcopalian minister, a scholar of philosophy and religion, and ultimately, a scholar of existentialism. Though he passed away when I was less than two years old, there is a not-so-ironic connection between he and I as I continue to study religion. I found that Religion and Politics were constantly circulating through my mind, and the two became symbiotic elements in my education. Come junior year, I declared Religion as my second major. It has been a pleasure to be a part of the Religion Department and I will always value the relationships I have made with the professors and students here.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

10 years from now, I would love to revisit the Greek islands with my father and visit abandoned, or highly populated churches in Greece. I think it would be a fascinating experience to write about the ways in which religiosity has translated into Greek personhood, or identity. My grandmother had always described herself as Greek Orthodox, yet she rarely visited the Church or practiced any sort of highly ritualistic act. Nonetheless, there was an element she could not part with, something that was inextricably intertwined with her Greek identity. So, ideally, maybe working on writing a book while my father completes his. I think that would be really special.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

If I were to suggest one class to any first-year student interested in Religion, it would probably be one which required Religion 100 as a prerequisite. Nonetheless, my favorite course ever taken in the department was with Professor Thomas Borchert, “Religion, Nation, and State.” This course was essentially what I had been seeking to study throughout my four years at UVM. And Professor Borchert is pretty great, too.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

“Antiquities and Identities, Greek Churches and Flags.” (Just chose that title off the top of my head!)

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

So many fond memories of 481 Main Street I could share…

Perhaps my favorite is just the general feeling I get when we all fit into the classroom on the first floor. It truly has a family-feel, and I love to see people open up and challenge big questions around an even bigger mahogany table.

Senior Spotlight: Maria Lara-Bregatta ’17

Maria Lara-Bregatta in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Maria Lara-Bregatta ’17

Why did you major in Religion?

Instead of obsessing about mainstream professional aspirations and ultimately choosing a traditionalist path—I chose to be adventurous and became a scholar of religion. I thought to myself: it couldn’t possibly be true that certain majors somehow equated to higher earning in the future or whatever mumbo-jumbo big departments try to convince prospective students across the globe of. Even if these assumptions were true, I was eager to learn not to amass some great fortune. That’s when it clicked. The place for higher learning is in a department that focuses on high-power. Religion stuck that cord for me. I was eager to know more about all-things human and not just from one singular perspective. Committing to one subject area over the next felt too definite, so I ended up choosing a location with overlap. Life as a religion major eased my anxieties about the future. As a scholar of religion I have dabbled in everything from theory to politics. Go figure. How else can one understand the nature of our universe if not by understanding the nature of humanity, and the many paradigms of thought that pervade our world? By becoming a religion major I narrowly escaped the trend of rigid and pre-formed studies and opened up my mind to a truly objective, empirical and careful location. I may not be a religious devotee, but as a student of religion I am devoted to a life of scholarship that seeks to understand all things real (or existential) from several vantage points.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

 I see myself working for a non-profit organization or something that requires compassion and a knowledge of culture/religion…the real hippy-dippy stuff! I also am toying with the idea of going back to school and getting my masters. Whatever it is I do end up doing, it will have to feel like a vocation. I want to have that Aha! moment and just know I am where I belong.

Imagine a first year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she/he shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would say that taking a class on Islam is critical this day in age. We are constantly confronted with propaganda and biased assumptions about the east that I think a religion course can help individuals unscramble. Opening up our minds to the religious-culture and history of Islam will help proliferate a new generation of hope and understanding regarding our views towards the East. If a class is offered on Ritual/Ritualization I highly suggest that too. A deeper look into ritual performance is mindblowing!

If you could write any book, what would it be?

If I had the opportunity to publish a book it would probably end up as a dystopian novel. I am really interested in post-apocalyptic society and “fresh starts.” After all, religion has its place in these types of things. This year I reread 1984 and got some ideas! I would probably add some mystic details, maybe some mythology.

Senior Spotlight: Marissa McFadden ’17

Marissa McFadden in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Marissa McFadden is one of this year’s recipients of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 


Why did you major in Religion?

Marissa McFadden ’17 (left) during a study abroad program in India.

Being a religion major is the one part of my life that has not changed these past four years. I started my first year at UVM as a biochemistry and religion double major. I primarily majored in religion because I genuinely had a passion for thinking about world systems, languages, cultures, interactions and intersectionalities. But also, I thought that it would be a unique characteristic that I could present to medical school admissions. In high school I had an ounce of exposure to “world religions” and I knew that I wanted to take religion classes at whatever school I decided to go to. I do not think that I consciously knew it then, but my decision to major in religion was the beginning of my move away from the sciences, and more towards thinking about the world in an activist and highly critical manner. Religion is what countered my work in science and fostered my interest, and eventual switch from biochemistry to history, and eventually, social work. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members, even the ones that I have not had as professors, to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests, goals, and wellbeing. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I see myself working as a social worker in Vermont communities of high refugee and/or immigrant and/or low-income populations. I want to work on improving public health and academic equity in communities around northern and rural Vermont. I see myself critically thinking and applying all that I have learned in history and religion–but especially religion, to my work in a field which will presumably be filled with experiences, big questions, theories, intersectionalities, and policies relating to critical race theory, immigration, gender, culture, religious practice, and human rights.

[Editor’s note: Marissa will begin work toward her goals this Fall as a Master of Social Work candidate at UVM!]

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

Even thought it is a requirement, I would highly recommend a theory course, like Interpretation of Religion with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. I took this course as a first year, with one intro religion course on my transcript. When I realized what I had gotten myself into, it absolutely scared me to death. I felt like this class was far beyond my years and I had no idea that it was a-typical for a first year to take this course. But, I loved every second of that class. It is the class where I learned how to think critically and develop my voice as a scholar of religion, and as an activist. Most importantly, it made me work hard, but not without enjoying the work that I was doing. I think about and use the things that I learned in that class on a daily basis and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

If I could write any book, it would be about the environmental devastation and public health injustices that have resulted from the U.S. military occupation in Vieques, Puerto Rico during the era of the Manhattan Project up through the early 2000s. There is very little scholarship on this and I think that writing a book on this topic would bring my history and religion majors together with my interests in public health, social work, and the history of my own family.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

481 Main is the ultimate home away from home. I think I’ve spent some portion of at least 75% of my total waking days in the religion department over the years; mostly doing homework or reading… and an occasional nap on the couches. But the conversations I have had in that building are by far, my favorite—there is just something magical about that seminar room—and every professor in the department!

 

The Reading List: Schatz and Stahl’s Rad Women

When Prof. Brennan issued a call-for-posts about what we were reading, I assumed I’d write about something serious and scholarly: what I’m reading for class (currently: Durkheim in REL100) or for my research (currently: Meer’s edited volume on racialization, religion, antisemitism, and Islamophobia) or as part of attempting to keep up with the field (next on my list: Aydin’s brand-new book on “the Muslim world”). Yet as I sat to write my post, I kept coming back to what I was reading that was serious, but perhaps not as scholarly: two books, Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, have been in constant rotation as part of my regular reading routine with my nearly-4-year-old daughter. The truth is, these books are rather serious, rooted in scholarship, and speak to what I’ve been thinking about broadly in and outside my classroom and as part of my research.

This won’t be the first time I use our academic, departmental blog to talk about what is ostensibly children’s literature. It also won’t be the first time I try to convince my reading audience that children’s literature isn’t only for children, doesn’t only communicate childish ideas or ideals, and needn’t be compartmentalized to my parenting. In fact, I’ve found that both of these volumes have driven home simple–but not basic–ideas about representative parity in my research and pedagogy, the importance of the study of religion (and its regular absence as we talk about radical activisms), and how the act of reading is itself political.

I will forever claim parenting victory for my then-2-year-old asking to be Patti for Halloween.

We bought Rad American Women A-Z for my daughter a couple of years ago. She loved it. Big, bright, graphic illustrations helped; the alphabet as a central motif didn’t hurt; I assume my excitement about each and every featured woman¹ didn’t hurt, either. She really loved this book. (As in, my 2.5-year-old daughter insisted that she be “P is for Patti Smith, the punker” for Halloween.) The book itself features American women that represent a wide swath of historical periods, racial and ethnic identities, as well as expressions of gender and sexuality. The women represent diverse fields and aims, too, ranging from athletes to education activists, doctors to musicians, architects to strike leaders. Poignantly, “X” is reserved for the “the women whose names we don’t know,” a purposeful acknowledgment of the erasure of women in historical memory and contemporary settings alike. I’ll confess to weeping nearly every time I read this page.

Table of Contents for Rad American Women A-Z

Opening pages, with contents listed via map, Rad Women Worldwide

When Rad American Women’s sequel came out last year, we added it to our rotation. Rad Women Worldwide takes an even larger historical scope, starting in “ancient Mesopotamia” and including contemporary, notable women like Malala Yousafzai. These women, too, represent multiple regions, eras, races, ethnicities, mother tongues, and areas of excellence. They include LGBTQ+ activists like Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera,
anti-authoritarian women’s organizations likeMadres de la Plaza de Mayo, athletes like Junko Tabei, and anti-colonial, anti-imperial native activists like the Quintreman Sisters. Like the original volume, Rad Women Worldwide includes a poignant entry that jolts the reader into seeing the silenced; here, it is titled “the Stateless,” and focuses on the disproportionate number of refugees who identify as women. Like “X” in Rad American Women, “the Stateless” is a hard page to read without choking up.

Reading these two books with my kiddo has meant admitting to her and myself how few women–American or not–I had ever learned about. I have considered myself both a feminist and an activist for my whole life. I’ve done my gender courses. Heck, I’ve even taught them. And yet, it is a shocking realization to have only heard of many of the featured Americans and not recognize even a third of the “global” women. (And, yes, of course, my own identity is at play here: a cis-hetero-white-Jewish-lady may have heard of Emma Goldman [of course!] but not of Filipino doctor Fe Del Mundo [I had not].)

Reading these books regularly–often just a few full entries at a time–also underscores the lack of gender parity in my syllabi and bibliographies for published work. Following the lead of many other scholars, most of whom identify as women, I have tried to make a point to have women not only represented in my syllabi–sadly, a feat in and of itself at times–but to have women represented in a way that reflects women’s participation in the academic production of knowledge. Which is to say, #noallmalesyllabi and #noallmalebibliographies. Schatz and Stahl go to great lengths to remind their readers that for every woman they’ve included, dozens and dozens have been excluded by their authorial choice, or as “X” and “the Stateless” remind us, by systemic and intersectional oppressions.

So these books remind me, in their simple composition, to ask: who am I leaving out? Which systems of purposeful omission am I participating in when my citational practices are heavily white, heavily male? How can I fix that–or, more to the point–how can I fix that so I do not preserve and reproduce sexist, racist trends in the writing of history and production of knowledge? After all, I think: my daughter is listening to me read, watching me model how to make sense of these rad women.

These books also remind me that when we talk about activism, we often ignore religious foundations for that activism. While Schatz and Stahl do a genuinely incredible job of showcasing women in their complexities, the presence of religion is largely absent–even in activists and historical personas for whom religion was a primary motivator. For example, the Grimké sisters, abolitionists who are oft-read in American religious history courses for their use of Biblical literature, are described as Quakers but their activism is not described in terms of their religion. As a scholar of religion, it seems an obvious omission and beyond begging the obvious question (where is religion?) such omissions beg questions about our conceptualizations of secularism, activism, and (perhaps assumed) progressivism.

I’m reading a number of books simultaneously like a good professor ought. In fairness, I also read a ton of silly books made for kids with my daughter that I slog through and attempt to sound excited about. These two books, though, ostensibly aimed at a younger reader (though, admittedly, perhaps not a not-quite-4-year-old), aren’t just for kids. These two are well on their way to becoming dog-eared and well-worn parts of our family library. As I read them aloud, I am often thinking not only of how radical it is to simply be reading to my daughter about powerful women whose lives represent an imperfect fullness of human identity and expression. I am also thinking about how much more they underscore the ways I need to continue to strive for representative parity in my research and pedagogical bibliographies, the ways in which religion is somehow omnipresent and absent when we think about radical activisms and activists, and how the act of reading–aloud or otherwise–is always already a political act. The books that center this kind of reading, both with and for my kiddo, will be on my reading list for the foreseeable future.

  1. *”Woman” and “women” in these works indicate those who identify as women. We can infer this based upon Schatz and Stahl’s inclusion of trans* and GNC women.

The Reading List: Kindred by Octavia Butler–Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

by Todne Thomas

“History is not the past. It is the present.  We carry our history. We are our history.”  – James Baldwin [1]

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred Adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

This month I’m reading the graphic novel version of Kindred adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings.  Originally a novel written by the African American science fiction author Octavia Butler, Kindred tells the story of Edana, an African American protagonist who involuntarily time travels between the present and the plantation era and is forced to save her own life and intervene in the lives of her ancestors.  In particular, Edana (or Dana) is catapulted to the past to save the life of her white plantation-owning ancestor Rufus Weylin and to shape the fates of her enslaved black progenitors Alice, Hagar, and Joe.

In this visual adaptation, Dana’s story emerges out of the black and white print of fiction into the colored hues of the graphic.  The life Dana shares with her white husband Kevin are colored in warm creams and ambers.  The palette of plantation time is more variegated and intense and increasingly consumes their regular sepia-colored present as Dana’s trips to the past last longer for days and weeks.  Blues and greens evoke nature, greenery, crops, and the coolness of river water and the day sky. Evening purples and candle-light yellows color scenes of domesticity and fugitive flight.  The color contrast between Edana and Kevin softened in the context of a domestic comfort (for which they also had to fight) are transferred into scenes that belie no ambiguity signaling the thickness of the color line that bracket white versus black experiences. All the myriad hues of the plantation scenery together attest to the multiple forms of violence and vulnerabilities of plantation life that were experienced by enslaved populations.  The scenes of physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse, of forced separations and the lived conditions of white supremacist terrorism experienced by Dana and the enslaved come off the pages via the frequent pace of their occurrence. They are many.  They are undeniable, especially now because of their visuality.

Though Dana is a time traveler, her passage between a sepia present and a colored past, do not leave her unscathed.  Dana is not merely a witness to plantation violence.  She intervenes in the lives of plantation residents—the plantation-owning Weylins (and Rufus in particular) but most often in the lives of her black ancestors—by advocating for the enslaved and trying to prevent acts of violence, providing medical assistance to the injured, by teaching young enslaved children to read, and even sustaining physical injuries for actions that are interpreted by plantation authorities as insolence.  Edana is beaten and whipped.  She returns with a swollen black eye after being beaten during an early journey in which she nearly escapes rape by a slave patroller.  She carries the scars from a brutal beating by a plantation overseer on her back during another passage home.  During her last voyage from the past, Dana kills Rufus Weylin after he attempts to rape her, but is so quickly transported that her arm—lodged against a wall—is left behind. As spoken by Edana in the Prologue scene that opens the novel, “I lost an arm on my last trip home.” Thus, Edana’s body bears the literal marks of her confrontation with history, however supernaturally mediated.  The traumas of a slave past/present are indelibly imprinted on her form.  But more than that, Edana’s experiences with slavery dramatically changes her visage.  Adeptly depicted in the visual novel, Dana’s demeanor alters.  The increasing occurrence of resident facial expressions—stone cast face, down turned eyes, and suppressed rage—tell their own tale of enslavement; a silent story of slavery as a process that can never truly be heritable, but must be experienced, witnessed, embodied, and broadcasted via the dimming of eye lights, the slumping of shoulders that broadcast resignation.

And yet for all of Edana’s changes, somehow over the course of his coming of age, Rufus changes very little.  The Weylin heir’s childish demeanor and behavior both remain.  The same petulant squinting of the eyes is matched by an enduring pattern of impetuous behavior.  Rufus pursues his own desires and interests for power, sex, and money with almost no concern for the human costs borne by others that result from those choices.  The reliance of him and his infirmed mother (who must eventually be carried) on the bondspeople they exploit illustrate the stunting infantilizations that accompanied planter privilege.  The impetuously furrowed brow of Rufus, the repetition of one-dimensional scripts that evoke, dictate, and predict pseudo-familial care on the part of slaves remain.  Here, James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time hold relevance.

This past, the Negro’s past; of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that if often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible—this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.  I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.[2]

From Baldwin’s purview, the underside of the struggle for humanity engendered in African Americans’ resistance to the abjection of blackness is the stasis of white supremacist privilege, missed opportunities for humanistic engagement, communion, and growth.  For all of interventions Edana made, sometimes hurtling unwittingly across time-space continuums, to save Rufus’ life over the years, Rufus cannot manage to see Edana as kin, her labor as love, her body as her own.  And because of this, this refusal of humanity, Rufus cannot be saved.  Edana is a time traveler, a prophet, a healer, a teacher, even a heroine, but ultimately, Edana is not a savior.  Not for lack of capacity, but because white supremacist plantocracy, for all of its imprints on slave bodies also indelible scars the characters of white beneficiaries, it is irredeemable.  Neither grace nor forgiveness is available for such a non-recognition of humanity.

And, this is the truly revolutionary part of Butler’s Kindred to me as a scholar of religion and race. The novel does not present a resolution or transcendence of the experiences of the slave past, but rather a complex embodied memory that holds a solidarity for some ancestors and a rejection for those who fail to recognize their shared humanity with their descendants.  Genealogy is excised, exorcised even.  Anti-black violence is not absolved. In the midst of an activist context shaped by Black Lives Matter, and its queer women of color leadership’s call for a valuation of black lives and the black life matter of black bodies, this non-forgiveness for the violation of black bodies is profound.  To not forgive, to not give up one’s body/sexuality for white supremacy, to defend one’s body (even from an ancestor) illustrates a thick love for self and black enfleshment in the midst of processes that threaten to commoditize and dehumanize black people.  In his contemplation of black intellectual writing in the Age of Ferguson, Julius B. Fleming, Jr. asks, “What can you do when you study the shattering of your own flesh, when you teach the historical destruction of that flesh, write about it, present on it, find it tucked away in the recesses of archives the world over?”[3] For me, Butler’s Edana and Duffy and Jennings’ graphic adaptation of Kindred provides an answer through their depictions of Edana, a political and spiritual ancestress, a sankofa archetype that calls for an immanent engagement with the past in the present.  More broadly, these conjoined works offer us conceptual and visual portals to excavate black history, to come face-to-face with our nation’s past, our physical and political resemblance to our ancestors in times that are mutually imprinted by anti-black violence and shaped by the metaphysics of fugitivity and freedom movements.

 

 

[1] James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, film, directed by Raoul Peck, (2017; New York: Magnolia Pictures).

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 98-99.

[3] Julius B. Fleming, Jr., “Shattering Black Flesh: Black Intellectual Writing in the Age of Ferguson,” American Literary History 28 (2016): 832.

The Reading List: Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History

I currently participate in a small reading group with colleagues from the Political Science, Romance Languages and Linguistics, and Religion Departments. Many of the works we have read explore the relationship between politics and religion in the context of modernity, and we recently discussed Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004.  Fasolt is Professor emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, and he has written extensively on political, social, and legal thought in medieval and early modern Europe. The Limits of History is noteworthy for its use of a relatively narrow historical case study—an examination of the work of the seventeeth-century German scholar Hermann Conring (1606-1681)—as the springboard for a broad historiographical critique. Fasolt’s engaging and lively analysis moves deftly from close readings of Conring’s works on political authority to a wide-ranging theoretical examination of the social and political implications of historical research.

This work is of particular interest to me in connection with my own research on Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrimage sites, specifically my exploration of historical narratives employed by advocates for the authenticity of Batathota cave temple (shown above in my 2016 photograph) as the true site of Divaguhava, the Cave of the [Buddha’s] Midday Rest, one of the sixteen great pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka linked to the tradition that Gotama Buddha visited the island three times during his lifetime. For those who know something about the modern history of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourses, it is probably not surprising to observe that these narratives, as identified and employed by advocates for the site, are not simply collections of “facts” about the past; rather, even a cursory analysis suggests that these narratives, whether as transmitted through published texts or mediated through oral accounts presented by lay officials at the site, serve a variety of social ends that might be characterized as “political” or “religious” (both of which are vexed categories that demand careful unpacking, particularly when contrasted with one another). What is less obvious is the political work accomplished by my own historical analysis, and this is precisely where Fasolt’s analysis provides some crucial insights.

The substance of Fasolt’s critique is relatively straightforward. He seeks to raise historians’ awareness of the links between historical analysis and the emergence of several key features of western modernity. According to Fasolt, freedom and progress depend upon the distinction between past and present, which the work of historians creates. Historians, through their commitment to discovering what “really” happened in the past on the basis of historical evidence, make possible the emergence of an individual subjectivity characterized by freedom from the past. The doing of history, he suggests, has become so naturalized that we have lost sight of the social and political conflicts that gave rise to it. He writes: “History enlists the desire for knowledge about the past to meet a deeper need: the need for power and independence, the need to have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot be forgotten. Whatever knowledge it may pick up along the way is but a means toward that end” (Introduction). Thus historical work is an exercise of power, one that can have dangerous consequences, particularly if those who undertake it regard it as “a natural, neutral, harmless, and universally applicable form of thought” (32). As he puts it: “The past, as a familiar saying goes, is a foreign country. Historians are just as active in invading that foreign country, conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline, and annexing their territories to the possessions of the present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description of history’s political effect” (Introduction).

Does this lead him to conclude that we must stop doing history? Not at all. The problem isn’t that we seek knowledge about the past. Rather, the danger of an unreflective historical consciousness is its intrinsic imperialism, at least when it is universalized and naturalized by the quest for objectivity: “History, in all its variations, continues to draw strength from the conviction that there is nothing wrong with the standards of objectivity, only with their implementation” (35). Drawing on the metaphor of a camera, he describes those who operate within an historical consciousness as acting “like the photographer who never looks at anything except through the lens of his camera. We seem to have lost the ability to recognize that history is merely one way of looking at the world, a good way (because our freedom depends on it), but one that neither shows everything to us nor shows anything without refraction” (32). Evoking the language of religion (which is surprisingly absent from his analysis of Conring’s own works), he observes: “Seen from outside … history rather appears to be the intellectual form that secularized Christianity has given to its preoccupation with the salvation of the soul. It is the same preoccupation that was in earlier times cast in the forms of theology and canon law. History is the ritual examination (especially by experts officially trained and licensed) of certain objects (mostly preserved in archives, libraries, and museums) without which the distinction between past and present could not support the weight placed on it by the established church— that modern church embodied in the nationstate whose symbols are printed on every dollar bill and whose members worship at the altar of nature. History serves to keep the modern world united. It is linked to violence in the same way that Christianity was formerly linked to the Crusades” (230).

These are powerful assertions, and they raise troubling implications for those of us who, like myself, regard historical analysis as foundational to our critical work. How does it reposition, for example, the way that I think about my work on Batathota cave temple? While I am only beginning to attempt to work through the implications of Fasolt’s historiographical critique, at least one possible direction for further reflection comes to mind: the recognition that historical discourses are culturally embedded in complex ways, both in the Euro-American tradition of Buddhist studies within which my own work is situated, and in the postcolonial emergence of Sri Lankan nationalist and religious discourses. What is at stake in asserting that a particular event is “historical,” for example, the visit of Gotama Buddha to a particular Sri Lankan cave? The asking and answering of that question by lay officials at Batathota cave temple, and by me as a North American scholar of Buddhism, point to important areas of convergence and difference that I hope to explore in greater depth as a result of having encountered Fasolt’s rich and illuminating book.

Constantin Fasolt. 2013. The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

The Reading List: Margaret Atwood

Recently a colleague put together a dystopian fiction reading group. We get together and discuss how speculative narratives of a terrible future can illuminate our lives under a president that many fear will make our present reality leap forward into that future. The first book we discussed is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopia that takes place in the near future in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. The book appeared in 1986, when I was in high school in Boston (and two years after 1984 had us all thinking about Orwell’s dystopic future). I read Atwood’s book a few years later, in college, and haven’t returned to it since then, so this was a welcome excuse for me to re-read it. In addition, I had just finished re-reading Atwood’s Year of the Flood because I had assigned it to my class: “Religious Perspectives on Sustainability.” (After all, what is “sustainability” but a story we tell ourselves about the future?) So I looked forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale again in light of her more recent work and after so many of my own formative years have intervened.

The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a society in the grip of a theocratic tyranny. Religion in the book is wholly negative, a thing of control, hypocrisy, and fear. The Year of the Flood is part of a series of novels called the “MaddAddam Trilogy.” The first book, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003, The Year of the Flood in 2009, and the final book, MaddAddam, in 2013, so they are much more recent and the product, perhaps, of a more mature author. Somehow during those years between 1986 and 2003, Atwood has maybe not let go of her judgment of religion (or people who profess to be religious), but made her critique of it less vitriolic, and at the same time broadened her depictions of religion to incorporate hope and love as well as fear and hate.

The irony is that the epilogue at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves the reader with a more hopeful sense of the future — that the religious unmaking of society and re-making of it into something inhumane and literally barren — is only a blip in human history, a short and distasteful meandering off the path of if not progress, at least social stability. In a way, this negating of the horrific consequences of theocracy works to emphasize how wrong and powerless those who seek to rule that way actually are. It also makes sense of the way the book is somewhat one-dimensional: the society she creates has no history and no future, like a laboratory experiment that cannot be moved outside of its controlled environment. However, in our reading group we agreed on the chilling realism of how the state easily took control of the financial sector, making it impossible for women to control their own money, and how this combination of technology and patriarchal ideology so effectively subjugated half of the population in a matter of hours.

In MaddAddam, all of American (and Canadian, and in fact the entire global) society is implicated in Atwood’s dystopia, and the destruction goes far beyond the social world, infecting the animals, plants, and earth itself. Yet the group that manages to survive the “waterless flood” does so at least in part because of their ability to embrace religious rituals, worldviews, and morality, creating a blend of ecological science and Christianity that they form into a religion that literally works to save their lives. They value the effects of ritual to bond people together, the meditative practices that cultivate a sense of connectedness between humans and non-human beings like bees or pigs, and the mantra-like performance of recitations that allow them to remember the past and the heroes of the earth, like Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. Although not all of the members of the religion “believe” in it, their practice of it reflects not hypocrisy, as it does in The Handmaid’s Tale, but a pragmatic and realistic embrace of religion in spite of doubts and skepticism.

These differences give us insight into how authors of speculative fiction can reflect the fears and concerns of their times. While The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on the growing power of evangelical Protestant Christian males to control women’s bodies, lives, and even minds, in MaddAddam the “bad guys” are scientists and business people, who seek to control the genomes of humans, animals, and plants, with little thought for a future beyond the deposit of profits into the bank account.

In the 1980s, “Liberal” America (and Canada) was grappling with a perceived sudden re-animation of a politically active conservative Christian voting bloc and culture. The prevailing narrative of the preceding decades among the “mainline” Protestants told of a growing ecumenicalism, an assumption that religious practice and choices should be private, and the embrace of a civil religion that was bland enough to accept any and every “god” and yet religious enough to distinguish us Americans from the “godless Communists.” (See Robert Bellah, and Will Herberg) Sectarianism – the championing of one version of Jesus over any other – or even any public Jesus talk at all, was unseemly, especially for someone in an elected position. John F. Kennedy had given his speech, almost unthinkable today, denying that his religious commitment would influence his actions as president.

In 1980 all three candidates for president professed themselves evangelical Christians, a clear sign that the religious narrative was changing. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the so-called moral majority gained a public voice and began a struggle, from the school-board level on up, to gain political ascendancy. The Equal Rights Amendment had failed to pass. The perceived progress made in racial justice left feminists of all races feeling that identity politics downplayed gender in favor of elevating male leadership in movements like the Black Power Movement. The triumph for women’s rights of Roe v Wade came under attack, and the anti-abortion movement began to gain a more vocal platform. It began to inspire individuals to threaten and carry out attacks on clinics where abortions were performed. Operation Rescue was formed in 1986, with an explicitly Christian rationale. It is easy to see how Atwood can find a dark inspiration in the news stories of the day.

Likewise, in our contemporary era, where news and social media are filled with stories of genetically modified crops that reap massive profits for global agri-corps who sell both the seeds and the pesticides that they are engineered to resist, and drug companies creating designer drugs that exist solely to replace previous drugs now available in cheaper generic forms, and oil companies proclaim their commitment to a “green” future while seeking government subsidies to pull ever dirtier fossil fuels out of the ground, it is easy to see where Atwood’s inspiration for the MaddAddam series comes from. However, the way she depicts religion in these books has become more humane and humble in the case of the God’s Gardeners, and funnier in the case of the oil-based version of Christianity that one of her characters runs afoul of during the course of the story.

Although the future is bleaker in The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s own vision of humans and the religions they create and embrace seems more open to both the mystical possibilities of a world without clear-cut moral answers, and to the way religion can be a powerful force for human resiliency in the face of civilizational collapse. The Year of the Flood can speak satisfyingly to both the religious seeker and the anthropologist. Its dystopic vision reflects how our fears have changed, from threats to religious freedom to threats to the continued existence of humanity, and perhaps even the earth itself. Personally, I’m very glad to have Atwood’s characters demonstrate a way to persist with grace, grit, and humanity, with or without religion.

New Series: The Reading List

Hello and Happy New Year! We are excited to announce a new series on the REL@UVM blog: The Reading List. We thought that our colleagues, students, alumni, and anyone else who happens to stumble upon this site might be interested in hearing more about what faculty in the Religion department are currently reading. We will highlight texts that we are grappling with for classes, books that shape our research agendas, and articles that we think offer an interesting perspective on current events. We will also talk about what we are reading for fun!

Responding to the 2016 US Elections

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was shocking to some, and a surprise to most. However, it is probably not a surprise to anyone who knows us that the REL@UVM faculty have things to say about the election and the way that it impacts our research, teaching, and broader work with campus communities. What follows are links to short comments and observations from a handful of our faculty, with the promise of more analysis and questions to come in the near future.

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies
Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

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The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future
Professor Kevin Trainor

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Pan-Indigenous Pipeline Religion
Professor Todne Thomas Chipumuro

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What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election
Professor Vicki L. Brennan