Kent Brintnall’s essay, “It’s Complicated,” is the second post in this month’s issue of the Forum. For the February issue, we have invited a small cadre of religion scholars to participate in a “scholars’ roundtable” reflecting on the implications of a Trump presidency for the academic study (and teaching) of religion. Throughout the month we will be publishing pieces by a diverse group of scholars in the fields of religion and religious studies. Each scholar has been invited to share how the “Trump phenomenon” will shape (or has already shaped) their particular research, teaching, and activism as scholars of religion. Sarah E. Fredericks, Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics at the Divinity School, will close out the series by offering a response to the posts. We invite you to join the roundtable conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.
Read the first contribution to the roundtable: Anthony M. Petro’s (Boston University) essay, “How Not to be a (Religious Demographic) Size Queen in an Epidemic.”
by Kent Brintnall
In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark A. Noll explains why biblical arguments for the abolition of slavery faced an uphill battle in U.S. culture.
“This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters.”
While not dismissing the role of racism—and the biblical justifications for it—or economics in defenses of slavery, Noll concludes that “nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. . . . The nuanced biblical argument against slavery . . . did not comport well with democratic practice and republican theory.”
What is the role and responsibility of the scholar of religion in the age of Trump? First and foremost, of course, we have a responsibility as citizens—of the global community and, for some of us, the United States—to stay informed, to question, to resist. As Leo Bersani observed in 1987, when writing about governmental indifference to AIDS, “It is . . . important to say that . . . the only necessary response to all of this is rage. . . . The danger of not exaggerating” the stakes of the situation confronting us today may be finding “ourselves in situations where exaggeration will be difficult, if not impossible.” But with Noll’s observations in mind, I want to suggest that what we do in our role as citizens, while absolutely necessary, might run counter to what we need to do as scholars, and may, in fact, exacerbate certain dimensions of the crisis in which we find ourselves.
As scholars of religion, we should help the general public develop a basic religious literacy, supported and sustained with historical lessons about colonialism and imperialism, as well as insight into the value of religious pluralism. We must also explain the ways movements of intolerance trade on religious sensibilities (some might even call them religious needs) and how political leaders use ritual, language, and symbols to manufacture affect, sometimes with devastating consequences. But these contributions are keyed to information, and it’s unclear how they differ from those of scholars of history, sociology, or political science—or from the vital work of journalists and pundits.
What if our most important contribution as scholars of religion is fostering the habits that define us as scholars? After all, it’s not that scholars of religion (and history, and sociology, and political science) haven’t been doing the work outlined above. (Work we must continue to do.) The rub is that scholarship—detailed, careful, slow-going, complex argumentation—is not taken seriously in our culture. Scholars pay attention both to details and to larger patterns. Scholars patiently, meticulously, sometimes obsessively, attend to texts, and data, and form, and trends, and phenomena. Scholars practice sustained attention, quiet reflection, and close analysis. Scholars take their time and follow a question where it leads rather than worrying primarily about answers and results. We strive to be careful with language, understanding its possibilities and limitations. We insist that understanding something well requires preparation and training and dedication and time. We recognize, however reluctantly, that some people know more, ask better questions, and have more insight. We encourage consideration of seemingly arcane materials because we know that we don’t know what we might need to know. We recognize that no problem that demands our attention has an obvious solution. We understand that some explanations require “long-form” articulation, that rapid-fire exchanges rarely generate insight, and that sitting quietly listening to experts can be enlightening and enlivening. And we are also the people—or we should be the people—who confess that each of the prior statements is aspirational rather than descriptive.
As scholars in the contemporary university, we rail against imperatives to connect learning primarily to vocational success, against demands to show a direct “cash value” to what we do in the classroom, as the death of learning, and thinking, and the life of the mind. At the same time, we need to recognize that requests for immediate answers that can be consumed quickly and understood easily by a “general audience” may be equally harmful to learning, and thinking, and the life of the mind. And learning, and thinking, and the life of the mind are precisely what we need to cultivate. Crafting more rhetorically sophisticated modes of communication, providing more adequate ammunition to our allies, expanding our social media presence may feel incredibly important, because we have been made to feel—and perhaps rightly so—that the need is so incredibly urgent. But urgency and scholarship are fundamentally incompatible as orientations to the world. As scholars, our contribution should be a set of habits and dispositions that foreground deliberation, and care, and attentiveness. This is not a call to be disengaged, objective scholars, but rather an insistence that the political vision of politically engaged scholarship should champion the disciplines required for the discipline of thinking well. Some claims cannot be made quickly; some modes of thought cannot be made simple; some ideas cannot be made clear to those who have not devoted the time and energy to develop the capacity to understand them. This has nothing to do with the value, insight, contribution, and rightness of such claims, thoughts, and ideas.
As scholars of religion in the age of Trump, our fundamental responsibility is to insist on the virtues and value of what we have been trained to do. Nuance may be our best contribution to the struggle.
Kent Brintnall is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he is affiliated with the Department of Religious Studies and the Women’s & Gender Studies program. He is the author of Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-in-Pain as Redemptive Figure (Chicago, 2011) and co-editor of Sexual Disorientations: Queer Affects, Queer Temporalities, Queer Theologies (Fordham, forthcoming 2017) and Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Fordham, 2015). He is currently working on a monograph that engages the work of Georges Bataille, psychoanalysis, and queer theory on the importance of grappling with the intractability of violence for thinking about political possibility.
* Photo images: Trump photo (AP Photo | Carolyn Kaster); Professor Donald Levine with students in a social sciences class, circa 1965 (UChicago Photographic Archive, apf1-03848 | University of Chicago LIbrary)