The following is a brief research proposal that I’m currently seeking funding for:
Ir/Religious Transformation: Saint Paul, the Emerging Church, and the Philosophy and Politics of Identity Suspension
Contemporary philosophical interpretations of Saint Paul argue against identity politics and standpoint epistemologies in favour of a generic humanity or universal humanism. For philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, identity politics fragments humanity into special interest groups competing for recognition within the existing social system, thereby weakening possibilities for political resistance and collective action. However, feminist approaches to religion and politics have traditionally utilised identity politics and standpoint epistemologies in both scholarship and activism. This project asks what a political, feminist philosophy of religion might look like against the backdrop of this ‘turn to Paul’, by examining the relationship between these readings of Paul’s Letters, on the one hand, and feminist philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and approaches to the study of Paul, on the other.
Elements of the ‘emerging church’ – a diverse, transnational milieu exploring Christian belief, faith and life in conversation with both inherited traditions and contemporary cultures – seek to embody insights from philosophers like Badiou and Žižek in their lived, everyday practices. This is the first project to ask how elements within this small but burgeoning religious movement are gathering around the religious turn in radical political thought and what its implications might be for the relationship between religion, identity, and socio-political transformation. Bringing recent scholarship on Paul together with a focused, ethnographic study of Ikon, Belfast, and Ikon, New York City (NYC), this approach is in contrast to much of the current literature on emerging Christianity, which portrays it as the contextualisation of church structures and mission forms, thereby domesticating the radicality of the emerging theologies and practices that are the focus of my research. Instead, I argue that radical collectives within this milieu should be more properly understood as forming part of a wider political movement.
In particular, through the practice of ‘suspended space’, these collectives encourage participants to leave their identities, including their religious identities, ‘at the door’, creating a place of ‘neither/nor’ in which they can explore a different mode of social relation and through which they might transform social and political practices outside these liturgical spaces. As ‘a theatrical performance of that Messianic time when all will be equal’, it is imagined that this temporary liturgical suspension of identity has the potential to offer participants different visions of social, political and economic life.
As such, this project provides a crucial contrast to much scholarship on religion and religious identity, which often focuses on its divisive and fundamentalist expressions.
The ‘turn to Paul’ has furnished several European philosophers with the means to rethink a number of concepts. In particular, interpretations of Saint Paul’s Letters by a cluster of what might be broadly termed ‘materialist’ thinkers have led to explorations of the nature of political subjectivity and collective action. But while these readings have enabled on-going discussions between philosophers, theologians and biblical scholars, no work has yet examined the ways in which these philosophers are already inspiring religious practices that seek subjective and socio-political transformation. This project explores how this is happening within the emerging church movement.
The emerging church is most prominent in North America, where it is associated with the writings of popular authors like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, but it is present in most Western nations, including the UK and Ireland. For many, it is a reactive movement, highly critical of existing religious institutions. While the majority of participants come from Protestant evangelicalism, emerging Christianity is increasingly attracting people from Catholic and other Protestant traditions. In contrast to traditional parish and congregation-based models, participants form new types of religious structures – such as pub churches, neo-monastic communities, online socio-religious networks, and religious arts collectives – pioneering new approaches to leadership and preaching that strive for flat, networked ‘leader-less’ structures and for conversation rather than passive reception. As such, it is a rich research site for the study of what James Bielo calls ‘interacting Christianities’, because its cultural critique remains dependent upon dominant Christian traditions, especially western evangelicalism, as ‘stable interlocutors’.
But while some have described the emerging church as a New Social Movement – a resource for the construction of individual and collective cultural identity and meaning among the post-industrial or ‘new’ middle classes – I see radical expressions like Ikon as constituting a new and distinctive religious approach to socio-political transformation, concerned with the suspension of identity rather than with its formation.
The ‘emerging church’ is a diverse, transnational milieu. But much of the current literature on this ‘movement’ portrays it as the contextualisation of church structures and mission forms, thereby domesticating the radicality of the emerging theologies and practices that are the focus of my research. Examining the generative relationships that exist between radical theology and lived religion, my doctoral work in Religious Studies took a discursive approach to fieldwork, identifying the everyday expressive acts or cultural activities that form a specific ‘social imaginary’, the network of meaning governing the radical elements of this milieu. My first monograph centred on what I called an emerging ‘a/theistic imaginary’, which configures participants individually and collectively in active conversation with the deconstructive theology of John D. Caputo and the materialist ‘atheology’ of Slavoj Žižek. This imaginary inspired a range of what I called ‘ir/religious political practices’, including ‘suspended space’. The proposed research project will further examine the secular philosophical interpretations of Saint Paul’s Letters that are central to the notion and practice of ‘ir/religion’ and to its potential to form alternative social relations and modes of political life.
Both Badiou and Žižek bemoan the shift from class struggle to communitarian identity politics; from a politics based on a central economic antagonism, which unites humanity against the existing system, to a politics founded on specific communal identities, which fragments humanity into groups of victims demanding recognition within the system. Therefore, they use their readings of Paul’s Letters to argue against identity politics and in favour of a universal humanism. For these philosophers, Paul founds a new universalism in which believers participate regardless of their position within the current social situation. Proposing the possibility of a political collective that is indifferent to all the other differences that normally structure our social life, whether biological or symbolic, Paul introduces a new difference into the social order (Christian versus non-Christian), a difference that cuts across and suspends all other differences. Žižek, for example, therefore renders Galatians 3:28 (‘there is neither Jew nor Greek…’) thus: ‘there are only Christians and the enemies of Christianity! Or, as we would have to put it today: there are only those who fight for emancipation and their reactionary opponents; the people and the enemies of the people’. It is generic humanity that is the figure of possibility for revolutionary emancipatory politics, and it is humanity’s ability to suspend its varying social identities that marks this possibility.
These philosophical interpretations of Paul form frameworks for understanding practices that encourage equality, charging them with political potential grounded in a universal humanism rather than in particular communitarian identities, including religious identities. Žižek’s political thought in particular has influenced the work of Pete Rollins, a founder of the Ikon collectives in Belfast and NYC. Ikon practice what Rollins has termed ‘suspended space’, involving the temporary laying aside of the symbolic identities that determine social life in order to effect the transformation of social relations outside such spaces. In suspending religious identities as well as other cultural identities, these spaces become neither religious nor irreligious but rather ‘ir/religious’. My ethnographic study of Ikon, Belfast, and Ikon, NYC, will explore the political potential of what I call ‘everyday’, ‘lived’ or ‘material ir/religion’.
But the suspension of identity can strike a disturbing chord for individuals and groups for whom the construction and recognition of identity has been or continues to be the acknowledged aim of political struggle. For example, key in the development of feminist approaches to religion and of feminist philosophy of religion in particular has been Luce Irigaray’s notion of sexual difference, as can be seen in Grace Jantzen’s Becoming Divine. But, as Pamela Sue Anderson has demonstrated, the symmetry between the becoming-divine of both men and women requires the maintenance of transcendent heterosexual norms of subjectivity. As such, it is conservative or conformist, ‘fixated’ politically, Anderson concludes, on ‘a fixed feminine subject rather than a mobile feminist subject’. Critiques such as this accompany a reconsideration of the place of identity politics within feminist thought and practice more widely, with feminist philosophers of religion especially re-examining gendered subjectivity and ‘epistemic locatedness’. But these contemporary developments within feminist philosophy of religion have yet to examine in detail the philosophical and political potential of either the concept of suspension in general or the practice of the liturgical or otherwise temporary suspension of identity in particular. Feminist approaches to the study of Paul’s Letters have likewise not engaged recent philosophical interpretations of Paul by figures such as Agamben, Badiou and Žižek.
The suspension of identity or being and the potentiality and possibilities of being otherwise – along with key related notions like destruction, renunciation, withdrawal, restraint, negativity, resistance, refusal and lack – play a central role not only in the work of Agamben, Badiou and Žižek but also in the work of Maurice Blanchot, G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Lacan. And yet the philosophical notions of suspension and potentiality remain, Paolo Bartoloni has suggested, ‘elusive and underdeveloped’ despite their history within European thought. What is needed today is both a philosophy of identity suspension and, according to Simon Critchley, ‘an art of politics that is capable of shaping new associations’ and communal practices that enact the death of ‘existing conceptions of identity’ so that new forms of political subjectivity can be birthed. This project therefore seeks to construct both a philosophy and a politics of identity suspension that are not only materialist, humanist or immanentist, but also feminist.
- What is the relationship between the turn to Paul taken by philosophers such as Agamben, Badiou, Critchley and Žižek, on the one hand, and feminist philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and approaches to the study of Paul, on the other?
- What might a Pauline philosophy of identity suspension that builds on both materialist and feminist philosophies look like? and
- What might be the potential of such a philosophy to shape a politics that forms alternative social relations and modes of public life in practice?
Combining philosophical and empirical approaches, I also want to ask:
- How does the turn to Paul, taken by philosophers such as Badiou and Žižek, influence the practices of the emerging church movement?
- How is the emerging church concept of suspended space translated into communal practices?
- How do suspended spaces encourage the formation of alternative social relations and modes of political life outside these spaces? and
- Does the practice of identity suspension, as embodied by the Ikon collectives, have the potential to encourage the suspension of identity politics on a wider scale, thus contributing to socio-political transformation?
Aims and Objectives
In order to answer these research questions, this project aims to:
- Examine the philosophical notions of suspension and potentiality in the work of a range of materialist and feminist thinkers, relating them to the practices of Ikon;
- Establish how practices in emerging church collectives like Ikon have been influenced by key developments in the turn to Paul; and
- Explore how the suspension and potentiality of being relates to the concept of generic humanity and to the critique of identity politics – and how this is enacted by groups like Ikon.
Through philosophical and ethnographic study, the project will meet the following objectives:
- Identify the relationships between materialist and feminist philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and interpretations of Paul’s Letters;
- Examine the philosophical notions of suspension and potentiality in the work of a range of materialist and feminist thinkers;
- Establish how the suspension and potentiality of being relates to the concept of generic humanity and to the critique of identity politics;
- Construct a materialist yet feminist and Pauline philosophy of identity suspension;
- Draw conclusions about the potential for this feminist and material philosophy of identity suspension to generate a practical politics that could result in both subjective and social transformation;
- Describe the specific social and material mechanisms through which suspended spaces are formed by the Ikon collectives;
- Determine the social behaviours, actions and interactions exhibited in and encouraged by such spaces;
- Identify indicators of impact, including subjective transformation (cognitive and affective impact) and of participation in the public sphere (volitional impact);
- Clarify the relationship between suspended space and the wider social, political and economic lives of participants; and
- Draw conclusions about the potential for this politics of identity suspension to encourage the suspension of identity politics on a wider scale, thus contributing to socio-political transformation.
At the conclusion of my investigation, I shall be able to critically evaluate the extent to which the philosophy and politics of identity suspension can constitute a new and distinctive religious approach to socio-political transformation.