Paper Abstracts 2017


Religion and National Identity

Trump, Truth, and Textualism, in Appalachia: Biblical Literalism and American Conservatism - Shawn McAvoy, Arizona State University

Appalachia is a particularly challenging area to teach the academic study of religion. Considering that religious studies is a controversial discipline anywhere in an increasingly fundamentalist and right-wing United States, it is a discipline particularly prone to misunderstanding by students, administrators, and even other faculty. It becomes even more prone to misunderstanding in what is arguably one of the most socially conservative, and most religious, sections of the country, where politics and religion tend to merge such as in the recent 2016 presidential election. Entrenched biases and cognitive dissonance lead to sometimes hostile, and to other times amusing, encounters within and without the classroom.

Students, faculty, and the community at large, confirm that the majority of people in this Appalachian community proudly self-identify as biblical literalists. What that term means in practice, however, is a matter of little agreement. The one commonality which does emerge is that in all cases, the self-identified Biblical literalists inject their personal biases, and their identities as 21 st century American conservatives, into the biblical text. What emerges is a belief that each individual’s Bible is infallible, literally interpreted, and supports right-wing politics. Yet that belief draws only selectively from the biblical text, most often from the King James Version.

 Understanding how the Bible is interpreted in this Appalachian community, what ‘literal interpretation’ means to those who claim to practice it, and how the Bible is treated in theory and in practice, can go far in explaining why biblical literalism is such a widespread, if not popular, practice in American society and politics.


Melting Pot, Salad Bowl, and Toy Box: The Mixed Metaphors of American Religious Pluralism  - Michael E. Chaness, Nazareth College

The openness and richness of American society has brought diverse cultural and religious communities into contact with one another through a discombobulated and sometimes traumatic set of historical circumstances. After the failure of civil rights movements -- black power, brown power, red power -- to create either a post-racial or a racially delicious society, the myth of the “melting pot” began to lose its popularity and momentum. According to Nathan Glazer, “the idea of the melting pot is as old as the republic” and was “close to the heart of the American self-image.” Melting pot schemas promoted the idea there was space for non-American peoples to assimilate into mainstream American society by blending their unique cultural and religious systems into the dominant paradigms of American culture and religion. The myth of the melting pot, wherein all the different peoples and cultures, religions and races of the world, mold together to form one homogenous super community was a powerful and seductive narrative meant to cultivate patriotism and instill nationalism amongst America’s immigrant communities. Even though the myth of the melting pot has exerted a powerful control over the American psyche, the melting pot has always been a flawed metaphor. According to Glazer “as the century passed, and the number of individuals and nations involved grew, the confidence that they could be fused together waned, and so also the conviction that it would be a good thing if they were to be.” This paper will examine the effectiveness and viability of three different mixed metaphors (melting pot, salad bowl and toy box) that scholars have constructed in order to understand the relationships between immigration, religious pluralism, and American exceptionalism.


Uniform Diversity: Turbans, Press, and Mounties – Laura Morlock, University of Waterloo

In 1974, women joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for the first time. In order to maintain cultural ideals of femininity and smooth the transition to women’s presence on the force, female officers wore flat heeled shoes, panty hose, a navy skirt, a female cut red tunic, a pillbox hat, and a purse to carry their gunsFifteen years later, Baltej Singh Dhillon applied to join the same force. Dhillon was a turban-wearing Sikh, and his request for an exemption to the uniform sparked a heated national controversy. Canadians generally consider venerating manners of dress to be a practice of religiously conservative immigrant minorities, yet when the Mountie uniform was modified with an overtly religious (non-Western) item many considered it a violation on par with blasphemy.

The Canadian imagination viewed Mounties as idealized archetypes of masculinity, always appearing in Stetson hats, red serge tunics, riding breeches, and boots. Long before Dhillon applied, the Mountie was firmly entrenched as the embodiment of white masculinity, taming the boundless frontier as a paragon of protection. If these were the bodies deemed appropriate to represent state authority it left little room for women, or a Southeast Asian man in a turban and beard. The RCMP was insistent on keeping its female officers “feminine,” so a clearly un-masculine uniform was critical. Likewise, western cuts — including a very British hat — did not register on the ethnic protectionists’ radar as a threat. It might be the most significant change to the Mountie uniform in its history, but it was a change that was aesthetically familiar to Canadians. The turban, however, while objectively a smaller change to the uniform than the women’s, was an overt threat to sacred Canadiana.

Female officers campaigned consistently for sixteen years to be issued the same uniforms as their male colleagues, but were only granted permission the same day (and because) Sikhs were permitted to wear uniform issue turbans. This paper examines why there was no parallel outcry over women’s uniforms despite the significant difference, rooted in both gender and racial norms, and why the turban posed such a threat.


Religion and Sports: A Marriage Not Made in Heaven - Rose M. Tekel, St.Francis Xavier University

The main purpose of this paper is to suggest that introducing students to religions through the lens of sports allows us to explore the various ways in which religions intertwine -as well as conflict - with cultural/religious aspects of societies. In this approach, religions become more than sets of texts and abstract ideals, but rather part of lived experiences of people engaged in one of the fundamental aspects of human life; namely engaging in “play”.

The examples will be drawn from both historical and contemporary times. While the emphasis will be on Canadian sports and their intersection with religious groups in Canada, the scope of this paper will include examples from other geographical locations. In terms of Canada, the main focus will be the two major sports in Canada: lacrosse and hockey.

While sometimes sports have served to further the ideals of a society and its religious character at a particular time, at other times the sport event may have caused ethical conflicts such as the 1936 Olympics, rules of clothing and Olympics and the ritual of standing for National Anthem at a sporting event. 

As we consider some of the tensions and ethical dilemmas that have arisen in terms of specific sports, we will develop the argument in societies with a colonial and racist social agenda religions and sports is not always “a marriage made in heaven”.


Building Inclusive and Exclusive Communities 

The Formation of a Modern Buddhist Sect: Master Cheng Yen’s Establishment of Tzu Chi Dharma Path from Contemporary Taiwan - Kai-wen Cheng, National Chengchi University

Humanistic Buddhism, also known as socially engaged Buddhism in Taiwan has become the mainstream of the contemporary Chinese Buddhism which plays a crucial role in the Buddhist cultural sphere of East Asia. Although some Buddhist groups are also marked as Humanistic Buddhism (人間佛教renjian fojiao, Buddhism for the Human Realm) such as Tzu Chi, Buddha’s Light Mountain (Fo Guang Shan) and Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM). However, their focus is not entirely consistent, making the diversity between Humanistic Buddhist groups or sects in Taiwan and their global branches. In my view, in addition to the influence from Master Tai Xu (太虛法師) and Master Yin Shun (印順法師), their own characteristics but also involved in their main scripture, text and religious practices. These dimensions and several turning points in their founder’s life history might be the key to the formation of different traditions. This paper attempts to explore the case about a new Buddhist sect from Taiwan, Tzu chi Sect (慈濟宗), the founder which is Master Cheng Yen (證嚴法師), discussing their text, religious practices, and the spread of religious scriptures. Furthermore, this paper would points out several elements contribute to the Tzu chi’s followers with the interpretations and thought from Master Cheng Yen? And how they moved towards inclusivity and equality in today’s globally religious co-operations, not only created new community and identity, but also shaped new trends and possibilities to the interreligious dialogue for the future.


The Influence of Diversity in Interreligious Dialogue and Identity Formation - Joyce Konigsburg, Duquesne University

The fear of losing one’s identity amid the diversity of religious traditions and their belief systems is a significant challenge to effective interreligious dialogue. Specifically, the issue involves preserving one’s unique identity while remaining open to discourse with the religious other. The self–other relationship and its subsequent perceptions of alterity therefore affect identity formation.

Since interreligious dialogue happens when participants crossover or connect with others at the borders of pluralistic religious traditions, concerns arise about compromising religious identity for the sake of dialogic harmony or about the effects of surreptitious proselytizing. Consequently, this paper examines how diversity within interreligious dialogue influences the identity formation of participants and their respective religious traditions.

After briefly describing various concepts and functions of identity, the paper analyzes the following techniques of religious border crossing, multiple religious belonging, and hybridity, which risk loss of identity during interreligious dialogue. Because the self–other relationship is important to identity formation, the paper specifically investigates Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of alterity and its function in identity formation, his distinction between idem–identity (sameness of self) and ipse–identity (developing otherness of self), and his use of narrative to illustrate the topics of attestation, identity, and alterity. Next, the paper explores how relationships contribute to the formation of self–identity and community–identity by reviewing examples of relationality from indigenous religions of Africa and America. Even though interreligious dialogue appears to be problematic in the identity formation of individuals and religious traditions, the paper concludes that relational characteristics derived from diversity during dialogue in fact positively influence the identity formation of participants and their respective religious traditions in mutually beneficial ways.


Peacebuilding Through Inclusive Identity and Boundary Foundation - Hyung Jin Kim Sun, University of Toronto

From individuals to nations, people form their identities through narratives. One major issue with this process of narrative-formation is that it often draws strong boundaries between “them” and “us”. However, through ever-increasing technological developments, communications, and globalization, more frequent encounters with different groups are a way of life. Consequently, the boundaries that we have traditionally made are being challenged. In this context, some advocate to erase every kind of boundary, whereas others argue for the strict protection of one’s own personal boundaries. Both positions are extreme and can lead to violence, however. In light of this problem, this proposal develops a constructive way of relating with others while avoiding violence in a world in which traditional boundaries are constantly being challenged.

This paper will be a literature-based inquiry that places the work of Charles Taylor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Miroslav Volf in dialogue. My thesis is that having an inclusive boundary is necessary. An inclusive boundary is a boundary that maintains identity while still being flexible enough to coexist and even engage actively with those who are different. In order to have this inclusive boundary, it is crucial to adopt a non-repressive narrative, know how to differentiate with other groups through a balance of separation and binding, practice non-exclusionary judgments, and work toward the character formation of partial cosmopolitan.

These insights have been derived from Taylor, Appiah, and Volf. This establishment of an inclusive boundary is happening in several religious communities, but especially in exemplary forms of Christianity. While maintaining their faith, such Christians respect different religious communities, embrace the basic human rights of everyone, and engage actively locally and globally to fight against poverty and injustice. Following this example, other religious and non-religious communities can develop their own inclusive boundary.


What does Equality have to do with Compassion? – Julia Stenzel, McGill University

Compassion is often thought of as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Training compassion means learning to tune in to other people in a kind and loving manner. Not so for Śāntideva, the famous 8 th century Indian Buddhist monk scholar. He argues that meditating on the equality of self and other is the way to generate genuine compassion, by means of operating a fundamental paradigm shift in our mental structure. His instructions, dubbed the “Equalizing and Exchange of Self and Other” are meditations for the eradication of self-cherishing and its replacement with radical other-orientedness.

This presentation explores the meaning and implications of the Equalizing and Exchange passage in Śāntideva’s treatise, the Bodhicaryāvatāra (Engaging in the Practice of Awakening), considered to be a classic for Mahāyāna Buddhist ethics and philosophy. Contrasting my reading with several contemporary interpretations (derived from Cowherds, Moonpaths, 2015), I conclude that, for Śāntideva, compassion training is a process of deconstruction rather than construction: Compassion-inhibitors have to be deconstructed, since compassion is naturally at the core of human nature, albeit concealed. Realizing the equality of self and other is a powerful means to deconstruct compassion-inhibitors.

In my conclusion, I show that Śāntideva’s meditation on equality can offer an important contribution to modern societies’ struggle to build peace in an increasingly diversified population. As an example for a modern adaptation of his thought I present the secular compassion training of CCARE, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.


Eastern Christian Writings and Early Encounters with Islam

An Aesthetic of Reception and the Middle English Metrical Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius - Zack Candy, University of Ottawa

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius was unparalleled in its popularity across Mediaeval Europe, with its manuscript record unrivalled by any other non-scriptural text. Originally composed in Syriac as a response to the societal upheaval brought on by the Arab Invasions of the seventh century, the Apocalypse draws on Biblical history and the cycle of Alexander legends to produce an account of the world’s history and future, thereby providing an eschatological lens through which to view the chaotic devastation of the recent Muslim incursion. While we might well understand the popularity of such a text amongst Syriac and Byzantine Christians of late antiquity, among whom bewilderment and despair at the “heathen” conquest was common, the relevance of the Apocalypse to mediaeval Europeans is not so readily evident. Why did a text so far removed from their cultural and socio-religious circumstances hold such appeal for Latin Christians in the Middle Ages? How did European readerships impose their own encounters with 

religious “others” (Muslim or no) on the Apocalypse, which itself constructs a framework by which to understand the unexpected presence (and military success) of religious outsiders? Where such identification and conflation of various religiously foreign groups—be they Arab, Turkish, Viking, Norman, or Mongol—occur in European Christian responses to the text, to what extent can we view these later readings (obviously unintended by the original author) as legitimate? In tracing the Apocalypse’s translation and specifically English reception history, I arrive at the text’s ultimate transformation, during a period of heretical uprisings and theological suppression, into a most peculiar Middle English poem—and drawing on Hans Robert Jauss’s literary theory of an “aesthetic of reception,” I offer an analysis which proposes to make sense of this convoluted and often seemingly farfetched history of transmission and interpretation.


Syriac Apocalyptic Writing and the Questioning of Theodicy - Meghan Bowen, Saint Paul University

During the first decades of the Muslim expansion, Middle Eastern Christians produced a number of apocalyptic texts, including the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, John bar Penkāyē’s Book of Main Points, and Jacob of Edessa’s Letters and Scholia. These theological reflections were part of an attempt to understand the suffering and oppression of their authors and audiences, and to discern how God could be acting through the events of their time. Drawing heavily on imagery from the Old Testament and from their self-understanding as part of the faithful of God, different writers engaged – in a variety of ways – with the eternal question of theodicy, i.e., how to reconcile the existence of a just God with the reality of human suffering. Is there a way in which these texts may in turn be incorporated into contemporary theological reflection? Many of the conclusions reached by the authors in question stand in striking opposition to trends in theodicy in our day. Dismissing these texts outright, however, would be a grave injustice to their unique place within the greater corpus of the Eastern Christian tradition.

Similarly, explaining away their often peculiar theology as a mere consequence of historical events would risk a type of intellectual colonialism. Instead, the proposed paper explores these exemplars of apocalyptic literature as demonstrative of the range of potentially reasonable responses to the experience of suffering. How do humans “do” theodicy? More importantly, how can the witness of early writers inform and advance theological reflection today?


On This Rock I Will Build My Church: An Examination of the Foundations of Faith in Dialogue - Louise St. Germain, Saint Paul University

Christians and Muslims have a long history of interfaith dialogue, resulting from constant contact and interaction since the mid-seventh century. Yet despite fourteen centuries of dialogue, many of the same issues remain in contention, and these interactions are prone to hostility and condemnation on both sides. A similar dynamic is now in play with the Christian-atheist dialogue,

particularly in its amplified form with New Atheist interlocutors. In this paper, I review several primary sources documenting Muslim-Christian encounters, ranging from the 9th century to the present day. From these, I examine the role of foundations of arguments—the implicit  emises—in the historical impasse in Muslim-Christian dialogue. This reveals important factors in interfaith dialogue. First, dialogue must occur using premises native to the position being described; if one tradition attempts to use incompatible premises from another tradition to support its arguments, the result is unsuccessful despite any original intention to bridge the gap between the two traditions. Second, dialogue must occur in a mutually respectful, dignified environment; polemic is an unsuccessful method of dialogue. Based on this analysis, the proposed method going forward is a dialogue of lived experience, which acknowledges a fundamental and inseparable relationship between belief and action. In this sense, witness to a living worldview as a microcosm of faith ridges the dialectic divide and becomes the tangible evidence and foundation for dialogue. This proposal is tested against several historical and contemporary accounts of experiential rather than purely dialectical interfaith encounters, with the goal of identifying applications for further enabling fruitful and peaceful encounters between Christians and other groups, whether atheist or religious.


Religion, Comics, and Books 

Bart Ehrman Wept: Chester Brown’s Rewritten Bible Spell - Aaron Ricker, McGill University

In 2016, the award-winning, eyebrow-raising, New-York- Times-best- selling comics creator Chester Brown released something unexpected (even from him). Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus is a graphic novel overstuffed with appendices and endnotes, dedicated to proving that Jesus was both the son of a prostitute and an ancient advocate for prostitution. To this end, Brown presents comic strip adaptations of Bible stories he claims were “censored” due to later ecclesiastical prudery, all generously supplemented with meticulous but idiosyncratic and tendentious references to serious Religious Studies scholarship. For a conference dedicated to discussing diversity and equality vis-à- vis religious texts and traditions, Brown’s edgy work of advo-tainment raises important questions about who has the right to interpret religious traditions outside the church doors, and Religious Studies outside the ivory tower. My paper argues that the handwritten appendices and endnotes of Mary Wept (which take up a full third of the 270-page book) are themselves a part of the art – an essential gesture in the (post)modern spell cast by the work. They mark Mary Wept as “rewritten Bible” (i.e. a sincerely pious fraud floated on the twin currents of what David Childester has called the “authentic fakery” of North American religion, and the pseudepigraphical rewriting/editing process of the formation of the Bible itself), deployed in a pop culture context where erudite footnotes can be art and conspiracy theories can add spice. In a comics landscape shaped by the elaborate and openly fantastical cover-ups and endnotes of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, and a pop culture landscape shaped by “learned” conspiracy theory revelations about Jesus (from Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code to Secret Mark and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife), Mary Wept puts Religious Studies professionals in the strange and potentially revealing position of observing a re-written Bible species that has spotted us first.


Performing Religion in Comics: An Alternative Methodological Approach - Nathan Gibbard, Ryerson Catholic Campus Ministry

Over the last decade there has been a steady stream of individuals who have examined religion within comics and the superhero genre more particularly. While scholars have continued to examine religion within comics, the relatively few scholars who specialize in this area has meant that the study itself has had little opportunity to progress beyond criticisms of certain models of myth often used to analyze content. This paper is part of a project that seeks to offer an alternative approach that does justice to the religion component under study, but also bring the study of religion and comics into closer conversation with the wider field of Comic Studies.

 The idea of ‘myth’ has frequently been employed in understanding religion and comics, despite repeated warnings of its limits. One crucial limitation is that the focus on myth essentializes narrative as the dominant focus of study, and relegates image – and with it authorial and artistic performance – to the background. In the case of superheroes, for instance, one discusses Superman’s origin as if it were a singular event, when it has been repeatedly reinterpreted for a particular set of sensibilities and story requirements. It has been performed by the author and artists in a number of different ways. At the same time, religion and comics is not itself an abstract study, but has a particular content that grounds it: religion. Taking Gordon Lynch’s concept of sacred forms and making them into more concrete items helps to solidify the notoriously difficult-to- define concept of religion, into something that is observable and traceable; something that can be seen – something graphic. In this way, speaking of the ‘performance’ of religion in comics – how individual authorial/artistic teams have visualized and utilized ‘religion’ within comics – offers a better methodological grounding for the study of religion and comics.


Yes/ Yes, But Not You: Meril, Sandover, American Scripture, and The Failure of Autonomous Authorship - Anthony Easton, Independent Scholar

The American poet, and scion of prominent banking family, James Merrill, spent most of his life writing a long poem called The Changing of Light at Sandover. The problem was that he kept claiming that he did not write this, but that it was given to him via ouija board. It was written by those he contacted in the next worlds-- including everyone from Augustine to Auden. Those who read it as poetry, treat the authorship of Sandover as one of Merritt;s exclusively (especially the citation when it won the 1979 National Book Award.) I wonder if we are putting Sandover in the wrong category, or what authorship looks like, or textual intervention looks like, when an author is assumed to be super natural, or writing is 

assumed to be translated or transcribed more than written. I am especially interested in who writes a religious text, and how we determine the problems of authorship. This is especially true for American scripture, who by claiming to be written by spirits, angels, or other automatic methods, often wrestle with questions of autonomous authorship. Moving the genre of Sandover from the long poem, to scripture; from work like Zukowsky, or Charles Olson’s Maximus Poem, to work of scripture like The Book of Mormon, or the Urantia Book, I hope to complicate what is known and what can be known, and thus refuse simple autobiographical readings.



Indo-Buddhist Traditions

A New Role for the Bhikṣuvarṣāgrapṛcchā: A Training Manual for Junior Monks - Gerjan Altenburg, McMaster University

In 1957, Anukul Chandra Banerjee wrote that the Bhikṣuvarṣāgrapṛcchā “deals with the history of the origin of the different schools” (Banerjee Sarvāstivāda Literature 1957, 50). This statement is the most anyone has said about the Bhikṣuvarṣāgrapṛcchā (Sanskrit title) or dge slong gi dang po’i lo dri ba (Tibetan title). To the best of my knowledge, this text remains available only in the ’dul ba section of the bstan ’gyur, i.e. the section of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon containing Classical Tibetan translations of extra-canonical Buddhist monastic texts originally composed or redacted in India. Although short (between five and seven folios in length depending on the Tibetan edition consulted), the Bhikṣuvarṣāgrapṛcchā contains much more than just information on the history of the different Indian Buddhist schools. The author/redactor collects, summarizes, and clarifies basic information from literature belonging to the Mūlasarvāstivādin school of Indian Buddhism, including terse summaries of 253 monastic rules. Providing a synopsis of my original translation, I will argue that the Bhikṣuvarṣāgrapṛcchā is a short training manual aimed at new Buddhist monks still in their first year of full ordination. This text may have therefore functioned as the Mūlasarvāstivādin equivalent to something like the Navakovāda, a handbook for newly ordained monks and novices used in contemporary Theravādin circles today. I will also point to some peculiarities regarding the contents of this text. Particular attention will be paid to passages in verse and intertextuality with the rest of the Mūlasarvāstivādin monastic corpus.


On the Canonicity of the Scriptures of the 18 Indian Buddhist Schools: The Works of Śākyaprabha in Bu sTon’s History of Buddhism – Christopher Emms, McMaster

In his History of Buddhism (bde bar gshegs pa’i bstan pa’i gsal byed chos kyi ’byung gnas gsung rab rin po che’i mdzod), the Tibetan polymath Bu sTon (1290–1364) constructs an account of Indian Buddhism using a variety of sources. In his discussion of the history of the 18 Indian schools, Bu sTon quotes passages from commentaries on the Buddhist monastic law code, or Vinaya, of the Mūlasarvāstivādin school. One such Vinaya commentary that Bu sTon quotes for his history of the 18 schools, is the 

Āryamūlasarvāstivādiśrāmaṇerakārikā-vṛttiprabhāvatī, or Illuminating Commentary of the Verses for Novices of the Noble Mūlasarvāstivādins (hereafter Prabhāvitī). In the Prabhāvatī, Śākyaprabha (ca. 7 th –8th c. CE), an Indian specialist in monastic law, outlines his views on proper behaviour for new male recruits to the monastic order. In his work, Śākyaprabha also provides a brief account of the history of the 18 schools. In the proposed paper, I will argue that translations of the History of Buddhism contain a misreading of Bu sTon’s discussion of a Mūlasarvāstivādin position on scriptural authenticity. In these previous translations, Bu sTon argues that the scriptures of all 18 schools are canonical, against a Mūlasarvāstivādin position that the canonical texts of the other 17 schools are spurious. I will demonstrate that Bu sTon is actually summarizing and quoting from Śākyaprabha’s Prabhāvatī, itself a Mūlasarvāstivādin commentary, to argue for the canonicity of the scriptures of the other Buddhist schools. Through an in-depth analysis of the history of the 18 schools contained in the Prabhāvatī, and a comparison of Bu sTon’s History of Buddhism with the discussion on canonicity in his’dul ba spyi’i rnam par gzhag pa ’dul ba rin po che’i mdzes rgyan, I will show that Bu sTon is presenting a Mūlasarvāstivādin position on scriptural authority, not contradicting one.

Materiality in the Carmavastu of the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya – Joseph LaRose, McMaster

Although much work has been done on the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya, or Law Code of the 

Mūlasarvāstivādins (hereafter MSV), many parts of it remain relatively unstudied. Among the less studied parts of the MSV, we find the Carmavastu (Section on Leather). It is perhaps the case that the Carmavastu is understudied because its opening avadāna, the Śroṇakoṭīkarṇāvadāna, takes up most of its contents (about seventy percent). This avadāna is closely paralleled in the Divyāvadāna. The result, I think, has been a tendency to see the Carmavastu as not much more than this avadāna. There is, however, a great more to this section of the MSV. Its opening avadāna is followed by a series of rules on varying topics, sometimes directly and sometimes only loosely related to the titular concern with leather. My paper will situate these monastic rules on the uses of leather within the larger social and legal contexts of Classical India, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. It seeks to understand the overarching orientation of the redactors of the MSV towards leather, as well as the ways in which the relationship between Buddhists and their leather objects was shaped by the larger framework of Brahmanic society. To this end my paper includes a discussion of Brahmanic attitudes towards the use of leather as they are found in their law codes. Some of my conclusions include the extent to which the Carmavastu can be located in time and place.


Religion, Cyberspace and Virtual Reality

Cyberspace as Sacred Space, Issues of Online-Offline Religions and Toronto’s Universal Oneness Spiritual Centre - Roland Shainidze, York University

As a phenomenon that has had overwhelming social, cultural and political influence, the internet has become so embedded in our lives that it is difficult to imagine what we did before its invention, how we communicated or how we did our work without almost instantaneous access to information. It is not surprising, then, that the web is also a very active religious environment. Like many organizations, religious and spiritual groups use the internet extensively to proclaim their beliefs and to be in contact with their followers. Broadly construed, religious activity on the internet occurs along a continuum bounded at one end by religion online and at the other by online religion. Conceived originally by Christopher Helland and further developed by Lorne Dawson, religion online means the use of the internet as a vehicle for providing information about or by religious groups, movements, and traditions and involves the traditional forms of web communication with no interactivity. Almost every religious group has a space on the web as an extension of their message or to provide information to their members. Online religion looks to the internet as an interactive venue for religious practice, ritual, observance and innovation. Rather than simply seek information online, adherents use the internet as an integral part of their religious lives. Chat-rooms turn into scripture study classrooms or prayer groups; web cameras provide adherents, who may be geographically dispersed, the opportunity for religious practices like ritual adoration or “virtual” pilgrimage; and with the emergence of such groups as the “cyber-coven” and the “cyber-church,” some religionists are moving entirely online. Focusing on the Universal Oneness Spiritual Centre, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, this paper compares and contrasts the pros and cons of online and offline New Age spirituality, paying particular attention to issues of social, cultural and geographical differentiation.


Transcendence Machines: Examining the Religious Consequences of SoundSelf - Jordan Brady Loewen, Syracuse University

With the rise of new consumer-level virtual reality technology, it was only a matter of time until some intrepid developer attempted to blend its affective potential with religious elements. Enter Robin Arnott, the designer of the video game SoundSelf: a VR experience that “takes advantages of loopholes in human perception to induce an introspective state of ecstasy.” In other words, SoundSelf produces new modes for religious experience using the unique qualities of the medium of virtual reality.

Arnott claims to be using ancient and modern techniques of hypnosis and meditation to perform a step by step disillusionment of the participant’s conscious experience. He does so by bombarding their visual and auditory senses with digital illusions. The VR headset, and the programmed software it is running, ease the participant into an enclosed and meticulously constructed interactive world. Drawing his understanding of consciousness from David Chalmers and obscure eastern yogis, Arnott is convinced that consciousness rests in our active thinking process that perceives the world through symbolic thought. He believes that if he can inhibit or limit this symbolic perception, then he can dissolve consciousness itself.

In order to analyze his project from a religious studies perspective, this paper turns to the philosophies of three thinkers of the virtual: C.S. Peirce’s Semiotics, Gilles Deleuze’s Virtuality, and Eugénie Shinkle’s digital sublime. Peirce provides the semiotic components of consciousness and virtuality. Deleuze transitions thinking virtual to the digital-virtual. And Shinkle examines the subjectivity rupturing affects of the digital virtual.

Blending these three thinkers affirms the theoretical possibility for an actualization of Arnott’s technological reproduction of “peak experiences.” The abilities of these types of techno-religious machines have broad implications for the study and practice of religion.


Religion and Law

Religion For the Illiberal State: The Example of Religious Liberty Laws - Ludger H. Viefhues-Bailey, Le Moyne College

Religious liberty claims, that is claims to exemption from laws that unintentionally burden religious conduct, have been multiplying in the U.S. during the battles over same-sex marriage. Analyzing this type of legislation allows us to ask what type of religion is conducive for illiberal democracies, that is for states that use democratic means to openly to restrict access to citizenship.

To do so I will inquire how the debates about religious liberty produce religion. What type of religious claims are being configured in these debates such that they support an illiberal vision of our polity and of democracy.

I will first analyze the history of religious liberty claims in the civil rights area by presenting a Kantian model of citizenship on a continuum. This model will allow us to see that religious liberty claims function as contestation over who is allowed to fully participate in the state. 

Second, I will turn to the religious liberty jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court under its current Chief Justice, John Roberts. The Robert courts takes claims to religious injury at face value without allowing for their critical examination. This abstemious position requires a model of causality where religious and secular conducts are entangled. This model allows for claims to sincere burden to remain unexamined, but also destabilizes the courts’ or legislatures’ ability to assess religious sincerity in general.

Finally, I will point out the structural alignment between this jurisprudence and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Reformed Calvinist vision of the rationality of religious beliefs. I will thus conclude by arguing that this Reformed Calvinist vision supports an agonistic model of illiberal democracy that weakens minority positions.


The Cases in Favour of TWU’s Law School and The Poverty of Classical Liberal Virtues - Connor James Steele, University of Ottawa

Trinity Western University, a self-described private institution, located in Langley British Columbia (in the heart of the Canadian Bible-belt) has been engaged in protracted litigation to defend its right to have a law school that would be able to enforce a biblically mandated code of behavior. First among the objections to this proposed law school is that though religious freedom is important, it does not extend to unlawful discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, particularly within the context of legal education. On this basis, three law societies decided not to accredit the proposed program. The decisions have subsequently been overturned in two provinces. While not making a legal argument for or against the position of TWU, using critical discourse analysis, I shall analyze how the concept of tolerance regulates diversity and simplifies disagreement in the legal actions where the University has achieved success. I shall argue that classical liberal tolerance is part of a 19 th century political taxonomy that lacks conceptual coherence. Tolerance is a masculinist and normatively impoverished concept that is ill-suited to today’s diverse legal profession. Further, I shall contend that while they may be seeming virtues, tolerance and the dogmatic assertion of rights actually render a disservice to both evangelical Christians opposed to sexual minorities and the same sexual minorities that resist them. I propose the normative idea of deep pluralism, outlined by thinkers such as William Connelly and Lori Beeman, as a more fecund commitment from which to begin dispute resolution of this issue, as well as other future problems of profound normative disensus.


Jewish Identity

Diversity in the Medical Field in Roman Palestine- The Case of Jewish Women Physicians - Yael Epstein, Bar- Ilan University

It is now a well-established fact that women practiced medicine in the ancient world. The woman physician was called medica or iatrine and the midwife was called maia. The iatrine and the midwife along with a number of linguistic variants on these terms, all appear regularly in a range of literary, epigraphical and papyrological sources, as scholars have repeatedly observed. However, after reviewing the literature one can conclude that barely any research was done on the midwives and their practices in the Jewish Society.

In this paper I will explore the midwives and gynecology in the ancient Jewish society of the land of Israel in the period 70AD- 400AD and especially their reflection in the literature of the Judaic Sages of the Talmud and Mishnah period.

I will discuss the differences between the man physician and the midwife in the ancient Jewish society. Moreover, I will examine the religious aspects of being a Jewish midwife. The midwife was not a religious profession, but had religious values in the Jewish society.

Additionally, I will present the social status of the midwife in the Jewish community of Roman Palestine in the relevant period (looking on the Ancient Jewish rabbinic literature and Archeological excavations). In this regard, I will explore the different names the midwife was called in the Jewish ancient sources and how it was related to their social status.


The Precarious Education: The History of Jewish Day Schools in Montreal – Anne Read, University of Waterloo

In Canada, the Jewish education systems reflect the local structures and institutions in which they develop. In the context of Montreal, Jewish education was shaped by a linguistically and religiously divided society. While the Jewish community of Montreal has contributed significantly in the social, political, and economic spheres of Quebec life, it remains largely unknown to the other local communities, particularly the Francophone population of Quebec. This paper discusses the governing of religious diversity in the context of education. It offers a historical context of the religious, national, and social factors that have resulted in Montreal holding the highest percentage of students enrolled in separate Jewish day schools across Canada; this percentage remains more than 50 percent higher than the average attendance of Jewish school-age children in the USA. It is a story of diaspora Jewish education under the influence of local social forces.


Religion and Gender

Texts and Contexts in Women’s and Men’s Religion: Lessons from India - Dimple Dhanani, Syracuse University

The study of religions has seen a relatively recent conceptual shift towards a bifurcation of religious traditions into women’s and men’s religions (Keinänen 2007, Bednarowski 2011, and Kinsley 2002 and others). Religious texts are often if not always understood to operate under the purview of men’s religion, and yet, texts are often considered only in their semantic dimension, without attention to their performative or iconic dimensions as articulated by Watts (2015). In this paper, I explore the ways in which the iconic, performative and indeed the semantic aspects of religious texts play a substantial role in women’s lived religious lives. Through an examination of a sample of ethnographic studies of women’s lived religious lives conducted in India, I consider if and when texts are a component of “women’s religion” which therefore softens the conceived dichotomy between women’s and men’s religion. Women’s and men’s religions, therefore, cannot be understood as discrete categories. In fact, women’s religion constitutes religion as a whole. Therefore, a reformulation of women’s and men’s religion as a constitutive relationship is required.


A Basilisk in Paradise: Contesting the Gender Hierarchy - Cecile Wilson, Carleton University

In 1529 the humanist scholar Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486—1535) submitted a treatise to Margaret of Austria, the governor of the Low Countries entitled De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus declamatio (A declamation on the nobility and superiority of the female sex). In this treatise, he argued for not the equality, but the superiority, of woman over men by using examples from the Bible, classical literature, law and the natural world to support his claims. One of these examples was the basilisk, possessor of the most poisonous venom, and a creature that could only ever be male because it consisted of a snake’s body and a rooster’s head. By contrast, the noblest members of the animal kingdom were—according to Agrippa—exclusively female.

In this paper, I examine the unusual choice of a basilisk for the representation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden by two Dutch artists: Philips Galle (1537-1612) and his engraving master, the noted proponent of religious tolerance, Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522—1590). Both Galle and Coornhert participated in a humanist circle active in Haarlem, the Low Countries in the mid-sixteenth century and were suspected, as was Agrippa, of harbouring unorthodox views.

By conducting a Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis of the printed images and their accompanying verbal texts and comparing these findings with the views expressed by Agrippa in  his written texts on women (De nobilitate) and original sin (De peccato originali declamatio, written 1518, printed 1529 ), I assess the extent to which these prints either reflect Agrippa’s more progressive position on woman or support the traditional, misogynistic view that women are responsible for the downfall of supposedly wiser, stronger and more virtuous men. 


Theologies of Inclusion 

The Art of Tolerance: Insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Emmanual Levinas – Peter Frick, University of Waterloo

In this essay I am examining the philosophical and theological insights of the Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in view of their contribution toward a life of tolerance. In constant dialogue with Bonhoeffer and Levinas, I will first argue that there is a vast difference between tolerance and toleration and that only the first is helpful in advancing an ethic of inclusion. I will then argue in a second section that tolerance hinges on a person’s recognition of the other’s existence/alterity and on his/her freedom in determining the existential shape of making life intelligible. In a third section I will propose how Bonhoeffer and Levinas arrive at an ethic of inclusion and tolerance that takes the human being seriously in the face-to-face encounter, in the recognition of the other’s epistemological limit and in the ontological foundation of ethical responsibility.

Toppling the Divine Hierarchy: How Trinitarian Thinking Shapes Our Communities - Martha Elias Downey, Concordia University

The biblical witness showcases many stories of diversity and equality which stand in sharp contrast to their cultural context, especially in the gospels where we see Jesus upending social and religious mores. However, church history reveals that the implementation of a new type of community which recognised no distinctions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, 1 was repeatedly challenged by the pull toward uniformity and self-promotion. In this paper, I posit that many of the difficulties in building Christian communities stem from an inadequate, narrow understanding of God. Theologian Leonardo Boff states that religion in any particular society tends to reflect the values of the culture. “Thus, in a capitalist society – which is based on individual performance, private accumulation of goods, and the predominance of the individual over the social – the representation of God usually accentuates the fact that God is one alone, Lord of all.” 2 Seeing the object of our worship as the lone figure on top of a hierarchy precludes any meaningful notion of the Trinity and, in turn, limits our ability to conceive of and practice sustainable Christian community. We must reorder our concept of God to reflect what we see in the biblical witness: a divine community of loving equals who invite others into relationship with them. To do this, I will look at Trinity as a model of inclusion, showing how its members demonstrate preference for the other and celebrate diversity. The theological work of Trinitarian thinking is necessary if we are to see diversity and equality emerge in our churches and in our society as a whole.


Caring and Covenant: Christians With Disabilities as “Catholic Personalities” - Michael Alexander Walker, University of Toronto

This theological presentation aims both to describe specific ways that Christians with and without disabilities can embody divine equality and justice by helping each other, and to illustrate how that commitment to constant caring can form us into what Miroslav Volf calls “catholic personalities,” people open to all others who emulate the self-giving love of the triune God (Volf 1998, 155-57, 217, 279-82; see also Volf 1996, 69-71, 189, 249, 270-72).

First, because of God’s gracious gifts to us, mediated in part through baptism and Holy Communion, Christians with and without disabilities can help each other, in order to display God’s radical equality and justice. Through small moments of relationship (see Vanier 1989, 16-7, 261, 265, 297-8), we can help without taking over—without acting out abuse, domination, or (their counterbalance) submission (see Vanier 1989, 27; see also Romans 12:7). Significantly, as we engage each other in sacramental community, believers with diverse ranges of ability can display our need for trust and interdependence; as Paul states, we can bear each other’s  burdens while simultaneously living into our own relational integrity (see Galatians 6:2, 5). As indicators of God’s essential equality and justice, these modes of mutual aid testify to God’s shalom, the present and future manifestation of divine integrity, dignity, and joy.

Second, as well as inviting us to offer each other compassion and solidarity in Christ, the sacraments also elucidate human formation into Volf’s “catholic personalities.” People brought into sacramental communities by grace can foster intimate relationships of covenant, of explicit reciprocal fealty (Brueggemann 1980, 1094; Brueggemann 1999, 20-34). These covenantal relationships require clear yet permeable affective boundaries, allow believers to become “spiritual friends” (Wadell 2002, 55-65, 107-110), and empower them to act out divine righteousness both interpersonally and socially.


Keynote Speaker

A New Diversity? Cooperation and Conflict Between the ‘Religious’ and ‘Nonreligious’. – Lori Beaman, University of Ottawa

This talk will consider the themes of diversity and equality using a recent incident of the removal (and subsequent restoration) of a crucifix in a Quebec hospital. A consideration of the public discussion around this incident is brought into analytical juxtaposition with the Saguenay decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to consider the implications of the shift in identity of the crucifix from ‘religious’ to ‘cultural’. The role of public officials (the state), the language of inclusion and exclusion, and a consideration of the potential for conflict and cooperation between religious and nonreligious people will be elaborated. 




Islam and History 

The Unorthodox Orthodoxy of Shah Jahan - Michael D. Calabria, St. Bonaventure University

Scholars often conceptualize the Islamic faith of the “Great Mughals” (1556-1707 CE) as moving in a downward trend from the laudable religious heterodoxy of the emperor Akbar to the disagreeably staunch orthodoxy of his great-grandson Aurangzeb. The reign of Shah Jahan (1628-58) is seen by many as a turning point in this trend from liberalism to conservatism as evidenced by things such as his avoidance of alcohol, personal appearance and piety, inscriptions on his coinage, changes in court customs and chronicles, and his alleged intolerance towards Hindus and Christians, exemplified by his destruction of Hindu temples and his attack on the Portuguese settlement at Hughli.

Yet, there are some glaring problems with this characterization of the emperor as seen particularly in the close relationships he maintained with two of his children, his eldest son Dara Shikoh and his eldest daughter Jahanara, both of whom were initiated into the Sufi Qadiriyya order, as well as his own attention to Sufi shaykhs and shrines. In addition, official artistic representations of the emperor clearly show Christian influences that betray claims of “orthodoxy.”

In this paper I will thus challenge this characterization of Shah Jahan and the “evidence” that has been used to make such a case, and present indications to the contrary. I will particularly focus on his relationships with Hindus and Christians (Portuguese, English and Dutch), explaining his actions in terms of insurrection and incursion rather than intolerance. Moreover, drawing on Shahab Ahmed’s concept of the “Balkans-to- Bengal complex” (What is Islam?, 2016), I will argue that the characterization of Shah Jahan as more “orthodox” than his predecessors is anachronistic, and reflects post-modern conceptualizations of Islam rather those of the early modern period.

Polemics and Pedagogy: The Educational Nature of Antichristian Literature in Early Islam - H. C. Hillier, Wilfrid Laurier University

In an earlier writing, I examined how contemporary Muslim polemists incorporated historical Jesus material into their refutation of Christian conceptions of Jesus and in their support of a Muslim representation. In this examination, I made a minor point that the value of apologetical/polemical engagement was not necessarily the conversion of others, but rather in the reaffirmation and refining of a believer’s already preexisting religious beliefs and identity. This small assertion gained some traction, and became a potentially fruitful direction for further research. In this paper, then, I plan to investigate this contention further by examining the development of antichristian polemical writings is early Islamic literature as an educational tool used for the development of faith. In particular, this chapter will examine the polemical writings of early mutakallimun theologians, notably ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s Tathbit Dala’il Nubuwwat Sayyidina Muhammad (The Confirmation of the Proofs of Prophecy of Our Master Muhammad), and in light of internal evidence within a wider early Islamic theory of education, I plan to identify a pedagogical core at the heart of such writings; this latter component will involve connecting this polemical literature with early Islamic texts on education.


Personal Sacred Space and Sacred Time in the Public Space: Awakening Awareness and God Consciousness Through Sakina - Yunus Kumek, SUNY Buffalo State

Since William Lane’s encyclopedic presentation of expressions of religiosity in Cairo in the early nineteenth century, numerous political and economic changes have made the city part of a nation state and changed Muslim lives in important ways. This article ethnographically discusses the role of the Quran in the everyday experience of the Egyptian Muslims through behavior enclosing them in sakina, sacred space and time, beyond specific venues, rather than considering it as a “conventional ritual (Mahmood 2001).” The notion of flexible personal sacred space in a public space has a practical and relevant implication for the spiritual traveler to experience the state of ihsan, God consciousness and awareness.


Religion, Food, and Healing

The Religious Other in Muslim Dietary Laws: Ibn Rushd’s Ethical and Legal Logic of Pluralism - Mourad Laabdi, University of Toronto

The relationship between Muslims and their “Abrahamic others,” Christians and Jews, with respect to food practices has received increasing attention lately. The question known today as “halal meat,” meat considered legally permissible for Muslims, has occupied significant space in Western media and public debate over the past few decades. The present paper explores the premodern background of the legal discourse of “halal meat” in light of Ibn Rushd’s (known better by his Latinized name, Averroes, d. 1198 CE) important, but largely overlooked, book of legal pluralism, Bidāyat al-Mujtahid (The Jurist’s Primer). It probes in particular two aspects of Ibn Rushd’s logical reflections on this question. The first is his legal critique of the dominant Islamic views, most of which forbid for Muslims meat prepared by Christians and Jews. The second is the ethical background of this critique and which is manifest in his conception of the highest goal of the revelation to be primarily assisting society members attain moral excellence. By probing the question of “halal meat” in light of Ibn Rushd’s “progressive” reading of reveled law (sharīʿa), this paper places his discussion within his larger project of legal pluralism. This paper concludes that there is still much we can learn from the past of Muslims’ interaction with other religious traditions.


Seeking Sinless Eating: Rewriting Sin as Food Choice - Kathleen M. Self, St. Lawrence University

How can sugar be sin-free? Is the choice of a salad about health or “being good”? This paper argues that there is a discourse of moral eating that treats fat (in foods and bodies) alongside sugar and carbohydrates as sinful or bad, and this use of the term sin points to its indebtedness to Christian ideas of the self, the will, and choice. In this discourse, broken wills persist in making bad food choices. Sin-free foods point the way to virtuous eating. This discourse is informed by Christianity (as R. Marie Griffith and others have noted) but derives from a broad consumerist culture centered in the United States but increasingly global in scope. In it, several binaries operate: good/bad, pure/impure, virtue/sin, thin/fat, controlled/uncontrolled.

The paper’s sources are weight-loss success-story memoirs and “sin-free” recipes and foodstuffs. “Sin-Free Sugar” ( is just one example, but there are many more. The paper draws on sixteen memoirs, all written by women and published between 2007 and 2015. They resemble Christian stories of conversion in remarkable ways, so it is perhaps not surprising that they draw on Christian discourse in their language. However, they rarely use the term sin. Instead, the memoirists’ shame about food choices, emotional struggle, self-description and language of food creates and recreates the binaries of good/bad, fat/thin, etc. The foodstuffs and recipes make the sinfulness explicit, and, importantly, reference the same foods and food elements. The discourse of moral eating in memoirs and food labeling is religious in a broad sense. Though unaffiliated with any religion, it offers a moral framework that uses a diluted Christian concept (sin) and choice and materializes it in certain foods. It also creates a subjectivity that measures the human being by her body’s fat content, and extrapolates her morality from that evaluation.


Living Rooms: Latter-day Saints, Domestic Space, and Rituals of Healing, 1887-1947 – Brooke Brassard, University of Waterloo

Latter-day Saints practiced diverse healing rituals that included folk medicine, midwifery, and faith healings performed by men and women. Akin to McGuire’s subjects in Lived Religion who “described spiritual practices that valorized mundane domestic materiality, such as the processes of…cooking, and eating food,” many LDS recalled similar spiritual experiences regarding health. LDS women were active healers that sustained their community’s well-being when settling in isolated areas. They shared herbal remedies, delivered babies, and prayed over the ill. Their setting, instead of one room, was a network of related domestic spaces such as the kitchen, dining room, and living spaces. In addition to Church leaders, what factors affecting healing rituals? I will turn to the material world and examine furniture (tables, chairs, cupboards), ingredients (roots, flowers, herbs), and architectural plans (closed rooms to open spaces). Subjects (the LDS) and objects (medicines, furniture, houses) collaborate and merge into an assemblage where the power/value of an object is not determined exclusively by a subject. Simply, things have power. My hypothesis is that changing architectural styles and technological advancements played a role in changing healing practices. The Church wanted their women to remain in the “axis” of domestic space, but their responsibilities changed and healing was left to doctors and Church elders.


Religion, Film, TV, and a Cultural Hero 

Image-Mixing: Film Aesthetics and Interreligious Encounter - Brett David Potter, Queen’s University

In his book on religious syncretism, Karl Starkloff outlines his concept of the “in-between” – a “metaxic,” inclusive space between religions only navigable through participation. This experience of blending and betweenness finds visual expression in the creative films of Canadian artist Peter Mettler. Mettler has been recognized as a unique and innovative documentarian both in Canada and internationally, including a major 2013 retrospective at Lincoln Center. Part spiritual travelogue, part metaphysical meditation, his poetic style has been described as “teledivinitry” at the boundary of cinematic technology and mysticism.

Mettler’s most recent work employs new software to perform what he calls “image-mixing” – the improvisatory, “real-time” blending of multiple moving images to unearth “surprising new narrative or lyric constructions and associations.” For example, one recent performance (“The Vortex Perspective,” commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, 2016) blended images of Sufi whirling dervishes with imagery of a stylized forest. This performative image-mixing is an apt metaphor for the radically improvisatory, participatory practice of the “in-between” in teaching and learning religion – interreligious encounter is not merely about comparing doctrines, but overlaying and “mixing” pregnant symbols and images in a synthetic, creative mode.

The visual language of cinema can thus serve as a model for interreligious studies. Film theorist Catherine Russell has described Mettler’s documentary films – especially the explicitly religious “Gambling, Gods, and LSD” (2002) and “The End of Time”; (2012) – in terms of an alternative “cinematic epistemology” a self-reflexive, liminal mode of self-knowledge. In this presentation, I will explore the concept of “image-mixing” as a metaphor for the encounter between religions and, using clips from Mettler’s recent work as well as other examples of image-mixing (including, if time allows, some of my own documentary work) draw attention to the ways cinematic language can help us conceive of a common space for dialogue “in- between” diverse religious traditions.


Marginal Religions in the Town of South Park - Chris Miller, University of Waterloo

The adult animated sitcom South Park is commonly labeled crude or juvenile, but it can reveal much about how society views different groups. My paper examines two episodes as ‘texts’ which reveal the cultural standing of two religious groups. Episode 712, “All About Mormons,” parodies the Mormon church and episode 912, “Trapped in the Closet” lampoons the Church of Scientology. Both place marginal groups as the subject of ridicule, thereby functioning as social regulation. ‘Deviant’ beliefs are made to look ridiculous, thereby reinforcing the mainstream Christian beliefs of most of the townspeople (and viewers). Although both traditions are mocked, a detailed comparison shows that they are treated in markedly different ways. Mormon beliefs are mocked, but they ultimately get the last laugh, as the young Mormon boy points out that his faith causes no harm and helps him and his family to live a better life. Those who mock are thus portrayed as prejudiced. The beliefs of Scientology are similarly mocked, but there is no redeeming monologue at the end of the episode. Instead, the group is further challenged as nothing but a money-making scheme which dupes its followers.

My paper will serve as a case study to outline the ‘marginalized, but rapidly normalizing’ status of Mormonism in mainstream culture, and the seemingly unrelenting marginalization of the Church of Scientology. Repeated positive portrayals in popular media can do much for the public image of a marginalized religious group, as in the case of Mormonism, but as Scientology demonstrates, the exact opposite can be true. This work can shed light on one of the many ways that groups can move from the marginal to the mainstream, or in the case of Scientology, how a group can be portrayed so as to never leave the margins.


“A Cultural Hero?”: What Ian Fleming’s James Bond Series Reveals about Twentieth-Century Religion, Culture, and Diversity - Robert Revington, McMaster University

At first glance, Ian Fleming’s James Bond series is a strange place to look for religion. The protagonist is a hard drinker, a gambler, sexually-promiscuous, and a paid assassin. In a 1963 book review, Raymond Mortimer wrote: “Bond’s pleasures … are those which the Common Man at his commonest can imagine himself enjoying, if suddenly provided with a vigorous physique and pots of money.” Mortimer added that Bond had “become what anthropologists call ‘a culture-hero’ who personifies the ideal of a particular society.” In this way, Mortimer compares Bond’s popularity to how King Arthur exemplified the values of a previous chivalric age. Mortimer adds that Bond is loyal to his country, but not passionately political, and his ethics are not particularly Christian. Mortimer concludes that “popular art can be sociologically more revealing than the art of an élite.” The James Bond series therefore reveals a great deal about society in not just Britain, but in America and other parts of the world. Mortimer’s analysis makes some valid points. However, this essay will argue that the James Bond series has much more compelling religious content than it is given credit for (even if it is not all strictly orthodox). The Bond series defines its understanding of religion against the moral realities of the Cold War. Finally, this paper will examine the books’ darker side: their portrayal of diversity. The books can be racist, sexist, and homophobic. Ultimately, the series provides a useful window into English culture in the middle of the twentieth century, even if not everything it reveals is positive.


Religion, Morality, and Diversity 

A Diversity of Conscience According to Power or Vulnerability - Ann Sirek, University of Toronto

While conscience can be viewed from many angles, this paper will focus on the contrast between the loud, imperative voice proclaiming the principles of truth and the silent cry of the paralyzed sufferer uncertain how best to make a move. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you!” The voice of conscience has uttered the imperative. And then the voice of lament, fragile, and vulnerable, cries out in sorrow, “ Please! Someone! Do unto me just a bit of the kindness that I have always done unto others!” Moral consciousness comes in two voices, loud and soft, harsh and gentle, confident and tenuous, bellowing and sobbing, etc. Conscience construed as one without the counterpoint of the other silences and paralyzes practical moves towards the good.

In this paper, I will present texts on conscience from Servais Pinckaers and Martin Rhonheimer, two Thomistic, moral theologians, who represent the traditional voice of moral empowerment. I will contrast their work with that of Dorothee Soelle, a political theologian, who presents the voice of the vulnerable sufferer. Using my own reading of Thomas Aquinas on sorrow and suffering to integrate these diverse interlocutors, I will propose that conscience must be understood in terms of the true and the good, as is the tradition, but also in terms of healing from imprinted experiences of harm. Thus to emerge from suffering becomes a pursuit of the good and the work of conscience. In a Thomistic paradigm, practical reason and prudence, in arising from experiences of harm, ground the moral consciousness in sensed movements of healing and transformation.


Ham Seok-Heons’s Anthropology of Cosmopolitanism - Song-Chong Lee, The University of Findlay

This paper discusses the anthropology of Ham Seok-Heon, who is arguably the most influential, yet controversial modern Korean philosophers, to introduce a unique philosophical framework of cosmopolitanism. The author argues that while traditional Western theorists such as Diogenes of Sinope and Immanuel Kant base the notion of cosmopolitanism on the utilitarian and/or the deontological frameworks in which the individual’s feeling of hospitality is evolved and expanded and his moral imperative for the community of the human race is justified, Ham’s philosophy focuses on the individual’s intellectual and spiritual awakening of the essential, natural, and cosmic self, namely ssial. His vision not only carefully considers the socio-political dimension of the human but also take seriously the psychological and spiritual dimension, for the cosmopolitan vision. To discuss a possible contribution of Ham’s anthropology to the cosmopolitan theory, the author presents three points: (1) life, ssial, as the agent/unit, (2) religion as the source, and (3) narratives and memories as the force.


Humans and Non-Human Animals in the Bible

The Bible and Christian Tradition on Animals - Kristopher Hiuser

One group that has often been overlooked throughout the Christian tradition and received little in the way of consideration, yet which is consistently present within the scriptural narratives and within the lives of Christians, is animals. In this paper I will examine the place of nonhuman animals within both the Bible and the Christian theological tradition to discern whether the latter Christian tradition’s portrayal of animals, where present, is one that is consistent with the biblical account. First, I will discuss how animals are portrayed in the Bible, specifically using the doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology as a narrative guide, and show how animals are repeatedly present in each. Next I will address how animals have generally been expressed and discussed within the Christian theological tradition using the works of a variety of major theologians from the Christian tradition (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther), and compare such findings with the biblical accounts. I will then argue that there is a divergence between the biblical texts and their place in the tradition, and suggest reasons why this might be so (e.g. a focus on theological anthropology, often using the nonhuman creation as a means of defining humans uniqueness against). Finally, I will briefly show how such a reality is not one that has gone unchallenged, and that there is a growing interest in accurately attending to animals theologically, such that our practices can be more in line with our texts as illustrated in the works of modern animal theologians such as Andrew Linzey, David Clough, etc.


From Eden to the Ark: Seeing God Through Animal Eyes - Nancy Menning, Ithaca College

In the Abrahamic traditions, Genesis 1-11 establishes the mythic context from which the rest of history unfolds. I offer a reading of this primeval history (from Eden to the Ark) from the animals’ perspective, using this shift in perspective to generate new insights about the biblical God’s character and to inform a reflection on animal ethics. As far back as the Garden, the animals had reason to be suspicious of God. When Adam and Eve realized they were naked, they grabbed plants to cover themselves. But when God saw that the people knew they were naked, he provided them with animal skins to wear. So somewhere in God’s Eden, in the time before the Great Eviction, lay the ruined and denuded carcasses of two of God’s “good” creatures. Fire hadn’t yet been created so there wasn’t—as yet—any smell of burning flesh. But ten generations later, Noah and his family leave the Ark and immediately slaughter animals, offering them as burnt sacrifices pleasing to their God. My approach is both analytical and creative. In the more formal voice of academic scholarship, I analyze the text of Genesis 1-11 as well as the various retellings of the Noah’s Ark narrative both within religious traditions (e.g. via midrash) and beyond religious traditions (e.g. in fiction and film). Employing a more creative approach in order to convey the animals’ perspective of the biblical God, I re-imagine a new telling of this primeval history that calls God’s character into question and challenges what it might mean for humans to be made “in God’s image.” I conclude with reflections on the ethical implications of this primeval history—as traditionally interpreted and as I have re-imagined it—for human-animal relationships today.


Figurative Language” or “Primeval Event?”: The Genesis Creation Narratives in official Roman Catholic Sexual Teachings - Michael Taylor Ross, University of Toronto (St. Michael’s College)

At the foundation of Magisterial Roman Catholic sexual teaching is a particular use and application of the Genesis creation narratives. In Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” for example, sexual and gender norms are derived from direct reference to Adam and Eve and the story of the Fall. Continuing the tradition of natural law, Church teaching grounds an understanding of gender and sexual morality in a biblical story about human origins that is then further reinforced by other biblical references to sexual matters.

Yet, as many moral theologians have observed, this way of applying biblical sources goes against the Roman Catholic Church’s own teaching on biblical hermeneutics. In the words of Salzman and Lawler: “While Vatican II espoused the historical-critical method for interpreting scriptural passages and also advocated using the findings of the sciences to help formulate its teaching, there continues to be a disconnect between the historical-critical exegetical method the Church espouses and its use and interpretation of Scripture to condemn specific sexual acts.” This disconnect is especially apparent in the fact that the Church accepts the science of evolution and yet continues to refer to Adam and Eve as “our first parents” when discussing gender and sexuality.

This presentation will offer a status quaestionis on the bible and Roman Catholic sexual teachings, paying particular attention to Genesis 1-3, its use and application in official sexual moral teachings, and the mounting critiques of this methodology by theologians of various backgrounds. The discussion will conclude by highlighting alternative theological voices that offer a more inclusive biblical hermeneutic for sexual ethics.


Indigenous Religion and the Canadian State

Restraint and Resurgence: Accompanying Social Reconciliation in Canada - Gordon Rixon, University of Toronto (Regis College) 

In The Course of Recognition (2004), Paul Ricoeur locates the emergence of personal and cultural agency within a discussion of identity, self-recognition and mutual gift exchange. In Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014), Glen Sean Coulthard identifies the ecological, social and political conditions for a resurgence of indigenous peoples and cultures. Coulthard rejects recognition theory as an implicit mediator of a colonizing worldview that undermines the autonomy of indigenous resurgence. In my paper, I propose to trace Coulthard’s engagement of recognition theory guided by the question: “What does a person of religious faith have to learn from these authors in the development of a theology of accompaniment and the advancement of social reconciliation.”

In my discussion, I notice that Coulthard principally engages recognition theory through the pivotal exchange between Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth in Redistribution or Recognition? A Political Philosophical Exchange (2003). I acknowledge Ricoeur’s subsequent appreciation of the strengths and limitations of Honneth’s approach to recognition theory; taking particular note of Ricoeur’s criticism of Honneth’s approach to social esteem and elucidation of the distinction between market exchange and gift exchange. From this perspective, I pursue my faith focused question about how to receive and accompany aspirations for cultural resurgence. I conclude by locating my comments in the Canadian context with a brief discussion of the proposal for balancing judicial restraint and activism by Benjamin Berger in Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism (2015).


Postsecularity and Nonviolent Epistemology - Maxwell Stephen Kennel, McMaster University

How can we form habits of thinking that do not lead to violence? Furthermore, how can we cultivate discursive practices that counteract present social and political violences? This paper considers the often violent ways of thinking that underpin social and political violence (from discrimination and oppression, to war and terrorism), and argues that the critique of epistemological violence can serve as a bridge between religious and secular perspectives. After the critique of secular reason, and after the critique of religion, the critique of violence that marks several discourses in the humanities serves as an opportunity to examine how our habits of thinking and ways of knowing can themselves be sites of violence (for example: reduction, essentialization, anachronism, orientalism, totalization). Drawing upon critiques of epistemological violence in the European philosophical tradition (Derrida, Adorno, Foucault, Benjamin) and from theological and religious critiques of violence (Grace Jantzen, William Cavanaugh, David Toole, Rene Girard) this paper first suggests that certain sources in Christian theology and European philosophy have already sought to think and know without violence, and second, that this commonality is relevant to contemporary religious studies and cultural studies. After outlining this commonality I will conclude by connecting the problem of epistemological violence to contemporary politics of recognition in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report (focusing on Volumes 5 and 6) and the work of Glen Sean Coulthard.



Music and Religion 

Abraham Pandither’s Karunamritha Sagaram (1917): The Twentieth-Century Genealogy  of Karnatik Music as Tamil, Scientific, and Christian - Praveen Vijayakumar,  Concordia University

This paper focuses on the figure of Rao Sahib Abraham Pandither (1859-1919), a Tamil Protestant musician and scholar, who composed a monumental treatise on South Indian (Karṇāṭak) music entitled Karunamirtha Sagaram, “The Ambrosia of the Ocean of Compassion”(1917). I argue that Pandither and his work represent significant counterpoints to mainstream, dominant genealogies of Karṇāṭak music, which usually foreground and privilege Sanskritic, upper-caste, and markedly Hindu histories and individuals. Articulated and systemically supported by the nation-state through organizations such as the almost exclusively Brahmin-dominated Madras Music Academy (est. 1928), an armslength organization of the Indian National Congress, these histories circulate widely as the normative narrative about South Indian music. Pandither and his Karunamirtha Sagaram offer alternative visions for the history of Karṇāṭak music that squarely locate it in the realm of Tamil, and not Sanskrit textual pasts, Biblical and Protestant theological ideas, and science, both Western and Indian. As a poet, musician, musicologist, teacher, builder of institutions, and practitioner of traditional Tamil medicine, Pandither mobilized a distinctly modern and multi-sited approach to the study of music that drew from a range of cultural and pseudo-historical sources. I contend that Pandither’s vision for music was not only non-Brahmin and hence relatively caste-inclusive, but that it also definitively focused on music as fundamentally compatible with the post-enlightenment style colonial modernity of his South India. Protestantism, science, institutions, and print culture, were the signposts of this modernity, and Pandither deftly mobilized each in his discourse about Karṇāṭak music.


Word, Sound, and Power: The Religious Imagination of Rastafari - Christopher J. Duncanson-Hales, University of Sudbury at Laurentian University

Rastafari’s global importance has been acknowledged by scholars like Rex Nettleford for whom Rastafari is “of the most significant phenomena to emerge out of the modern history and sociology of Plantation America. . .” (from the Introduction to Owens 1979, vii). Theologian Jürgen Moltmann identifies Rastafari as “one of the most interesting modern forms of expression of ‘;religion of the oppressed.’ (Moltmann 2000, 199). This paper engages Rastafari discourse to gain a deeper appreciation of how the experience of oppression interpreted through the biblical trope, Babylon prompts insight into what Paul Ricoeur terms the religious productive imagination’s capacity to construct hope, seen by Rastafari as Zion.

An important vehicle that Rastafari consciously deployed to globally proclaim Word, Sound and Power is Reggae music, most famously by Rastafari superstar Bob Marley. With the release of Burnin’ in late 1973 Marley assumed the mantle of prophet whose music, performances and persona proclaimed his livity in Jah, Rastafari. Using the reasoning of Rastafari elder Mortimo Planno’s; unpublished text, Rastafarian: The 

Earth’s Most Strangest Man, and the religious and biblical signification of a representative selection from the music of his most famous postulate, Bob Marley’s this paper applies Paul Ricoeur’s schema of the religious productive imagination to conceptualize the verbal and iconic tropes of Rastafari’s hermeneutic of word, sound and power. The hermeneutical task proposed is to seek in this religious language of Babylon and Zion a “unique kind of reply to the confession of radical evil [that] mediates between the experience of radical evil and the promise of hope” (Ricoeur 1995, 92).


Racial and Religious Transcendence in the Life-Narrative of the Rza and the Wu-Tang Clan. – Marcus Evans, McMaster University

The rapper and film producer named the Rza (Robert F. Diggs) founded an African American Hip-Hop band called the Wu-Tang Clan in the early 1990s. Rza mythologized the band’s place of origin (i.e. Staten Island, NY) and musical artistry symbolically in terms of Chinese religious place and martial practice, namely Wudang Daoism and Shaolin Buddhism. While Wu-Tang Clan’s Chinese religious symbolism trademarks the band’s mythological identity in Hip-Hop, the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE)—a tradition that splintered from the Lost and Found Nation of Islam in the 1960s—constitutes the religious substratum underlying Wu-Tang Clan’s mythos. This paper discusses the Rza’s appropriation of Chinese religious symbolism for the making of the Wu-Tang Clan in consideration of the NGE’s religious discourse on the Asiatic Black Man. I will disclose how the NGE’s religious discourse expanded the Rza’s racial and geo-historical self-identity from that of an African American to that of an Asiatic Black Man, while Chinese Daoism and Buddhism sublimated his racial outlook under a broader sense of religious meaning and reality, such that the Rza’s appropriation of Chinese religious symbolism reflects not an exploitive act of entertainment but a meaningful religious project whereby the Rza phenomenologically transcends the existential predicament of being a black man in America.

Employing a phenomenological-existential framework, the paper derives its interpretations from the Rza’s memoir (i.e. The Tao of the Wu) as well as from some of his rap lyrics, music videos, and appearances in film. 


Buddhism in North America

Once the Buddha was an Aryan: Race Sciences and the Introduction of Buddhism to North America - Ryan Anningson, Wilfrid Laurier University

My paper involves the cross-cultural flow of Buddhism to North America, especially in the early half of the twentieth century. This process was not simply a missionary effort undertaken by religious proselytizers. The introduction of Buddhism to North America involved theories of race science, both for North Americans as well as Asians. Buddhists in North America in the early twentieth century socially mobilized groups using new serial publications to prove their religious and racial superiority. This process involved the imagining of a utopian past which could then be traced through theories of racial evolution to the dystopian present, whereby the once pristine religion of the Aryan Buddha had devolved through Asian accretions and misunderstandings. Interestingly, many Asian missionaries argued the inverse, whereby Buddhism got progressively better over millennia only to be misunderstood by modern Western academics. The process of imagined religion and its significant disruptions based on race science form an understudied strand of Buddhism’s domestication in a North American religious framework. Viewing Buddhism through the prism of an imagined past, whether pristine or polluted, displays the way religion can be utilized for specific ends. This theoretical framework also provides more agency for Asian proselytizers than previous academic tropes of Asian religions being overtaken by an imperialist West. This framework provides a new way of displaying the trajectory Buddhism would take following the 1960s. My paper helps to nuance the vast network of cross-cultural flows involved in the introduction of Buddhism to North America.


Examining Buddhism in Unitarian-Universalist Hymns – Jeff Wilson, University of Waterloo

This paper examines official hymnbooks published by the Unitarian Universalist Association to discern the degrees, types, and limits of religious diversity within Unitarian Universalism, one of North America’s primary liberal denominations. Specifically, examining the uses of Buddhism within UU hymns reveals some of the opportunities and challenges involved in attempting to move Protestant-based denominations in post-Protestant directions. Do stated values of inclusivity and multiculturalism result in genuine inclusion and cross-cultural understanding, or are they more likely to result in tokenism and distortion, especially in white-majority, established religious traditions?

The first UUA hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life (1964), included six entries (from over 500) derived from the Buddhist tradition. All six are translated excerpts from Pali material, indicating the desire to include Buddhism but also limited access to such material. Only one is actually set to music (an old Anglo-Catholic tune) for performance as shared liturgy, while the others are brief readings. The UUA released Singing the Living Tradition in 1993. Nearly 30 years later, the amount of Buddhist material in the hymnal only grew from six to ten, with three set to music (including the same hymn from the earlier hymnal) and seven readings. It still fails to include any Mahayana or Vajrayana content, and presents only the ethical side of Buddhism, with nothing on rebirth, karma, nirvana, common devotional figures, or doctrinal content. Thus we see that UUs were only willing to provide space for Buddhism insofar as it aligned with their preexisting values and cosmologies. This paper critically analyzes these and other hymnals to explain how UUs have used Buddhism to signal inclusivity without providing the opportunity for genuine diversity in group ritual.


Lineage and Adaptation in a Transnational Vajrayana Sangha – Christopher Emory-Moore, University of Waterloo

Euro-North Americans who encounter Tibetan Buddhism outside films and books are likely to do so at a meditation class or ritual event organized by one of a handful of transnational Vajrayana sanghas (communities) built around the authority of individual Tibetan lamas (teachers). The Tibetan founder of one such network, the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), has been described as a Gelukpa conservative for whom the faithful dissemination of the tradition has been far more important than its modernization. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s NKT has even appeared fundamentalistic in recent loud protests defending a sectarian Gelukpa protector deity outside the Dalai Lama’s public teachings. Despite these signs of parochialism, in just twenty-five years the NKT has developed a congregational presence in forty countries from Argentina to Sweden to Taiwan. The organization’s fairly rapid globalization has forced Gyatso and his disciples to confront questions about how, and how much, to adapt inherited Gelukpa lineage to the global conditions of modernity (e.g. religious pluralism, capitalist economics) and to the local socio-political contexts of new mission fields. This paper offers a brief overview of this new Buddhist movement’s evolving relationship to its source tradition, the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, by surveying some of their more conspicuous continuities and divergences. I argue that the NKT’s approach to modernization combines selective strategies of institutional detraditionalization and denominational retraditionalization. On the one hand, the movement’s abolishment of tulku recognition, establishment of electoral succession, reformation of ordination, and increased authority of laity and women are all aspects of democratization reflecting the NKT’s modernist openness to institutional reform. On the other hand, the NKT’s fundamentalistic orientations in doctrine and lineage identity can be viewed respectively as reactionary protections of the dual dimensions of Vajrayana lineage itself – scripture and realization – against their perceived degeneration in diasporic Tibetan Buddhism.


Film and Discussion

Teesri Dhun (Third Tune) and the Politics of Knowledge Mobilization Among Transgender Communities in Pakistan - Shahnaz Khan, Wilfrid Laurier University

Teesri Dhun, a documentary theater project in which six khwaja sara, or transgender individuals, and four cisgender individuals enact their desires and struggles in contemporary Pakistan is an example of the politics of knowledge mobilization. It was first staged at Alhambra Hall, Lahore, March 19-20, 2015, to capacity crowds in a 250 seat auditorium, and then again in the spring of 2016 at the Institute of Sacred Music, Yale University, and at the University of Texas-Austin. The performances drew on research undertaken by myself and Claire Pamment, and were funded by the Social Science Humanities and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Our research suggests that legacies of colonial laws and indigenous reformist and nationalist prejudice continue to marginalize transgender communities in contemporary Pakistan. Spirituality also plays a critical role in the performance. Among other things, khwaja sara claimed religious legitimacy for their lives and choices from chapter 42, verses 49-50 of the Qur’an, which can be read as a recognition of individuals created by God outside of the male-female gender binary. The recital of the Qur’anic verse, along with accompanying dialogue, serves to remind the audience that commonly used readings of the Qur’an in earlier times allowed khwaja sara to negotiate the public space with ease and dignity.

 The performance strengthened a feminist commitment to intersectionality and facilitates a shift from the discursive to the performative, and, in the process, validated a feminist praxis, melding theory and practice while highlighting a form of research that gave back to the community.

Finally, in developing this theoretical and performative framework, Teesri Dhun sought not only to confront Muslim audiences in Pakistan, but also, through their performances in the United States, to challenge the hegemonic perceptions of third-world minorities as victims and voiceless objects of research who need to be saved from their cultures.



Keynote Speaker: Peter Beyer, University of Ottawa

Religious and Nonreligious Diversity: How will they be equal and how equal will they be?

The presentation explores the current discussions about religious diversity by asking two interrelated theoretical questions: 1) to what extent is religious diversity in our world discrete or continuous? and 2) how can religion and nonreligion be equal or treated equally if that latter is not simply a species of the former? The analysis offers various ways of answering these questions and then translates them to concrete empirical circumstances, using primarily Canadian cases as examples. Possible provisional conclusions suggest that the privileging of the category of religion is very likely to continue in some form for quite some time; that within that privileging, discrete religious diversity will continue to receive the primary recognition; and that the question of the equal treatment of nonreligion will mostly continue to translate itself into the removal or neutralizing of religion from the so-called public sphere and perhaps the partial and continued attenuation of the privileging of religion. 

Roundtable - The Role of Religious Studies in the Age of Trump 

Panelists: Jeff Wilson, University of Waterloo; Pamela Andrews, Wilfrid Laurier University; Carmen Celestini, University of Waterloo; Amarnath Amarasingam, Institute for Strategic Dialogue

We envision a roundtable of different perspectives and research foci that discusses key questions, with strong participation by the audience in both generating questions for the panel and debating the issues themselves. Anticipated questions for the session include: 

1. Do you fear that your research may be misused by reactionary administrations, such as to identify targets for surveillance/persecution, or that it may be twisted to appear to lend support to discriminatory policies?

2. Are you concerned that you yourself might be targeted by reactionary administrations, or their para-administrative networks of online trolls and real-life belligerents?  What experiences have you already had with such attacks, and how have you and your institutions dealt with them?

3. Do you alter your research methods or publications in such political environments as we currently see in the USA?

 4. Is it ethical to present our research in non-free states, such as the USA post-immigration ban, when scholars from other countries are denied due to their ethnicity and religion? Does refusal to attend such events cause more harm than good?

 5. Should research in Religious Studies be approached dispassionately, or is there a role for activism?  If scholars become activists, do they lose their credibility?  What is gained, and what is lost?

6. Should graduate training in Religious Studies be altered to respond to the changing environment for our work? Do graduate programs have a responsibility to prepare students for work in the new conditions? If so, how should they do this?



Religion and Engagement 

Re-Negotiating Equality to Engage Diversity: Examining the Hermeneutics of Social Engagement in Two Contemporary Advaita Movements - Reid B. Locklin, University of Toronto (St. Michael’s College)

In his influential 1998 essay, “The Dualism of Non-Dualism,” Lance Nelson observed that the teachings of Śañkara and classical Advaita so sharply devalues the diversities of the phenomenal world in relation to the absolute equality of brahman that they offer few resources for constructing an ethic of social and ecological justice. In my paper, I propose to examine two different attempts to motivate Advaita teaching for precisely such a purpose: the Natural Law Party and Global Country of World Peace, rooted in Transcendental Meditation; and Anantanand Rambachan’s recent articulation of a Hindu Theology of Liberation, rooted in the traditionalist Arsha Vidya paraṃparā. As hermeneutic projects, both break significantly from Swami Vivekananda’s well-known “tat-tvam-asi ethic,” insofar as they attempt to revalorize the natural and social world as a whole in relation to the absolute reality of brahman. The result, in both cases, is a vision of social concern that moves beyond vague affirmations of the ontological equality of all conscious beings to collective political action. At the same time, the imagined—and in some cases embodied—forms of such collective action are shaped differently in each case. For TM, relative realities can and should be harmonized with the transcendent reality of brahman, creating the possibility of direct intervention in the world through meditative discipline. For Rambachan, brahman’s relation to the natural world is one of correlation and correction, transforming the Advaitin’s perspective on social action, but not the historical character of such action itself. Both, I contend, represent legitimate, distinctively post-modern engagements of Advaita tradition with contemporary questions of social and ecological injustice.


“Not in Believing, But in Being and Becoming:” Spirituality and Embodied Practice at Greenacre-on-the Piscataquash - Seren Gates Amador, Syracuse University

This paper considers Sarah Farmer (1847-1916), the founder of the Greenacre Summer Conferences, the site of an intellectual and spiritual inquiry that, from 1894, hosted a program of lectures and classes which promised to “quicken and energize the spiritual, mental and moral natures, and give the surest and  erenest physical rest.” At Greenacre, new religions like the New Thought, Baha’i (founded only a few years earlier), and spiritualism mixed and mingled with older religions –Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroaster, Judaism – and sought to transform them all into something new, something that looked to a global community, a common sympathy and cause for humanity, a practical solution for social problems around the world.

This paper will consider the connection between body and mind at the Greenacre Conferences under Sarah Farmer (1894-1906), specifically using Farmer’s theological imagination as a lens to understand the unruly and individualized activities at Greenacre. Though inspired by the inter-religious dialogue begun at the World’s Parliament of Religion, Greenacre was equally about bodily practices:  whether experimenting with Raja Yoga under the tutelage of Vivekananda, mental healing, social and spiritual evolution, social changes like dress reform or the conditions of poverty, the connection between spiritual development and material transformation undergirded its philosophy. This paper will consider the role of embodied religious practice and understandings at Greenacre Summer Conferences through Farmer’s teachings about the power of the spiritual world to transform material conditions.


Ritual Matters: Changing Ontologies, Values, and Ecological Conscience Formation - Barbara Jane Davy and Stephen Quilley, University of Waterloo

The global expansion of the consumerism of the affluent is creating an ecological crisis of limits. Fifty years of environmental debate has failed to shift consumption into sustainable patterns. Mainstream approaches to promoting ecologically responsible behaviour typically assume that individuals will respond rationally to economic incentives, appropriately framed arguments, and/or scientific knowledge, but knowledge does not lead to ecologically responsible behavior in a straightforward way.  Scholars of religion following Lynn White Jr. (1967) typically focus on world view to explain ecological behaviour, or lack of it, but Roy Rappaport (1968, 1979, 1999) indicates that ritual is the key to understanding ecological behaviour.  Integrating Rappaport’s understanding of ritual with a processual understanding of ontology following Norbert Elias (2000, 2001) suggests that reviving ritual practices may be an effective way to motivate ecological conscience formation in modern society. Building on Elias’ understanding of changes in human nature with changes in society, relational ontology, such as found in world views we might call “animist,” produces collective conscience formations that are ecologically sustainable through rituals embedded in what have been called “gift economies.” Removing the rituals surrounding the giving of gifts removed crucial informal governance structures from pre-modern cultures, resulting in a general collapse of meaning structures in modern market societies, producing a pervasive individualized ontology and what Elias (2001) calls “the society of individuals.” Market society produces people who think they act based on rational self-interest, but are actually swayed by those who employ tactics exploiting non-rational drivers of human behaviour, notably corporate advertisers who use this to create the desire to consume more than people need. A revival of ritual practices that re-enchant human relations with other than human persons, such as found in what Graham Harvey (2006, 2016) calls “the new animism,” can revive relational ontology and curb consumption.

Gender and Sexual Diversity

Essentialist and Queer Reading of Gender and Sexual Diversities In Religious Discourses: Competing Strategies for Liberation - Richard W. McCarty, Mercyhurst University

Historians have traced the rise of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community from the nineteenth century psychiatric categorization of homosexuality, and its diagnosis as a pathology.  Twentieth century identity movements in American urban areas sought to mitigate the pathological designation by organizing homophile organizations, from which the social identities “gay” and “lesbian” were born. As the gay and lesbian liberation movement became more prominent, it did so (in part) by partnering with religious organizations that affirmed the equality of same-sex love with its heterosexual counterparts. By the time the centers for psychology and psychiatry reversed the pathological diagnosis for homosexuality, the homophile/gay and lesbian movement was well on its way to include bisexual and transgender people as part of its social, moral, legal, and religious movement for full equality. As the sciences began to offer explanations for sexual and gender diversities, particular religious communities began articulating more sophisticated moral theologies that pressed for the acceptance of LGBT people (albeit with a significant emphasis on gay and lesbian persons). These religious arguments—especially found in Reform Judaism, mainline Protestant Christianity, and Unitarian Universalism—largely rested on contextual readings of scripture and sacred tradition, coupled with scientific explanations for sexual desire, as well as medical advice for sexual health. As Patrick Cheng has argued, such moral theologies (especially when articulated by Christians) followed four strands: apologetic theology, liberationist theology, relational theology, and queer theology. The introduction of queer theology challenged essentialist theories about sexual and gender diversities. As Cheng notes, queer theology arose from queer theory, whose architects assert that sexuality and gender identity “are not so much ‘fixed’ but rather socially constructed through language and social discourse” (Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, p. 36). As a result, some LGBT communities have reconceived themselves in such a way as to include queer-identified individuals, who understand themselves as non-conforming to established social-sexual-gender categories, and/or who assert that gender and sexuality are performative, not ontologically innate. This paper explores in what way the introduction of queer theory (and theology) has challenged equality efforts by the LGBT-identity movement, especially on religious, political, and social fronts. But as a work of constructive religious ethics, this paper will suggest that adopting the theoretical posture of critical realism allows for theorists and activists to draw on important insights from both essentialist and queer perspectives—a synthesis of which provides for new ways for LGBTQ persons (and allies) to conceive of social equality.

Citizenship in Transition: Tongzhi Identity in Hong King - Desmond A. D. O'Doherty, York University

This paper aims to illustrate the construction of tongzhi identity tracing its development from buggery to sexual citizenship and the effects the tongzhi movement had on the development of gay and lesbian rights, community building, and identity building in Hong Kong. Through examining three distinct waves within which the formation of tongzhi identity occurs, this research adopts a Foucauldian perspective of sexuality and an anthropological perspective of nationalism to analyze how the identity of sexual minorities in Hong Kong have been marginalized, problematized, and regulated by three areas of governance, namely, the Colonial Hong Kong government, the traditional Chinese concept of family, and religion (specifically evangelical activism). The concept of ‘sexual citizenship’ is employed for the purpose of highlighting and analyzing the campaign for activity-based rights, identity-based rights, and relationship-based rights on behalf of the tongzhi movement in its quest to decriminalize homosexual activity, develop a tongzhi community, and acquire the status of citizenship in Hong Kong, as well as the legal and social rights, benefits, and protection that come with it. The formation of tongzhi identity in Hong Kong has been directly influenced by the political, social, and legal battles fought by tongzhi movement in its quest for gay and lesbian rights, equality, and anti-discrimination laws and legislation.


Religious Liberty and Marriage: Equality for Heterosexual Women and Men Only? - Robert Smith, University of Montreal

This presentation will examine the permissibility and evaluation of religious arguments in courts of law, when determining whether or not the institution of marriage should be uniquely reserved for “one man and one woman.” The discussion will begin with an explication of the contemporary usage of the term “religious liberty,” as a right to act politically based on theological beliefs and interpretations of biblical texts. The examination will then show how the line between philosophy and theology is blurred, particularly when arguments appeal to tradition and natural law—which are often used in conjunction with interpretations of biblical texts—to justify the continuation of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Next, we will explore how courts judge these arguments, while emphasizing several salient points where their heuristic approaches and hermeneutical methodologies converge and diverge from those of theologians, academicians, and other legal scholars.

Ultimately, this presentation will elaborate the role and limitations of scientific perspectives in democratic decision making, which takes into account religious beliefs and interpretive traditions in determining the equality of hetero- and non-heterosexual relationships. In a world where religious neutrality is increasingly recognized as an impossibility, and where religion is gaining force in the governance of sex, the objective is to offer some suggestions for engaging ethically and objectively in relevant political debates.


Inclusion and Exclusion

Family, Church, Nation, Humanity: Social Identity and Inclusion in the Christian Doctrine of Resurrection - Steven Edward Harris, University of Durham

In the biblical stories of dead individuals being raised back to life, scholars have noted how the narratives are concerned to highlight the return of the resurrected to their families. In the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, children are returned to their parents (1 Kgs 17:23; 2 Kgs 4:36); Lazarus is returned to his sisters (John 12:2-3). In Acts, the dead are returned not—interestingly—to their families, but to believers, members of the church (Acts 9:41; 20:12). The apocalyptic vision of Revelation pictures the “nations” partaking in the new heaven and new earth, with all redeemed humanity worshipping the risen Christ. This paper investigates how these various aspects of social inclusion are seen to be restored and transformed in the Christian doctrine of the final resurrection.

To do so, it evaluates the writings of Augustine (354-430), so influential for Western theology of the resurrection, for their adequacy in describing these aspects of restored social inclusion. First, it examines the vision Augustine describes having shared with his mother, Monica, shortly before her death (conf. 9.10). This experience with a family member resembles, second, the vision he ascribes to all the church in the final resurrection (ciu. dei 22.29). This appears at the end of a work dedicated, third, to a theology of nations and history. Thus, the paper attends to the absence of conflict and role of memory Augustine envisages, relating this to the “nations”. Fourth and finally, it probes his contention that we will each be able to see everyone’s thoughts (ciu. dei 22.29), asking whether he here takes adequate account of bodies as means of personal availability and social inclusion. The paper concludes with an evaluation of Augustine’s description of persons’ identity-formation by, and inclusion in, family, church, nation and humanity in the resurrection.


Imposing Identity: Characterization of Slaves in Canonical and Apocryphal Narratives During Late Antiquity - Joseph E. Brito, Concordia University

The following study seeks to question current research on Pauline metaphor of slavery (see Martin, 1990; Combes, 1998; Glancy, 2002; Byron, 2003; De Wet, 2015), arguing that the idealization of Christians as “servants of God” during Late Antiquity overlooks the portrayal of slaves in other literary genres. Although patristic literature may underline historical and social challenges that communities were faced with, these documents ought to be understood as prescriptive instructions given by Church leaders, as opposed to descriptive of how societies viewed the status and value of slaves. Rather than focusing on epistles, letters and oratories from apostolic figures and Fathers of the Church, the research will focus on canonical and apocryphal narratives that employ slaves as characters. This approach will demonstrate that the identity of Christian citizens and free individuals is often revealed through their ethnicity, social status, occupation, education, nobility, or wealth, whereas slaves are often characterized using their social status and gender. Furthermore, the plot development allows free characters to become round and complex, while slaves are limited to the passive role of flat characters. Characterization is therefore suggestive as to how slaves existed in the literary imagination of certain Christian communities. Although the depiction of slaves has recently been studied in selected gospels (see Hunt, Tolmie and Zimmermann (Ed.), 2013), these studies have not used their results to explore the socio-cultural landscape and the literary imagination of cultures in time and place. By problematizing current scholarship on the Biblical theme of slavery and the Pauline legacy of this metaphor, this study proposes an alternative lens that focuses on narratives as descriptive examples of how Christian communities perceived and utilized slaves, while exploiting and appropriating the metaphor of “slave of God” to validate suffering and martyrdom as an identity mark of Christendom. 

Hybrid and Hyphenated Identities: Examining the Role of Religion in the Identity Construction of Young Muslims in Toronto - Sana Patel, Carleton University

This Master’s research paper reports on the research and the findings of Muslim identity construction, in a specific Muslim diasporic community in Toronto.  It uses Homi Bhabha’s concepts of hybridity and third space to analyze the role of religion in identity formation of young South Asian adults in Toronto. Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with young South Asian adults and Muslim chaplains. This essay examined what factors contributed to their formation of a Muslim identity. Factors identified were: significance of religion, religious symbols, secular educational institutions, and family/societal culture and ethnicity. The results also indicated there is a significant difference between hyphenated and hybrid identities. This also led to the examination of the impact of stigmatization of sex/gender in the participant’s communities, and discusses exclusiveness. A growing trend of young Muslims using the Internet for religious inquiry was also found. Participants also discuss being Canadian-Muslims in the Trump era. Participants’ names will be replaced by “P1”, “P2”, “P3”, etc.


Muslim Refugees and Christian Charities: A Case Study of Refugee Resettlement in Rome, Italy - Shannon Boley, Hamilton College

This paper examines issues of refugee resettlement and integration in Rome, Italy through ethnographic interviews of Muslim refugees from Asia/Africa and Christian charity leaders. In the last ten years, large numbers of Muslim refugees have arrived annually in Italy because of its borders and proximity to Africa. A lack of resources and economic opportunities has made resettlement and integration challenging for Muslim refugees difficult in Italy. Catholic and Protestant charities often provide aid to them that the Italian state has not been able to provide in this predominately Catholic city. During my study abroad in Rome in Spring 2016, I conducted eight ethnographic interviews of Muslim refugees as well as Catholic and Protestant charity leaders. Based on these interviews, this paper analyzes the experiences of Muslim refugees in Rome, and how their interactions with Christian charities shape their view of Rome’s religious pluralism. This paper also analyses how Christian charities facilitate the resettlement and integration of Muslim refugees. In doing so, the paper will highlight discriminatory practices, incidents of confrontation, lack of religious recognition, and economic/residential instability that contribute to the feeling of being “the other” as a refugee and/or Muslim in Rome. Though the inter-religious interactions between Christian charities and Muslim refugees are positive overall, the Christian charities seem to maintain their Christian privilege while providing amenities and safe spaces to Muslims largely. 


Struggles in the Christian Church

Is the Crisis of Church Decline a Crisis of Whiteness?: Managing Diversity and the Revitalization of Canadian Presbyterian Worship  - Lisa M. Davidson, University of Toronto

Since the mid 1960s, the Presbyterian Church of Canada (PCC) commissioned committees and consultation groups to identify causes of church decline and provide directions for reviving a meaningful Presbyterian tradition for contemporary Canadian social life. Based on archival research looking at the crisis of decline at the national level of church governance, this paper first discusses the ambivalence between faith, tradition and identity located in church policy studies and considers whether the crisis is about filling seats (economic decline) or fulfilling individuals (spiritual decline). Secondly, alarmist accounts of decline may be interpreted as a ‘crisis of whiteness’ as the paucity of white bodies have shaped, and continue to shape, perceptions of a national religious identity in crisis. In turn, certain populations, specifically non-white, non-Anglo bodies are unaccounted for as legitimate participants of a Canadian Presbyterian tradition. Overall, the aim of this paper is to better understand the assumptions, inferences and assertions made within Presbyterian policy studies on the crisis of decline and how policy rationales offer a lens into the decentralized regime of the PCC in managing white identity and white privilege through the occlusion of racialized populations within the church. 


Inclusion That Squashes Diversity: Liturgical Revision in the Anglican Church of Canada - Cole William Hartin, University of Toronto (Wycliffe College)

This paper argues that the increasing pressure from within and outside of the Anglican Church of Canada to be more gender inclusive has a double effect; though liturgical change can foster openness toward groups who have not been explicitly welcomed into full participation in the life of the Church, it also serves to alienate traditionalists as well as some visible minorities (immigrants to Canada from other more traditional parts of the Anglican Communion, for example).  More concretely this paper will critically engage official documents in the Diocese of Toronto that press for gender inclusive language in worship, analyzing their intent and effect; the attention given to the Diocese of Toronto will function as a case study for the wider Church. By drawing on secondary theological works from the patristic period as well as modern ecumenical dialogues, this paper will suggest that moves to increase inclusivity in worship in fact move the Anglican Church of Canada away from the historical Christian tradition (as it was received and lived out by Anglicans in the past) as well as contemporary churches with whom it is in  ecumenical dialogue. Further, this paper will chart responses from within the Anglican Church of Canada from theological conservative groups and Indigenous peoples; these responses will serve as evidence to the way certain moves for inclusion have limited diversity within the Church. The goal of the paper is to argue that while liturgical revision for the sake of inclusion may be desirable, it must always be undertaken in way that does not exacerbate the exclusion of traditional Christians or ecumenical partners. The paper will end with a tentative proposal for creating opportunities for inclusive worship that have the least potential to sideline other voices. 


Awakenings: The Black Experience in the Episcopal Church - Gabrie’l J. Atchison, Trinity Episcopal Church

After graduating from Divinity School, I studied Protestant, African American denominations, or “The Black Church” – concentrating on the politics of gender and sexuality in Black Theology and in the worship experience. A recent move to Buffalo, NY lead me to an administrative job in a large, urban, Episcopal Church. As an African American woman in a predominately white church I became curious about the small number of Black families who are active, regular members of the congregation. I’ve since learned that there is a vibrant Black Episcopal church in Buffalo, and I wondered why some families would prefer to attend the church where I work while others would prefer and “all-black” worship experience.

African Americans, Caribbean Americans and African immigrants have a long history of carving out a space for themselves within the Episcopal Church.  Black Episcopalians currently make up about 6% of the Episcopal Church as a whole and worship in historically black congregations or as minorities in mainstream congregations.

I am currently working on a research project exploring the experience of Black Episcopalians in Western New York. During my presentation I will share results from interviews with clergy, lay leaders and parishioners and talk about my findings within the context of Episcopal Black Church history.  The study will attempt to address the following questions: What is the role of religion in the formation of racial identity? What role should religion play in racial justice?  How do Black Episcopalians experience being ‘Episcopalian’? How can we raise awareness about the Black experience in the Episcopal Church within Black Church studies?

How do contemporary issues like #blacklivesmatter, the election of President Trump, and the Installation of the first African American presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry shape the social justice ministry of the Episcopal Church as a whole? 


The Doctrine of Justification in Lutheran-Catholic Ecumenism: Reflecting on 500 years of Reformation and Repair - Joseph Morgan-Smith, Duquesne University

This year, on October 31, Roman Catholics and Lutherans will celebrate together the quincentenary of Martin Luther’s posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg—the unofficial commencement of the Protestant Reformation. This shared celebration will be an ecumenical achievement unimaginable just a few decades ago.

In this essay we will explore why such a simple act of hospitality and Christian charity shared between two Churches was ever taboo—why, that is, there was such a deep and abiding rift between Lutherans and Catholics—and how it has now come to be not only imaginable but actually penciled into the calendars of both Churches. Our enquiry will focus on one of, if not the central issue that lead the the schism: the doctrine of justification.

Our exploration will proceed in two parts: First, we will briefly trace the history of the doctrine of justification relevant to our discussion, from the Apostle Paul, through the most important Catholic statements of the doctrine in the patristic and medieval periods and Luther’s reformulation of it, to the sixteenth century positions as recorded in the Council of Trent and the Lutheran confessional writings. Then, in the second part, we will turn to the ecumenical movement, beginning with the Second Vatican Council. We will survey the dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in America and Germany, culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) and the recent Declaration on the Way (2015). Methodologically, we will interpret these historical reflections through the lens of what the Lutheran systematic theologian and ecumenist, Robert Jenson calls “the basic flaw in ecumenical theology.”


Presentation of St. John’s Bible – Cristina Vanin, University of Waterloo

The Saint John’s Bible is the first illuminated, handwritten Bible of monumental size to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years. All 73 books from the Old and New Testaments using the New Revised Standard Version are presented in seven volumes of approximately 1,150 pages.

The work of The Saint John’s Bible was done in a scriptorium in Wales. Now complete, Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, is the Bible’s home.

The signs of our times are important elements throughout The Saint John’s Bible. Strands of DNA are woven into the illumination of the ‘Genealogy of Jesus.” Satellite photos of the Ganges Delta and photos from the Hubble telescope were used to depict Creation. In Acts of the Apostles, To the Ends of the Earth includes the first vision of earth as seen from space in a handwritten Bible.