Visiting Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies
My research interests reflect a life-long quest for identity and meaning that began in my early childhood, in the context of which the postulation of the possibility of a reality beyond the relentless extinction of daily life was an existential necessity. Thus whilst I have, for example, authored, edited or co-edited books on the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, the Jewish Messianic-Marxist Ernst Bloch, religion and the transformations of capitalism, rhetoric and interdisciplinarity, contemporary nature religion (neo/paganism), time and value, sacred space and time, and Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences, all this has been informed by the role religious beliefs and spiritual practices have played in the making, breaking – and the remaking of my personal identity.
After a first degree in the first cohort to pass through the then innovative programme in Religious Studies at Lancaster University founded by Ninian Smart in 1967, I then had the very good fortune to study at Cambridge, Edinburgh and Tübingen with great teachers in what I would now unashamedly regard as a genuine Golden Age in European higher education. In the course of my career I have been Professor of Divinity at Scotland’s oldest university, St Andrews, and then held a Chair in Religious Studies at Lancaster University. These moves involved changes in my research interests and the curriculum I was required to teach, as well as transformations in my intellectual and personal identity.
It is my conviction that such terms such as ‘theology’ and ‘religion’ with all their disputed baggage are problematic pointers to dimensions of human life that, in what I would prefer to call the ‘shamano-ritual complex’, have existed since prehistory and would appear to have had evolutionary significance that humankind ignores or excludes at its peril. My present research interests are in part focused on the production of a book contracted with Wiley-Blackwell dryly entitled Religion and Social Theory: A Critical Introduction in which I seek to elucidate the transformations of the religio-spiritual field in the context of the global-local matrix.
Simultaneously, however, the core personal and intellectual narrative of my life since 1999 has been radically affected by repeated immersion in fieldwork in (e.g.) neo/shamanism, neo/Paganism, neo/Tantra, the deployment of ‘organisational shamanism’ and ritual processes as the means of ‘transforming’ employee and manager/leader identities, transpersonal psychotherapies, psychodrama, rebirthing, firewalking, Astanga yoga, sound and voice healing, and the initiatory men’s movement and ‘mythodrama’ with such figures as the poet Robert Bly and the theatre director Richard Olivier, and so on. I am also a founding participant in the BAHAR (‘British Association for Health and Religion’) project convened by my friend and colleague Professor Geoffrey Samuel of the University of Cardiff. Recently I have become much involved in the practice of ‘Conscious Living/Conscious Dying’ inspired by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and taught me by her former student the Irishwoman seabhéan Phyllida Anam-Aire, not least as I nursed my wife Audrey until she died at home of cancer in June 2010. This wide-ranging experience has involved the repeated surrender and monitoring of personal identity in the tradition of James Clifford and George Marcus’ Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography, and the more radical work of Sarah Caldwell in Oh Terrifying Mother.
For me the upshot of all this is a paradoxical set of questions. Is the study of whatever it is that the disputed term ‘religion’ and its cognates may refer to merely the investigation of a residual pathology, or are there dimensions of human behaviour better addressed through, for example, the study of altered states of consciousness and ritual that do have enduring and positive importance? Furthermore, if as the anthropologist Roy Rappaport argued, ‘Ritual is the basic social act’, then is the systemic separation between theory and analysis of ‘religion’ on the one hand, and competence in and the understanding of practice, on the other, not dissimilar, say, to divorcing musicology from music itself, on the assumption that the latter is in some way unreal, or crippled by its mode of representation and apparent undefinability? Thus as regards the ‘critical’ in ‘Critical Religion’ my project centres upon exploring the possibility that a fundamental critique of modernity might be grounded in ritual and its cognates.
The last postgraduate Masters module I taught at Lancaster was entitled Ritual and Spirituality. This not uncontroversially included both experiential and theoretical components: we undertook meditations and simple rituals and then sought to apply theory and analyse them. Whether this kind of project, that may involve, as Richard Schechner points out, the risk within ritual practice of psychological reduction to tabula rasa, is ever likely to be acceptable within mainline academia in which ‘Quality’ implies predictability and conformity with pre-determined protocols is doubtful. Nonetheless, I consider this is the direction in which we should move if the project of ‘religious studies’ is to survive as more than the deconstruction and analytical reduction of resurgent spasms in a residual human pathology.
Beyond academia, I have served on a project that investigated and sought ways of resolving congregational conflict in the Church of Scotland that reported to the 2008 General Assembly. This resulted in the establishment of a mediation service. I have also served on the budget centre body, the Ministries Council of the Church of Scotland and I will shortly be ordained an Elder in the Church of the Holy Rude by Stirling Castle.
To see all my blog postings on the Critical Religion website, click here.
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