Lambert Zuidervaart sits down with Daryl Kinsman to discuss how the shape, scope and direction of research and scholarship have altered over the past 10 years.
Daryl: September 11, 2001 was one of those epoch-making events that changed not only the United States, but the whole world. In the 10 years since 9/11, how do you think research and scholarship in the West have changed, if at all?
Lambert: After 9/11 one of the things that happened was people started to think more carefully and seriously about the problem of evil. In philosophy itself it wasn’t much of an issue, but if you look at the literature that comes out after 9/11 there’s much more discussion about it. For many people that became a very pressing problem again. Many of the scholars who work in areas like religion, philosophy and literature, started addressing it more directly than they had for quite some time.
A second thing that has occurred is more emphasis on interdisciplinary study. If you’re going to understand what happened on 9/11, where that event came from and the consequences of the event, you can’t just be doing it in a specialized way in economics, politics, sociology or philosophy in isolation. You have to bring these disciplines into conversation with each other. It’s the kind of event that goes beyond the paradigm of any one discipline.
The third thing is there has been a little bit more reflection on the place of the Western academy. We’ve been forced to re-examine what it is we’re trying to do as academics and whether what we do has relevance and speaks to people’s needs. Discussions have emerged in Europe about what it is intellectuals can contribute to the growth of a society where different voices and different communities can be respected and given recognition, and yet still maintain certain values that are important in the West, such as individual freedom and democracy. There’s more self-reflection on the role of the academy as such. All of these things in some way were affected by the events on 9/11.
One of the things I’m always aware of is that September 11 is also the birthday of Theodor Adorno. He was a German Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and lived in the United States for many years, and then went back to Germany after the Second World War to help reconstruct German society and the German university. One thing that’s prominent in Adorno’s work is the theme of suffering. He said the need to give a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth. I’m not sure that would have spoken to many people before 9/11. But after it, particularly in North America, the notion that you have to give a voice to suffering and let it be expressed, but also try to understand it, has a lot more purchase than it did before.
Daryl: Following from what you’ve already said, we’ve seen a variety of voices trying to struggle with events post-9/11 in public discourse, popular media and TV. If that’s happening in the academy, too, do you think religion is more welcome at the table than it was or welcome in a different way?
Lambert: The status of religion in the academy is still ambiguous. On the one hand people understand the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the downing of a plane in Pennsylvania, had some kind of religious motivation behind them. That makes some people, especially some academics, wary toward religion, even though others would say we’re talking about a particular strand and interpretation of religion. Nevertheless the response of many academics is: If that’s what religion is all about, we don’t want to have anything to do with it, and we certainly don’t want it corrupting what is legitimate research, publication and teaching. But there are other people who say: If religion is important in the lives of people – both on the part of those who might engage in extreme acts of violence and on the part of people who try to come to terms with suffering, as you see in the many ceremonies, memorials and outpourings of support that came after 9/11 – then maybe we should pay more attention to it than we used to.
The other thing that has come up is a heightened awareness of the fact that religion as an organized activity, set of practices and institutional framework in people’s lives isn’t going to go away as the old secularization thesis suggested. For those who are committed Buddhists, Muslims, Christians or Jews the question is: What role should those commitments play in their scholarship? It’s something that at ICS and the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics (CPRSE), we continue to work with, because our tradition says these kinds of religious commitments need to inform our scholarly work and make a contribution in scholarship itself. There’s more openness, in a very general way, in the academy to matters of religion, but I’m not sure it has become an openness that has had a serious effect on the way people do their day-to-day scholarship.
Daryl: How would you see CPRSE itself fitting in, in terms of the kinds of activities it encourages or engages vis-à-vis expanding or modifying the role of religion in the academy and public discourse?
Lambert: CPRSE has in its title three main areas of discourse: one is philosophy, the other is religion and another is social ethics. We’re really concerned about how these three discourses intersect or need to intersect, but I think the most important way in which CPRSE can move along the discussion of religion and the understanding of religion in society is by focussing on issues of social ethics. What CPRSE can provide is a forum in which more robust and more substantive conversation over values and purpose can emerge along with a more natural way for us to refer to matters of religion.
Historically one of the things religion has provided is a deep sense of justice, hospitality and caring for the earth. The way we can contribute to having religion taken seriously, and also engaging in a critical examination of religion since it isn’t always a good thing, is to look at what it contributes to social ethics. Obviously there are differences within religions concerning the nature, importance and inclusiveness of justice, and the like. However, emphasizing social ethics and getting at some of the big questions of value and purpose – or in the tradition that ICS comes from, getting at the big questions of normativity, the big orientation points for human life, society and culture – would be a very good way for us to actually contribute to an examination and incorporation of religion into public and academic discourse. Because we’re a philosophical institution and a philosophical research centre, we can do that with rigour and awareness of the intellectual problems surrounding these issues that another institution might not bring. We have a strength here we need to draw on. This tradition of philosophical reflection about normativity, and philosophical reflection about ethics that goes beyond personal morality, professional ethics, medical ethics or business ethics to the question of ethics pertaining to society as a whole – that’s a good place for us to start and see where it goes.
Daryl: In an article for Perspective, Henk Hart argues forcefully for doing the unexpected in response to provocations like the attacks of 9/11, and other things as well, like the tragedy in Norway. His argument is religion should be calling us to respond differently, to do the unexpected, to respond not with more violence, anger and fear every time, but with something unexpected like reconciliation or forgiveness. Is there a role a place like CPRSE can play in shaping the kind of thinking that leads to one set of reactions as opposed to another set, perhaps a more useful set of reactions?
Lambert: It’s always tricky to figure out how an academic project can contribute to public discussion and social change, because occasionally the unexpected happens in the intersection between those two and in both directions. Sometimes what comes up in an academic area suddenly sheds light in a very unexpected way on something else going on in society, but sometimes something happens in society which disrupts the academic conversation and opens it up to a new insight. CPRSE should be ready for both and not think an academic discourse or research project is, in and of itself, able to shape society in a certain direction without society pushing back and having some tension, conflict and even new openings. So expecting the unexpected would be a very good stance for CPRSE to have.
On the other hand we do know some things about patterns in society and why people resort to extreme measures when they’re not recognized, feel threatened or have grievances because of long-term injustice or oppression. On those matters CPRSE should be helping us think through the sources of discontent at the individual, religious and economic levels. We need to encourage a readiness of the unexpected, but we also need to use what we have to figure out where things are at and how things need to change, and some of that needs to be long term. We’re not talking about any quick solutions at this point. I was just in Europe for three weeks and spent most of the time in the Netherlands. I was struck by how much of the discussion, especially in the Netherlands, surrounds questions of multiculturalism. That’s partly because one of the parties in the governance has an anti-immigrant stance and wants to revive some pure national character – both of which I think aren’t good positions to take. But they’re positions that resonate with a lot of Dutch citizens, and you can find a similar thing in many countries in Europe right now. When that happens it’s not enough just to say, well, we should just get along better and be more tolerant. We have to pay attention to why people feel threatened and disregarded, and why they want to somehow circle the wagons and keep people outside who are different than themselves, and then think about what kind of a society would be more inclusive.
A response to attack is not to counterattack, but rather to be open to what lies behind the attack, and to see whether we can actually have sympathy for the real human needs, the real human beings that lie behind an attack. That’s difficult, but the attitude is important, because the attitude of just coming back with an attack, which became official government policy in the United States, isn’t an attitude of generosity that would be in tune with the underlying impulses of most religions. Even though religion is trying to justify that kind of attitude, it’s not at the core of genuine religion to be hostile toward people, to treat other people as enemies, or to think you have to go on the attack against them.
Daryl Kinsman is Manager of Communication and Information Technology
Lambert Zuidervaart is Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics, and Professor of Philosophy at ICS
October 2011 >