Floating Academy: Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies: March 16-19, 2016

* The following is a guest post by Amy Coté, who is a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying theology and the Victorian novel. You can find her on Twitter at @amycote_ *

Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies. Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Waco, Tx. March 16th-19th 2016.

As I write this, I am on a plane somewhere over Oklahoma, en route from Waco, Texas to Toronto. Writing on a plane may be an all-too-familiar experience for many of us, but this time, I’m writing not a frenzied paper, but a conference report, which is an altogether more pleasant experience. I’ve just had the great privilege to attend the Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference at the Armstrong Browning Library in Waco, Texas. This conference was organized by Joshua King and his wonderful team at Baylor University, and offered 24 panelists and 5 graduate student observers (of whom I was one) a unique and inspiring opportunity to come together and discuss the broad and sometimes fraught category of religion in the nineteenth century from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

First, I want to say that as conference participants and contributors, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Josh, the staff at the Armstrong Browning Library, and numerous volunteers for showing us unparalleled hospitality in Waco. As we head back to our various home bases (from Toronto to California to Tel Aviv and London and Melbourne), I’ve heard several people remark that we will be at a loss to make decisions for ourselves again come Monday morning! From the moments we arrived at the airport, Josh and his team ensured our only job was to participate fully and enthusiastically in the conference, organizing everything from transportation to and from airports to thoughtfully arranged seating at every meal. All panels were single-scheduled and, as a condition of the generous travel funding offered to participants, all contributors attended every session (held in the beautiful Hankamer Treasure Room of the ABL, where the library staff had curated an exhibit based on the conference papers!). This incredible care made the Uses of Religion conference one of the most collegial, warm, and intellectually stimulating conferences I have ever attended, with lively conversations extending well beyond the panels and into meals, walks, and—of course—visits to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum and the Baylor Bear Habitat (when in Rome?).

This conference stated as its goal a re-visioning of the category of “religion” in the nineteenth century, asking panelists to consider how we understand—and how we might come to understand—religion and the secular in interdisciplinary nineteenth-century studies. Panels on topics such as “Reframing Religion and the Body,” “Forms of Conversion and Sanctity,” “Mediums and Practices of Religion,” and “Faith in Poetry” brought together papers from literary critics, historians, theologians, and religious studies scholars. I think it speaks to the quality of these presentations when I say that we were consistently out of time in question periods after panels; hands shot up more quickly than moderators (myself included) could manage.

As graduate student observers, myself and four others were in the incredibly fortunate position of attending a conference and listening to papers without delivering our own. In what may have been the highest stakes “reading comprehension” test of my academic life thus far, we were also asked to lead a round table with all participants and attenders at the very end of the conference, drawing lines through papers and panels to offer some concluding remarks on what we had heard and learned. To be given the symbolic “last word” on the uses of religion felt somewhat apocalyptic and necessarily fell short of capturing in any complete sense the significance of the work shared, but I was able to sketch out what I saw as a few of the major themes and questions of the conference.

First, as a literary scholar, I noticed the prevalence of questions about reading practices and ways we might understand how we “read” religion in relation to the “secular.” I saw two distinct but related trends here across papers, the first oriented towards book history and periodical culture. Kylee-Anne Hingston explored the way Good Words challenged notions of Sunday reading, mixing “sacred” and “secular” time in the form of the periodical; Mary Wilson Carpenter showed how family Bibles encouraged readers to encounter scripture “like fiction”, and Michael Sanders’ readings of J.R. Stephen’s The Political Pulpit series (yes: Chartist sermons!) reconnected the realms of politics and religion in relation to the labour movement. Related but distinct was a strong thread of papers that constructed theological understandings of how we understand reading itself; Richa Dwor introduced us to Grace Aguilar’s use of the Jewish concept of Midrash to approach fiction as an interpretive act; Miriam Elizabeth Burstein outlined anxieties about reading practices encouraged by religious novels; and J. Barton Scott explored Keshub Chunder Sen’s ideas about a new grammar of comparative religion. Charles LaPorte addressed similar questions somewhat self-reflexively when he interrogated the possibility of a truly secular literary criticism and close reading as an inherently theological exercise.

Second, I saw surfacing again and again questions about the potential mobility of faith and practice in productive tension with the idea of religion as divinely ordained and fixed. Multiple papers (by Stephen Prickett, Ilana Blumberg, Michael Ledger-Lomas, Mark Knight, and others) emphasized the fraught use of religion as category or narrative, susceptible to constant re-invention and re-writing. How might we approach these two aspects of religion—on the one hand, a-temporal and given, and on the other, contextually bound and open for revision—in relation to nineteenth-century studies?

A ticket to Robert Browning’s funeral

Currently on display at the ABL:
a ticket to Robert Browning’s funeral.
Photo credit: Amy Coté

Finally, I saw papers at this conference troubling the perceived homogeneity of religion in the nineteenth century. It seems that when we speak of religious plurality in the nineteenth century, what we are often really talking about is plurality of Christian denominations. While these differences certainly are distinctive and important, I was delighted to hear papers that revealed nineteenth-century religion to be a very broad and differently defined category; those papers investigated Jewish religion and practice (Cynthia Scheinberg, Richa Dwor), Hinduism (J. Barton Scott), Müller’s Sacred Books of the East (Arie L. Molendijk), and also rich denominational theologies (Peter Otto on Blake’s Moravian and Swedenborgian influences, Dominic Janes on architectural debates between Anglicans, Catholics, and Baptists).

I want to close with a final bit of good news. If you’re feeling sad that you missed out on this incredible conference, never fear! All conference proceedings were video recorded and will be available online soon (ish – I think we owe these organizers some sleep, first!). There are also plans for an edited collection based on select papers in the works, and you can look at much of the exhibit online here. Many of us were too busy scribbling notes to tweet, but there is a lively discussion consisting disproportionate numbers of tweets between yours truly and the official ABL twitter account online at #ablrel2016. The program is also available here. So, for now, I leave you somewhere over Michigan with fond memories of Waco and plenty of inspiration to get back to work tomorrow!