Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Humanistic Grammar of Virtues in the Academic Study of Religion

Right now, after reading Robert Orsi, Thomas Tweed, and Saba Mahmood I would conceive my project as looking into the dynamics of socially woven, fluid and embanked, personal relationships to dynamic presences experienced in/with the characteristics of virtue aesthetics (power, kindness, compassion, humility, modesty, equity, awe and wonderment, reliance, inter-dependence, self-transcendence, obedience, faithfulness, and holiness). The prism of virtue epistemology offers two significant features for research: 1) a language for identifying key features of how the religious talk about the goods they find in religious practices; and 2) it helps us to become more self-reflexive about the paradigms we are using to perceive, describe, interpret, and evaluate the objects of our inquiries and in turn broaden and deepen the values we hold dear in our secular-liberal project of the social sciences and humanities, …and, perhaps, engage deeper in the aesthetics of these virtues ourselves to be in turn – further transformed – by them; for, to be present in the world, means to be open and attentive to the possibilities of our work changing others just as much as those others can change us. To enter in an I-Thou relation means to be moved and carried by the dynamics of the engagement.
The language of virtues gives us a grammar to both describe the experiencing, doing, and consequences of religion, as well as to critically engage with our own categories used to conceive of our work without becoming beholden and constricted by any one. Thus, we will be able to conceive of a concern for power politics, manipulation, and coercion in our descriptions of the work of religion as much as a concern for human liberation and genuine acts of kindness and service to others. We will be able to see religious myths, doctrine, and ritual as much about a structuring and ordering of human actions in society as a capacity for positive change, transformation, and development.
The grammar of virtues takes on the insights of social sciences that contextualize notions of neutrality, objectivity, and detached inquiries with that of particular concerns and interests of the researcher (as articulated eloquently by Max Weber). It embeds the humanities once again in a humanistic tradition concerned with the advancement of human flourishing without asserting de facto the terms of that human flourishing; rather making a self-reflexive and conscientious contribution to that conversation. It embeds research in a compassionate engagement with the world in which, whether one is working on abstract algorithms for theoretical physics or the dynamics of community life in tenth-century Venice, in a world ravaged by issues of depression, suicide, war and bloodshed, poverty, famine, hunger, child abuse and domestic violence, political and corporate corruption, institutionalized prejudice and discrimination, one’s research can contribute to these concerns instead of stand back in an ivory tower to do research in the name of objective research – an action that virtue epistemology may name ethically irresponsible.
An ontology, aesthetics, and epistemology of virtues fuse ethics with action. With virtue denoting a power to do something (whether it is to think in a certain way, feel certain sentiments, or perform certain kinds of action) we can call a virtue a capability. Capabilities can be as specific as an ability to manage time in a day to complete each priority or to play moving music on an instrument, to as general as an ability to perform a kindness without thought to benefits of material or prestige for oneself, or to perceive with sympathetic concern the physical and emotional conditions of another person (compassion). My use of virtue will usually use capabilities in the latter, broader terms.

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