ISASR 2014 conference report

The third annual ISASR conference titled ‘Religion and Remembering’ was a two-day cross-disciplinary event held in collaboration with Queen’s University, Belfast on May 23-24, 2014. The theme, which was intentionally devised to be broadly construed, brought together 21 papers exploring this theme from various methodological angles and disciplinary perspectives. The group of participants encompassed established academics, postdoctoral researchers, and postgraduate students. The keynote address was delivered by James Cox, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh and was titled ‘Religious memory as a conveyor of authoritative tradition: the necessary and essential component in a definition of religion’. In this lecture, Cox analysed the various interpretations of the sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s definition of religion as a chain of memory. According to this definition, within religious communities remembered traditions are transmitted with an overpowering authority from generation to generation. In his presentation, Cox compared a rain ritual in which a medium becomes possessed by the chief’s ancestor spirit amongst the Shona of Zimbabwe with a trance dance performed as part of the programme of a ‘New Age’ spiritual centre in Connecticut, USA. In both examples, despite different social and historical contexts, it was revealed how appeals are made to an authoritative tradition to legitimise the rituals performed. This lends support, as Cox asserts, to the claim that the authoritative transmission of a remembered tradition, by exercising an overwhelming power over communities, even if the memory of such a tradition is merely postulated, identifies the necessary and essential component for any human activity to be labelled ‘religious’. This address was thought-provoking and particularly suited to the overall theme of the conference.

Nine panels, organised thematically, ranged from research into historical contexts to material religion to emotive identity issues and politics. Panel A1: ‘Using Memory Studies in the Study of Religions’ included a presentation by Alexandra Grieser on ‘“Discussing religion and memory the other way around”—theories of memory as building blocks for the study of religion’, in which she also explored Hervieu-Léger’s concept of ‘chains of memory’ and posited that it is interesting, in the newly emerging aesthetic (in the Greek sense of aesthesis or sensory perception) approach to the study of religion, to ‘turn the relationship between religion and memory around’ and to ask how theories of memory can help us in understanding basic structures of religious systems. Also in this session was a paper contributed by Yafa Shanneik titled ‘Religious practices and remembering: the constant (re)construction of religious narratives among Iraqi Shii women in Ireland’, which explored how memory can be viewed as the construction of social and cultural processes embodied within remembered places, objects and rituals; here ‘collective remembering’ was examined at the intersection of religion and social memory, by way of analysis of narratives from members of the Shii communities in Ireland. Panel A2: ‘Dynamics in Liberal Protestantism’ contained a paper by Brendan McNamara titled ‘R. J. Campbell and the “New Theology”: uncharted dimensions of a seminal discursive event’, which focused on Campbell, the Congregationalist minister at the City Temple in London in the early twentieth century and his postulation of a theology, which was regarded by some as part of a ‘new Reformation’, and also considered the influence of esoteric ideas and non-mainstream Christian ideas on Campbell’s formulation of his ‘New Theology’. This paper was followed by Kristen Nielsen-Donnelly’s on ‘The myth of accidental feminism: gender construction in a liberal Belfast congregation’, which took an ethnographic approach to gender construction through language in a liberal protestant congregation. Panel A3: ‘Remembering the Reformation in Scotland and America’ contained two papers beginning with Crawford Gribben’s on ‘Calvinism and the Scottish imagination’, which looked at the way in which literary historians have begun to work towards a reformulation of the impact of Calvinist aesthetics and ideas on key writers in the national canon and reflected upon the revivification of interest in Scottish Calvinism as a cultural phenomenon in contrast to the general background of dismissal as a culturally sterile phenomenon. Darryl Hart’s paper followed about ‘Calvinism and the American imagination’, which provided an overview on America’s love-hate relationship with Calvinism and evaluated how Calvinist teachings relate to the American temperament.

Panel B1: ‘Remembering and Forgetting’ began with Deirdre Nuttall’s paper ‘Keeping their heads down: shame and pride in Irish Protestants’ narratives about identity’, which was an ethnographic account of issues of identity among the Irish Protestants of the Republic, considered here primarily as an ethnic grouping. Following on from this, Tony Walsh presented his paper on ‘Silence and silencing: aspects of Protestant identity in the Irish Republic’, which explored traditional coping mechanisms in relation to the location of Protestants’ perspectives within the dominant social, ideological and political discourses in the Irish State, and examined the community’s self-perceptions in the context of today’s Republic, by way of a narrative research inquiry. In the next presentation in the session, Gladys Ganiel’s ‘Remembering “Holy Catholic Ireland”: responding to the clerical sexual abuse scandal’ looked at the clerical abuse scandal, and its cover-up, and the ways in which Catholics in Ireland are dealing with the revelations and memories of abuse, including the institutional Church’s responses and grassroots responses by individual priests; the paper considered the relative effectiveness of these responses and also explored some possibilities for public acknowledgement and healing, drawing on insights from the fields of conflict transformation and transitional justice. Aligning with the theme of forgetting as overlooking and disremembering, Brian Bocking’s paper titled ‘Forgetting to remember: towards an alternative Irish religious history?’ looked at the history of two pioneering Irish Buddhists, Charles Pfoundes and U Dhammaloka and raised questions about why, when, how and by whom each was forgotten in the first place, and also about why, how, and by whom they are being remembered again now. Panel B2: ‘Memory, Ireland and Beyond’ began with Malcolm Macourt’s paper on ‘Identity, memories, religion and the census’, which focused on the use which can be made of data from a new question on the 2011 Northern Ireland Census, that on ‘national identity’, in conjunction with the questions on religion; tentative conclusions were drawn concerning the identities adopted by those holding particular religious views and none, as well as consideration given to the use of census data more broadly in relation to how communities remember, forget, or re-construct the past. Next, Eoin O’Mahony presented his paper on ‘Religion, place and memory in Ireland: the substitution of ordinary time for higher time’, in which he examined how memory is employed in the creation of ‘religious place’, with reference to Taylor’s ‘higher time’, and how religious place, memory and time interact in the Irish context.

Panel C1: ‘Collective Remembering and a Sense of Place’ commenced with Eamon Adams’s paper titled ‘Remembering the past as an obstacle to building a future: the case study of Buddhism in Korea and its efforts to develop a new approach to contemporary society’, which dealt with Korean Buddhism’s endeavours to engage with modern society as well as its efforts to expand overseas and how these efforts may be being hampered by remembering the past; also examined in this paper are some reasons why Korean Buddhism’s influence is so lacking on the international stage, particularly with regard to the factor of Korean Buddhism’s tenacious insistence on promoting and remembering its historic role as ‘Nation Protecting Buddhism’. Following this was Oliver Scharbrodt’s paper on ‘“Karbala in London”—using a spatial methodology in researching Shii transnational networks in London’, which looked theoretically at how space is constructed, imbued with meaning, and extended beyond the mere physical presence, both synchronically with other places and diachronically with periods of the past through transnational networks and their collective memories; by way of this analysis, this paper introduced a new research project on transnational Shii networks that operate between Britain and the Middle East which intends to make wider methodological contributions, using this kind of spatial methodology, to the study of Muslim diasporic communities in Europe. Panel C2: ‘Memories, Museums, Monuments and Religions’ was a session devoted to memory and material religion, beginning with Colette Colfer’s paper on ‘Ireland’s “Indian Sculpture Park”—creating religious place’, which examined the religious significance of Victoria’s Way Indian Sculpture Park in county Wicklow and looked at how the designation of the park as ‘religious’ is dependent upon the perception and past, or memory, of the viewer or visitor. Following along from this was Suzanne Owen’s presentation on ‘The demise of the Beothuk in Newfoundland as “a past that is somehow still present”’, which investigated contemporary material cultural representations of the Beothuk Indians in art and museum displays, as well as literary portrayals, and how these depictions relate to issues of indigeneity in Newfoundland, Canada; focusing on the ways artists and writers reimagine the past for the present, offering as they do perspectives on contested histories, the paper also considered hauntings, visions and channellings of the Beothuk as a means of cultural remembering.

Panel D1: ‘Religion, Human Rights and Politics’ began with Olivia Wilkinson’s presentation on ‘Principles and progress: how religion can help us see the value of the human rights framework in international humanitarian action’, which looks at the situation whereby many international non-governmental organisations employ secular reasoning in their humanitarian activities and what leads such organisations to ‘miss the religious’ and why this may hamper their humanitarian efforts; to mitigate this, the paper demonstrates how a supplementary human rights framework could be used to add additional awareness of religion to humanitarian structures and how this can enhance the relevance and appropriateness of humanitarian action for affected populations. The next presentation in this session was Malcolm Voyce’s titled ‘Cambodians remember: did the Buddhist faith provide solace to survivors?’, which was based on interviews with local villagers in Cambodia in its inquiry of the understanding of Buddhism among survivors of the Kmer Rouge regime, their conception of Buddhist precepts and ways of life, and what memories about Buddhism served as a catalyst to provide spiritual refuge and moral solace; also considered was the fact that many survivors have to live in the same villages as their former tormentors, and questions were raised about how these people deal with memories of resentment towards their former persecutors. Panel D2: ‘Religion, Identity and Tradition’ began with Jenny Butler’s presentation on ‘Remembering the ancestors in Contemporary Paganism’, which explored some of the ways of remembering the ancestors in Irish Pagan religious traditions and how these remembrances are tied to the way in which the Pagan community collectively remembers the past; veneration of the ancestors through ritual was examined, particularly in relation to remembering and honouring the ancestors during the feast of the dead, or Samhain. Next in the session was Gillian Watt’s paper on ‘Language as a container of the soul: Gaeilge and contemporary Irish spiritualities’, which investigated the role and significance of Gaeilge (the Irish language) in contemporary understandings of spirituality in modern Ireland, drawing on examples from new religious movements like Santo Daime, modern Druidry, and neo-Shamanism. Also contributed in this session was a paper by Brigitta Kalmar on ‘Hindu arranged marriages in India’, which examined changes in the tradition of arranged marriages in India, including the new category of semi-arranged marriage, and new types of matrimonial advertisements and matchmaking that reflect the evident change in desirable qualities of the ‘perfect’ bride or husband-to-be, transitioning from the traditional group values to an emphasis on individual values.

Each paper presented over the course of the conference addressed issues of religious identity, memory and remembrance, and as such enhanced the overall scholarly understanding of these subjects in various ways. The event allowed for reflection on these matters as well as networking and exchange of ideas between participants, helped along by Friday evening’s reception sponsored by The Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities where conference participants could mingle in a more relaxed setting. A landmark for the ISASR was the formal launch during the conference of the first volume of its journal, the Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (JISASR), which was accompanied by a speech by the Society’s President, Dr Patrick Claffey. Selected papers from the conference will be published in volume 2 of JISASR, which is forthcoming in 2015. Importantly, the conference brought together scholars to examine and discuss religions, from various academic perspectives, at a time when the study of religions as a discipline is establishing itself and steadily growing on the island of Ireland.

 

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