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‘Religion Unbound’: Jeffrey Stout on Emersonian Democracy

This post is written in response to Jeffrey Stout’s fifth Gifford lecture for 2017, entitled ‘Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God.’ It is part of his larger series, Religion Unbound: Powers and Ideals from Cicero to King that has just been delivered at the University of Edinburgh (May 1-11, 2017). My colleague Andrew Johnson is hosting the Giffords blog, where he has posted summaries of the lectures as well as links to the lecture videos. 

Professor Jeffrey Stout has offered a compelling account of Emerson’s importance for the pursuit of ‘ethical religion’. Emerson’s worthy provocations include an incisive critique, later adopted by Nietzsche, of slavishness and the herd mentality. He therefore seeks to evoke others’ ‘self-reliance’, characterised by the expression of ‘unauthorised thoughts’. In Stout’s convincing portrayal, Emerson is not thereby calling for atomised self-assertion; rather, non-conformity is the necessary condition for a ‘sociality of reason’ (in Terry Pinkard’s phrase) that can alone support democracy.…
 
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Self-Fashioning After Capitalism: Kathryn Tanner’s ‘Protestant Anti-Work Ethic’

This post is written in response to Kathryn Tanner’s third Gifford lecture for 2016, entitled ‘Total Commitment.’ It is part of her larger series, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, that is currently being delivered at the University of Edinburgh (May 2-12, 2016). I am working as the host for the Giffords blog, where I have posted summaries of the lectures as well as links to the lecture videos. The following combines my summary, which seeks to stay close to her own terms, with a critique I’ve since contributed to the discussion thread.

Kathryn Tanner begins by describing a corporation’s problem with securing ‘total commitment’ from its workers. A company’s controlling interest in maximising shareholder value means that each worker must provide constant, maximal intensity of effort in the pursuit of profit. It is so important to track, and motivate, such worker commitment that a company will even take on the costs of a surveillance system. Such monitoring can contribute to a worker’s motivation in that one fears for the security of one’s position or, alternately, hopes for an award of ‘recognition.’

These attempts fall short of engendering a worker’s entire commitment, however; ‘total’ compliance is required in order to maximise profit. Motivation through fear, or external reward, always leaves a space between the company’s demands and the worker’s commitment: one may prefer not to. The company could, then, try to ‘evacuate’ the will of the worker, creating machine-like responsiveness. Employees become a ‘blank interface,’ reacting only to the need of the moment (the call centre is a prime example of this). In such a scenario, the company pushes out ‘not just thought of anything else, but thought per se.’  …
 
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Mentoring Through a ‘Dark Night’

This essay is drawn from material presented during a mentors’ training event held at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh on January 25, 2016

In a series of letters to her spiritual director, Mother Teresa expresses the luminous certainty of her early sense of calling. For instance, an account from 1946 includes Jesus’ direct claim on her life during a train ride to Darjeeling: ‘You have come to India for me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far. Are you afraid now to take one more step for your spouse, for me, for souls?’ Having vowed utter abandon to God four years earlier, Teresa answered by taking up work on the streets of Calcutta. From that point, such visions and direct words ceased, beginning a period of darkness that lasted to her death in 1997. …
 
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© David Robinson, 2017