EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W101)

Epistemologies of uncertainty: locating (im)possibility, paradox, and doubt in mystical traditions

Location S202
Date and Start Time 12 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Andreas Bandak (University of Copenhagen) email
Nils Bubandt (Århus University) email
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Short Abstract

Mystical traditions imply a radical questioning of common-sense notions of reality, understanding, and being and an emphasis on paradoxes. This workshop explores the epistemologies of uncertainly involved in mystical traditions and probes the appeal of paradoxes in the contemporary world

Long Abstract

Anthropologists tend to assume that humans generally are on a quest for certainty and security. When it comes to the study of religion, more particularly, it is often assumed that religion provides meaning and answers to the fundamental problems of human existence. Implied in mystical traditions, however, is a radical questioning of mundane or common-sense notions of the nature of reality, understanding, and being. Mystical traditions differ from mainstream religious traditions in that they involve a range of paradoxes which, rather than bringing meaning and certainty to its practitioners, tend to shake the ground beneath their feet and reverse standard orientations. Sufism, Islam's mystical tradition, to take just one example, encourages its practitioners to seek unity with Allah while simultaneously maintaining that Allah is beyond human reach. Sufism prompts practitioners to imitate the example of the Prophet while emphasizing the human limitations that make the realization of the prophetic ideal impossible.

This workshop invites presentations that explore the epistemologies of uncertainly involved in mystical traditions and probe the appeal of paradoxes in the contemporary world. What motivates an emphasis on paradox and contradiction? Do paradoxes serve pedagogical purposes and can they, in the end, be subsumed under the grander goal of enlightenment and existential wisdom, or do paradoxes linger, uncomfortably? Are the paradoxes of mystical traditions, in other words, amenable to functionalist and hermeneutic analysis or are other approaches necessary - approaches that might help us question the place of paradox, doubt, and the (im)possibility of belief in religion more broadly?

Chair: Mikkel Rytter
Discussant: Nils Bubandt

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

By the beard of the Prophet: imitation and intimacy in a Sufi brotherhood

Author: Mikkel Rytter (Aarhus University)  email
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Short Abstract

Based on a study of the Danish branch of the global Sufi-brotherhood, this paper explores the paradox of imitation and repetition as means of development and transformation in Sufis quest for intimacy, unity and certainty.

Long Abstract

The Danish branch of the global Sufi-brotherhood that call themselves Naqhsbandi Mujjadadi Saifi mainly consists of young men with a Pakistani background. As devoted travellers (salik) their internal spiritual development should be accompanied by a transformation of their external appearances such as clothes, language, diet, hygiene and morality. They attempt to follow sunna by imitating their Shaykh, the latest link in a spiritual genealogy (silsila) going back to Prophet Muhammad. The physical appearance and habitus of the Shaykh not only mirrors his predecessors; He also, like a mirror, reflects the noor (light) of the Prophet and passes it on to the devoted murids. But what is the authentic practice of the Prophet and how can one follow his perfect example in Denmark anno 2011? This paper explores the paradox of imitation and repetition as means of development and transformation in the Saifi quest for intimacy, unity and certainty.

Messages of unity, practices of discord: thresholds of certainty among the followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh

Author: Andreas Bandak (University of Copenhagen)  email
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Short Abstract

In this paper, I explore epistemologies of (un)certainty for the followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh. I argue that the experience of the miraculous not so much is to be seen in terms of different ontologies, as different epistemologies where thresholds of certainty circumvent standard orientations.

Long Abstract

Since late 1982 the Christian stigmatic Myrna Akhras on numerous occasions has received messages from Virgin Mary. Myrna also has been the source of miraculous healings as well as holy oil oozing from her body and an icon in her home. From the very beginning the messages have underscored unity [wahda], love [mahabba], and faith [iman] as basic tenets addressing not just local Christians in Soufanieh, the predominantly Christian quarter of Damascus where Myrna lives, but a worldwide audience.

For the followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh, as the phenomenon soon was named, the focus has been on how to spread the message of Our Lady of Soufanieh. This has been a laborious task which still is not fulfilled as lack of unity and even outright division and discord has been part of the historical legacy in the Levant. The followers of Our lady of Soufanieh, however, all have been touched by the messages and miracles and find a certainty in countering doubt and discord.

In this paper, I explore the epistemologies of (un)certainty for the followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh. Christian traditions with a mystical bend have often focused on the experiential path which takes individuals from certainty in the world to a radical uncertainty in the very same world, only to lead to certainty in God and distrust in the world. This, I argue, not so much is to be seen in terms of different ontologies, as different epistemologies; epistemologies where thresholds of certainty circumvent standard orientations.

"When implausibility leads to chosenness and chosenness seems plausible": mythical assertions in Jewish-Israeli scientific and technological creativity

Author: Yoel Tawil (Ben-Gurion University)  email
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Short Abstract

I argue that the paradox that contrasts the success of scientific and technological Jewish-Israeli creativity with its unsupportive geopolitical environment promotes the public assertion of Jewish chosenness and overpowers certain private epistemological uncertainties in this regard.

Long Abstract

I argue that paradox, in the case of the numerous and widely celebrated scientific and technological Jewish-Israeli creative achievements in Israel, is a key player in the arising of mythical impetuses and fantastical assertions.

The paradox that lies at the heart of this celebrated creativity emphasizes its impressive and successful emergence in spite of Israel's geopolitical challenge-ridden environment. Ethnographic findings show that a strongly fantastical element pervades the public sphere which, on the one hand, promotes the construction of a fictional-historical narrative of miraculous transcendence that establishes an inherent implausibility in Israel's creative success story, and, on the other, dissipates the tension between implausibility and achievement through the simultaneous display of implausibility with various Jewish symbols, thus evoking traditional cultural myths and fantastical theological notions of superiority, chief among them is the mythical cultural key symbol of (intellectual) chosenness - the Jewish genius.

In private interviews, Israeli inventors and entrepreneurs (the chosen), thrown off balance by the paradox but devoid of alternative explanations for Israeli creative exploits, express an uncomfortable and reluctant acceptance of the myth of chosenness. Through the public ideology and private ontologies' mutual engagement and despite chosenness' fantasticality, these social actors' critical uncertainties are overpowered and their epistemologies oriented towards state-supported mythical and mystically flavored explanations.

This presentation shows that paradox can be used by institutional power to mediate between a mythical cultural reservoir and state-supported narratives through which the Israeli scientific and technological context becomes imbued with a cultural fantastical spectre.

Asceticism as a source of alternative epistemology in Eastern Christianity

Author: Alina Bakunina  email
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Short Abstract

The purpose of the paper is to discuss certain ascetic practices in the Orthodox Christian tradition that give rise to alternative ontological states and epistemic structures.

Long Abstract

The purpose of the paper is to discuss central to Orthodox Christianity ascetic practices, e.g. hesychasm, that are oriented towards ontological transformation of man. Parallel to the process of ontological transformation is the restructuring of the epistemic structures of the practitioner. With reference to Orthodox Christianity, I will argue that ascetic practice if not deconstructs then certainly undermines the practitioner's habitual cognitive schemas, causing epistemic dissonance. On the one hand, such epistemic dissonance may serve as a source of anxiety and disquiet about the 'hidden' or 'revealed' dimensions of reality, and on the other - as a basis of re-enchantment with the world, injecting modern existentialism with a life-affirming worldview.

Productive doubt, or how Romanian Orthodox monastics cope with disruptive divinity

Author: Alice Forbess (London School of Economics)  email
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Short Abstract

Orthodox monasticism, a self-consciously mystical tradition, valorises doubt as a pedagogical tool by linking it to humility and turning it into a safeguard against pride. What are the results, in intellectual and institutional terms, of a sustained commitment to embracing the paradoxical?

Long Abstract

This paper examines how doubt and chaotic disruption are harnessed by Romanian Orthodox monastics to become productive forces in their quest for an unmediated knowledge of the divine. The consequence of understanding God as both immanent and truly alter to the created world is the uncomfortable expectation that his presence will rupture any human paradigm of power. Whilst many intellectual and moral traditions cope with the threat of chaos by seeking to eliminate all ambiguity and ambivalence, seen as essentially destructive, such disruptive but also creative forces are sometimes embraced, and open-endedness valued. Arguably 'exclusivist' and 'inclusivist' dynamics exist within all intellectual traditions, and I argue that the examination of their interplay is a fruitful analytical avenue for exploring religious epistemologies. Romanian Orthodox monastics take the word mystical to mean 'hidden', a reminder that divine (and scriptural) truths can not be accessed by means of human discursive reasoning, but rather only through the intervention of divine charisma. This meaning is different from, though related to, the usage that assimilates mysticism to ecstatic forms of religiosity, often characterised by paroxysms of emotion triggered by revelatory experiences. Mystical knowledge (said to be 'true' knowledge) does not work by reduction and abstraction, gradually shrinking the category of the unknown and vexing. Rather, to 'know' God one must learn to live with the constant tension of the paradoxical, gradually coming to see it less as a source of discomfort and more as a valuable entry point to the presence of the divine.

The paradoxes of money: faith and gold in a Sufi order

Author: Nils Bubandt (Århus University)  email
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Short Abstract

Shaykh Abdal-Qadir-As-Sufi heads a global Sufi order that works to restore the gold dinar as a new global currency. The goal is to make ‘real’ money the bridge between the rules that govern the outer world and the path to mystical unity with God. The paper explores the paradoxes of this goal and its links to other anti-capitalist forms of protest.

Long Abstract

Shaykh Abdal-Qadir-As-Sufi heads a global Sufi order that works to restore the gold dinar as a new global currency. The rebirth of a gold-based economy is, according to the followers of the order, the only way that Islam can be restored and the proper conditions for unity with God be realised. The road to God depends, in other words, on gold. The paper describes the movement's goal of mystical union with God through a revolution of the world economy - a goal of making 'real' money the bridge between the rules that govern the outer world (fiqh) and the path to mystical unity with God (tawhid). The paper explores the paradoxes of this goal and how it, in a wake of a global financial crisis, is forging unlikely links to other anti-capitalist forms of protest.

Tempering Tertullian: reason and/or revelation in Pacific Russia

Author: Dominic Martin (University of Cambridge)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper details the ecclesiological responses of an 'Old Believer' community to the epistemic uncertainty sparked by the clash between individuals' mystical religious experience and the fractured Post-Soviet religious field.

Long Abstract

For his famous paradox ('I believe because it is absurd'), Tertullian is usually considered the theological forefather of a Christianity grounded in faith alone. To the extent that Christianity bases itself on such affirmations of pure faith there is, according to Bernard Williams, an incomprehensible element at its core. Because of the inherent difficulty in conveying the concrete content of 'belief', it is nye-impossible to find a criterion that logically distinguishes belief from unbelief. As a corollary: 'If we cannot characterize the difference between belief and unbelief, we may not be able to characterize the difference between orthodoxy and heresy (Williams 1968).'

During the tumultuous 1990s some inhabitants of the Russian Far East experienced a religious awakening that was provoked by dreams or visions, and which started them on a search for religious truth. But the lack of depth of religious tradition in this region, combined with the vast influx of foreign missionaries, presented these spiritual voyagers with a bamboozling array of religious choice. Yet how to sort out truth from falsehood, orthodoxy from heresy? This paper, which draws on 18 months fieldwork, will describe a revival of Ancient Orthodoxy that, since 1992, has battled with the epistemic murk thrown up by a particularly acute case of Tertullian's paradox, in which neophyte zeal (stemming from myriad mystical experiences) has outstripped the available institutions of religious agreement and worship. Such a mismatch has led often to the breakdown of doctrinal consensus and, subsequently, schism.

Metaphors and paradoxes: secrecy, experience and embodiment in the Sufi mystical initiation in Aleppo, Syria

Author: Paulo Pinto (Universidade Federal Fluminense)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper analyzes how both secrecy and revelation, which are central to the mystical tradition of Sufism, are constructed and enacted in the process of initiation (tarbiya) into the mystical path in two Sufi zawiyas (ritual lodge) in Aleppo.The analysis will compare these two zawiyas in order to show the points in common and the differences.

Long Abstract

This paper analyzes how both secrecy and revelation, which are central to the mystical tradition of Sufism, are constructed and enacted in the process of initiation (tarbiya) into the mystical path in two Sufi zawiyas (ritual lodge) in Aleppo. One is led by shaykh Badinjki, who is linked to the tariqa (Sufi order) Qadiriyya, and the other is led by shaykh Nadim, who is linked to the tariqa Shadhiliyya. The analysis will compare the process of initiation in these two zawiyas in order to show the points in common and the differences in their construction of the tension between the need to pass esoteric knowledge to the disciples and the necessity of, immediately, adding extra layers of secrecy to it in order to maintain its mystical value. In each zawiya the epistemology of secrecy is played and enacted differently. Shaykh Nadim uses the force of paradox as a disciplinary mechanism aimed to reconfigure the nafs (self) of his disciples, which are often faced with senseless or humiliating tasks as part of their process of initiation. Shaykh Badinjki emphasizes less the paradox of a revelation that announces new secrets than the metaphorical aspect of truth, which is only fully grasped when it ceases to be intellectually constructed and becomes experientially grounded. In both cases the initiation works through a set of experiences, which are mobilized to unsettle and reconfigure the sense of self of the disciples or to gradually individualize the disciple and reposition his self in the world.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.