What we can learn from exploring the dynamics between belief systems.
Encountering Traditions, a book series inaugurated at Stanford Press by Emily Jane Cohen in 2010, explores and reveals the dynamism of encounters that occur between and within religious traditions when tradition comes into contact with other ideologies—whether secular or faith-based. Below series board members Nicholas Adams, Jonathan Tran, and Rumee Ahmed answer questions about the series, its relevance, and their future hopes for this milieu of scholarship.
The Encountering Traditions series explores, among other things, cultural contact between differing belief systems and ideologies—to what extent does this theme feature in your own life, academically or otherwise?
NICHOLAS ADAMS: The concern with encounter in the Encountering Traditions series is crucial in two ways. First, it speaks to the importance of making sense of relationships between traditions, as well as clarifying the concerns that show up discretely within each tradition. But second, and more radically, it makes explicit the ways in which each tradition has been, and continues to be, shaped by its encounters with other traditions. To make sense of my tradition (Anglican Christianity) is to make sense of its historic encounters, with Roman Catholicism in Britain, as well as with so-called dissenting traditions (Methodism, Quakerism, the United Reformed Church). Without seeing how my own tradition is shaped in these encounters, I will have an impoverished understanding of it. For me, “encountering traditions” does not just mean “there are traditions and they encounter each other”; it also means “we all belong to encountering traditions: to be a tradition is to be in encounter.” This is immensely valuable and vital for our contemporary understanding of religious life. There are many excellent series in the academy, both from university and trade presses—but I see the Encountering Traditions series as creating an important counter-pressure against the prevailing conceptualization of traditions as being discrete and independent.
Under your stewardship, how do you hope to see the series develop in the future? What types of scholarship are you most interested in spotlighting?
JONATHAN TRAN: Our series invites readers to encounter traditions, and so what is meant by “tradition”? We might understand “tradition” to be of at least three kinds. First, we might conceive of a tradition, tradition as a proper noun, for example, “the Christian Tradition” or “the Talmudic code as a Mosaic tradition.” In this vein, I hope the series will produce monograph studies that describe with great detail and sophistication specific traditions and their respective modes of thought, especially how those modes come to bear on pertinent questions of concern. Second, we might think of traditioned reason, the discursive habits passed on from one generation to the next as bearers of tradition think their way out of the present. Here, the series might offer monographs that analyze how a tradition negotiates its commitments as it receives the past in the present and navigates the future in continuity and discontinuity with its past (for example, the meaning of the hijab for Sunni Muslims living in post-secular contexts). Third, we might imagine tradition in an expansive sense, as an ecosystem, a whole host of ways humans signify their environments through natural conventions by which human animals, quoting Maurice Merleau-Ponty, sing the praises of the world, and here I would hope for works that portray human life in the world through its deposits of culture.
NICHOLAS ADAMS: I hope the series will encourage authors who are determined to explore each tradition as an “encountering tradition,” and also pay attention to the deep theological self-understandings that are expressed and transformed in these encounters. I see the series as honoring and disseminating the work of established authors who grasp the centrality of encounter, as well as encouraging and nourishing younger figures who are developing their intellectual interests in this area. There are two kinds of scholarship that are particularly important for this series, in my view. The first is work by scholars who approach a variety of questions where encounter is already a central category. David Burrell's Knowing the Unknowable God from 1992 (which predates this series) is a model of this kind of work. I hope we can commission more work of this kind and quality. The second is work by those whose work does not normally feature encounter so centrally, but where in relation to certain questions they investigate, it shows up occasionally with particular clarity.
I hope we can capture those moments and bring them into conversation with others. For me, this series has great potential to bring scholars with a focus on one tradition (say, Islam) into contact with those with a focus on another (say, Judaism), where there is overlap of conceptual and material concerns. The study of religion in the academy tends to obstruct this kind of contact, because we so often conceive and investigate our traditions as discrete and separate. I hope we can publish and promote work that removes these obstructions.
RUMEE AHMED: The Encountering Traditions series highlights the vibrancy, complexity, and creativity of religious traditions in various contexts, from American political theology to South Asian Islamic philosophy. Such vastly different subjects are normally studied in separation, but the series demonstrates that they can be read together to mutual benefit. Through the series, we learn that the boundaries we place upon religions and religious traditions are largely of our own making. If we allow our imaginations to transcend these boundaries, then we think of the inner relations and interrelations of religious traditions anew. I am excited for this series to showcase works that challenge us to think differently about religious beliefs and practices, not only by reexamining their historical contexts, but by pointing us to where they might go and how we might think of them in the future.
Why is it important to explore the dynamics between traditions—whether religious or secular, mainstream or marginal? What does this series accomplish by interrogating these connections?
RUMEE AHMED: Traditions and dogmas, whether religious or secular, have always been interconnected, whether their connections are acknowledged or not. Explicitly examining their inherent connections helps us to understand both traditions and their practitioners in their inescapably dynamic contexts as partners in our own self-understanding, rather than as static objects of study. These interactions give us a chance to reflect on our own beliefs and practices; particularly how and why we facilitate—or stand in the way of—fruitful exchange. Studying these points of contact has helped me to understand my own beliefs and biases, to recognize my privileges and blinders, and to appreciate the human aspect of social interactions at every level.
JONATHAN TRAN: If you take, as I do, difference to be among the chief animating questions of intellectual and political life, the status of the connections between traditions is not only important, but all important. Imagine that at the point of contact between traditions any number of things can happen, from mutual learning to disregard to animosity. At its most ambitious, this series identifies and assesses those connections, whether they be communions or confrontations, for the sake of seeking out practical and theoretical ways of sharing life together at the fault lines.