On shepherding a religious studies list into being.
When Emily Jane Cohen joined Stanford University Press over eight years ago, there was virtually no focus in the publishing program on religion. There was no dedicated editor acquiring in religious studies, and where religious topics and the press’s publishing program did elide, the titles were rolled under the imprimatur of other lists, into philosophy, history or Jewish Studies.
Religious studies offer invaluable inroads into understanding the complicated fabric of human cultures.
Without a dedicated focus on this widely encompassing field, Cohen felt something was lacking from the press’s résumé of publications. Having focused on early Christianity as an undergraduate and having begun her graduate career as a medievalist studying apocryphal saints, Cohen believes theology and religious studies offer invaluable inroads into understanding the complicated fabric of human cultures—both past and present.
In particular, Americans as a group, Cohen points out, espouse higher levels of belief and religious participation than equivalent cultures in the West. That belief expresses itself in myriad guises from televangelism to orthodoxy to multifarious new ageism. Delving into the composition and modus operandi of beliefs, faiths, traditions, and related ideologies, unlocks avenues for understanding that are perhaps richer than other pathways, because such studies tap into mindsets that are at once deeply personal and eminently political.
Celebrity atheists, in the style of Dawkins or Hitchens, who fabricate all-or-nothing dichotomies that pit religious knowledge against science and reason, do themselves a disservice by checking out of important conversations. By denouncing or ignoring how people engage with the world on religious and spiritual levels, “you shut yourself down to understanding other cultures,” says Cohen. Driven by this conviction, not long after she assumed an acquisitions role at the press, Cohen attended a religious studies conference—even though the convention had long been dropped from the press’s conference circuit—and returned from her trip resolved to bring religious studies more firmly into the purview of the press’s publishing mission.
After convincing the higher-ups, she officially pulled the field under her acquisitions-focus, started making campus visits and cold calls, and gradually conjured from near scratch, the beginnings of a religious studies list. Today, in just a few short years under Cohen’s stewardship, that list has produced, many books ranging from investigations into Hindu-Catholic theopoetics, to Muhammad Iqbal’s magnum opus on religious thought in Islam, to this year’s latest offerings penned by senior scholars such as Shaul Magid, Mark Jordan, and Hans Joas. Cohen has also continued the press’s ongoing commitment to the field of political theology with a spate of titles from continental philosopher, Giorgio Agamben.
The religious studies list at the press also now boasts three newly minted series each with their own distinct approach to the field. The longest standing of these, Encountering Traditions, was inaugurated in 2010, and has three new books out this year (including treatises on Aquinas, Hasidism, and the American abolitionist, John Brown). Theologically driven, this list explores the collisions, co-optations, and instances of synthesis and divergence that occur when different traditions—whether religious or secular—encounter one another.
The middle child of Cohen’s religious studies series, RaceReligion, is anticipated to release its debut book next year. As the compounded style of the title suggests, race and religion are often intricately linked; teasing out and exploring these linkages—often expressed in postcolonial contexts, contemporary fundamentalisms, or Orientalist attitudes—is the chief prerogative of this series.
Most recently, however, Cohen has been at work formulating the launch of another new series—one that explores the interplay of anthropology, mysticism, parapsychology, esotericism, and what is broadly referred to as spirituality. “I’m pretty much convinced that no one is doing anything like this,” says Cohen, who rounded out her own graduate work with a thesis devoted to ghosts, the occult, and other spiritual experiences. She, along with series editors Tanya Marie Luhrmann and Ann Taves, have christened the new series Spiritual Phenomena. Intrigued by the term’s capaciousness, along with its rising prominence as an identity category—particularly in the United States—Cohen wanted to explore what “spiritual” means and has meant. “You know, it’s a Match.com drop-down category now—‘spiritual, but not religious’—what is that? What do we mean when we say that?”
These questions—questions of spirituality, cultural contact between faiths and ideologies, intersections of belief with empire and race—will, among other inquiries, provide the contours for the press’s religious studies program, moving forward. It’s an aspect of the publishing program about which Cohen is particularly excited—a field of inquiry that holds, for her, both professional and personal significance.