I don’t find myself wanting to write too much about the conference. Or, rather, I want to write about it, but there is a disconnect between what happens when I start writing and what I want to talk about. I’m having a hard time even reading the proceedings. I have definitely talked a lot about it, but writing seems to run a little counter to what I took from it.
That probably tells you more about where I am at right now than anything else. It is definitely not because there aren’t things to say or because the conference proceedings aren’t interesting. When it comes to the proceedings, at least, I have a good idea of why I am not reading them too vigorously. The proceedings are a good reflection of the workshops and lectures, but I don’t want to quite revisit them like that. Not yet, at least.
The conference was really about the heart for me. I’m frustrated that I feel self-conscious saying that, as if somehow the heart isn’t valuable in itself. I have been working to break down that weakness in myself that requires me to cite something to give it body and value, but when I get right up close to my heart? I want to reach for that textual armor.
Spiritual and religious study are so precious, but when I look to my use of it, it is undercut by contemporary habits of religious scholarship. A wedge needs to be driven between those two, between study and scholarship, because they are not the same. The virtues of study aren’t dependent on the habits of scholarship. I don’t mean to imply that scholarship is valueless, but its values can be insidious to study.
Contemporary scholarship is, for the lack of a better word, archaeological. It seeks to illuminate a past order on its own terms and relate them to the present through a series of discrete transformations. To do that, it frequently disavows the vitality of the present and the force of the future. There is nothing wrong with that on its own terms, but when it gets spliced into the life of spiritual study? I don’t like what it does.
When scholarship becomes primary for me, the future and the present recede toward the horizon. I can’t help but engage with some of this material in a scholarly fashion, so I will run around tracing the history and context of a religious movement, but when I come back to spiritual study? All of that stuff has to take a back seat to the animating forces of the present and future that want to make use of it.
I worry, too, when I look at the tradition wars that flare across the sidelines of our religious movements. These too often seem to appeal to understandings of religious movements rooted in scholarly taxonomies rather than their lived trajectories. When I hear someone appealing to the past to justify someone’s participation in a movement, I believe they are looking in the wrong direction. Instead ask, are we participating in a present and a future together? Ask, and accept that we don’t know the answer ahead of asking it with the whole of our lives.
When you ask about the present and the future, everything opens. It doesn’t mean that everything opens to you, but that everything flows outward toward a place and time in which we can come together, if only for a moment or a passing encounter. Sometimes, yes, this moment of encounter is only a moment. Sometimes, it is the beginning of a relationship that will stretch across millenia. But you can’t plumb the possibilities of that through just thinking about them or positioning them historically to each other.
Heritage and inheritance are powerful things, but they acquire life as they ripple outward and become entangled with each other. That’s one of the key lessons of evolutionary thinking—our very bodies are shaped in dialogue with the bodies of being that were at one point alien to us.
The talk of appropriation and respect is necessary (absolutely so in the contemporary Black Iron Prison structures of empire), but we need to think past that point, too. Look at the body of nature and how the dialogue between beings takes place. With Deleuze and Guattari, let’s revisit the orchid and the wasp. Is the orchid appropriating the wasp? Perhaps, but get past that. Between the play of forms there is a slow communication, an invitation of one to the other. Let’s learn to look at imitation as invitation and consider what happens thereby, accepting that invitations can be declined.
Let’s think, too, about what that orchid and wasp game means. The orchid doesn’t sting, nor does it fly. It imitates a form but according to its own logic. Evolutionary thinking invites to differentiate imitation from identification. This space is almost playful, where the formal qualities of one thing are extracted and new possibilities for them explored. It can also bring what it imitates into the most intimate proximity.
All of this opens the gates to the invisible world, because the life of a thing can’t be merged with its material appearance or structure. There is a subtle, dynamic excess which seems to wrap the manifest being around itself toward its own transformation.