Interview with Hannah Strømmen

CTI Member Hannah Strømmen recently participated in an expert consultation on “Preventing polarization, building bridges, and fostering inclusivity: the role of religious actors,” which took place in New York City.  This meeting was an activity of the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development, led by the UN Office on the prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, and in collaboration with KAICIID Dialogue Centre, the World Council of Churches and the Jewish Theological Seminary. A participant in CTI’s Research Workshop on Religion & Violence, Strømmen was invited to attend the expert consultation in New York by Douglas Leonard, World Council of Churches Representative to the United Nations and member of CTI’s Board of Trustees.


How did your work relate to the event held at the UN?


Hannah Strømmen: I was very grateful to Douglas Leonard for inviting me to participate at this event and to CTI Director William Storrar for putting us in touch. The event was an expert consultation on “Preventing polarization, building bridges, and fostering inclusivity: the role of religious actors.” The focus was on religion and ultra-nationalism. I was asked to contribute to the first panel of the consultation. This panel framed the discussion in terms of providing definitions and the history of ultra-nationalism, the far right, and populism. The sacralization of politics and politization of religion were discussed along with intersections with gender dynamics in extremist nationalist ideology. My research is related to this topic in that I have been working on the role of religion in contemporary far-right ideology in Western Europe, particularly on uses of the Bible by the far right.


My paper, “The Features and Functions of a Far-Right Bible,” concentrated on the ways in which the Bible is used to construct a Western “us” against an Islamic “them.” I suggested that “biblical assemblages” is a useful conceptual tool for understanding the way far-right movements are using religion. An assemblage is a loose assortment of biblical images, texts, stories, and characters that comes together with the material realities and contexts in which Bibles have emerged. Talking about “biblical assemblages” denotes the fact there is no singular “Bible.” Bibles never operate alone. In terms of different Bibles, we can think here of the differences between a Protestant and Catholic Bible for instance, but also of the specific version of the 1611 King James Bible or today’s specially marketed Bibles for Teenagers or Study Bibles. All are Bibles but their textures and textual features differ somewhat. Additionally, more informal versions of Bibles are formed that emphasize particular passages over others and that emerge in particular contexts, such as the Bible used to justify slavery as well as the Bible that was formed in opposition to slavery. These Bibles are not only made up of emphases on different biblical materials but also of historical frameworks, philosophical assumptions, and material interests.


At this event, I highlighted the assemblage of the “Righteous Violence Bible” at work across far-right movements in Europe. This biblical assemblage is used by far-right movements to legitimate an anti-Islam position, situate themselves as righteous victims, tap into assumptions about culture as starkly delineated wholes, and play into fantasies of a reinvigorated masculinity. Even right-wing terrorists refer to this assemblage. In response, I suggested three avenues. The first avenue is an academic one: biblical scholars need to map the affective, material, and symbolic uses of Bibles. It is necessary to examine the way biblical assemblages function and gain traction. The second avenue is strategic: assumptions about “the Bible” as a benign heritage of Western civilization in contrast to Islam need to be challenged publicly, in the media, by faith leaders, and public intellectuals. The third avenue is inter-religious: it calls for coalitional alliances and comparative work between scholars, faith-leaders, and practitioners of religion to critique reductionist notions of culture and essentialist assumptions about religions as divisive.


What did you learn at this event, and how might it influence your future scholarship? 


Strømmen: I learned a lot about different approaches to nationalism, extremism, and far-right ideology. The academic input was fascinating. For me, it offered new points of connections with other scholars in the fields that are concerned with religion in far-right politics, such as the work of Ayesha Chaudhry on gender and Islamic studies.


What was perhaps most valuable was to learn about the perspectives and practices of faith leaders, UN representatives, and directors and members of NGOs. Hearing about the campaigns of “SHOULDER TO SHOULDER: Standing with American Muslims, Advancing American Ideals,” from director Catherine Orsborn was eye-opening in terms of how to build alliances on the ground to combat discrimination, hate-speech, and violence against Muslims. Learning about the work and writings of Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky on Jewish-Muslim relations in the US was fascinating.


Drawing on work like theirs, I am interested in exploring further how scriptures become part of motivating dialogue across religious groups, in resisting strong identity-constructions, and in forging alliances against discrimination. In other words, what Bibles are already operating that counter the far-right Bible? I learned a lot about this in New York.


How did your work at CTI influence how you approached this set of conversations? 


Strømmen: My work at CTI influenced my conversations in New York in several ways. My time in Princeton made the research I presented at the consultation possible in the first place. While I had begun working on the role of the Bible in far-right ideology before coming to CTI, the time there was invaluable for developing my work, both through independent study and in the workshops with colleagues.


The interdisciplinary conversations that CTI fosters and the focus on scholarship that makes an impact on global issues set me up to communicate my research to a wider audience than my own disciplinary field. The time I had with colleagues at CTI who were working in the field of religion and violence was particularly useful for prompting me to think about the ethics of research and the role academics have in regard to advancing both theory and practice.


Where do you see this conversation headed in the future? 


Strømmen: I hope to see this conversation heading in two directions, which will no doubt inform one another. The first is in my own academic work, where conversations I had in the consultation will continue to inform and form my own proposals. The second is in keeping in touch with many of the dedicated people I met over the course of the consultation. As a result of my participation in the consultation in New York, I was also invited to take part in the Second Global Summit on “Religion, Peace and Security: Building Bridges, Fostering Inclusivity and Countering Hate Speech to Enhance the Protection of Religious Minorities, Refugees, and Migrants,” in Geneva in late April. Participating in these larger discussions on this topic amongst academics, religious leaders, diplomats, and politicians is a huge privilege.


Interview with Olli-Pekka Vainio


Olli-Pekka Vainio is a University Lecturer of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki, Finland. His research interests include the history of philosophy and theology and contemporary philosophy of religion. Previously, he was a visiting scholar in the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford. His most recent publications include Religious Disagreement: An interdisciplinary approach (2016), Virtues: An introduction to theory and practice (2016) and Beyond Fideism: Negotiable Religious Identities (2011).  

Josh Mauldin: What led to your interest in the societal implications of astrobiology? 

Olli-Pekka Vainio: I have always been fascinated by space. On my first day in school, I went to the teacher and asked her when we would study astronomy. Her response was that I would have to wait five years. I was devastated. In elementary school, I read through all the sci-fi books in our town library, and tried to cultivate my interest independently outside of school. As I grew older, my interests gravitated towards more philosophical topics, and this changed my perspective on the stars. Slowly, I began to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of the universe. These are questions that require both philosophical acumen and the knowledge of hard facts. The borderline between these two ways of knowing is not always clear, which makes this inquiry especially interesting.

JM: What project are you working on this year? 

OV: C. S. Lewis was a popular author and one of the most well-known Christian philosophers in the 20th century, who wrote about the place of humans in the cosmos, as we now understand it. He did this in the form of science fiction, historical studies of ancient worldviews, and speculative essays. I have always found his approach very helpful as it combines both the contemporary scientific worldview and a deep appreciation of human experience.  Using Lewis as a model, I am writing a monograph on the effect of various cosmological themes for our worldview throughout the history. The questions include for example: How does our experience of the cosmos differ from the ancient Greeks? Does the size and constitution of the cosmos influence human significance? How might the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe challenge our perception of ourselves and our religious convictions?

JM: Could you give an example on how our view of the cosmos has changed over the years?

OV: The major change in the history of Western thought was the crumbling of Ptolemaic universe after the so-called Copernican turn. However, it’s not right to assume that the Ptolemaic universe was small, cozy and human-sized. It was not. Even if the measurements were widely off the mark, as phenomenological accounts they expressed an astonishment not unlike our contemporary scientific accounts: for humans, the cosmos has always been mind-bogglingly huge. For example, Ptolemy estimated that the distance from the earth to stellatum (the boundary of the physical universe) was 57,340,000 miles. Moses Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed (ca. 1190) contains the following illustrious passage:

It has been proved that the distance between the centre of the earth and the outer surface of the sphere of Saturn is a journey of nearly eight thousand seven hundred solar years. Suppose a day’s journey to be forty legal miles of two thousand ordinary cubits, and consider the great and enormous distance! [125,000,000 miles]…

These are distances which were impossible to fathom for a medieval person. Few people at that time travelled far from the towns where they were born. The Copernican model of the solar system confirmed that the universe is vast. To be sure, the Ptolemaic cosmos was a tidy cosmos where everything had its proper place. The cosmos was ordered and shaped according to a conception of perfect ideas. Orbits were simple, regular and perfectly circular. It was a beautifully designed machine, perfect in its execution.

Interestingly, in the Ptolemaic system the Earth was in the lowest place of value because it was the farthest point from perfection. Dante famously put Satan in the center of the Cosmos; human beings were his next-door neighbors. This was not a place of great worth. Nevertheless, the Earth was still the epicenter of cosmic drama; the dwelling place of human beings and witness to God’s involvement with the creation. Our home was provincial but not forgotten. After Copernicus, there was no change in the register of immensity, but there was a kind change in the register of place.

The Copernican turn changed the order of the planets but it also enabled several other more important changes in the picture of cosmos. These included ideas of other sentient beings living in other planets in our solar system, the removing of cosmological boundaries, like stellatum, from the edges of cosmos, the idea that fixed stars are suns like our own sun, with similar planets and similar life in those planets, and the idea of infinite universe, with infinite numbers of stars and planets. But interestingly, many of these ideas were held by ancient philosophers, church fathers, and medieval scholastic authors long before there existed the means to offer scientific data for such theories. Another significant change in our scientific worldview would likely occur upon the discovery of life beyond Earth, and this will certainly influence how we understand ourselves. Understanding the history of science, philosophy, and religion will help us grapple with new discoveries.

JM: How has dialogue with the CTI fellows shaped how you’re approaching your project? 

OV: To successfully pursue this kind of interdisciplinary project requires that you have people around you who possess skills that you may not have. Without this kind of collaboration, it is all too easy to make simplistic presuppositions and unwarranted claims. I cannot think of a better place than CTI to effectively pursue such an interdisciplinary set of questions.