Emily Dumler is a PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary. She participated in a Young Scholar Workshop at the Center of Theological Inquiry in June of 2014. Josh Mauldin: You were a participant in the Young Scholar Workshop on “Religious Experience and Moral Identity” at CTI in 2014. How did the workshop influence your own research and development as a scholar?
Emily Dumler: The workshop was incredibly useful for helping me to advance my current topic of research and refine a piece that has now been presented at a conference and is forthcoming in the Journal for the History of Modern Theology/ Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte. It was also a wonderful time and space to cultivate new collegial relationships and friendships that will have enduring import for my future work. A group of us reunited at the national AAR convention and will continue to collaborate in the future.
JM: I’d be interested to hear about your own dissertation research. By way of intellectual biography, how did you come to be interested in this set of issues?
ED: By way of summary, my dissertation brings ancient and medieval thought to bear on the modern religious, ethical, political, and aesthetic debates that arose in England in the 1790s, debates that shed light on similar deliberations in our own day. Specifically, my dissertation focuses on the role of the moral imagination in the work of Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft. I demonstrate that virtue discourse is indispensible to Wollstonecraft’s social criticism, to her critique of Burke’s gendered “wardrobe of the moral imagination” and to her vision of democratic contestation and flourishing. This research topic grew out of a desire to address what I saw a troublesome impasse (in the academy, church, and public sphere) between those who appeal to tradition and those who appeal to critique as the way forward for religious ethics. I came into the doctoral program with feminist concerns motivated by my MDiv studies as well as by a year that I spent in Guatemala conducting research on the church’s response to the epidemic of violence toward women (known as feminicide). And yet I found many of the contemporary theological and philosophical resources in feminist ethics insufficient for thinking about or addressing these concerns, insofar as they reject or fail to attend to the pre-modern and early modern resources for ethical reflection. When I turned to contemporary Christians ethicists who were drawing on this ancient legacy, I found the opposite problem. Most of these did not sufficiently attend to the concerns of feminists, womanists and critical theorists about relations of domination. Indeed, the medievalism of many such ethicists is synonymous with anti-modern and anti-liberal tendencies. I found both camps to be animated by unnecessary and unwarranted epistemological skepticism that prevents them form constructively engaging the concerns and resources of the other. My project is meant to dissolve these epistemological worries and pave some of the way for a rapprochement between these groups. By attending to a particularly religious strand of the so-called Radical Enlightenment I elucidate aspects of the complex relations that obtain between modern religious, moral, and political views, virtue and critique, religious traditions and radical social change, first and second nature, spirituality and material culture, and contestation and “the common good.”
JM: What are the most exciting areas of study today in theology and religious studies?
ED: My view is that the most exciting areas of study in theology and religious studies exist at some sort of interdisciplinary intersection, whether between these disciplines and philosophy, literature, art, law, politics, ethics, psychology, or science among others. Because of my own interdisciplinary focus in Christian ethics, I am particularly interested in the intersection between modern spiritual practices, moral formation, political movements, and community organizing.
JM: What would you say to someone considering applying for the 2015 Young Scholar Workshop at CTI?
ED: The Young Scholar Workshop is a uniquely valuable experience, an opportunity to receive feedback on your own work from colleagues and senior scholars and to cultivate a network of lasting relationships.