RESEARCH SEMINAR PROGRAMME

Research Seminars, Semester 1, 2015

All presentations will take place in the Rogers Room, Level 3, John Woolley Building, Science Road, The University of Sydney.
Presentations will commence at 4pm and finish promptly at 5pm.

Of Tales, Trails and Travails: History of the Jewish Communities of India

10 March
Kranti Kiran Farias (Mumbai)


This presentation covers: 1) the origins and history of the various Jewish communities of India, namely the Cochini (the Kerala) Jews; the Bene Israel of Maharashtra; the Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai and Kolkatta; the B’nei Menashe (Mizo Jews of North East India); and the Bene Ephraim (Telegu Jews) of Hyderabad, with special focus on their life and culture in the midst of a diverse multi-cultural and multi-linguistic nation that India is. Also covered are: the religious freedom enjoyed by them in secular India; and how they retained their spirit and religious practices despite attempts at their conversion by foreign Christian missionaries or how they reversed the status quo with time; their integration with the country of their adoption which was a haven to them, incorporating local culture without compromising on their religious beliefs; and how some have found their way back into mainstream Judaism. Finally, a brief account of the Jews of Goa in the sixteenth century who suffered the wrath of ‘the Inquisition’ will be given.

Dr Kranti K. Farias is a former President of The Church History Association of India. Her doctoral work, entitled The Christian Impact in South Kanara, submitted though The Heras Institute, St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, was published in 1999. She was Principal of St Aloysius Gonzaga High School and Modern Indian School in Mumbai. She lectured at St Xavier’s College and R. D. National College in History and Political Science and was also a Lecturer/Teacher Educator at the Rizvi College of Education, all in Mumbai. She has published several articles and read papers on Christians and Indian Nationalism, Indian Christianity and Indian Jewish communities in India, Israel, Australia, Canada and the US.

Our God is Three in One (and Our Church is Too): Hillsong's Attempts to Order Members' Lives

24 March
Elizabeth Miller (History)


This paper explores the organisation and structure of Hillsong, Australia’s largest Pentecostal Church. It will consider the ways the church creates a sense of self-sufficiency among its members, isolating them from the wider community. The church does this by providing opportunities for career, personal, and religious development. Hillsong provides education through its college, and has supported some of its members’ business endeavours. It creates a sense of community through social and philanthropic activities, while also providing more traditional worship opportunities. By increasingly focusing on these three aspects of its members’ lives, Hillsong has generated a reliance on the church and its community, something that has increased over the past thirty years as the church has expanded. The tension between this social isolation and the church’s evangelistic goals will be explored as a way of understanding the appeal of this church and its “us and them” mentality.

Elizabeth Miller is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Her thesis explores the growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches in Australia from the 1970s on, focusing on their international connections, understandings of wealth and prosperity, gendered dynamics, and their organisation and structure, as well as considering responses to these churches by other denominations and the Australian public.

Sufism and the Gurdjieff 'Work': A Contested Relationship

14 April
Carole M. Cusack (Studies in Religion)


This paper examines the claim that Gurdjieff’s teaching is derived from Islamic sources, in particular Central Asian Sufism. Sufi influence is identified in five areas of the Work. 1) Gurdjieff’s travels in search of wisdom, chronicled in a fictionalised form in Meetings With Remarkable Men (1963), seemingly led him to Sufi monasteries in Afghanistan, where he learned the meditative technique of ‘self-remembering’ (Hunt 2003). 2) The sacred dances or ‘Movements’ that Gurdjieff taught have been hypothesised to originate in dervish dances (Barber 1986). 3) His pupil J. G. Bennett (1897-1974) identified Gurdjieff’s teaching method, involving insults and ‘shocks’, as an instantiation of the Sufi ‘way of blame’ or malamatiyyah (Bennett 1973). 4) Gurdjieff’s Enneagram has been linked to Sufism and used by neo-Sufis, including the psychologist and spiritual teacher A. Hameed Ali (b. 1944), better-known as A. H. Almaas (Almaas 1998). 5) Bennett’s involvement in the Indonesian new religion Subud (founded by Pak Subuh, 1901-1987) is explored. I conclude that there are Sufi influences within the ‘Work’, but it is inaccurate to state that Gurdjieff was a Sufi or that the Work is a form of Sufism. Rather it is an innovative, modern, new esoteric spirituality.

Carole M. Cusack is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney. She trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). She researches and teaches on contemporary religious trends (pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, NRMs, and religion and popular culture). Her books include Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars, 2011), and (with Katharine Buljan) Anime, Religion, and Spirituality: Profane and Sacred Worlds in Contemporary Japan (Equinox, 2014). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she edited the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) from 2007-2015, and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she was founding editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox) from 2010-2013.

Seminar by Adam Possamai, topic to be advised

28 April
Adam Possamai (Studies in Religion)


Adam Possamai grew up in Belgium where he studied to become a sociologist and a high school teacher. After some exposure to North Africa, he came to La Trobe University to do his PhD where he started to teach an introductory sociology unit. Since the completion of his PhD, which won a national award in 1999, he has worked at the University of Western Sydney and taught many sociology units. His specialities are the sociology of religion, sociological theory, and the study of popular culture, and has published widely on these research themes. He is currently the Co-Director of the Religion and Society Research Centre, Associate Professor in Sociology, and the President for the Sociology of Religion Research Committee from the International Sociological Association.

The Evidence for Medieval Atheism

12 May
Keagan Brewer (Medieval Studies)


The Middle Ages has long been considered as an age of faith. This generalisation is helpful in many ways; it allows us to understand trends like the motivations of crusaders, the ‘believing is seeing’ mentality, the power of local cults of saints and their relics, the abundance of miracles in texts, and the power of spiritual people like Bernard of Clairvaux in the temporal realm. However, where this generalisation fails is in its negation of the irreligiosity of the age, which was in a sense as pervasive as its faith. This seminar will review the evidence for atheism in the central Middle Ages (1000-1300), and track various forms of discontent directed towards the established Catholic hierarchy and the ‘logic’ of its doctrines. What we are left with is not an image of a universally pious Middle Ages, but a Middle Ages whose ecclesiastics were in constant battle to maintain the orthodoxy and interest of their flock, a battle they sometimes lost.

Keagan Brewer is a medievalist specialising in the structure of medieval beliefs. His research centres on the logic of responses to marvels, legends, and the supernatural. He also has a close interest in travel texts, monstrosity, lay religious beliefs, and particularly irreligiosity. He has two books in press: Prester John: The Legend and its Sources (Ashgate 2015), and Wonder and Skepticism in the Middle Ages (Routledge 2015). His next project is likely to be a critical edition and translation of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica.

Belief and Behaviour in the Context of the Brain-Body Environment System

26 May
Alma Studholme (Studies in Religion)


The seminar will focus on human cognition and behaviour viewed within a brain-body-environment dynamic system. The particular attention will be given to the relationship between conscious and unconscious cognitive faculties in constitution of what Aristotle calls “hexis”, a stable habitual state or disposition. We will view both the natural and the cultural dimensions of human development in the context of the evolutionary impact of different types of human environment on neurological patterning. This will provide a background for the examination of the relationship between belief and behavior, as well as between the conscious and the unconscious presented, in particular, by Tamar Szabo Gendler’s concept of alief, described as a mental state synchronous but often antithetical to its conscious counterpart, belief. Implications of the presented ideas on the subject of free will, determinism, as well as on the nature of ethical and soteriological practices within religious traditions, will be addressed.

Alma Studholme is a PhD candidate in her second year of research into cognitive and performative aspects of human development in relation to religious and aesthetic practices. She received both her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Philosophy and Religious Studies and her Masters in Religious Studies from the University of Zagreb's Jesuit Faculty of Philosophy in Croatia.

Research Seminars, Semester 2, 2014

'Pagan Past and Christian Future in the Old Irish Narrative Immram Brain maic Febail (the Voyage of Bran son of Febal)'

12 August, 2014
Speaker: Professor Jonathan Wooding BA, PhD (Sydney), FSA, FRHistS, FHEA, is the Sir Warwick Fairfax Chair of Celtic Studies at the University of Sydney. He is additionally a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a fellow of the Higher Education Academy of the United Kingdom.

‘Inventing God Within an Indigenous Paradigm’

26 August, 2014
Speaker:
Professor James L. Cox is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He is past President of the British Association for the Study of Religions, co-editor of the ‘Religion in Modern Africa’ Series of Ashgate Publications, co-editor of Bloomsbury's ‘Advances in Religious Studies’ Series, past General Secretary of the African Association for the Study of Religions, and past Deputy General Secretary of the European Association for the Study of Religions. Professor Cox is in Australia to celebrate the launch of his latest book The Invention of God in Indigenous Societies, Acumen 2014.

‘The Search for Allusions to Extant Scriptures in the Pastoral Epistles’

9 September, 2014
Speaker:
Mr Brett Graham is a doctoral student in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney.

‘How We Take God to School’

23 September, 2014
Speaker:
Professor Marion Maddox. Professor Maddox is based at Macquarie University and is the leading authority on the intersection of religion and politics in Australia. Her latest book Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education (Allen and Unwin 2014) investigates the new spirit of evangelism and its impact on Australian ‘secular’ education systems.

‘The Aesthetics of Self Harm and Community Construction: A Resacralising of the Wound in a Virtual Milieu’

7 October, 2014
Speaker:
Dr Zoe Alderton (Writing Hub, University of Sydney). On the eve of the publication of her monograph on New Zealand artist Collin McCahon The Spirit of Colin McCahon, (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2014), Dr Alderton takes thematics of blood and group sacrality evident in McCahon’s work and develops them in an entirely new direction. She writes,

“There is a great deal of research concerning self-harm behaviour in youths, but few sociological investigations of the manner in which community formation and identity may encourage, valorise, and sacralise this behaviour. Online communities provide a large amount of support for self-harmers, and can also be a place in which they retreat from negative social environment and express themselves in an authentic and meaningful manner. In this presentation, I will be exploring the case study of ‘soft grunge’ blogs on Tumblr and their very particular aesthetic representations of the self-harm process. Soft grunge is a contemporary aesthetic trend that focuses on motifs including vintage imagery, soft focus, pale flesh, flowers, and bruises. It combines the gentle with the grotesque, providing a space in which feminine-identifying teenagers can explore beauty within fresh wounds and broken skin.”

Research Seminars, Semester 2, 2013

Seminars are held from 4 – 5 pm on Tuesdays in the John Woolley Building, Rogers Room, unless otherwise stated.

6 August: Travel to New Religions: Total Institutions and the Concept of Religious/Spiritual Leisure

Dr Alex Norman

Biography:
Alex Norman completed his doctorate at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney in 2010. Since then he has worked at the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, and the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at the University of Western Sydney before returning in 2012. He has taught subjects focussing on religions since 2006, including the units RLST2603 Classical Hinduism, RLST2626 Witchcraft, Paganism, and the New Age, and has lectured for the Centre for Continuing Education on the history of travel. In 2008 he was awarded the Faculty of Arts Teaching Excellence Award, and in 2011 was a finalist for the Rita and John Cornforth Medal for contributions to the University community.

27 August: Material Religion, Animal Religion, and 'New Materialist' Animacies: Notes towards a Transdisciplinary and Post-Secular Ecosophy

Mr George Ioannides

Abstract:
This seminar presentation seeks to address the complex and contentious associations between the study of religion and materialism, and of the relationship between religion, animals, and ecology. It will specifically focus on the implications of such enquiries for the current methodological and theoretical presuppositions attending the wider study of religion itself. In this talk, I consider the recent revaluation of religious material culture, and the reconfiguration of the relations between religion and materialism, arguing that the utility of such theoretical and methodological manoeuvres would be better served by thinking through the work of the 'new materialisms'. Such work attempts to engage the question of matter and the material through posthumanist and anti-anthropocentric positionalities that are at times absent from the study of material religion.

As a case study, I address the issue of trans-species religiosity and the notion that some species other than those in the lineage of human evolution have behaviours, emotions, and thoughts that might be categorised as 'religious' or 'spiritual'. Omitting a discussion of the endless theological debates to do with such a provocation, I analyse the issue of trans-species religiosity through the distinctive insights garnered by animal religion, placing them in a dialogue with the wider state of the disciplinary study of religion in its materialist, anthropocentric configuration. I therefore explore what I take to be the theoretically entangled subjects of material religion, animal religion, new materialism, and what I propose as an animist onto-epistemology. I argue that such speculations are important for the examination of religious phenomena alongside the self-generativity and recalcitrance of religious materiality, both human and nonhuman in kind.

Biography:
George Ioannides is a PhD Candidate, tutor, and research assistant in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research aims to rethink the points of correlation between the academic study of religion and that of materiality, new materialism, and the nonhuman, by placing itself at the broad nexus of religious studies, continental philosophy, and human-animal studies. He is currently interested in thinking through how particular theories of matter and mattering might animate certain conceptualisations of religiosity, including that of material religion, trans-species religion, and the materiality of religious 'things'. As well as publishing on the subjects of animals in film, the intersections of Islam and queer theory, and the study of religion and vitalist materiality, George has most recently delivered papers at the 2013 Australian Animal Studies Group Conference in Sydney, and the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in Durham, UK, presentations on which this departmental seminar is based. George is also co-editing a forthcoming special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion (previously the Australian Religion Studies Review), on rethinking religion and the (non)human, and was guest co-editor of an issue of Literature and Aesthetics, where he also published an article on the aesthetics of sex and sacrality in film.

3 September: The Most Frequently Depicted Offering Scenes in ancient Egyptian Temples of the early Ramesside Period: Analysis of an emblematic system, with some observations about its earlier history.

Dr Katherine Eaton

Abstract:
Ritual scenes on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples are simplified depictions of the relative chaos of temple rituals which were themselves simplifications of the chaos of everyday life. In art the complexity of ritual is sometimes so reduced that a literal reading of a scene is physically impossible. In other cases, details such as the crowns the king wears follow patterns which probably reveal more about composition and aesthetics than cult practices. Thus, the religious significance of details in ritual scenes must be looked at critically. One way to do this is through analysis of broad patterns of what is appropriate, in a large number of monuments which transcend artistic styles. In studying scenes of offering white bread and ointment in Nineteenth Dynasty temples, I encountered a pattern which leads to significant observations about cultic performance. For some offerings, including white bread, wine and Maat, a very limited range of gesture is depicted. Other offerings, such as ointment, incense, and libation were depicted being offered with a wide range of gestures. Thus, a larger pattern emerges. A pattern which, I argue, allows us to reconstruct some aspects of the physical performance of these offering rituals. This study formed the final two chapters of my book, Reading Ancient Egyptian Temple Ritual: Performance, Patterns and Practice, which came out in June. After reviewing this material, I will present some initial observations about the earlier history of this system.

Biography:
Katherine Eaton was awarded her Ph.D. from New York University in 2004. Since then, she has taught at Cal Tech, University of Pittsburgh and University of Sydney. Her main research interests are ancient Egyptian temple ritual and ancient Egyptian medicine.

8 October: The Christocentricity of Ecclesial Art in Early Byzantium

Mr Mario Baghos

Abstract:
Many scholars claim that the image of Christ as a peaceful, benevolent shepherd was transformed, from the Constantinian period onwards, into a ‘powerful, enthroned Jesus’ mirroring the emperor. This evolution presupposes the persistence of the ancient Roman imperial cult that extolled the emperor as eternal and divine well into the Christian epoch; a cult which used images of Christ as the traditio legis or the ‘Ruler of All’ (Pantokrator). Whilst this is to an extent a legitimate interpretation, it significantly downplays the tensions between Church and empire and the role of the former in the production of an art that reflected its own unique worldview. This paper will attempt a more nuanced approach, asserting that although from the fourth century onwards the affairs of the Church and state were – at least on an external level – intertwined, nevertheless the former subtly reacted to the latter’s imperialistic propensities, especially in the realm of art. More precisely, if we are to consider ecclesial art as a reflection of a particular mentality, then despite the framework of imperial beneficence, the Church’s art depicted a very different worldview to that of the empire; which is that of the emperor as subordinate to Christ and his saints. Indeed, since the saints were traditionally envisaged as participants in Christ, their images also contributed to the Christocentricity of ecclesial art in this period insofar as these holy figures always pointed to their Master. This will also be an aspect assessed by this paper, which will cover the development of some of these images from the fourth to sixth centuries, contextualising, at the end, their positioning within an emergent architectural symbolism that further pointed to the Church’s hagio/Christocentricity.

Biography:
Mario Baghos is a PhD Candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney and Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College. He has published several articles on patristic approaches towards history and eschatology, and his research interests include the city of Constantinople as an imago mundi, and the history of religions and mentalities.