The inaugural Danforth Lecture at Princeton University was a lucky little feast for the brain Thursday afternoon. CUNY anthropologist Talal Asad gave a breathtaking talk on “Thinking About Religion, Belief and Politics.” I hadn’t expected Charles Taylor to be the subject of Asad’s elegant dissection, but there it was: A Secular Age fileted and served on ice.
This eminent scholar/author said Taylor’s seminal work deals with personal crisis of belief that are insufficient to the global crisis of our time. He argued that beliefs formed through external acts of devotion and training are not inherently coercive, but can lead to authentic faith and the formation of a moral personality. Asad appeared to be making a case for non-Judeo-Christian, or, at least non-Protestant, religious influence in the public square. He spent precious little time talking directly about politics, but instead drew an entertaining connection between the development of public ventilation systems and narcissistic notions of belief.
Asad objected to an audience member’s suggestion that he dismiss religion outright as a dangerous force that wants to control other people’s bodies. He said the secular/religious debate is tired and suggested that market forces can be at least as coercive as religion. He cited coercion of women’s bodies as an insightful example.
Although the lecturer expressed faith in liberal democratic values, he has comparatively little faith that states can effectively implement those values. He concluded by confessing doubt that mankind will see the next century. With such apocolyptic vision, one wonders where he gets off saying personal faith is insufficient to the times. Perhaps he thinks no other kind will hold sway in coming decades.
Ah well. My momentary USC advisor Diane Winston tipped me off to Princeton Religion Department public offerings. I had been lamenting the loss of such local events at USC and UCI, but found this first lecture a more than adequate substitute. Thanks to Ed Gilbreath, I’ve also been reading the blog of two Princeton professors lately. Check it out; it’s called The Kitchen Table.
The Princeton University Art Museum is likewise a lovely place to spend an afternoon. The museum is free and contains a good deal of compelling Christian art and iconography. There are also a couple witty architectural exhibits right now and a nice collection of ancient art, including Roman floor and wall mosaics. Strolling the campus, parts of which date back to 1756, is itself an exercise in art appreciation.
My husband’s handicapped tag came in handy on this trip. A quick phone call to the PU parking office and we were waved in to park on campus. Between the museum and the lecture, I dragged him to the Whole Earth Natural Grocery, which has been selling bulk health foods on Nassau Street since the 1970s. The last time I was there, it was a warm, earthy place. A low VOC renovation has left the store feeling sterile, cold and utterly suburban. Still, I stocked up on brown rice, Kombu seaweed (which is supposed to reduce the gassiness of beans when a couple 1-inch chunks are thrown in the pot) and other vegan staples.
On the drive to Princeton, I was struck once again by the subtle beauty of my state. We passed quaint farms, small towns and mile after mile of hearty pine. A gas station on Rte. 33 was simultaneously selling Chicken Parmesan sandwiches and gas for under $2-a-gallon. Can’t beat that.
At dinner on the same road in Hightstown (half way between home and Princeton), a high school classmate of my husband’s was working as a waitress. Dinner was lousy. We should have eaten down the road at Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty instead. Baker’s original Lobster Shanty is a landmark in my home town of Point Pleasant Beach. I went to high school with his children, one of whom is a longtime friend.
We were at a delightful party together last night. There was plenty of good wine, lots of laughter and a passionate debate amongst old friends the likes of which I imagine taking place in Republican living rooms from coast to heretical coast. The topic? What does it mean to be a Conservative? What went wrong in ’08? And since when did disagreement mean one’s conservative and/or spiritual credentials are suspect?
Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to be home?
I have a job interview Tuesday. Send up a prayer for me if you’re so inclined. I’ve been told to prepare for a two-hour introduction.