Unsettling Science and Religion

Contributions and Questions from Queer Studies

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Lisa Stenmark
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Unsettling Science and Religion: Contributions and Questions from Queer Studies was assembled in the wake of a 2015 conference on Star Island, hosted by the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. The volume explores how queer studies can intervene in the religion and science discourse. The authors, offering a mix of philosophical, ethical, theological, and lay perspectives, draw primarily on Western traditions. The book begins with a breezy and digestible overview of queer theory and the religion and science discourse. The introductory materials are sprinkled with tidbits of history and glances at some significant figures in their intellectual development. As the introduction surveys major thinkers and themes, it helpfully highlights which authors and chapters in the collection offer the most direct engagement with those formative resources. 

The editors acknowledge that sorting works on queer theory into discrete categories runs counter to the nature of queering, but for our convenience they have grouped the twelve chapters in the volume into three sections: (1) Methods and Histories, (2) Embodied Texts and Theologies, (3) Practical Engagements. 

In the first section, Philip Clayton and Kirianna Florez show how breaking down universal claims in science and religion leads toward an ethics of fluidity that is imaginatively relational and self-reflective. Emilie M. Townes surveys the manifold resources of dehumanization deployed against Black folk, and how a womanist approach can help queer theory abide in productive uncertainty. Lisa Stenmark argues that a narrow focus on the conflict between science and religion obscures their critical collaboration in colonialism, and that through hybridity queer thought can resist reproducing colonial structures. Whitney Bauman demonstrates, through three character sketches, the primacy of embracing failure and “unknowing” in developing the humility necessary for planetary ethics. 

In the second section, Carol Wayne White uses the work of James Baldwin to frame an African-American religious naturalism that keeps those who are outcaste in focus, awake to—and so capable of—resisting deeply entrenched stigmas. Teresa Hornsby reveals an online world of collaborative myth-making, where the Slenderman stalks forth from internet forums as the embodiment of neoliberal horror. Catherine Keller and Laurel Schneider, in considering the tensions between theology and queer thought, wonder if incarnational thinking may be able to out-queer queer theory. Julia Watts Belser analyzes a rabbinic blessing for strange bodies, marshalling critical race theory and disability theory to imagine a solidarity of the despised. Zairong Xiang reads Genesis and the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon together to show the productive ambiguity of sex and gender in the Edenic tale. Fern Feldman uses queer theory to survey Jewish mystical texts, drawing out indeterminacies that can open new relational possibilities. 

In the third section, Alex Carr Johnson calls for a queer approach to ecological thought, an approach that alerts us to heteronormative biases in science, and then energizes an embrace of diversity that transcends biological fitness. Carlos R. Fernández demonstrates the need for a queering of information science, using the example of the Library of Congress to show how systems of classification can lend legitimacy to brutality, or dignity to the marginalized. 

The afterword by Timothy Morton touches on each of the chapters in the volume, positing that a reader who has consumed the whole work will come to the realization that science and religion are suffused with the aroma of queerness. 

The chapters by Hornsby and Xiang were especially exciting. Hornsby’s “Slenderman: A Trans Hermeneutic of the Apocalypse” delves into the creative foment of internet-based collaborative art and storytelling, demonstrating the importance of carrying the study of religion into online spaces. At first, the jargon of the title made me laugh, but the chapter is more revelatory than playful. It forcefully conveys the terror and horror that surround the figure of Slenderman and the violent dualisms the monster embodies. Xiang’s “’adam Is Not Man: The Queer Body before Genesis 2:22 (and after)” offers an arresting reading of a text from the corpus of traditional Chinese medicine, including the most memorable use of the sexual practice of sounding I’ve ever seen in a work on science and religion. The rereading of the phallus as a receptive organ plays productive havoc with models that insist on its primacy. 

For all that I found valuable in this volume, I was sorry to see very limited material outside of Christian and Jewish sources. The editors acknowledge this lack, but it is sharpened by the Buddhism that infuses Timothy Morton’s afterword, which reminds the reader of abundant religious sources that remain unengaged. With that caveat, the collection will be helpful to those seeking to familiarize themselves with how queer studies participates in the religion and science discourse. The introductory materials could get undergraduates ready for a deeper dive into the chapters or related work. The chapters can be compared by undergraduates and graduate students alike to see how ethical, theological, lay, and critical-theoretical approaches are organized and deployed. 

Unsettling Science and Religion is a volume eager to be useful to teachers and researchers. The introductory materials contain an overview of the scholars most frequently drawn on by the contributors, a brief intellectual history of the volume’s major areas, and promptings for what direction the conversation is, and should continue, developing in. The contribution of each author is summarized by the editors at the beginning, and in the afterword by Morton, and here again in this review, giving each author and reader ample opportunity to see how the work has been glossed. Each short chapter has a substantial bibliography, and the collection closes with an annotated bibliography that will be useful to readers trying to choose from among the wealth of resources suggested throughout.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob Boss is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lisa Stenmark teaches Humanities and Comparative Religious Studies at San Jose State University.


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