On Scholarship, Faith, and the Challenge of Scale

This fall semester, the BYU Humanities Center begins its fourth year. I accepted the position of Founding Director of the Center in June of 2012, and prior to the Center’s official launch I decided to familiarize myself with a range of new work across the humanities. More important, I felt I needed to learn about the work of colleagues across BYU’s College of Humanities. So I spent the summer perusing a few dozen journals and new books across multiple humanities fields and also reading articles or books written by well over one hundred members of BYU’s faculty. Many things I read made an impression on me, but two seemed especially compelling when considered alongside each other.

The first was an article by the University of Chicago historian and theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty entitled “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change” (New Literary History 43.1 [2012]: 1–18). Chakrabarty contrasts globalization with global warming, which, he argues, forces us to reckon with human agency across irreconcilable scales. Globalization casts humanity in part by way of differences of culture, gender, race, and so on, whereas global warming largely lumps together the human species as burners of fossil fuels and, therefore, as climate changers. Hence, where the one requires us to scale down our analyses to reflections on the relative minutiae of culture, the other demands that we scale up our perspective to encompass not only diverse societies but also historical periods, even geological epochs (with the shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene). The threat to rights about which critics of globalization often worry has in some ways been superseded, Chakrabarty observes, by the threat that global warming poses to sheer existence. We find ourselves leading a way of life that threatens life itself.

This is a big argument, obviously, and a dramatic one, and it sparked both interest and skepticism at a Humanities Center “Conversations” meeting we devoted to the essay in early 2013. The skepticism of some colleagues was not directed toward climate change itself as much as toward the relevance of the article to the humanities proper. Is the point of the article, some wondered, to motivate political action? If so, doesn’t the vast scope of the problem (whole cultures . . . societies . . . periods . . . epochs) outstrip all political mechanisms? Is Chakrabarty trying to solve a concrete problem, or reproduce a pleasurable, and familiar, aesthetic of shock that seems more calibrated to the crisis in the humanities than to climate change? (While I love Chakrabarty’s critical imagination, the scenario he creates does evoke a bad sci-fi movie: cultural criticism—crushed!—under a giant meteorite!—of Big Science!)

The second piece that struck me, particularly as I thought about it alongside the epic scale of the first, was a chapter written by Keith Lawrence of BYU’s English Department in a ten-year-old volume that he co-edited with Floyd Cheung of Smith College. In this chapter, “Toshio Mori, Richard Kim, and the Masculine Ideal” (found in Recovered Legacies: Authority and Identity in Early Asian American Literature, Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2005), Lawrence discusses two writers, rarely considered alongside each other, who portray Asian-American male identity in a telling way. Each, Lawrence remarks, “champion[s] Buddhist integrity” in the face of a flawed American democracy. However, neither author contents himself with a simple binary, but instead forges a middle ground between prostration to a democratic ideal and a complete withdrawal from it.

As I read this essay, it occurred to me that, on one hand, this is the kind of critical move one often sees in careful literary criticism (in which a critic deems a situation unique by invoking a set of categories into which the object of attention does not quite fit). On the other hand, I was struck by the subtle, nuanced position Lawrence establishes for these writers, charting as he does an uneasy position between unsatisfying orthodoxies. The reflexive identification and refusal of dogmatic extremes (or of mere politics) seemed like the product of a well-exercised moral understanding—the kind of thing one might expect from somebody steeped in a rigorous religious tradition, familiar with the perils that lace the pathways leading between thought and action, the personal and the collective. It was the kind of essay, in other words, that one might expect from a faculty member at BYU. Or so it seemed to me amid all the reading I was doing that summer.

But the cultural (even the institutional) watermark evident in Lawrence’s essay’s turns of thought also imbued it, for me, with a life other and larger than its own. In its way, the kind of thinking on display there—“upwardly scalable” not by reference to geological epochs but through sensibilities sharpened by complex, transpersonal traditions—seemed in nuce to resolve or at least address the type of paradox crafted by Chakrabarty. How does one orchestrate a politics of the impossibly large, one capable of outlasting the ADHD of short-term election cycles? In part, by sublimating politics to the level of a moral imperative, replete with the transformative promise and peculiar critical acuity (concerning what is all-too-human, or what might be, but is not—not yet—redeemed) that one usually associates with religion.

I have been thinking about all this at the outset of the Center’s fourth year. The Center was tasked by the College of Humanities, in part, to help enrich scholarly possibilities for BYU’s faculty and students. But one of the richest resources at the Center’s disposal seems to me, quite simply, to be the unique intellectual culture of BYU. This is a culture that is easy for “insiders” to take for granted (for the same reasons that make reflection harder, in some ways, than simple perception of what is outside ourselves). It was this culture to which Scott Miller, the new dean of the College of Humanities, referred in his address to college faculty that kicked off the school year: “if we research in faith, if we teach with faith, if we serve our students and colleagues in faith, the Lord can provide us with the various coins of the realms, as we need them, to advance along the winding road of our careers and our lives.” Faith, of course, is a traditional religious mechanism for “scaling up,” or for reconciling individuals and societies with realities inexpressibly larger than themselves. This is not the solution Chakrabarty has in mind, to be sure (and to invoke the Book of James, when it comes to climate change, it seems that faith, without works, is dead). And yet, given the challenges Chakrabarty outlines, one wonders whether the kind of thinking he believes humanists need to cultivate isn’t in some ways almost ready-to-hand at BYU—even in scholarly contexts that, by comparison, seem modest, unassuming, and self-consciously scaled down.

Written by Matthew Wickman, Director of the Humanities Center

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