Residents at the CSWR are scholars deeply committed to the study of religion. Below, we spoke with Matthew J. Dillon, a Transcendence and Transformation Postdoctoral Fellow historian of religions with a focus on mystical and gnostic currents in Christianity.
CSWR: How has being a resident at the Center affected your academic experience?
MD: Being a resident has personal and academic benefits. Like so many people, I found the first year or so of the pandemic isolating. That sense of isolation dissolved the moment I arrived. This is an “intentional community” in every sense. We are all there for and concerned about one another. Moreover, it is the most diverse residence imaginable. Two-thirds of the residents were born somewhere other than the United States, ranging from Spain to Australia. Each day I smell unfamiliar (but delicious) cuisines and eavesdrop on conversations in unfamiliar (but sonically elegant) languages. After the digital solitude of the early pandemic, this residency has been like living with an extended family.
As an academic, the benefits are every bit as great. While all of us study religion, we come from diverse historical, regional, linguistic, and disciplinary loci. Not only have I gotten to learn about topics well outside my ken, like the shifting theologies of Atman in bhakti traditions or “vocal nudity” in Islam. I have also been exposed to methodological innovations and robust comparanda that would never have come to my attention otherwise. Even more – and this may sound strange to those unfamiliar with the academic study of religion – it has been eye-opening to live and work with those who study of religion from a confessional or theological perspective. Religious approaches to scholarship are verboten in secular religion departments. At the CSWR, we have monks, priests, devotees, and theologians in dialogue with those of us who study religion as secular academics.
And it almost goes without saying that living here with all five of the Transcendence and Transformation post-docs has been an enormous boon. The sense of community is stronger than one finds in graduate school or teaching in a department. The post-docs all live, work, and play together. It’s special and utterly irreplicable.
CSWR: You came to the Center as one of the pioneering post-docs in the Transcendence and Transformation initiative. What has your experience with T&T been like?
MD: In a word: inspiring. In “The Hymn of the Pearl,” an ancient tale that has been embedded in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, a foreign prince is found wandering in exile. He has completely forgotten his high status, his true self. One day he receives a letter, and he has an anamnesis: a flood of memories, a remembering of not only whom he had been and is, but will be going forward.
I cannot speak for the rest of the group, but for me, reading the T&T mission statement hit like receiving that letter. Those of us who study of mysticism typically do so because we have an ecstatic origin story. We pursue this knowledge as a vision quest. Graduate school and early career research, on the other hand, is about preparing us for the field of religious studies as it currently operates. We learn grammars and syntax of dead languages; become proficient in cognitive psychology, critical theory, and sociology; analyze discursive formations, exploitive practices, and the camouflage of power. All this is essential to the discipline. I endorse it all.
But the pendulum has swung so far in this direction that I fear the discipline is in danger of losing what makes it distinctive, even transformative. That’s what makes T&T so important. We take accounts of mystical events seriously. These are the events that spur individuals to join religious communities (or even found them!). Groups and societies have been founded to trigger and explore such experiences. No serious study of religion can ignore them. By moving the mystical back to the heart of religious studies, we are NOT circling back to the pre-critical period of mystical studies. We are envisioning how to spiral up in a way that incorporates critical insights into the study of transcendence.
CSWR: Tell us about this podcast. . .
MD: My contribution to T&T’s public scholarship is a podcast that centers on myth and mysticism in popular culture. It has long struck me how most of the scholars one meets in the study of mysticism, gnosticism, or esotericism found their weird way through popular media, not traditional religion. We have stories of being zapped while reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, or being introduced to the occult by heavy metal, or finding Zen through anime. The more one reads from and about the artists themselves, the more it becomes obvious they are exploring these spiritualities through and in their work. Pop culture (or “occulture,” to use Genesis P. Orridge’s apt neologism) is a resource for, and expression of, this new spiritual endeavor.
The podcast will serve as a venue for exploring this intersection of mysticism and culture. We will invite musicians, artists, and writers on to discuss how their spiritual experiences and practices inform their work. We will also ask writers, directors, and show-runners who create novel mythological universes to discuss their influences, interests, and how they relate mythology to mysticism. These candid, first-person reflections will be supplemented by interviews with scholars who situate the artist’s work within contemporary religion and culture. Together, the podcast will offer descriptive, interpretive, and theoretical scholarship on religion and popular culture in real-time.