Friday, 25 October 2013

Sixteenth Century Studies in San Juan

An update from the Sixteenth Century Conference, this year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the debates are heated but the sea temperature is just perfect.

Of the many good papers so far, I'm going to pick out two - which is to pass over contributions from people like Paula McQuade, Jonathan Willis and Liz Evenden, amongst others, as good as I'd expect them to be.

Bradford Littlejohn, who's just finished a PhD at Edinburgh and is now looking for academic jobs from back home in Idaho, gave a really intriguing paper in the Richard Hooker session on the idea of certainty in Hooker. Against the Puritan argument that failsafe moral guidance can only be, and can in fact be, found in Scripture, Hooker made a very modern argument for the fluidity and provisionality of moral knowledge. Bradford made him sound immensely reasonable, as Hooker always does. It still seems to me that there is an authoritarian agenda behind this: since moral certainty is elusive, we must (as Thomas More was once told) weigh our doubts against the certainty that we owe obedience to our lawful sovereign, and so obey in good conscience. When I asked if this was really as reasonable as it sounds, Bradford (who is clearly used to being patient with Roundheads like me) pointed out that Hooker is not simply requiring obedience: he is carefully explaining why it is right. I still think that may even be worse, since that means we don't just have to obey outwardly, but submit inwardly. Great paper, though.

And then there's the one who got away: Leif Dixon, currently of Regent's Park College, Oxford, who was on the panel on religious doubt and debate that I organised, but who couldn't make it due to lack of funding. Peter Marshall read his paper, and it was a cracker. He was looking at the weird phenomenon of anti-atheist polemic, of which there was a great deal in the 16th and 17th centuries, despite a distinct shortage of actual atheists. His argument was dense enough that it doesn't summarise well, but it amounts to the suggestion that 'atheism' was the name that was given to a series of tensions and wrinkles in post-Reformation Protestantism, problems which he compared to a recurrent computer bug. Not that atheism was preparing to sweep all before it, but that it was an invaluable category with which to talk about a whole range of problems. - But then I think Leif (whom I have yet to meet) is one of the most talented young scholars working on Protestantism today, and I look forward very much to his imminent book.

And still two days of conference to go ...

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