The practice of Critical Conversation: What are we doing when we study?

For two years now a small group has been gathering monthly for what has been called Critical Conversation (CC). In practice, CC is a reading group. Different individuals suggest articles, they are posted online, people read them (or not), and we gather to discuss them. After two years of this practice it seems like an appropriate time for some reflection.

The initial motivation for this group came from conversations I had with Aiden Enns (editor of Geez magazine). We connected over shared interests and over a lack of context in which to engage those interests. What were those interests? As we talked more and as we thought about some sort of reading group we came up with this statement now posted in the ‘About’ section of our website,

You are invited to join us for Critical Conversation. We hope to read and discuss materials that help us identify, understand and constructively engage the systems and expressions among us and within us that promote destructive forms of privilege for some groups to the detriment of others.

We see a lack of opportunity for this sort of dialogue within our culture and particularly within our churches. We see this form of engagement as part of assembling the message and work of good news from the materials of the present age.

Our readings fall broadly under the category of “critical theory and theology.” This includes influences from political/liberation theology, feminism, queer and race theory, marxist/socialist/anarchist thought, and philosophy of religion.

So what sort of opportunity has CC become? First, it is apparent this is not something many people want to do or have the time to do. We meet during the day over lunch and so this immediately excludes some people (as it would exclude others if we met in the evening) and we pick texts that are often, at best, difficult to understand after one reading. This group is limited in its accessibility and challenging in what it asks of people. This group has not had the problem of having too many voices around the table. That being said, we continue to have a stable and committed core of individuals as well as those who come and go. It is clear that such an opportunity is important to some people.

While we publicized this group to anyone interested, the group continues to reflect the circles we most commonly reside in. Most of the people who attend have some connection to the Mennonite world; a few are pastors, a few work for Mennonite organizations, or have studied at Mennonite schools, and for the others the connection has been more informal or indirect. The Mennonite church or ethos broadly informs our reading and discussion. However, what has proved unique in this context is that there is no explicit ‘over-sight’ in the conversation or thinking as it relates to things Mennonite. There is no shared commitment to the inherent value of Mennonite theology or institutions (or the church in general for that matter). Conversely, there is no shared commitment against these things. What I have come to value in this space and opportunity is being freed from the basic antagonism or false option of defending or discrediting the faith. There is very little policing in what people are allowed to say or propose other than the willingness to have it further examined and perhaps challenged. The commitment is to see what comes from the conversation itself. The event drives and directs where we go.

So again, what is this opportunity, what is this space in which we gather and what do we perform there? We do not gather as the church and it has never been advertised as a program of a local church or of the Mennonite conference. However, we meet inside a building owned by a Mennonite church and many of us are professionally employed or trained through the Mennonite church. This gathering is also not a class, we are not a school, though we rely heavily on the university structure and the type of work and insights it produces. We have also had two graduate students present their own original research for consideration. There are no tuition fees and no credit or diploma will be given.

To borrow a term developed by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney this space is one opportunity to study.[1] They deploy this term not in a strict intellectual sense (though that of course is present). Rather, they view study as a sort of speculative practice. In an interview, Harney says,

A speculative practice is study in movement for me, . . . to speak in the midst of something, to interrupt the other kinds of study that might be going on, or might have just paused, that we pass through, that we may even been invited to join, this is study across bodies, across space, across things, this is study as a speculative practice.

Earlier Moten refers to this practice as a sort of irreducible convergence. Critical Conversation appears to be a group refusing to simply support the church but it has also refused to refuse the church. This double refusal has resulted in a particular gathering, an irreducible convergence that accepts the reality of the church’s institutional force and presence but cannot accept the church with the institutional tendency towards over-determining policy which Harney describes as a way of ‘thinking for others.’ So we gather for the opportunity of intervening in the church’s discourse, intervening in the academy’s discourse, and (as we can) intervening in the various social and economic discourses that affect us. Our practice as a group demonstrates that it is not possible to simply reject these things but that we also cannot be carried away by them.

To be clear I do not think Critical Conversation is a unique or original space. I agree with Moten and Harney who see this type of study happening in the arts, music, theatre, in the workplace, on the steps, at the bar, or out for a walk. However, I also cannot say that it is a common practice. For many people school and church (as well as family, work, and society) function as a finishing process, an accomplishment, and a security. To remain committed to study in contrast is to remain committed to “not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing.” It is an ongoing practice which will not live in the illusion of a world without institutions but will also not accept their presence as finally sovereign.

I have been relying on the work of Harvey and Moten to help me think through what happens as we gather for Critical Conversation. To borrow another phrase, I want to consider whether the opportunity taken at there is to work within and against the church. It is apparent that by and large the people gathered for this time do so somehow fall within the gaze of the church even if particular individuals do not move directly within its parameters. We remain invested in the impact and presence of the church and, as with Christians and non-Christians alike, it can still be difficult in the West to truly consider oneself outside the conditions established by the church. Within the Mennonite church we form a particular expression, a particular and contingent communion of those understanding that our study, our speculative practice, is performed precisely against the church to the extent that it immunizes itself to the presence and voice of those differing or dissenting with the finishing process inherent to institutions.

This opportunity is important because popular imagination still holds that there is only the choice of faith or atheism, religion or secularism. This opportunity is important for the church because the church cannot but remain in the binds of institutional realities. These realities are not all bad but they have to be called into question, challenged, studied or they will move easily into the posture of a sovereign voice that will silence ‘weaker’ voices. This expression of study, this speculative practice within and against the church, invites all those once rejected, avoided or silenced by the church and it calls to those who still cannot help but resonate with the witness of the Gospel, the unavoidable nature of worship, and the commitment to healing.

 

[1] The following references are all taken from Stephano Harvey and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).

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