The (ex-) sabbatical diary

Proving that I'm actually working …

Towards a Metamodern Academic Study of Religion

By Michel Clasquin-Johnson, University of South Africa

“…so I never worry when I’m ‘sad’ as the meta modernist in me knows that I will soon oscillate to ecstasy.” Tweet by Aisha Lëna Shapiro (@ciaolena), 20 July 2015.

This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared in HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 73/3. 2017


In Religious Studies we never entirely discard a methodology. We can still write exegeses that would have been recognizable to F Max Müller. We can use survey methods borrowed from the social sciences, analyze religious performances using the playful postmodern irony, and so on.

To this methodological smorgasbord we may now be able to add metamodernism. This article will introduce metamodernism and ask whether it has something to add to our discipline. And vice versa. I will primarily approach this from a Religious Studies perspective, but there are implications for Theology too.

The term “metamodernism” has a prehistory: we can see the term being used as far back as 1975. However, metamodernism as we understand it today originates in 2010 when Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker published their article “Notes on metamodernism”.

Metamodernism is a twenty-first century development with young proponents. If it catches on, it will be the philosophy of the Millennial Generation. It is therefore unsurprising to see that it has not (yet) used the conventional academic distribution channels of monograph and journal article to disseminate itself. To investigate metamodernism, we have to delve into the world of online articles, tweets, blog posts and podcasts.

What am I, a not-so-young academic, seeing in this new philosophy? Just this: while we cannot apply metamodernism simplistically to Religious Studies without adapting it to our needs, its underlying principles can be shown to apply to religion itself (or at least to some religions) and to the study of religion.

It expresses the zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century when large numbers of people use apparently contradictory self-ascriptions like “spiritual but not religious” with perfect sincerity. Even if we choose not to use metamodernism explicitly as a research methodology, it clarifies events that remain baffling and contradictory in terms of earlier methodologues.

Metamodernism is a negotiation between modernism and postmodernism.

This was the prime motivation behind the development of metamodernism. In Religious Studies, the clash between modernist and postmodernist paradigms has not been experienced as deeply as in other disciplines. Not that we have been left completely untouched by it, of course.

In Religious Studies, are there two contradictory views that both seem to be entirely valid? Secularization comes to mind. It is true that people are leaving religion behind and taking on a non-religious identity. It is equally the case that religion is thriving and that it is more vital than ever to take account of the role of religion as a factor in society.

From a modern or postmodern perspective, this is an intolerable contradiction. The modernist demands a solution to the contradiction, while the postmodernist demands that the situation be ironically deconstructed. From the metamodernist point of view, however, the new category of “spiritual but not religious” was only to be expected. A metamodern Peter Berger would not have needed to recant his earlier work – it would simply become one pole of a view of reality that needed to be balanced by a new one. The new does not invalidate the old – it completes the picture, for now. In metamodernist language, there is an “oscillation” between the two viewpoints.

Another example is the drawn-out tension between Religious Studies and Theology. In a metamodern approach to religion, these two would not cease to exist. Individuals would still feel drawn to one or the other. But moving within the spectrum of approaches would become less of a life-and-death academic struggle. One could, within the constraints of a given project, accept certain religious teachings as true without setting this as the yardstick of all future projects.

This already happens. Scholars are human and they have their own beliefs, prejudices and preferences. The advantage of the metamodern approach is that it allows an openness, an accountability that is now closed off by attempting to maintain an unattainable epoche.

Equally, the theologian can move into Religious Studies territory. You have not ceased to be a theologian because you are oscillating in the direction of Religious Studies. You have become a different kind of theologian. Tomorrow’s project will call for a different blend of the two.

Metamodernism favours dialogue over dialectics.

Metamodernism does not seek to destroy modernism or postmodernism by bringing them into an all-encompassing synthesis. Indeed, for the metamodernist project to succeed, the contrasting forces it attempts to bring into dialogue must continue to exist and even to thrive. Modernism and postmodernism must exist as viable alternatives to act as boundary conditions between which the metamodern thinker can oscillate.

In a small way, this has been the case in Religious Studies. Our methodological eclecticism has ensured that there have been vigorous dialogues between scholars working from different perspectives.

This should not make us shrug our shoulders and declare that metamodernism is something “we have always done”. To recognise oneself in a small aspect of something as all-encompassing as metamodernism is heartening, but that is different from embracing this philosophy and trying to put it into action.

Metamodernism embraces the paradoxical..

We could hardly have asked for more. The person who sincerely believes in the creation story presented in the book of Genesis also knows that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant comet 76 million years ago. The person who knows perfectly well that the wafer of bread was created in a bakery down the road out of flour, yeast and water also knows that it is the body of Christ. To the metamodernist, the fact that there is a paradox does not mean that one is wrong and the other right, or that one has to be relegated to a mere “subjective truth”.

Metamodernism discredits the concept of cognitive dissonance by placing different levels of objective truth in different sectors (I hesitate to call them “levels”) of existential and universal truth. In this, metamodernism comes surprisingly close to traditional exegetical rules. Ashanti story-tellers preface their performance with “I am going to tell you a story. It is a lie. But not everything in it is false”.

An metamodern academic study of religion would ultimately not employ the word “paradox”, so completely integrated would be the paradoxical view of life. We are a long way from that. Even metamodernism itself has yet to reach that point. And that is a familiar position to students of Zen Buddhism. If the paradoxical view of reality completely transcends the reality that produced the paradox in the first place, it ceases to be paradoxical and just becomes another reality, ready to produce its own paradoxes. Kōan study prepares the student to see “transcendence” as an illusion and “enter the market place with helping hands”, not trying to make the paradox go away but living it fully. Incommensurate values are not negated by reducing or negating one of them: They are juxtaposed. When I teach a religion that I do not belong to, indeed a religion that in my most private thoughts I regard as ridiculous, I am both ironic and completely earnest.

Some years ago, a colleague reported on a conference in which the topic had been whether one could study Islam without being a Muslim. I replied, “That is very interesting. I just came from a conference in which the topic was whether you could study Buddhism if you actually were a Buddhist!” The role of the scholar-practitioner remains an open issue. Metamodernism could lend us insights here. There need not be a separate category of scholar-practitioner. One oscillates between the role of scholar and the role of practitioner. With time and practice, both are present simultaneously. The dichotomy is shown not to be false, but negotiable.

Creative tensions within metamodernism

Metamodernism has moved from a philosophy of oscillation to one of simultaneity. For a six-year old philosophical system to have undergone such a profound change shows that it is capable of change and growth.

Reading metamodernist writings shows that the older “oscillation” metaphor is far from dead. It would be contrary to the entire spirit of metamodernism to launch an inquisition against a recalcitrant oscillationist faction, or to split into distinct schools. If metamodern thought consists of being able to contain two contradictory ideas simultaneously, then it must be able to contain both the oscillationist model and (recursively) itself. Besides, a sufficiently fast oscillation gives us a de facto simultaneity.

If metamodernism is indeed moving towards a position of simultaneity, then a rich field of discussion between metamodernism and Religious Studies opens up. Hindu Advaita, the Buddhist Catukoi system used (and demolished) by Nāgārjuna, the non-dual position in Zen and Taoism, even the complex Jain epistemology all become possible interlocutory partners. For such a conversation to take place, a number of questions would need to be cleared up. For example, if metamodernist simultaneity remains built on an oscillation between two poles, is there not a dualism built into it, if at a somewhat deeper level? Is it possible to oscillate between three, or four, poles? Infinite poles?

The relation between oscillation and simultaneity is the metamodern kōan, the burning question that can be “solved” only temporarily and provisionally before the student moves on to the next kōan.


Engagement with metamodernism opens up the possibilities of new discourses within Religious Studies and new opportunities for engagement with our colleagues in Theology, and vice versa. It allows us to understand the new kind of secularization we are viewing right now, that simply refuses to comply with traditional secularization theories.

The picture gets murkier when we look at religion itself. Religion as we know it today reflects a premodernist, Axial Age mindset (or arguably an even earlier one), and much of today’s contemporary events regarding religion reflects those traditions that have yet to make their peace with modernism. We can hardly say that self-consciously postmodern religion is a large-scale phenomenon. What are the chances of metamodernism, a “structure of feeling” that claims to supersede both modernism and postmodernism, by incorporating both, making an impact on religion?

Paradoxically (of course) this is quite possible. The creative use of paradox, the provisional reconciliation of false dualisms and many of the other issues that discussed above are part of the religious impulse. This does not mean that metamodernism takes us back to the premodern, even less that religion was a sort of primordial metamodernism. It does show that there is a potential affinity between metamodernism and religion, one that could be explored and embraced by participants of both, oscillating from one to the other.

The metamodern religious world will be neither unipolar nor bipolar. It will be multipolar, and some religions will find themselves better able to engage with this than others. Metamodernism will enable certain religions to return to their roots within the context of this new, connected world. A new form of religiosity will evolve that oscillates between/simultaneously adheres to deep reserves of traditional spirituality and radical personal freedom. Dare we call it “spiritual but not religious”?

If the proponents of metamodernism are correct and it, or something very much like it by another name, turns out to be the dominant “structure of feeling” of the twenty-first century and beyond, then we will all end up living in it, and with it. If we are moving into a metamodern world, then religion, and the academic study of religion will be both part of that move and be affected by it. With luck, religion will not need to be dragged in there against its will, and Religious Studies and Theology will be there to document and analyse the development, hopefully with an increased awareness of themselves as part of an overarching academic study of religion.


Minister for a Day – Online Ordination and Religion in the 21st Century

By Michel Clasquin-Johnson

Department of Religious Studies & Arabic

University of South Africa


This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared in the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 15/45 (2016).

Marriage has been in the news with the rapid acceptance of equal rights for homosexuals to get married. The debate has not been on marriage as a (hopefully) lifelong partnership, though. It has centred on the specific act of getting married. There has been another change. It is not about “who gets married to whom?”, but about “who declares them married?”. There is an increasing trend of people choosing to be married by a friend, a mentor, or a colleague who became a minister for a day. Websites have appeared that give legal cover to the occasion by ordaining them. Welcome to the world of online ordination.

The wedding as ritual entrance-point into marriage is a rite of passage in almost all cultures. In contemporary western society the legal requirement is that a duly appointed official oversees the transition. Unless you have physically appeared in front of a state-sanctioned official, filled in the paperwork and declared your transition in front of witnesses, you are not married.

In most European countries that trace their legal system to the Code Napoléon, the state itself supplies the official. Those who are religious are free to hold a religious ceremony that, for all its spiritual meaning, does not carry any legal weight. In other countries, the state has completely abdicated to religious interests. Israel is the most prominent example.

In countries with an Anglophone heritage, secular marriage officials exist, and it is possible to enter into an entirely secular marriage by engaging the services of a justice of the peace or another government official. In some California counties, it is even possible to be deputized as a Deputy Marriage Commissioner just for the day of the wedding.

But the Anglophone state has also outsourced the wedding ceremony to religious professionals, giving the “church wedding” an equal legal status with the “city hall wedding”. There are countries where Humanist organisations have obtained the authority to conduct weddings: In Scotland, the number of such weddings now rivals those of traditional church weddings.

If the state is to outsource the wedding ceremony to religion, the question arises “which officials from which religion(s)?” Historically the state has restricted the organizations it was willing to empower in this regard. To use another example from South Africa, the Marriage Act states that only duly recognized office-bearers from “Christian, Jewish or Mohammedan [sic] … or any Indian religion” qualify.

However, the state has allowed the religious organizations themselves to select the candidates. If a Catholic priest wishes to register as a wedding officer, the state does not ask if he is a good, pious priest. As long as the Catholic Church certifies that he is indeed a priest by their standards, the state will acquiesce.

This is a key factor in the rise of online ordination. The contemporary Anglophone state is not inclined to dabble in theology Nowhere is this more clear than in the USA, where a court once refused to consider the religious bona fides, or otherwise, of the Church of Body Modification. Other societies, even other western societies, have no problem with declaring a specific organisation to be fraudulent, as can be seen in the German government’s long-running battle with Scientology.

Thus it becomes possible for any group of people to declare itself a church, to ordain whomever they see fit, and to have those new ordainees request the state to acknowledge their status. Add to this the immense reach of the Internet and we have the new phenomenon of online ordination.

No comprehensive history of online ordination has ever been written, but the phenomenon itself predates the Internet. The incorporation of the Universal Life Church in 1962 marks the beginning. For decades, the ULC operated by posting advertisements in popular magazines, alongside the “sea-monkeys” and “x-ray specs”. With the rise of the Internet, however, it went online, which was reported to have happened around the year 1999, and soon spawned a variety of imitators.

Just how widespread is online ordination? My research initially found thirty-six websites where one could apply. There is some duplication: The Universal Life Church, for one, has a number of branches.

In terms of the number of people affected by online ordination, the Universal Life Church claims that the organization has ordained 18 million people since 1962. To put that number in perspective, if 15 million of those ministers had actually officiated at just one wedding, then 30 million people have been married under the auspices of this organisation. If all 45 million of them were to gather one Sunday, they would be the second-largest religious group in the USA, beaten only by the Catholic Church.

The ULC may be the oldest and best-known online ordination organisation, but it is not the only one. On its website, American Marriage Ministries claims to have ordained 25000 ministers since 2009 and numbers claimed by other organisations are in the same category of thousands rather than millions.

The vast majority of organisations offering online ordination employ Christian language and imagery in their presentation. The Protestant term “minister” seems almost universally used, even if the imagery and terminology otherwise veers towards the Catholic.

Other religions are also getting into the act, however. The Satanic Chapel, for example, offers online ordination via the ULC. The Esoteric Theological Seminary ordains ministers according to broadly New Age/Esoteric teachings.

If we are to parse the various statements on the websites and construct a composite statement, we arrive at something like this: Marriage itself is a sacred action, and the state has wrongly restricted the act of marrying two people to those who have spent years being indoctrinated in seminaries and licensed by their churches, without taking account of the spiritual state of the individual or his/her relationship to God and the wedding couple.

No organisation would phrase it in those exact words, but this is the common thread one sees on their websites. Online ordination is a political act, a small rebellion against the status quo. But not too political, not too rebellious. The wedding conducted by a minister ordained online stays within the traditional church wedding paradigm even as it rejects where that paradigm originated.

Regionalism does not appear to be a useful way to categorise online ordination. It is a peculiarly Anglophone development. My research showed no evidence of online ordination in Continental Europe or Scandinavia, nor, for that matter, in Asia. More specifically, while there are organisations active in Canada and the United Kingdom, the vast majority are based in the USA, to such an extent that we can regard online ordination as an American innovation that has been exported to other Anglophone countries.

I suggest that the main reason for this lies in the constitutional shelter given to any religious claim by the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which makes American courts unusually reticent to label any organized belief system a fraud, and the byzantine complexity of the American legal system. Indeed, a number of organisations explicitly state on their websites in which US states their credentials are recognised.

Online ordination organisations do not all require the same level of commitment from their ordainees. In fact, every one requires a certain level of commitment. These may be minimal (clicking “I agree” in an application form), or they may require the applicant to subscribe to doctrinal statements and undertake not to use their status, for example, to officiate at gay weddings. Some offer ministerial training, although this is typically offered after ordination, not before.

All online ordination organisations, without exception, charge a fee for their services. Just how much they charge, and where in the process it occurs, varies. The one extreme is provided by the Church of the Latter-Day Dude (an organisation that bases its philosophy on the film “The Big Lebowski”) which supplies a personalised digital certificate in TIFF format for free. During the course of my research, I obtained such a certificate. At no stage was I asked whether I even liked the film.

Ordination - Church of the Latter-day Dude.png

A modest fee of USD10 is asked for a printed certificate with an embossed seal, while more comprehensive packs are available for 22 and 35 dollars, respectively.

A more common approach is that the newly ordained minister receives an email confirming his or her new status, while any further proof one’s new status, such as certificates, ID cards and Letters of Good Standing, must then be purchased. Some online ordination organisations also sell ministerial robes, marriage certificate templates and other accoutrements.

The financial demands of online ordination have caused many to describe the whole phenomenon as a “scam”. Indeed, online ordination organisations can be seen to use the term to describe their competitors. However, it matters little whether such organisations are scams or not. Even if they are, that still leaves us with the question why there is a demand for their services.

While there are other duties and benefits of the ordained minister it is the wedding that stands central. Yet in all the countries where online ordination can be found, alternatives exist. Or, if there is some residual respect for a religious tradition on the part of either of both partners, it is not that hard to find a suitably liberal-minded minister who will agree to conduct a wedding for homosexual, interfaith or essentially secular couples

To be married by someone who was ordained online is not a last resort but a deliberate, positive choice. While it may be an insignificant historical happenstance in its own right, it points to the larger socio-historical development.

For two and a half thousand years, western thought has been characterised by Aristotelian logic. Of course, it predated Aristotle but it remains a handy label. In this mode of thought, something is either A or it is not-A.

This kind of thinking has ramifications beyond formal epistemology. Western legal systems rely on whether a person can distinguish between “right” and “wrong”. Our educational systems rigorously distinguish between “graduates” and “dropouts”, never considering whether the dropout may also have learnt something worthwhile, or whether a graduate gained anything from four years of study. In politics, you are either “conservative” or “liberal”. And in terms of weddings, one either is a minister or one is not. If you are not a minister, you cannot conduct a valid marriage ceremony. We live in the civilization that Aristotle built.

But there are increasing signs that this philosophy is losing its grip on the western mind. An increasing number of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Philosophies from Asia (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.), which never subscribed to Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle to begin with, increasingly make their presence felt in the west.

In a world in transition to a looser, multivalued one in which identities are fluid and redefinable, online ordination makes perfect sense. The online ordination minister both is and is not a minister in the traditional sense – at the moment of the wedding.

Taking a leaf from the “spiritual but not religious” terminology, we might describe those married by an online ordination minister as “married but not wed”. They have honoured history by having an authority figure declare them married in front of a congregation of sorts. But not too much of an authority figure. The online ordination minister slips in and out of the ministerial role in a way the traditional minister never can.

Demand for online ordination remains high and is even set to grow because of residual religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Perhaps the time has come for scholars of religion to investigate this fascinating phenomenon on the fringe of the religious world.

Name change …

I started this blog to document my experiences during my <sigh> sabbatical year of 2016. True, it didn’t quite work out the way I wanted, but hey, spilt milk and all that.

But it’s 2017 now, and there’s no more sabbatical. Hence the name change for the blog.

A quick recap: My article on Online ordination can be found here. My article on metamodernism has been accepted by Higher Theological Studies and will appear, in Issue 3 later this year. My chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism is also out there on the shelves. An article on the cost of autism (co-written with my wife) is being reviewed. And I have a chapter on Religion and Autism ready to go for a book I am putting together (Yes, for my sins I was made one of the editors).

What next? Well, my colleague Denzil Chetty introduced us to the new field of Superhero Studies recently. The question that comes up is: what kind of religious cosmos do superheroes live in. Daredevil may be Catholic, and surprisingly many superheroes are Jewish, but does the universe that was created for them reflect that heritage? Naturally, if the answer was “yes”, that would be the end of the story, but I am going with the idea that these fictional characters live in a polytheistic universe that contradicts their own belief. If so, what does that say about our world, the world of comic-book readers and film watchers?

We’ll see if anything crystallizes out of that.

C3 celebration

C3? Is that some kind of high explosive? No, no, no you can relax.

In South Africa, we have this parastatal called the National Research Foundation. One of its functions is to rate researchers.

I’ve held out against this as long as I could. Really, I have deep problems with the idea of putting researchers on different levels.But Unisa is pressurising us to get ourselves rated. At other South African universities, it is worse: you don’t make full professor there without a rating.

So in November last year I bowed to the inevitable and spent that month fighting with the NRF website (a design nightmare). It’s sort of nice to know that I didn’t waste my time completely: I am now a C3 rated researcher. Also, it means a little more money. Nothing wrong with that: I have a son with a toy car habit to support.

C3 is not great: It is in fact right at the bottom of the range, sort of like getting your school report and reading “Michel passes, but he must try harder next term”. The system goes up to A1, which amounts to being a worldwide household name. If Stephen Hawking was a South African researcher, he’d be rated A1.

But even a starter pack rating gets the university off my back. Now back to some real research work.

Still here …

OK, this blog hasn’t worked out the way I intended. Sorry about that, I always had more interest in doing things than reporting on them. In the meantime, the Bitstrips app that I used to make little comics has disappeared ;-( But Toondoo still works!


Here’s where we stand: My chapter on Buddhism in Africa is published in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Available by the 1st of December, reserve your copy now.

My article on Online Ordination that was rejected in April will appear in the December edition of the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies. One of my favourite journals, and I’m not saying that because they accepted my article (I’ve published there before), but because it is an Open Access journal that does not charge you an arm and a leg in page fees (I suspect they are subsidized by the Romanian Government). Mind you, they insist on a weird version of Chicago style that my reference manager can’t quite pull off.

The article on metamodernism is in a first draft which I have sent off to a few people for comments. So far, the comments are pretty positive, so I should be able to put that in for publication next year.

I’ve also moved in a new direction: Religion and Disability: My chapter on religion and Autism is scheduled to appear in the first-ever academic book on autism produced in South Africa, sometime in 2018. I may end up co-editor of that book. If you are in Pretoria the day after tomorrow, come see me present my findings.

CEDU_IE_INV_DepartmentalSeminar_2 Nov.png

I am also co-authoring an article on the cost of raising an autistic child in South Africa today. And finally, my wife and I are jointly writing a book review on a book about Disability and World Religions.

I have one month left of this sabbatical and finally I can start on my grandfather’s wartime diary. The first job is to scan and OCR it, and then translate it from 1940’s Dutch into contemporary English. The I’ll decide what i want to do with the material.

So, what about this blog. Well, I’ll probably keep it, probably with a name change. I know I haven’t been maintaining it recently, but perhaps one I’m back at the office writing blog posts will be a welcome break from faculty meetings.

Setbacks? Nah, just business as usual

So the first journal I sent my article on online ordination to rejected it. I read the journal’s mission statement and interpreted it broadly. They chose to read it narrowly.

Oh well, this is part of the game. If you go through your entire academic career without rejections, you are probably doing safe, boring research. I got some excellent comments out of the deal, and I will rewrite the article and submit it elsewhere.

In the meantime, I have started reading up for an article on religion and autism for a book project spearheaded by the other Dr Clasquin-Johnson (Reader, I married her). Progress on the metamodernism article is slow but getting there.

Finally, I am going to take a look at my grandfather’s wartime diary. He wrote it on tiny scraps of paper while interned in a German labour camp. My cousin Lydia brought it all together some years ago and printed off a few copies for the family, but there must be a way to bring it to a larger audience.