An introductory Q&A with the Contemplation: Theory / Practice network

Q: How did the Contemplation: theory / practice network come about?

Our research network, Contemplation: theory / practice, was in fact born out of another CRASSH event: a conference on ‘The Functions of Criticism’, which one of our convenors, Tanya, co-organised. We presented papers on the same panel, and realised that our interests were closely aligned, with both of us researching contemplation, mysticism, and theology, though in different contexts. We agreed that there are few opportunities for multi-disciplinary conversations in this field. Our CRASSH network is intended to bring these plural perspectives together, to allow for collaborative dialogue across specialisms. Secondly, we feel strongly that scholarly conversations around contemplation have a great deal to learn from practitioners. Hence our focus on theory and practice: we want our network to go beyond the university and consider contemplation as a lived—and living—tradition.

Q: By definition, a CRASSH Research Network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours?

How can we better understand the diversity of contemplative traditions, and their impact on individuals and communities? Contemplation has always spanned multiple religious, philosophical, and scientific traditions, manifesting across many cultures and contexts. But attempts to reduce contemplative experience to theoretical and reproducible ‘truths’ have often elided this plurality. At the start of the twentieth century, thinkers like William James were interested in identifying universal phenomena among the ‘varieties of religious experience’. Similar universalist projects have been borne out more recently in the development of ‘mindfulness’ programs for improving wellbeing. We are interested in comparative theories and practices of contemplation, which dig into their cultural, historical, and social contexts as much as their phenomenology. Only then, we think, can we better understand the effect of these practices on the individual and their wider community; only then can we begin to consider contemplation as a potential strategy for facilitating human flourishing, environmental consciousness, and other such vital global concerns.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about this year’s convenors, speakers and attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion?

Hannah and Tanya are based in the English and Divinity Faculties respectively, and bring together interests in theories and representations of contemplative experiences. We also bring our own personal experiences of contemplative practice, and a first-hand view of when theory and practice intersect.

We intend for our speakers to come from a range of academic, spiritual, and artistic specialisms to discuss and explore these different contemplative modalities. Such specialisms may be drawn from the fields of theology, art history, literary studies, yoga studies, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, among others. We welcome attendees from all backgrounds, and hope that the Network will be a space to reflect, imagine, and meditate on the ways humans connect with our minds and bodies. We hope for the discussions to be comparative, global, and inclusive, making room for traditions and voices historically elided by scholarship in the field.

Q: How can people learn more about your Network?

You can check out our network description and events on the CRASSH website, and follow along on Twitter.

About the Network convenors

Hannah Lucas is the Newby Trust Research Fellow in English at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her research lies the intersection of literary history, religious studies and philosophy—focused on medieval contemplative literature, and the relationship between the pre- and postmodern. She completed her DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2020 on the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich and the phenomenology of wellbeing. She is preparing a monograph developing this research, while also working on a new book project on criticism as a contemplative practice.

Tanya Kundu is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. Her work focuses on the ethics of theological finitude, and the corresponding fragility of theological method. She engages in particular with the category of ‘use’ as it arises in Augustinian theology and queer theory, and has an article in Literature and Theology discussing ‘queer use’ in relation to contemporary theologies of forgiveness.

Written by Hannah Lucas & Tanya Kundu



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