Jonathan VanAntwerpen is co-editor of a series of books on religion, secularism, and the public sphere, and founder of The Immanent Frame—an innovative digital forum publishing original writing by hundreds of leading scholars.
In addition to his work as an author and editor, VanAntwerpen has organized and led dozens of workshops, conferences, consultations, community conversations, and public events. Collaborating with researchers, journalists, editors, activists, artists, policy professionals, and others, he has convened events at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, Yale University, and elsewhere.
A working group VanAntwerpen organized on spirituality, political engagement and public life in the United States led to the experimental digital project Frequencies, while a grants program on the study of prayer across multiple academic disciplines and diverse religious traditions produced the digital forum Reverberations.
A major event with leading philosophers in The Great Hall at New York City’s Cooper Union resulted in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, co-edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. Published in English by Columbia University Press, the book includes contributions by Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West, with an afterword by Craig Calhoun. It has been translated into Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.
VanAntwerpen’s additional co-edited volumes—each issuing from strategically organized interdisciplinary workshops and larger events—include: Habermas and Religion (Polity), The Post-Secular in Question (NYU Press), Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press), and Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press).
VanAntwerpen served for ten years on the staff of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). At the SSRC, he established and developed a new program on Religion and the Public Sphere, served as acting director of communications, and worked to conceptualize and seed a new initiative on knowledge and culture in a digital age. In 2014, he joined the Henry Luce Foundation in New York, where he is currently Program Director for Religion and Theology.
We were able to arrange an interview with Jonathan VanAntwerpen, to learn a little more about the origins of, and inspiration behind, his earlier work on The Immanent Frame and other innovative and experimental digital projects. An edited excerpt of this interview can be found below. (The views and perspectives expressed here by Jonathan VanAntwerpen are his alone, and do not necessarily represent those of the Henry Luce Foundation.)
How did you get started with The Immanent Frame?
The launch of The Immanent Frame, in the fall of 2007, was in many ways a matter of happenstance and serendipity. We initially imagined it as a multi-disciplinary, multi-author blog focused on secularism, religion, and the public sphere, to be developed in conjunction with program work at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). With funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Teagle Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and other philanthropic foundations, the SSRC was in the process of developing a set of new initiatives and research activities on religion, secularism, and international affairs.
This work soon grew into a broader and more ambitious program on religion and the public sphere. As the program’s work evolved, we started to make more expansive plans for a wide range of conferences, workshops, public events, and academic publications.
At the same time, some of my colleagues at the SSRC were beginning to try out new uses of digital media, building in part on an earlier history of web-based projects, and focused on the public significance of social scientific research—or what we sometimes called “public social science.” We hatched the idea for The Immanent Frame in that context, and we were well into planning for its launch before we even had a name for it, let alone a clear idea of where we were going or how we might get there.
What were you hoping to accomplish?
Working within what have been called “scholarly borderlands”—sometimes fuzzily defined areas of academic research and intellectual engagement, often new and uncertain territories located in between more established fields or traditional disciplines—at the beginning our impulse was in large part exploratory and experimental.
What might we be able to accomplish through the thoughtful and active deployment of new technologies? And how would that align with our broader goals of advancing innovative, interdisciplinary research, and broadening the circulation of that research beyond the typically specialized academic circles in which it all too often gets contained? Could some of the powerful and still underutilized affordances associated with new digital platforms—including blogs, which were then on the rise—be harnessed and deployed to produce and disseminate more robust forms of public social science? We hoped that perhaps they could.
In the end, the directly public, extra-academic dimensions of the work we underwrote and issued into the world were probably rather muted. At times, ideas, arguments, or exchanges we featured at The Immanent Frame did manage to get some wider public traction.
But despite the efforts of the hundreds of contributors we supported and published, and the critical thought and passionate dedication they put into their work and writing—not to mention the labors of the creative and energetic editorial team that powered the day-to-day activities of The Immanent Frame—we were still largely operating in our own little corner of a massive, diffuse, and ever-expanding discursive universe. Public discourse is a cacophonous, noisy mess—not least on the internet. That was especially true in the aughts, the first decade of the already worn 21st century. And maybe things were just messy and unstructured enough back then to give us space, and the freedom, to get creative and to try something new.
What was one unexpected result of this work?
There were many—and, if you’re paying attention, I think there always are. One unanticipated outcome of The Immanent Frame came a few years after its launch when we had the opportunity to build up a new project on American spirituality.
It’s a great and vast topic, rife with diverse perspectives and differing interpretations, varied understandings and myriad misconstruals, heated disagreements and endless digressions.
As we got deeper into it, we realized that our small working group needed to open out into something larger and more ambitious. So we laid plans for a digital compendium we came to call Frequencies, which summoned spirituality “as a cultural technology, as a diverse reverberation, as a frequency in the ether of experience.” The Immanent Frame co-produced Frequencies, partnering with the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha, and we were in various ways riffing on the form and content of The Immanent Frame’s publication style, and seeing if we might bend the arc of that in some novel and unfamiliar directions.
I think we surprised even ourselves, which probably ought to happen with initiatives that are genuinely participatory and truly exploratory. While I wouldn’t want to overstate the results of this particular collaborative project, I do think that the diverse profusion of content it produced and curated still rewards attention, as I was reminded recently when I revisited Frequencies in connection with its 10th anniversary.
How has digital publishing changed in the decade since you launched Frequencies?
That’s an interesting and complicated question, and I’m not sure I have any special or privileged insight on it. One piece of the puzzle has certainly been media consolidation and appropriation, as things that once might have seemed experimental or risky have in many cases either become more routine or perhaps just gone by the wayside. At the same time, the moment we’re in now appears in some respects reminiscent of an earlier self-publishing ethos, with newsletters and podcasts proliferating both within and beyond the mainstream, though under a different set of constraints and in the context of a substantially different digital order. As I look back at the work we tried to do in an earlier period, I am fascinated by—if uncertain precisely how to interpret or evaluate—current efforts to “reimagine the internet” in ways that would grasp for and extend the promise, openness, and creativity that has in some instances been associated with Web 2.0.
How should people follow your own current work, or seek to connect with you?
Anyone interested in the work of the Henry Luce Foundation, where I am now based, should visit the Luce Foundation’s website, where they’ll also find my email address. Others can reach me via my LinkedIn profile, or follow my periodic posts at Medium.