CSSR Essay Contest Winners 2017

• Graduate Award

PhD
“Conversion to Civilization: Protestant Missionary Writings in Colonial South India Before and After the Pious Clause”
Lisa Blake, McGill University

Through close and careful reading of missionary writings, the author compares and contrasts the discursive renderings of low-caste village-based Hindu subjects in the texts of missionary societies long established in south India and in those that followed the introduction of the “Pious Clause” to the East India Company Charter in 1813. Delineating the disparate presentations of caste, disease, and ritual in these two eras, the author argues that the urgent, emotional tone and style that marked the 19th century missionary letters, autobiographies, and other expositions were a concentrated effort to promulgate the “civilizing mission” that undergirded British claims to legitimate colonial rule in India. The evocative portrayals of village Hinduism in desperate need of “rescue” (in combination with conversion) were mobilized to display a colonial subject in perpetual need for the presence and guidance of the colonial government. The marked contrast to the more staid and prosaic writings of an earlier missionary era are carefully drawn, and skillfully used to advance the author’s argument that “the increasing reach of the colonial enterprise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was mirrored within the missionary networks on the subcontinent”.
The clarity of the argument, the well stated thesis, and skillful marshalling of a variety of secondary and primary sources make this essay stand out. The careful historical research is developed in close evocation with postcolonial theory / subaltern studies, and the role of missionaries in the ‘civilizing’ project of British Empire emerges as nuanced and changing. The author’s detailing of missionary perspectives on medicine, ritual, and caste is what moves the argument forward; an exemplary development of a larger historical argument rooted in the details of the historical record.

MA
“Between Recognition and Regulation: Relating Indigenous Sovereignty to Canadian Secularism and State Violence”
Stacie Swain, University of Ottawa
The paper is sophisticated in its attempt to theorize both the ‘recognition’ the contemporary secular, liberal colonial-settler state grants to spirituality of indigenous groups, while simultaneously relying on its own identity as a “secular” technology of governance to “regulate” the politico-spiritual attestations of indigenous groups. Drawing on current critical scholarship on the category of the “secular”, the author articulates how the myth of objectivity and neutrality enabled by the category of the secular legitimates the contemporary state’s regulation of “religions”, even as it obligates the states’ commitments to religious freedom and inclusivity. This precarious tension between regulation and recognition is carefully excavated in the author’s exploration of indigenous mobilizations of the eagle feather in Canadian politics. Skillfully drawing on Naomi Goldenberg’s notion of religions as “vestigial states”, the author explores indigenous spirituality as distinctive form of political culture, examines the unique logics of religion vs. spirituality in indigenous – settler politics, and explores the selective efficacy of indigenous spiritual symbols vis a vis state violence, state regulation, and state recognition. The argument is coherently built, thoughtfully executed, and exceptionally adept at weaving contemporary instances of indigenous display of the eagle feather into a dense theoretical framework that places this paper at the heart of scholarly conversations about the category of the secular, the politics of indigeneity, and the public role of religion.

• Undergraduate Award

1st Prize
“The Problem of Female Endogamy in Islam: The Case of Tunisia”
Jonathan Widell, McGill University
This student exhibits good knowledge of the Islamic lines of authority and jurisprudence relating to female endogamy in Tunisia. The essay unravels the arguments used to prevent Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men through a clear explanation of the interplay between Islamic law, international human rights and certain interpretations of Qur’anic verses. The essay compares the Tunisian shari’a to the human rights endorsed by the country through its signature on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Theological justifications underpinning shari’a law are questioned by the student in light of Islamic scholars’ critiques of Qur’anic passages and subsequent theology. The complicated scenario of human rights, national law and Islamic theology is critiqued through a gendered analysis of the intent behind specific laws prohibiting a woman’s right to marry a non-Muslim man, and concludes by finding no justification theologically, historically or legally to inhibit that right. Two things stand out refreshingly in this essay: the student’s knowledge of and ability to navigate complicated and nuanced material in a clear and concise manner, and the student’s clear and sustained personal positioning from the start. A short section on definitions and categories would be helpful to readers unfamiliar with this topic. The paper is an excellent illustration of the need for a deep knowledge of religions when politics, law and women’s rights are in question.

2nd Prize
"A Lived Theology: An Exploration of the life, work and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer"
Cole Miller, Nipissing University
A well-written, focussed paper which achieved its goal of establishing Bonhoeffer's theology as it related to his actions. Citations and sources were also good. It was a strong contender, however the paper did not reflect any contemporary analysis of Bonhoeffer, either in terms of recent scholarly work or of its possible application or meaning to today's world nor did it indicate the student's relationship to the topic, her/his views on it, etc. It seems to me there is much to learn from Bonhoeffer, particularly his theology of action, his intention on interreligious dialogue as opposed to the seemingly inclusivist or even exclusivist approach as described in the paper, and so on.