Interview with Jonathan Vanantwerpen Reverberations – Founder of The Immanent Frame


Interview with Jonathan Vanantwerpen Reverberations – Jonathan VanAntwerpen is the founder of The Immanent Frame, an innovative digital forum that publishes original writing by hundreds of leading scholars, as well as the co-editor of a series of books on religion, secularism, and the public sphere. These books have been written by Jonathan VanAntwerpen and others.

VanAntwerpen is known for his work as an author and editor, but he has also organized and led dozens of workshops, conferences, consultations, community conversations, and public events in addition to these roles.

He has organized events at universities such as Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, Yale University, and other universities with the assistance of researchers, journalists, editors, activists, artists, and policy professionals, among other people.

Interview with Jonathan Vanantwerpen Reverberations – Founder of The Immanent Frame

Frequencies, an experimental digital project, was the result of a working group that VanAntwerpen organized on spirituality, political engagement, and public life in the United States.

Interview with Jonathan Vanantwerpen Reverberations

Interview with Jonathan Vanantwerpen Reverberations, a digital forum, was the result of a grants program on the study of prayer across multiple academic disciplines and diverse religious traditions. Both of these programs were run by VanAntwerpen.

The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere is a publication that was co-edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen as a result of a large event that took place in The Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City and featured prominent thinkers.

The book was written by Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West, and it was published in English by Columbia University Press. An afterword was written by Craig Calhoun. It has been rendered in the Dutch, German, Italian, and Japanese languages, in addition to Spanish.

Each of VanAntwerpen’s further co-edited books is the product of strategically designed multidisciplinary workshops and larger events, and they include: Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press), Rethinking Secularism (NYU Press), and Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press).

Ten of VanAntwerpen’s years as an employee of the Social Science Research Council were spent in that capacity (SSRC).

While working for the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), he was responsible for establishing and developing a new program on Religion and the Public Sphere, serving as acting director of communications, and working to conceptualize and seed a new initiative on knowledge and culture in the digital age. He started working at the Henry Luce Foundation in New York in 2014, and his present position is that of Program Director for Religion and Theology there.

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We were able to set up an interview with Jonathan VanAntwerpen so that we could find out more about the beginnings of, as well as the sources of inspiration for, his earlier work on The Immanent Frame and other cutting-edge and pioneering digital projects.

You can see below a portion of this interview that has been modified for your reading pleasure. (Jonathan VanAntwerpen is solely responsible for the ideas and attitudes he shares in this article; the Henry Luce Foundation does not necessarily share these views or viewpoints.)

How did The Immanent Frame begin?

The introduction of The Immanent Frame, which took place in the fall of 2007, was, in many respects, the result of random occurrences and happy accidents. At first, we envisioned it as a cross-disciplinary, multi-author blog that would be established in conjunction with program work at the Social Science Research Council.

The blog would focus on secularism, religion, and the public realm (SSRC). The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) was in the process of developing a set of new initiatives and research activities on religion, secularism, and international affairs when it received funding from a number of philanthropic foundations including the Henry Luce Foundation, the Teagle Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and other foundations.

This project quickly expanded into a more comprehensive and ambitious program on religion and the public realm as it progressed. As the work associated with the initiative progressed, we began to establish more comprehensive preparations for a diverse array of academic conferences, workshops, public events, and publication opportunities.

During the same time period, some of my coworkers at the SSRC were beginning to experiment with new uses of digital media. They were concentrating on the public significance of social scientific research, or what we sometimes referred to as “public social science,” and they were building in part on an earlier history of web-based projects.

In that setting, we conceived the idea for The Immanent Frame, and we were already well into the planning stages for its launch before we even had a name for it, let alone a distinct plan for where we were headed or how we would get there.

What were you hoping to accomplish?

Working within what has 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—in the beginning, our impulse was in large part exploratory and experimental.

Working within what has been called “scholarly borderlands”—sometimes fuzzily defined areas of academic research and intellectual engagement, often new and uncertain territories located between more established fields or traditional disciplines—

What are some of the things that we might be able to achieve if we employ new technology in a strategic and deliberate manner? And how would it fit in with our larger goals of developing innovative, cross-disciplinary research and extending the circulation of that research outside the typically specialized academic circles in which it all too often gets contained? Those are two of our primary objectives.

It is possible that some of the great affordances that are associated with new digital platforms, such as blogs, which were on the rise at the time, could be harnessed and used to develop and distribute more robust forms of public social science. We held out hope that they might be able to.

The directly public and extra-academic components of the work that we underwrote and put out into the world were perhaps quite muted when it came down to it. Ideas, debates, or conversations that were presented on The Immanent Frame occasionally gained the attention of a larger segment of the general population.

But despite the efforts of the hundreds of contributors that we supported and published, as well as the critical thought and passionate dedication that 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. This was the case despite the critical thought and passionate dedication that the contributors put into their work The public dialogue is a chaotic and noisy muddle, especially on the internet, which further adds to the problem. This was notably the case in the aughts, the first decade of the 21st century, which was already far into its second decade.

And perhaps things were just the right amount chaotic and unstructured back then to provide us with the room, as well as the flexibility, to experiment with new ideas and be creative.

What was one unexpected result of this work?

There were a lot of them, and if you’re paying attention, you probably already know this, but I think there always are. We got the opportunity to set up a new project on American spirituality a few years after the introduction of The Immanent Frame, which was a consequence of The Immanent Frame that had not been anticipated.

It is a huge and extensive issue, teeming with a variety of perspectives and interpretations that differ from one another, varied understandings and a multiplicity of misinterpretations, passionate disputes, and an unending number of digressions.

As we got further involved in it, we came to the conclusion that our little working group needed to expand into something that was both more ambitious and broader in scale. As a result, we began making preparations for a digital compendium that we eventually came to call Frequencies.

This compendium was intended to conjure up spirituality “as a cultural technology, as a variegated reverberation, as a frequency in the ether of experience.” We were in various ways riffing on the form and content of The Immanent Frame’s publication style, and we were looking to see if we could bend the arc of that in some novel and unfamiliar directions when we produced Frequencies in partnership with the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha. Frequencies was a collaboration between The Immanent Frame and Killing the Buddha.

I believe that even we were taken aback by what we accomplished, which is something that probably ought to happen with endeavors that are truly participatory and truly exploratory.

Even though I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the results of this particular collaborative project, I do believe that the diverse profusion of content that it produced and curated still merits attention. This is something that I was recently reminded of when I revisited Frequencies in connection with the publication’s tenth anniversary.

Since you founded Frequencies, how has digital publishing changed?

That is an intriguing and challenging question, and I’m not sure if I can offer any unique or privileged insight on the topic. Things that once would have been considered experimental or hazardous have, in many situations, either become more routine or have simply fallen by the wayside.

Interview with Jonathan Vanantwerpen Reverberations – Founder of The Immanent Frame

One element of the puzzle has surely been the consolidation and appropriation of media, as this has been a factor in many of these changes. At the same time, the time in which we find ourselves now appears, in some respects, to be reminiscent of an earlier self-publishing ethos.

This is because newsletters and podcasts are proliferating both within and beyond the mainstream, albeit under a different set of constraints and in the context of a substantially different digital order.

When I think about the work that we attempted to do in an earlier time period, I am fascinated by current efforts to “reimagine the internet” in ways that would grasp for and extend the promise, openness, and creativity that has in some cases been associated with Web 2.0. However, Jonathan VanAntwerpen is unsure exactly how to interpret or evaluate these efforts.

How can others follow or connect with you?

Visit the website of the Luce Foundation, where they will also be able to find my email address if you are interested in the work that is being done by the Henry Luce Foundation, where I am currently employed. Others can get in touch with me through my LinkedIn page, or they can keep up with my sporadic writings on Medium.