Jonathan VanAntwerpen

Founder of The Immanent Frame

Jonathan VanAntwerpen is currently Program Director for Religion and Theology at the Henry Luce Foundation. Prior to joining the Luce Foundation in 2014, he served for a decade on the staff of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in New York City, where he established and developed a new program on Religion and the Public Sphere, launched a suite of experimental digital publishing platforms, served as acting director of communications, worked to incubate a new initiative on knowledge and culture in a digital age, and organized and convened a wide range of academic and public events.

In conjunction with his work at the SSRC, VanAntwerpen led a team that conceptualized and founded The Immanent Frame, an innovative digital publication featuring original writing by hundreds of scholars across the social sciences and humanities. He served for several years as editor-in-chief.

Shortly following its launch in late 2007, The Immanent Frame was named an official honoree of the 12th annual Webby Awards. The Revealer recognized The Immanent Frame as a “favorite new religion site, egghead division,” and CNN called it “exceptionally eye opening.” In 2011, the editors of The Immanent Frame partnered with Killing the Buddha to launch Frequencies, a collaborative and experimental digital project co-curated by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, and co-produced by Nathan Schneider and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. Frequencies was named an official honoree of the 16th annual Webby Awards. Two years later, VanAntwerpen and other editors of The Immanent Frame launched Reverberations, selected as a nominee of the 18th annual Webby Awards.

In addition to his work with these digital publications, VanAntwerpen is co-editor of a series of books on secularism, religion, and public life, including The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia University Press), Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press), The Post-Secular in Question (NYU Press), Habermas and Religion (Polity), and Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press). Originally trained as a philosopher, he received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.

The views and opinions expressed by Jonathan VanAntwerpen in this interview are his alone, and do not necessarily represent those of the Henry Luce Foundation.

Where did the idea for The Immanent Frame come from?

Launched in a period when blogging and the “blogosphere” had significantly more resonance than they do today, The Immanent Frame was originally conceived as a multi-contributor blog devoted to the topic of secularism, religion, and the public sphere. We envisioned it as an experimental site for new and sometimes more improvisational writing, collaborative intellectual exploration and cross-disciplinary exchange, and spirited but respectful critique.

According to some reports, when we launched The Immanent Frame there were already almost sixty million different blogs in one place or another on the internet. Many of them were interconnected, forming networks for the dissemination and circulation of ideas that came to stand in contrast to more established forms of media and knowledge production. We were operating at the edges of this still somewhat new and expanding space of digital publishing, while also drawing on work-in-progress that would find its way eventually into more traditional forms of academic publication, including a series of edited volumes that emerged from workshops and other events organized in tandem with our online efforts. These books were eventually published by a range of different universities presses, including Columbia University Press, Harvard University Press, Oxford University Press, and others.

Well before we got to the publication of the volumes, however, we encouraged many of our anticipated contributors to try out their ideas first in what was at the time a somewhat unusual online forum. In the beginning, one central purpose of The Immanent Frame was to provide the space and platform to do that. This digital space was intended to be more freewheeling and open-ended than other publication venues, and in that sense it bore a sort of family resemblance to other existing blogs, including some collaborative ventures in what had come to be seen as the academic blogosphere.

At the same time, rather than giving our contributors direct access to publishing their posts via the site’s backend in WordPress, we built out instead a small and soon growing editorial team, made up of freelance editors and writers, graduate students, and staff members at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the independent and interdisciplinary research organization with which The Immanent Frame was affiliated, and where it continues to be based today. That editorial team worked closely and carefully with our different individual contributors, many of whom were established scholars and academic researchers. Not only did our editors proof-read and copy-edit content, they also encouraged authors to write in a more accessible mode appropriate to the diverse and broadly non-specialist audience we were seeking to reach and cultivate, sometimes strategizing with them about how best to do so.

Those of our early readers unfamiliar with the academic body of work behind the ideas presented by The Immanent Frame may have been less likely to know at first what we were up to, but many were nonetheless compelled enough by the questions our contributors posed, and the arguments they made, to do some further exploring. We certainly drew a substantial segment of our early readership from scholars working in several different humanities and social science disciplines, fields that had become increasing concerned with the place of religion in public life, and with an overlapping set of topics in the study of secularism and secular culture. And some readers were simply intrigued by the name of the blog itself. The notion of “the immanent frame” came from an expansive book entitled A Secular Age, written by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

The answer to this question has changed dramatically over the course of the last year. My day now frequently begins before dawn, and the quiet early morning hours are often my most productive. In his book Life Work, the poet Donald Hall eloquently describes the intensity and solitude of work conducted at this time of day. I first read the book decades ago, and I was drawn to Hall’s daily practice of writing very early, up before the birds. Back then, I couldn’t imagine doing it myself. Quite recently, it has become an essential element of my own relationship to work.

How do you bring ideas to life?

All my best work has been collaborative, and I am invested as much in the ideas of others as I am in my own. The Immanent Frame, and other projects related to it, were intellectual passions and products of this orientation. Lately I have been compelled to think in new ways about what precisely it might mean to “bring ideas to life.” A colleague I respect and admire has described her work as an effort to “solve the problem of who we are in a secular age.” I like that formulation. And I see this effort not as an abstract analytical exercise, but as a matter of significant practical urgency.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The increased production and deployment of “micromedia” – which is clearly distinct from, but also seems to run parallel to, a renewed emphasis on locality and place –fascinates me. What precisely this will mean for how we understand ourselves and experience our communities is an ongoing work-in-progress. But these are trends I will continue to watch with interest.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?

Walking. It opens space for fresh thinking. And it consistently reminds me that mindful purpose is more important than brute productivity.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Read This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, originally delivered as a commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College. Among many memorable lines, this one stands out for many: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

The widespread idea that everything worth doing should be brought to scale is misguided (and not infrequently counterproductive). Particularly in the context of scholarly and public discourse – and with respect to the use of new media forms to stimulate and facilitate different kinds of creative or intellectual engagement – thinking too often or too soon about the potential scalability of an idea or platform can be very limiting. We need space to experiment and explore, to take risks and to fail. An inordinate focus on scaling up can have the effect of flattening out what’s possible. This is an insight compellingly articulated by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, who argues in a recent interview with Ezra Klein that what we need now are a range of “messier, more nuanced places for public discourse.” I agree.

What is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Read widely. Short articles, longform essays, interviews, novels, poetry, nonfiction.

What is one strategy that helped you grow The Immanent Frame?

Embracing the power of difference and respectful disagreement. The editorial team we developed for The Immanent Frame was not primarily invested in gatekeeping. Instead, we were trying to build a different kind of online community, one with substantial offline correlates. We could not publish everything we received, but we actively sought to expand the range of voices and perspectives the site would feature. And I think that shaped the experience of both our contributors and our readers. We also framed this as a space for creative and improvisational work, a place to try out new ideas and new styles of writing. There was a demand and desire for that on the part of the many authors we featured, and readers got to see a different side of these writers, perhaps somewhat less formal or polished than in their other publications.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I was an accidental entrepreneur. And I didn’t realize until after the fact how energizing it could be to create and collaborate in the space of digital publishing. One failure, then, was simply in not having tried earlier, or more often, to innovate. In this instance, I overcame that failure serendipitously – and in no small part through being surrounded by smart, generous, and creative colleagues.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Start a podcast. The bar to entry is low, the sunk costs for start-up are relatively minimal, the learning opportunities are substantial, and the possibilities for innovation immense. The web is increasingly rewarding audio, visual, and image-driven content, and while growing significantly in popularity the podcast remains an open and pliable media form, ripe for creative deployment.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A small indoor trampoline, purchased right at the beginning of the rolling quarantines initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which unexpectedly transformed our small home into a makeshift preschool and daily workspace. I have two young and energetic children, and the trampoline has been a godsend (especially on rainy days).

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Believe or not, Twitter. It’s my own digital commonplace book. Twitter is not nearly as versatile as other scrapbook formats, and most of its users aren’t primarily putting the platform to this purpose. We have come to associate Twitter with hostility and vitriol, posturing and self-promotion – and often for good reason. But it also continues to be a connective crossroads, and a vehicle for the vast circulation of ideas and information. For me, Twitter is a public tool for collecting and curating, as well as discovery and dissemination.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Written by artist and author Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is a reminder that productivity is never an end-in-itself (as it is all too frequently assumed to be). It’s a call to take back our attention in order to see the world, and our lives in it, anew.

What is your favorite quote?

“Case jacked in and flipped for the matrix.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

Key learnings

  • In seeking to solve pressing problems, we cannot go it alone.
  • Not everything worth doing must be brought to scale.
  • Be open to serendipity and unexpected opportunities.
  • Embrace the power of difference and respectful disagreement.
  • Relearn what it means to pay careful attention, to your life and the lives of others.