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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Risk of Civil Society: Voluntary Associations and Political Stability in Ancient and Modern Thought

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Athens at Night

Yonder Gillihan
Boston College

Date: Thursday, April 14, 2011
Time: 12:00-1:15 PM
Location: Boisi Center

Abstract: Modern political discourse has long held that a strong civil society is an inherent social good, yet granting civil liberties and, in particular, tolerating the proliferation of voluntary associations carry significant risks for the state. In this presentation, Prof. Gillihan puts this modern question to the study of ancient Hellenistic and Roman imperial societies. He argues that ancient and modern civil societies have key analogues but also crucial distinctions, and that the cross disciplinary study of ancient social theory itself can bear fruit for contemporary scholarly disciplines.


Yonder Gillihan is Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston College. His research focuses on sectarianism in early Judaism, with particular emphasis on the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christian groups. His interests include the relationship between ideology and ethics in sectarian movements, the response of Jewish sects to the Greco-Roman poleis within which they formed, and the emergence of Jewish and Christian sects in the context of the widespread flourishing of voluntary associations during the Hellenistic and Roman imperial eras. These interests require the development of appropriate social-scientific methods of analysis. His current book proposal is devoted to this project: Civil Society and Ancient Political Theory: A Methodological Proposal for the Study of Ancient Voluntary Associations. Gillihan is author of the forthcoming Civic Ideology among the Covenanters of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Voluntary Associations (Brill, 2011), articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Testament, and apocalyptic sects in modern Christianity. Gillihan received his BA and MA in History from Ball State University (1996, 1998), and his PhD from the University of Chicago (2007). He taught at Yale Divinity School and Dartmouth College before joining the faculty at Boston College in 2005.


In the News

Everyone agrees that Qaddafi must go, Curt Weldon writes, but no one has a plan and there is no foundation for civil society in Libya (Op-Ed "Time’s Up, Qaddafi" 4/5/11, New York Times). Why is civil society important and why is building it a risk? On April 14, Prof. Yonder Gillihan turned to ancient and medieval sources to explore these questions. Click here to listen to his talk.