What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 1)

I found out last Friday that I passed my first qualifying exam. It was very exciting news since I was certain that I would have to revise it or even that I had possibly failed it–typical anxieties for a first exam, I think. The exam was in theory and method in religious studies and covered about 350 years of history (though only about 120 of that can truly be called “religious studies.”) Mine explored three major areas: the history of the relationship between “religion,” “secularity,” and “theology” (from Spinoza to today), the continued and perhaps renewed importance of Max Weber in the field, and a consideration of the concept “religious experience” as it has been both employed and contested in the field. These three areas, however, are centered around one central theme which my dissertation will hopefully address: what is the proper orientation toward the relationship between ideas and material conditions in the study of religions and what are the political implications for a range of orientations?

I want to offer a brief reflection on what I found as I prepared for the exam. Part of the aim of this reflection, however, is to also introduce the more theologically/philosophically oriented to what I see as the basic problems in religious studies–which are typically not problems in theology/philosophical theology especially those modes which are more continentally and critical-theoretically oriented. My perspective is that of a theologian, which automatically disqualifies me in some RS circles, though I would add the caveat that I’m originally trained in literary/critical theory and not theology–though that perhaps only further disqualifies me for some! All that is to say that my interests are not strictly nor even mostly confessional. They are, more broadly, philosophical and political. Still, it would be disingenuous to not point out that up until the last couple years, I’ve mostly been interested in ideas.

Notice that my question above, however, is not strictly one about the relationship of ideas to the material conditions in which they circulate, but one’s orientation toward that relationship. In other words, I’m interested in scholars and how scholars engage the field, what their theories and methodologies, their underlying epistemic assumptions and frameworks look like. When we talk about theories and methods in religious studies, with a few important exceptions, we’re often talking about scholars themselves in addition to the concepts and categories we employ.

The common story told is something along these lines: The academic study of religion began with the attempt to offer non-confessionally committed explanations of religion as a human phenomenon. This included the explanation of origins, the evolution of religions, etc. These explanations were almost always reductive (e.g. Religious behavior/belief is not about ontologically real spiritual objects (like gods or spirits) but something else: an intellectual explanation of individual experience (Tylor), a function of economy (Marx), maintenance of the societal bond (Durkheim), neurosis (Freud), etc.)

These modes became unseated beginning in the 1930s (though perhaps truly beginning with James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and/or Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, 1917) when scholars began to take the claims of religious adherents at face value, study their texts “seriously,” and create taxonomies of religious phenomena–beliefs, practices, and concepts. The phenomenology of religion, as it has been called, was only interested in religious belief/behavior/experience as such, taking the existence of religion as a sui generis given (Van der Leeuw, 1933, Eliade, 1957). The argument, from Eliade for example, was that the reduction of religion to something else didn’t really get at the heart of what religion actually was ontologically. Reductive explanations didn’t care about the meaning of religious ideas for religious adherents–only their function or dis-function in the societies in which they were produced.

This is where the story will maybe become unrecognizable, even comical, to theologians because once the reaction against the phenomenology of religion begins in the 1970s, theology becomes equated with what I’ve described above. It’s not that critics of the phenomenology of religion think phenomenology of religion is exactly what theologians do; rather, it is taken to be a kind of “theologizing” about religion, a discourse that is, like theology, committed to religion as sui generis, irreducible, and special. Thus, the call to completely dig out the deep roots of “theology” from the discipline began.

This is not entirely unfair. We can see that even in the early attempts to critique the phenomenology of religion (in the 1960s), there is still an essentializing, “theological” tendency. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for example, in The Meaning and End of Religion, criticizes the use of the noun “religion” as a universal category, explicating its linguistic development from the middle ages, but then turns around and argues for the employment of the adjective “religious” instead, claiming that it gets at a more pure, basic understanding of what we mean when we say “religion.” And, of course, theology has operated and continues to operate with some kind of sui generis, essential understanding of religion, even if it is not always articulated. But not all theology does. Not all theology is beholden to institutional authority, or any formal authority for that matter (more on this in the next post.)

Thus, we get in the 80s, 90s, and 00s cries for religious studies to return to its rigorously empirical roots, minus the attempts at evolutionary, originary, universalizing, and systematizing explanations of “religious” beliefs and practices. There are far too many threads within this trend to detail here, but it suffices to say that the broad claim is the study of religion done from “the inside” (whether that be phenomenology of religion or theology) is not rigorously self-critical enough (the way science is in theory) to be able to participate in the academic conversation. The concern, from Russell McCutcheon for example, is that while the rest of the academy has long ago separated itself from its Protestant roots in the US, a nefarious Protestant element remains in religious studies, preventing the field from being taken seriously (also the argument of Timothy Fitzgerald, Donald Wiebe, Robert Segal, and more), or worse yet, making the field accomplice to the hegemonic imperialism of Western Christianity (Tomoko Masuzawa.)

Segal provides a helpful distinction for getting inside of what is going on here. In his short essay, “Diagnosing Religion” (1998), Segal makes two major points: (1) There are two major types of approaches to religion: hermeneutics and epistemology and (2) Epistemology is the superior type. In hermeneutics, the scholar and the practitioner are in different places in that the religion of the practitioner is sacrosanct. The orientation of the scholar is one of misunderstanding seeking understanding. The scholar presumes that the practitioner has the best theories regarding his or her own practice. With epistemology, Segal claims, the scholar and practitioner are on a level playing field. Religion is simply an instance of anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. open to the same analysis and criticisms as any other object which falls under these scholarly pursuits. Segal represents the epistemological approach as a doctor/patient relationship. It is the doctor who has the requisite theories to understand what is happening with the patient. What the patient thinks is of absolutely no consequence because the patient can only be a source of data and never of theory.

I think this metaphor most accurately describes the strictly empiricist, “scientistic” mode of religious studies in the field today–though it is a truly horrific way of depicting the relationship between scholar and interlocutor.

Setting his ghastly, imperialist metaphor aside for a moment, I want to note the structure of his pairing in this argument. Segal claims that the scholar and the adherent are in two different places in the hermeneutical approach specifically because the former must treat the claims of the latter (including theology) as sacrosanct. The scholar is an eager listener who does not dare criticize what he does not understand. Segal then attempts to shift the relation of the scholar/adherent by normativizing the relation under the epistemic approach. However, he still subversively maintains an epistemological and theoretical distance between the pair. In other words, Segal is assuming knowledge is a particular kind of production, science (really a scientism), which is itself the normative, level ground on which all understandings of being-in-the-world are judged. It is in that sense that Segal is claiming to close the gap between adherent and scholar; nothing is sacrosanct in the light of the scientific method. It is here that the gap slips in through the back door. Once both adherent and scholar are placed on the “normative/natural” ground of empiricist epistemology it becomes immediately clear, according to Segal, that the religious adherent does not have the proper theoretical-empiricist apparatus with which to rigorously understand her own being-in-the-world. Thus the gap is maintained but what is sacrosanct is reversed. It is the scholar whose claims the adherent must be subject to without question. The adherent doesn’t have to understand–unless she wants her claims to knowledge to be taken seriously.

In the next post, I will address one more turn in religious studies, namely the critique of “the secular” leveled by Talal Asad, and then raise the question of the bizarre relationship between cultural theory and religious studies in the 15 years or so, which will shed some more light on the estranged relationship between RS and theology.

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Mitsein Freunden, Mitsein Liebe: A Reflection on Being-With

Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to Heidegger’s neologism mitsein, being-with. The reasons for this are varied, in part due to a doctoral seminar in which I was assigned a fair bit of Jean-Luc Nancy’s work. In another sense, my thoughts are due to a more personal realisation – an increasing conviction that the world in which I am a part, of which I am constitutive, is only so through the reality of others and that, to put it crassly, this is all there is. So this being where I am at, I wanted to pause during this time of term paper writing, conference paper abstracting and syllabi preparing to offer some honest (and cheesy) reflections on Heidegger’s mitsein. Specifically, I want to talk about being-with-friends and being-with-love and why the contingent nature of being-in-the-world increasingly causes me to grab ahold of those who constitute as particular mode of my being-with in-the-world.

So bear with me though my basic expositions of Sein Und Zeit. I realise we all think we know Heidegger and how the language works. However, if my classroom discussions indicate the reality of the real-world most of us religion folk still don’t know shit and just like to wax Heideggerian, usually hiding our ignorance of the text about 10 “dasein” references into a conversation with some comment about Heidegger being a Nazi piece of shit. Which to be fair…

Dasein is not Present-to or Ready-at (At least not in the Same way other things are)

Mitsein, Mitdasein, and Dasein itself, function within a particular understanding of the way in which the sheerness of actuality frames human life, the way in which existence works in an existential fashion to define being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is impossible to think the “I” without also thinking “world,” which in turn is impossible to conceptualize without also thinking oneself-with-others and with-entities. Oh, fyi other entities exist with dasein in one of two ways, either present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. This distinction is important for understanding what exactly Heidegger is on about when he begins describing the who being-with thing…and also for his discussion about what the hell “being-in” really means, which I think is pretty important and probably should have been placed earlier in the text…but whatever. We don’t have time for that here. Just know the two ways of being-alongside other entities exist and that to a degree dasein shares with them the characteristic of being present-at-hand…but that dasein is still totally different that those entities even with its being present-at-hand.

“Present-at-hand” denotes a particular way in which dasein is in-the-world with regard to entitles which are not itself. This is contrasted with that other way of being-in-the-world in which entities that are not dasein manifest as “ready-to-hand.” So before getting to that, you sort of have to know what the fuck Heidegger means with the whole being-in-the-world thing. In brief, “being-in,” the “being-in-the-world” of dasein, denotes not “being-in-something,” not “in-one-another-ness.” Rather, “Being-in” is the formal existential expression for the Being of Dasein, which has Being-in-the-world as its essential state.” That Being-in-the-world is dasein’s essential state means that for whatever dasein is, it is pure and simple; “the ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence.”

The affirmation of dasein as such is its essence without transcendent qualification. Dasein is, meaning that it its being is univocal and co-constitutive of the world. This use is in contrast to the improper use of “being-in,” which typically renders as the world as something external to dasein. The improper rendering of ‘world’ makes it that in which dasein is said to be within, while still being sufficient in-itselfhood alongside other entities that exist in the same way. “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein.” Dasein is simply in- insofar as dasein is, and the way in which dasein is-in distinguishes itself in the fact that dasein is that for which Being “is an issue for this entity in its very Being.”

Entities which are not dasein have two modes of being-in-the-world that are relative to dasein’s relationship to these entities: present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. To be fair to the OOO folks this is a pretty anthropomorphic way of characterizing such entities….and that is a point that clearly needed so many blogs, books and whatever devoted to it (hopefully the sarcasm is coming through). Anyways… Dasein is not characterized in a way that is completely equivocal with these two modes of being-in that characterise other entities. Rather, the aforementioned fact of “Being being an issue” conditions the way in which Dasein is said to share a present-at-hand relation to/in/as-the-world, rendering Dasein’s present-at-hand relation distinct.

Without diving into more boring-ass explorations of Heideggerian terminology, you can go look up the exact definitions for present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. Suffice to say that mitsein, or more precisely the “other(s)” to which dasein’s “being-in-the-world-with” (Mitdasein), refers exhibits the same sort of distinctive being-in-the-world that characterizes dasein.

Mitsein vs. Zusammensein

I now want to begin to lay the cheese on thick. The neologism Mitsein is distinct form othe German formulations of being-together insofar as mitsein embodies the sort of sheer affirmative content of dasein’s being-in-the-world, insofar as this denotes a contingent way of being a co-constituent of the world (again, dasein is not like really in something external to its essence…which is existence).

Mitsein is contingent being-with, there is no prescriptive necessity behind it, only the content of the world its encounters and creates. An existential recognition of contingency, then, forms the basis by which one may distinguish between zusammensein, which can entail ‘togetherness,’ and mitsein. Since mitsein embodies the content of dasein, mitsein entails a way of being with other in which one is bound inextricably to the other, this being-with forming a kind of immanent transcendental condition by which dasein’s being-in-the-world is made intelligible to itself. What we share is that we are and this fact is inescapably the constant that frames our reality.

I am. We are. That is Enough.

Ernst Bloch’s refrain from The Spirit of Utopia resonates through me when I think about what it means to be-with. I am with my friends, they constitute the way in which my being-in is my own, the mineness of my present-at-hand being-in-the-world. Similarly, though with a different register of force and intensity at a certain point, my partner and I find ourselves being-with-love, the more accurate description of being-in-love insofar as the being-with identifies love as having to be within the context of a relation with-the-other. In both cases mitsein is enough. In both cases mitsein is all that there is.