What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 2)

It’s taken me a while to get this second post together primarily because the account I want to give is still a little difficult to get straight in my mind despite all that studying I did for my first qualifying exam (or maybe because of it?) The reason it’s difficult, I think, is because I’m wanting to employ a sort of hybrid language in order to highlight a point of difference between the very two discourses I want to bring together but also use that language to clear some space for theological discourse within religious studies. We can call these first two cultural studies on the one hand and something like “religious studies social science” on the other, the latter being far more ambiguous than the former. One of the primary differences, I think, lies in each discourse’s orientation toward a specific project: human emancipation. One tends to take this project as its banner, while the other, though not seeing anything necessarily wrong with that project, resists the sort of “judgment” that must flow from it.

Thus we have disciplines within “cultural studies” such as gender studies, critical race studies, etc., which are more than willing to call on the carpet those discourses of oppression which perpetuate systems of injustice, and hold the individuals and communities which utilize them for their own benefit accountable for those crimes (even if only abstractly.) On the other hand we have “mainstream” social science, an intellectual environment which is able to foster and sustain projects which examine the KKK or neo-Nazi communities without passing any “professional” judgment. That’s not to say that these aren’t contentious interlocutors within sociology or anthropology, but the fact that these sorts of projects can happen at all highlights the strain within these disciplines to maintain the sort of “ethical neutrality” that the social sciences hold dear as a means of certifying their methodology as “scientific.” Religious studies sits at the crossroads of the humanities, the social sciences, and, whether it likes it or not, theology (though these borders are probably more like a flood plain) and that fact provides ample opportunity to think about what these differences mean in the study of religions, especially at a key moment in that study’s history.

In the first post, I gave a brief account of two major strands of theory and method in the history of religious studies. One of the most important interventions in this history is the 1993 publication of Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion. Prior to Asad, engagement with what we call “critical theory,” “cultural studies,” or “postcolonialism” had largely remained outside the purview of religious studies, generally speaking. Scholars in the 70s and 80s were raising important, perhaps even “postmodern,” questions about the categories employed in religious studies and about the category “religion” itself, engaging in what could perhaps be classified as a “deconstruction” or a “new historical” assessment of the field but without appeal to any of the texts or figures that were underpinning the similar moves being made in other humanities fields (most notably literature.) It wasn’t until Asad that the field strongly embraced a continental philosophical figure (Foucault) as having something significant to contribute.

Russell McCutcheon notes as much in his 2000 review of Asad’s text writing that Asad really is the first significant figure to write a text belonging to the field of religious studies that engages with what McCutcheon simply calls “postmodernity.” He writes that it should be obvious why Foucault’s thought lends itself so well to the study of religion, particularly because the questions in religious studies had, in recent decades, shifted from the categories of religion themselves, to the scholarly discourse engaging these categories. Indeed McCutcheon’s own work (Manufacturing Religion, 1994) as well as the earlier work of J.Z. Smith (Map Is Not Territory, 1978; Imagining Religion, 1982) had set out to rigorously interrogate the ways that scholars take not only “religion” for granted in scholarship but every category employed, including the names of the major religions and analytical categories such as “experience,” “ritual,” or “sacred” and fashion them into monolithic “givens” which set the parameters of the field.

Referring to any methodology which could be classified as phenomenology of religion, theology, etc., McCutcheon goes on to write:

For scholars committed to the belief that religion, to whatever extent, somehow transcends human knowledge and historical causes, this Foucaultian insight on the utterly taxonomic and highly contested nature of all epistemological claims is troubling.

However, at the beginning of the review, McCutcheon makes the off-hand remark that even though religious studies had yet to see a continental figure enter into the theoretical discussion, another related discipline had been engaging with “postmodern” thought for quite some time already: theology. Though we can’t hold McCutcheon to explaining himself in a book review, it seems odd that he would so casually throw out those two sentences so close to each other (i.e. in the opening paragraph of a 1,000 word book review.) At the risk of reading too much into this, one explanation might revolve around what exactly is troubling about Foucault’s analysis of discourses of power and to whom. In other words, Foucault’s analysis is only troubling to those who have been engaged in a particular discourse, all the while assuming it was universally normative and natural (i.e. the default way of being in the world) or those who think one must identify a natural way of being in the world as a foundation for both knowledge and ethics. If one were to accept that all discourses involve sets of power relations, then to engage provisionally in a particular discourse is not troubling but simply what one must do. That move, arguably, weakens the notion of “power” itself in some problematic ways that both dissolve the meaning of power all together and can potentially allow destructive, domineering discourses to hang around under the guise of “provisionality”–but that’s an argument for another post! My point is that there are theologies which acknowledge the genealogical critique and embrace it as an attempt to disempower theology as a method of doing theology. It is true that for many theologians, Foucault’s, but especially Asad’s, critique is not just troubling but devastating. But given McCutcheon’s seeming awareness that at least some strands of theology have been engaged with the world of theory in which Foucault’s work circulates, surely Asad’s work can’t be troubling for theology in toto.

Furthermore, it’s clear McCutcheon sees Asad’s critique as a welcome ally in in his quest to establish a new reductive-naturalistic methodology in religious studies. Though in Manufacturing Religion McCutcheon is pretty insistent that he is not proposing a dogmatic reductivism, his dogmatic rejection of anything resembling theology (in his mind) seems like fertile ground for Foucaultian critique and, I think, highlights the tension between social science and cultural studies I described at the beginning. Indeed, Asad’s publication of Formations of the Secular (2003) makes McCutcheon’s proposed alliance even more unlikely, since Asad argues that “the secular,” like “religion,” is not a natural category, but has a discursive history, complete with its own politics and ideologies. That’s not to say that McCutcheon himself was or is blind to this or that his own methodological position is completely demolished by this revelation. But the contested nature of all epistemological claims means all and therefore applies to any natural-scientific discourse McCutcheon and his cadre proposes.

A professor in a theory and methods seminar said once that while Asad’s observation about the secular is important, it actually doesn’t get us anywhere new. In other words, it’s a completely deconstructive move (in the general sense) that doesn’t propose any constructive way forward. It’s a problematizing of the way things were done. I’m inclined to agree if all we are committing ourselves to with his claims is the fact that discourses involve relations of power, often times asymmetrical ones. The nagging persistence of theology in the background of the history of religious studies highlights another issue with Asadian genealogy.

An oft cited assertion of Asad’s is one he makes in the introduction to Genealogies, claiming that oppressed peoples do not make their own history; it is instead fashioned for them by their colonial oppressors. He writes, “Even the inmates of a concentration camp are able, in this sense, to live by their own cultural logic [by their own internal relations of power]. But one may be forgiven for doubting that they are therefore ‘making their own history.'” This point is certainly not without merit. We may cite more than dozens of examples where the history of an entire people is written for them. However, not all situations are that extreme (Asad notes that the concentration camp example is extreme.) Sometimes the colonized do exercise agency, and if we were to follow Asad strictly on his rejection of that claim, I would wager we would, upon closer examination of a particular situation, come to see that the genealogical method is sometimes too blunt an analytical tool.

For the last year, I’ve raved to anyone who would listen about Jason Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan, which is a stunning example of the claim that the colonized exercise agency in determining categories like religion and writing the history of how those categories come to be. They do so according to their own internal politics and for their own non-colonial-influenced reasons. Josephson’s account is deeply complex and difficult, weaving together hundreds of years of religious and political history, folk spirituality, and intermittent contact with the West. To be clear–Josephson’s account is a kind of genealogy. However, its goal is to explicate the asymmetries of power circulating internally to the colonized (the Japanese.) To return to theology for a moment, I often wonder what Asadian genealogy can make of liberation, black, feminist, or queer theologies? Should we read any of those figures and conclude they don’t have historical agency but are merely operating according to and writing in the hand of their oppressors? Obviously, these theologies make very good use of Foucault to expose discourses of power from within theology itself, but for the purpose of doing theology differently. In other words, they are interested in maintaining a discourse which proponents of Asadian genealogy have written off as oppressive in toto without recognizing that internal to the discourse are those seeking to destabilize for explicitly emancipatory reasons.

I don’t want to rule out the possibility that some “theologies of emancipation” are perhaps still unwittingly in service to an oppressive theological discourse (though I very seriously doubt it)–but that’s sort of the point here. In other words, genealogical accounts are vital, but they are only one aspect of a more complex picture which also includes the ideas, practices, and material-historical-social-economic conditions of both the colonizer and the colonized and may even be willing to eschew such a dichotomy if it doesn’t prove useful. Working out a methodology that can adequately address this complexity without attempting to reduce it to any one functional or phenomenological-symbolic explanation is, I think, an important place for religious studies to go.


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