A Theory of Bird

A couple weeks ago, I presented a paper at a conference within a conference–the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion which meets during the annual meeting of the AAR. I was asked to write and present a response paper for one of the NAASR panels after submitting a short paragraph with an account of what I think “explanation” is as a method in religious studies. My presented paper was in response to an essay by Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, two scholars who are deeply interested and invested in cognitive science of religion. I won’t rehash their paper here; it suffices to say that they were arguing for a comprehensive reductive explanation of “religion” as the best kind of explanation we can have through an appeal to a reductive method from the biological sciences. In the course of the discussion following their paper and the three responses to it, one member of the audience made what struck me as a rather strange remark.

“Why are we talking about a ‘theory of religion?'” he objected. “What does that even mean? To me, having a ‘theory of religion’ is like having a ‘theory of bird.’ It’s completely meaningless.”

In other words, religion isn’t special. In one way, his comment makes sense in the context of NAASR. This is the organization that has consistently railed against scholarship that renders religion as “special” in any sense. “Critical religion” emerged from (or founded) NAASR in the mid-80s and has more or less maintained the same position since then: Religion is no-thing. It isn’t special in relation to other “master categories.” To many in this camp, there shouldn’t be a protected discipline called “religious studies” at all. The position goes even further, however: any attempt at all to safeguard religion from “disinterested” academic study, even if only a perceived attempt, is taken to be “crypto-theology” or as part of a “theological agenda.” The prefix “cypto” is crucial here. On this view, most of the scholars that make up the AAR are actually engaged in a kind of theology, even if that majority would deny that theology is what they’re doing (for example, as Eliade and other phenomenologists of religion did and do.) These erring scholars do so through obfuscating the discussion surrounding what “religion” as a concept is or ought to be even while they claim that religion is something “out there” that we can identify and understand through comparison, description, interpretation, and explanation on the religious adherent’s own terms.

How is this obfuscation to be identified and proven to actually be theology-in-disguise? A genealogical account of the ways this obfuscation has operated along lines of power, masking Protestant-Christian motivation (even if latent) has proven amazingly fruitful But this move has already gone through a variety of vexed iterations in its relatively short history in religious studies. At first, proponents thought we ought to drop religion in favor of less problematic categories such as “politics” or “culture” (e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald)–thereby paradoxically (and unwittingly) rendering religion “special” in the sense that it required special attention to its discursive formation in a way politics or culture didn’t. Proponents of this position have since recognized that these other categories also have discursive histories that must be reckoned with, and that they are all actually inextricably linked together in important ways. This has produced some very interesting, fruitful, and important analyses of the relationship between these categories, particularly in analyses of Western colonialism (e.g. the uses of Christianity for disciplining politically liberal colonial subjects) and the relationship between “the secular” and “the religious” in Western political discourse.

At this point, however, we’ve strayed very far from what the initial comment was getting at. While his intention was to remove the “specialness” from religion, he did not do so by appealing to the social and political construction of the category. On the contrary–his comment  was intended to render religion simply natural. This solves the problem of obfuscation, since the comment implies the meaning of “religion” and to what it refers, like “bird,” is so clear as to need no theorization at all. However, there’s a problem here. If religion does not need a theory because it’s like “bird,” then religion cannot be no-thing. It is, in fact, something that apparently requires no theorization about what it is because it’s “in the world” for us to find just as birds are.

This position isn’t actually coherent–for what does it mean to say one doesn’t have “a theory of bird?” As one of my colleagues quipped when I related this story, it would be rather odd to find orinthologists wringing their hands over whether they are allowed to appreciate the position of the bird-lover (or the bird?)–to accuse each other of crypto…chirpology? But putting that aside, “religion” is obviously not like “bird.” That is, even if there is a “theory of bird,” it is certainly nothing like a theory of religion, as the entire history of religious studies shows us–as many careful genealogies of the field show us. While we might characterize the former as “positive” in the sense that it could tell us why a penguin is a bird but a bat is not (via the positive characteristics that birds possess) the latter is the story of the contestation of the very existence of any positive concept of religion and how an insistence on clear, empirically demonstrable instances of religion is actually extremely problematic often because of the politics that generates such claims. What religion “is” in this sense is primarily the story of what it is not and that it is not. It is no-thing. It is an academic invention. It is a political force. It is a discursive structure of power. As such, to insist on a rigorous genealogy of a concept such as religion must be to insist on its lack of clarity–on its slippage, its incommensurability between accounts, its disjuncture with any attempt to describe it in absolute terms. Because once we encounter an insistence on simplicity and clarity, particularly with a complex concept like religion, there’s a good chance that there are ideologies at work intent on normalizing themselves for purposes of power through an appeal to clarity and simplicity.

Which brings us back to NAASR, critical religion, and the panel where I heard this comment. It seems “a theory of bird” reflects a deep tension within NAASR itself and among scholars who are interested in denying “religion” special status as strongly as possible. To put it bluntly, the language of “natural science” seems to be the only way in which many scholars in support of the Critical Religion project can conceive of “critical approaches to religion.” The language of genealogy (in the philosophical sense) and the language of natural science are not in conflict on this view; rather, natural science seems to be the only option once the work of showing that religion is no-thing is complete. In other words, for Critical Religion, genealogy is the work that needs to be done to clear the way for the real critical work of a “natural science of religion” that can get at a wholly natural, often evolutionary biological account of what religion is, which underlies and grounds even the genealogical account.

But if genealogy must insist upon complexity, slippage, difference, disjuncture, etc., then this is an utterly incoherent position. In short, it assumes that natural science is neutral, that it is the only method that escapes politics, that it has no inherent politics, no discursive history–that it has no ideology–and, thus, is outside the scope of genealogy. One of my fellow respondents at the NAASR panel questioned Taves and Asprem on this very problem. From his perspective, it seemed as though Taves and Asprem were presenting the choice to use evolutionary biology as an explanatory method as completely apolitical. Thus, on their view for example, explaining the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 by employing evolutionary biology has no discursive political history or baggage. He rightly questioned whether that was actually the case. In response, Taves argued that to say evolutionary biology has a politics is to engage in a dangerous, anti-intellectual project no different than climate change deniers claiming that climate change is a partisan political issue and not a scientific one.

Of course, this is totally ludicrous. Let’s ignore the fact that Taves’ comment completely misunderstands the meaning of “political” as employed by the respondent. Given so many NAASR members’ commitment to genealogy, it is, at first glance, very difficult to see how an analysis of the genealogical development of the natural sciences could be rejected out of hand so easily. Not a single person objected to Taves’ claim about the politics of evolutionary biology, let alone the claim about theories of birds. It’s especially bizarre because the history of natural science–particularly those branches that study human beings–have a deep colonial history that is often inextricable from both religion and politics, often part of the same project of disciplining and civilizing the colonized into acceptable liberal, Enlightened subjects.

If there’s anything this election season has taught me, it’s that it is a mistake to too quickly assume that people who hold two seemingly contradictory positions are actually hypocritical or acting in bad faith.

There is an explanation for this, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it can be illuminated through a genealogy of Critical Religion that shows how their deployment of “genealogy” obfuscates a problematic commitment to natural science as apolitical and, therefore, outside the scope of what genealogy is concerned with, i.e. ideology. There’s no room for a full account here, but on my view, it has to do with a too-easy, extremely vague distinction between “scientific” and “confessional” which, as I mention above, goes back to the 19th century. But I can offer this observation in closing: The relationship between post-structural genealogical theoretical modes and a commitment to natural science as a method in religious studies has generated a very interesting form of doublespeak wherein the demand for clarity of language results in the obfuscation of a contradiction, namely the one outlined above.

If you pay close enough attention to those scholars typically associated with NAASR and Critical Religion (Russell McCutcheon, Craig Martin, etc.) you begin to notice a pattern. Any new scholarship that, in their view, “protects” religion as a concept in any way is automatically full of terms intended to obfuscate the author’s point, which in turn is intended to make the argument difficult to attack–the point being that such obfuscation always prevents a reduction of the concept to more “concrete,” “clear,” or “real” terms, i.e. those of natural science. Thus, if we can point out the key terms that are meaningless, we can dismantle the author’s argument. This is the same strategy utilized by analytic philosophers and historians who find continental philosophy and “theory” in general to be needlessly dense, complex, and obscure, e.g. Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze is talking about something really simple in the most complicated way possible. If we can demonstrate the simplicity of the argument, we can show it’s not just a simple argument but a pointless one. This demand for clarity of language, that “words matter,” betrays the Critical Religion commitment to natural science which actually contradicts any commitment to genealogy they claim to have.

In other words, these scholars have staked their careers on proving to us (very successfully, I think) that religion isn’t simple. If it were, why would we need to have so many histories of the discursive power relations that generate the concept in various contexts and for various purposes of political power? Why is there ever a demand for simple straightforward language or simple, easy definitions of terms in analyses of religion–for commensurability, conjuncture, and on, and on–when genealogy shows us that the moment you encounter claims to simplicity and clarity in language, you can be absolutely sure things are not simple or clear? There is incommensurability. There is disjuncture. There is dissonance. How could there not be if “religion” is a cultural construct formed along lines of power?

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The Irrational Event and HBO’s The Leftovers

I’m looking forward to the HBO series The Leftovers, which will begin its second season on October 4. I enjoyed the show immensely last summer despite my initial reservation regarding the involvement of a former Lost producer. One of the reasons for my enjoyment, of course, is that I think the premise of the show is quite beautifully explicative of a lesser known or recognized aspect of Max Weber’s theory of religion: The rejection of a totalizing material explanation for religious ideas in favor of understanding the latter’s efficacy in their political, social, economic, and historical contexts.

Last summer, I caught a review of the pilot episode from Slate‘s Culture Gabfest podcast. The questions and speculation surrounding the supposed aims of the show were what drove an ultimately tepid review. As I say, the reservations are not without good reason given the way that Lost spiraled out of control and, in retrospect, never really found any solid footing in terms of a premise to begin with. Reflecting back, the entire series was mystery all the way down with the promise of some kind of satisfying explanation. Deep down, I think most of us knew by the end of the fourth or fifth season (maybe much earlier) that the writers and producers probably weren’t going to be able to pull off anything satisfying. What drove the popularity of the show was the allure of a material explanation that would tie up all the mystery in a nice bow, giving us a collective sigh of relief. So strong was this allure that everything that happened in the show was somehow tied back to this center–which ended up being essentially non-existent. In other words, both action and character development on Lost never moved forward in any meaningful way. It was always directed backward, or inward, to the mysterious core, the material explanation that would make everything make sense.

And so this review immediately jumped on the premise of The Leftovers, which is based on a novel of the same name: 140 million people worldwide disappear on Oct. 14, 2011, and no one knows why. Given the first season, one thing is clear: We will never find out what happened to those people because the answer to that mystery is not what drives the narrative. It is fundamentally the opposite structure of Lost even though both shows begin in more or less the same way–the introduction of a mystery whose fog hangs over the entire series.

Rather than the cause of the mystery, The Leftovers is interested in exploring what Weber would call an irrational interjection into the rational progress of history. How do human beings respond to incomprehensible tragedy, paradox, revolution, and prophecy? The Leftovers is about the formation of new ideologies–religious ideologies in particular–out of the chaos of history. It is about the consequences of the introduction of the unexplainable, the prophetic, and the mystical into history and the ways in which these introductions render everything that follows irreversibly changed.

Weber’s understanding of theodicy is germane here. In Sociology of Religion, Weber devotes a chapter to a material account of the rise of theodicies among both wealthy and impoverished classes. His argument is that theodicies provide rational explanations of evil and fortune that would be able to reconcile why some had much and others had basically nothing. This explanation is not new. Weber is essentially borrowing from previous intellectualist traditions in theories of religion from the 19th century. The explanation is also weak and, frankly, not that interesting, but Weber then follows this analysis in the next chapter with a really interesting move. He drops the intellectualist explanation for theodicy from his analysis of what theodicy does. In other words, the political, economic, and social effects of the popular circulation of theodicies within a society have nothing to do with their “original” material cause. You can’t get to those effects from the material causes without the circulation of religious ideas (their social psychology) that bridges them.

One could potentially trace a line from the beginnings of rational explanations for fortune and evil to, for example, the development of the Protestant ethic and then the spirit of capitalism, but the reasons why Weber thinks these kinds of rational explanations devlop fit more into his broader theory about rationalization as a general feature of human life rather than as something that has specific explanatory purchase on later historical concepts like the spirit of capitalism. And when an irrational experience, idea, figure, event enters the scene, material explanations go completely out the window. That’s because, for Weber, the “concepts” that drive history in radically different directions are formed out of confrontation with the irrational.

For example, for Weber, the Calvinistic belief that one stands alone before a God whose motives are wholly irrational (i.e. not approachable by human reason) coupled with the previously existing general dominance of “moral behavior” in Christianity, generates a particular mode of moral activity (inner-worldly asceticism) that in turn produces the spirit of contemporary capitalism: the earning of money for the sake of money itself. (You can find a more detailed explanation of these moves in Weber here and here.) Importantly, it is the specific Calvinistic formulation of the problem of the relationship between God, world, and individual Christian that has causal efficacy rather than the underlying, “rational-material” cause of that formulation that would tie it to any other such formulation (i.e. in other religious practices/systems.) There is an irrational, terrifying relationship between God-I-world that necessitates the generation of new modes of social organization.

The collective character of The Guilty Remnant in The Leftovers represents Weber’s analysis quite explicitly–to the point of actually incorporating it into the core of their own system and ritual practice. Their aim is to continually instantiate the original event that generated a new way of being in the world. They don’t want anyone to forget what happened on the day 140 million people disappeared. But their interest is not simply the exercise of memory. As in Christianity, it is performative. It’s the institutionalization of the event’s irrationality into the collective memory which will generate a new politics, social structure, and economy. The Guilty Remnant, however, reverses the Christian performance of the Eucharist (or, one might say, negates it) because the very idea that reasons don’t matter–that a causal explanation for the mass disappearance is irrelevantis actually integral to their practice.

In the penultimate episode of season one, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the leader of The Remnant, tells Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) that she thinks about the day of the disappearance “every fucking waking moment” but that “it doesn’t matter what happened.” This is precisely the opposite of Christianity. In both cases, we have an event which, for the faithful, utterly changes universal history. Yet in Christianity, we have a teleological cause; God’s ultimate and final reconciliation of the world to himself necessitates the Christ-event. In the case of The Remnant, there is no cause. They have explicitly institutionalized the original charisma of the event-sans-reason. It is a rejection of both the classical religious explanation as well as the reductive materialist explanation. There is no why and it is in the very act of performing this rejection that the center of The Remnant’s religious power resides. In continually instantiating the irrationality of the event, they attempt to resist the reification and institutionalization of the event on its behalf. For example, in the finale, by orchestrating the placement of the life-like mannequins of the disappeared in their former homes, The Remnant forces the citizens of Mapleton to recall the charismatic power of the original event, which in turn tears down the edifice of normalcy and solemn acknowledgement erected by the local government.

It’s unclear what endgame, if any, there is for The Remnant other than to be a living negative force (in Adorno’s sense) against the institutionalization of the event–to ensure that people understand that everything has now changed. All attempts to return to “the normal” reify and mask the irrational event as merely an aberration, a tragic but ultimately insignificant historical event to be commemorated like any other tragedy (with State acknowledgment, parades, memorials, holidays, etc.) The Leftovers, then, is not merely an indictment of institutionalized religion. It is also an indictment of the modern project of history, of empiricist accounts of religions. It is critical of attempts to synthesize the once irrational event into a rational flow of cause and effect, rather than attempt to seize upon the tension the irrational produces within the political, social, and economic and ask how its circulation contributes to new forms of social organization.

The Politics of Faith and Theological Politics

The following are some thoughts I’ve been working out as I prepare to give a paper at UC Santa Barbara at the beginning of May on the relationship between theology and law. They’re mostly half formed, so questions and pushback are appreciated.

The recent signing into law of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act by Indiana’s governor to protect the “religious freedom” of individuals who want to deny services to others whose lifestyle offends their religious sensibilities is only one in a litany of examples of conservative Christians attempting to use the state to defend their desire to openly discriminate against people they don’t like. That reading of the case is obvious to most people and is one of the reasons these cases are pure gold for scholars who study religion, politics, and law. Laws like this are masqueraded as non-establishment when they seem to clearly represent an attempt to enshrine some form of religious morality as law.

In other words, what proponents of this legislation are doing is claiming that the legislation itself has no religious content (that would be establishment); it is instead circumscribing the rights of religious adherents to so that they may be “protected” to obey the tenets of their religion. Religion, here, is not explicitly defined as Christianity, even though it is predominately Christians who support and benefit from the bill. Presumably, the law would allow for anyone, on the basis of her religious beliefs and practice, to deny service to anyone else who threatens adherence to those beliefs and practice. Here’s the rub though–when cases come before higher circuit courts whose questions come under these sorts of laws (or are brought under the First Amendment more broadly) it becomes impossible for the court not to create some kind of working definition of religion that looks an awful lot like Christianity. We saw this tension in Oklahoma when Satanists petitioned for a statue of Baphomet to be placed in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Winnie Sullivan’s book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom details a case in Boca Raton, FL in which a judge, in attempting to avoid establishment, inadvertently “defines” religion along Protestant lines in his ruling on a case which had to do with Catholic and Jewish folk mourning practices and ends up excluding those practices as outside “religion.” (Sullivan, by the way, is the keynote speaker at the UCSB conference.) In other words, it is not clear at all that this law would actually protect a person denying service to a Christian because said Christian was offensive to her religious beliefs (e.g. a Muslim or Jew denying a Christian on the basis of her belief that Christians are idolaters–an occurrence quite unlikely to happen anyway.)

Cases like this are indeed worthy of our attention because they seem to expose the language of the secular state as truly inadequate to address complex religious questions and actually in constant violation of its own identity as secular and “neutral” with respect to religion when it attempts to issue rulings on these kinds of questions. They point to the inextricable link between religion and politics, and especially that the religious is always political.

I think we could go a step further though in showing just how deeply religious the secular political-juridical discourse is on questions of religion and religious freedom and how incredibly problematic that is. “Political theology” which first emerged as an explicit line of inquiry in the 1920s aimed to show the Protestant religious structure of Western political systems (albeit with a pretty inadequate and static understanding of theology.) I think that we need to begin to develop a “legal theology”–a discourse which can explain the legal arguments of these sorts of cases in terms of their underlying theological claims. Because they certainly are making theological claims and often very, very, bad ones.

The point is not simply to reinforce the religious character of the secular. That’s been done to death. Rather, I see it as a next step in trying to suss out what religious claims are actually being advanced, what that may reveal about the religious commitments of particular segments of a population, and, in the case of a state advancing an argument, what sorts of people are excluded or rendered illegible. In practice, I don’t think we can judge the merits of a legal argument on the basis of its quality as a theological argument. But casting these sorts of arguments in theological terms does help us to better understand their precise relationship to religion.

Lots of bloggers, Christian or not, have already gestured toward this regarding the Indiana legislation by pointing out that “refusing service” on the grounds of moral objection is not exactly a tenet of Christianity. In fact, it seems to be exactly the opposite. We might ask, “What does it mean theologically to demand the right to refuse service?” As we dig deeper into this question, the language of the law itself reveals to us a particular theological character of a segment of American Christians–namely, the value of moral purity over generosity and hospitality; a clear hierarchy of sins; a devaluing of the humanity of people who participate in the worst of these “sins,” and on and on. Nothing new there. But this reading of the law highlights the fact that the state is not neutrally “protecting” the rights of some Christians to morally object to certain behaviors. The affirmation of these objections, when read theologically, is betrayed by the clear preferences to particular types of not simply religious identification but very specific ways of viewing Christianity.

These types of situations can get even more complex though. In the Indiana case as well as the case Sullivan treats, it is the state that is implicated in this kind of backdoor establishment-as-non-establishment situation. It’s the state’s job to at least try really hard to give the appearance of a secular, neutral stance on religious questions, But there are other instances where groups that are explicitly religious attempt to utilize the language of the secular liberal state in order to protect themselves against lawsuits and other legal action. For example, in 2003 suit was filed against an Evangelical residential rehabilitation program which used funds from the state of Iowa to run their program in an Iowa prison. The suit argued, of course, that this constituted a violation of the First Amendment (establishment of religion) precisely because the methods of the organization (Prison Fellowship Ministries) were explicitly religious and being funded directly by the state (not to mention prisoners who participated in PFM’s program were given preferential treatment while incarcerated.)

The argument PFM made against this claim is rather astounding, particularly from a Christian point of view. They argued to the contrary that their program was secular because their goals aligned with those of the state–namely, the rehabilitation of inmates and their reentry into society as productive citizens. They claimed the lawsuit was yet another attempt on the part of “secularists” to remove religious organizations from the level playing field of public service and block them from providing services to people who volunteer to receive them. Their methods, they claimed, were irrelevant as long as the aims were secular. In other words, conversion was not a requirement to complete the program, and it is on that point specifically that the distinction between secular and religious hinged in PFM’s view. Their methods included Bible study, prayer, and other forms spiritual formation–all terms used by PFM, all claimed to be part of the overall “secular” project of their organization. They did end up losing the case. (Another book by Sullivan, Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution details this case.)

This case gets into what I think is some even more interesting legal-theological territory than the Indiana case. Here, we might ask: What is the significance of the claim that rehabilitation and reentry into society is a “secular” and not a “Christian” goal? What is the relationship between “conversion” and the transformation of the person? In PFM’s view, what is entailed in conversion to Christianity? In other words, the argument advanced by PFM in this case significantly alters the aims of spiritual formation and discipleship from within the Christian tradition itself. But it also raises questions regarding the difficulty of distinguishing between “religious” and “secular” goals within the realm of public service.

How are states supposed to adjudicate these kinds of cases when the most important questions entail a decision about what does and does not constitute “actual” religious practice? I think asking these kinds of theological questions about the legal arguments brings this difficulty into sharper focus.

If anyone is interested, my paper at UCSB is going to deal with a famous European case in which plaintiffs sued the Italian government over crucifixes that were hung in public school classrooms. The state’s defense? That the crucifix is a symbol of democratic values, universal humanism, and human rights. You can find information about the conference here.

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.

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.