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.

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.