A Tale of Prepositions and Conjunctions
Although it may seem to some to be a rather minor thing, and therefore
something easily overlooked or ignored, the motto of the University
of Alabama's Department of Religious Studies--"Studying
Religion in Culture"-- italicizes the preposition
"in." We do this to draw attention to the fact that the
more common version of this popular phrase--"Religion and Culture"--employs
the conjunction "and," and along with it, a series of
often undisclosed assumptions that we hope our students will learn
to scrutinize on their way to becoming scholars of religion.
Associated with the work of such scholars as the German sociologist
of religion, Max Weber
and the Protestant theologian, Paul
Tillich, the phrase "religion and culture" is generally
used by scholars to name a field that studies the intersection of
these two otherwise distinct domains. That is to say, religion and
culture are assumed to be separate areas that may or may not interact
with each other--the field known as "religion and culture"
therefore names the intellectual pursuit of studying their interactions
and influences upon one another.
Basic to this way of approaching the field is the widely shared
assumption that the area of human practice known as "religion"
is somehow removed or set apart from those historical influences
that go by the name of "culture" (which includes such
things as language, art, types of social organization, and custom).
Upon further examining this assumption it often becomes evident
that an even more basic assumption concerns the popular belief that
the area we identify as "religion" is in fact the public,
and therefore observable, expression of what is believed to be a
prior, inner experience, feeling, or sentiment. "Religion,"
then, is thought by many to name the public manifestations (such
as texts, rituals, symbols, institutions, etc.) of an inner, personal
experience. Because one cannot get inside other people's heads--or
so the argument goes--scholars of religion are therefore left with
studying these public expressions, comparing them across cultures
in search of the similarities and differences that may lead them
to formulate a general theory of religion as a universal human phenomenon.
"Religion and Culture," then, names the field which
takes as its data the shape adopted by what is presumably the inner
essence of religion--a shape taken when it is not just experienced
but also expressed in such historical settings as art, architecture,
writing, behavior, etc.
Contrary to this approach, to study religion in culture
means one is not beginning with the assumption that these two distinct
domains periodically bump into each other. Instead, the preposition
"in" signifies that the area of human behavior known as
"religion" is assumed, from the outset, to be an element
within human cultural systems--systems which are themselves historical
products. An assumption basic to this approach is that the objects
of study for any scholar in any branch of the human sciences are
assumed to be historical creations that had a beginning and that
change over time. Whether these changes are random or governed by
other factors--such as gender, economics, politics, cognition, or
even geography and environmental features--is one of the areas that
such scholars explore. To study religion in culture therefore
means that ones object of study is a product of human belief, behavior
and social systems.
Although it may strike some as a little too subtle, the preposition
in "Studying Religion in Culture" signals important
information. Unlike the conjunction "and" that functions
grammatically to link two nouns, each of which names separate things
(somewhat like that old saying concerning "apples and oranges"),
the preposition "in" firmly places one item as a subsystem
of the other. Whatever else religion may or may not be, in this
publicly-funded Department it is therefore assumed to be an aspect
of human cultural systems and thus something that can be studied
using the same tools and methods that our peers employ throughout
the rest of the university when they too study human behavior. And
it is just this assumption that underlies the lecture series that
goes by the same name: Religion
in Culture Lecture Series.
the banner that bears our motto
Bruce Lincoln's "Theses on Method"
a 1996 article on controversies in the field (PDF)