Theses on Method
University of Chicago
Prof. Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Professor of the
History of Religions in the University of Chicago's Divinity
These theses are from Method
& Theory in the Study of Religion vol. 8 (1996):
225-27 and are posted with permission from the author.
1. The conjunction "of" that joins the two nouns
in the disciplinary ethnonym "History of Religions"
is not neutral filler. Rather, it announces a proprietary
claim and a relation of encompassment: History is the method
and Religion the object of study.
2. The relation between the two nouns is also tense, as becomes
clear if one takes the trouble to specify their meaning. Religion,
I submit, is that discourse whose defining characteristic
is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent
with an authority equally transcendent and eternal. History,
in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which
speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible
voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical
3. History of religions is thus a discourse that resists
and reverses the orientation of that discourse with which
it concerns itself. To practice history of religions in a
fashion consistent with the discipline's claim of title is
to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated,
interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses,
practices, and institutions that characteristically represent
themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.
4. The same destabilizing and irreverent questions one might
ask of any speech act ought be posed of religious discourse.
The first of these is "Who speaks here?", i.e.,
what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text,
whatever its putative or apparent author. Beyond that, "To
what audience? In what immediate and broader context? Through
what system of mediations? With what interests?" And
further, "Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience?
What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should
happen to succeed? Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely,
5. Reverence is a religious, and not a scholarly virtue.
When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled,
the demands of the latter ought to prevail.
6. Many who would not think of insulating their own or their
parents' religion against critical inquiry still afford such
protection to other people's faiths, via a stance of cultural
relativism. One can appreciate their good intentions, while
recognizing a certain displaced defensiveness, as well as
the guilty conscience of western imperialism.
7. Beyond the question of motives and intentions, cultural
relativism is predicated on the dubious--not to say, fetishistic--construction
of "cultures" as if they were stable and discrete
groups of people defined by the stable and discrete values,
symbols, and practices they share. Insofar as this model stresses
the continuity and integration of timeless groups, whose internal
tensions and conflicts, turbulence and incoherence, permeability
and malleability are largely erased, it risks becoming a religious
and not a historic narrative: the story of a transcendent
ideal threatened by debasing forces of change.
8. Those who sustain this idealized image of culture do so,
inter alia, by mistaking the dominant fraction (sex, age group,
class, and/or caste) of a given group for the group or "culture"
itself. At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions
favoured and propagated by the dominant fraction for those
of the group as a whole (e.g. when texts authored by Brahmins
define "Hinduism", or when the statements of male
elders constitute "Nuer religion"). Scholarly misrecognitions
of this sort replicate the misrecognitions and misrepresentations
of those the scholars privilege as their informants.
9. Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation
to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought probe scholarly
discourse and practice as much as any other.
10. Understanding the system of ideology that operates in
one's own society is made difficult by two factors: (i) one's
consciousness is itself a product of that system, and (ii)
the system's very success renders its operations invisible,
since one is so consistently immersed in and bombarded by
its products that one comes to mistake them (and the apparatus
through which they are produced and disseminated) for nothing
other than "nature".
11. The ideological products and operations of other societies
afford invaluable opportunities to the would-be student of
ideology. Being initially unfamiliar, they do not need to
be denaturalized before they can be examined. Rather, they
invite and reward critical study, yielding lessons one can
put to good use at home.
12. Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other
disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who
denounce it as "reductionism". This charge is meant
to silence critique. The failure to treat religion "as
religion"--that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of
transcendent nature and sacrosanct status--may be regarded
as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves
as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct
themselves as historians.
13. When one permits those whom one studies to define the
terms in which they will be understood, suspends one's interest
in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between
"truths", "truth-claims", and "regimes
of truth", one has ceased to function as historian or
scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available:
some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend
and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur,
retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused
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