Greg Johnson on the Real World in Real Time

On November 6, 2012, the second lecture in the 2012-13 series was presented by Prof. Greg Johnson, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His lecture–entitled, “In the Moment: The Relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences for the Study of Religion in Real Time”–opened by reflecting on the “Studying Religion in Culture” motto of UA’s Department of Religious Studies and then moved on to examining the manner in which ongoing debates and legal contests in Hawaii over contemporary indigenous people’s rights and ancestral remains present the scholar of religion with an opportunity to study religion both in the skin and in the bone, as he phrased it, i.e., examining, “in real time,” the manner in which it is performed/enacted both in more flamboyant, public settings (e.g., organized protests) and also in a more behind-the-scenes, structural manner (e.g., people attending hearings and meetings, taking minutes, filing legal briefs and court challenges, etc., all in the context of operationalizing the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990).

After examining two case studies from Hawaii he turned his concluding attention toward linking his approach to studying religion, politics, and identity, toward the theme of this year’s lecture series. Prof. Johnson kindly provided his unpublished text to the Department and so the conclusion in posted below.


Excerpt: “The Future of Liberal Arts”

I am humbled, of course, by the charge of this lecture: namely, to say something of import about the future of the humanities and social sciences.  I confess that I have little in the way of new contributions to this discussion, though my own training and work are perched at the intersection of the humanities and social sciences, so I do have a bi-focal perspective on the matter.  Furthermore, it seems to me that my own predicament is shared by the discipline of religious studies as a whole.  We are a field betwixt and between.  As recently as twenty years ago, most scholars of religion would have self-identified as belonging to the humanities; today many of us, at least by way of methodology, identify with the social sciences.  As a field, then, we are well situated to appreciate contributions of both domains while simultaneously sensitive to the artificial nature of the boundary that constructs and separates them, especially with reference to university structures for resource allocation.

My caveats aside, let me sketch out a few ways I’ve been thinking about the future of the liberal arts.  First off, I’m with those who urge us to shore up support for tradition liberal arts research and teaching.  Without our “foundational” principles and practices in tact, we risk losing our core strengths and skills.  Undoubtedly, we need to be more “relevant,” about which I’ll say more shortly.  But we should celebrate and maximize our “special” place—no doubt one of privilege—that enables us to think for the sake of thinking, teach for the love of teaching, and so forth.  If we farm out all of our teaching to the internet, and make conferring “real world” skills our only aim, then we set our selves up for a tragedy of the classic sort—a sad tale of over-reaching and misrecognition.

That said, within our traditional domains, we might improve in certain areas.  We can certainly work harder to overcome the isolationism of hyper-specialized research agendas and the reward structures that fuel this tendency.  Likewise, we can work harder to be interdisciplinary in practice, not merely in gesture. We can focus less on near-other identity politics (ie, on the consuming task of micro-differentiating ourselves from each other in ways that the “outside” world finds inscrutable).  Finally, we can and must learn to be far more willing to seek and accept external resources.  At my own university, one near the bottom of the list in terms of public funding, many new lines are a function of collaborations with non-university and non-state entities.  Such relationships require intense navigation, and often lead to dead ends.  But sometimes they bear real fruit, and these can seed the future of our collective endeavors.

Beyond fortifying and refining the foundational structures of the liberal arts, we should be rethinking our relevance and usefulness in the broader scheme of the world beyond our hallowed halls.  Most colleges and universities have been pushing in this direction in recent years of course, and with highly variable results.  The trick is making enough change to how we do things so as to effect palpable change in the skills our students learn and in the impact of our research while at the same time not trading against our core identities.  One way to do this is to aim for political relevance.  We can train our students to think in terms of policies, laws, and so forth.  We can teach then to assess, recommend, and redress.  Service learning and creative internships can help push us in this direction.  But I’d caution us about the potential losses of thinking about the real world only in utilitarian terms—what we can provide it and it to us.

This so-called real world is the same place we’ve always been.  It is where the humanities and social sciences took shape and have functioned within for hundreds of years.  Our contributions, including careful reading, fine attention, and critical analysis, are real world skills.  So as we fashion ourselves engaging this “real world” let’s not be so quick to assume that the exercise should be one focused solely on pragmatic or political results.  Quite often, it seems to me, our contributions, our relevance, will be found in studied disengagement.  At the end of the day all scholarship is political, in some way or another.  But that need not be our first agendum in order to be relevant.  In my modest experience, we often have the most relevant things to say when we preserve—to some degree—our critical distance from that which we study.  My point isn’t that we always remain neutral or detached.  It is simply that we hover in the margins long enough to see what there is to see before we jump headlong into the action.

The “real world” will benefit more from us if “we” are not beholden to it.  Judges, for example, may take what I have to say more seriously if they can see that my commitments are not solely to one group or another, but to analyzing human processes of dispute and all the religiously rich detail they foment.  Another benefit of detachment is hard-earned credibility among the people one studies.  A short path to acceptance in any community is, of course, to endorse, facilitate, and celebrate its goals.  More often than not in indigenous studies and in religious studies such an approach is not only common, it is expected—even enforced (by tribal governments, for example).  A longer and less secure path is to maintain some semblance of methodological and theoretical detachment.  I do not mean social detachment.  I count my Hawaiian colleagues among my best friends and my work would not be possible without their engagement and trust.  But I do mean a willingness to circulate widely, to seek out competing narratives, even at the risk of jeopardizing sensitivities and relationships.  Such an approach has for me yielded the greatest compliment I have ever received.  A Hawaiian colleague—a guy who spared nothing in critiquing the “academic” nature of my work early in our relationship, puzzling over why I wasn’t more politically engaged in the issues I study—said the following to me last summer:  “I think I finally get it.  You study us like a scholar of Christianity studies the bible and the church.”  After a pause, he followed up, “that means you take what we do pretty seriously.”  I’d certainly like to think so!

In terms of the sketch of contemporary Hawaiian burial disputes that I have set out today, I hope it is clear that my position on the margins has enabled me to detect various dynamics of religion-in-action that go unattended to by those directly involved in the disputes and, of course, by “purists” who do not deem such real time events worthy of scholarly attention.  Observing the unfolding of religion in real time has reminded me that religious claims and actions emerge out of the daily grind, as it were, a point Russell McCutcheon has argued so forcefully.  As scholars and students of religion, our attention should go in some significant measure to “religion in the rough.”  This would balance our long-held penchant for focusing on “processed religion”—the shiny diamonds that result from social processes of selection, redaction, scholarly buffing, and other forms of preening.  For the humanities and social science to remain relevant, and the study of religion especially, it behooves us to think in, with, and through this world, in real time.  This has the twin benefits of (1) making us relevant and (2) sharpening our skills in our ongoing quest to understand religion in culture.

(Watch Prof. Johnson’s whole lecture here.)