In October of 2013 I wrote a post elsewhere on how recent advances in the study of religion — studying so-called lived or material religion and religion on the ground — were but new names for a very old way of studying religion; for although many now opt for more empirically-sounding “embodiment” over what we once called “manifestation,” there’s still the presumption that the material is merely the domain in which the immaterial is projected, whether we call the intangible it spirit or meaning.
This thesis has been confirmed for me with a book I used in class this week, Brent Plate’s A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects. While engaging and nicely accessible, of course, it strikes me as little different from Patterns in Comparative Religion — a classic study, from 60 years ago, of cross-cultural symbolism and the way in which everything from water to stones can be an active agent that, as phrased there, “manifests the sacred.”
Which got me thinking on how my own work has on some occasions been dismissed by being characterized as doing nothing more than tilting at an old, defenseless windmill, Mircea Eliade — someone whom I’ve been told no one reads anymore, despite whatever influence he might have had a generation of two ago. While I’ve only written on his work a few times over the years, the point of the 2013 post (to which I linked above) was to suggest that, though it seems dated. his scholarship on religion is still representative of the dominant (and, I’d add, rather troublesome) approach in our field.
Case in point, I recently pointed out how a current call for papers used what I’m often told is a long outdated term — the sacred — and my tongue-in-cheek tweet rightly received the following reply:
And so, with all this in mind, it is not insignificant that on pages 7-8 of Plate’s 2014 book we find who else but Eliade (a person who, he writes, “thought long and hard about what makes certain activities, gatherings, objects, people, and beliefs ‘religious’ and not just some other part of mundane existence”), not only quoted appreciatively but, I’d say, being used to anchor the whole exercise that is to come — which also includes a chapter on what I might as well term the agency of, among other objects, stones; for they “can be manifestations of a divine force, provoking people to pilgrimage…,” Plate tells his readers.
Whether that divine force is mere human projection onto an inanimate world or the human perception of an even deeper mystery is — much like in Eliade’s work — left rather vague, at least as I read it. For instance, concerning the Ka’ba in Mecca Plate writes:
The power of the stone to draw people to it is so strong that a series of silver frames have been placed over it for protection.
It was encouraging that a number of my students saw problems here as well — understanding that mere descriptions of how people themselves might talk about the world (“I felt drawn to it…”) hardly is a sufficient academic exercise.
So, as I concluded earlier, then, Eliade definitely has not left the building, something that is especially evident when we fail to redescribe and theorize the claims made by the people we study. For while I have no doubt that people the world over claim that their objects possess a unique or inspiring gravitational force all their own, as a scholar I can’t help but but see the objects that we surround ourselves with as blank, under-determined canvases used for any number of purposes by the people who elect to signify them in either this or that manner.
So it strikes me that the stones aren’t talking and don’t have any power of their own; instead, we’re the ventriloquists throwing our voices — something Plate suggests, in places (“Perhaps it is the ubiquity of stones in human life … that has prompted us to bestow certain stones with spiritual power…” or again, “Individuals as well as communities gather objects, place them in one locations, and allow these objects to hold a significant sacred place in their lives.”), but which seems to get lost in all the advice to learn to listen to what stones are telling us.
For, as far as I can tell, we’re talking to ourselves here, making the objects that we surround ourselves with useful props that allow us to portray a monologue as something other than what it is.