Of Prepositions and Conjunctions

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The following is slightly adapted from the REL webpage’s
description of the Department motto.

Although it may seem to some to be a rather minor thing, and therefore something easily overlooked, our department’s motto — Studying Religion in Culture — italicizes the preposition “in” (not something we’re able to note here in the WordPress blog title, though). We’ve written it this way for close to 15 years, to draw attention to the fact that the conjunction in the more common version — Religion and Culture — carries with it a series of often undisclosed and, we think, troublesome assumptions that we hope our students will learn to scrutinize.

Often associated with the work of such scholars as the German sociologist of religion, Max Weber (1864-1920), and the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), the phrase “religion and culture” is generally used to name a field that studies the intersection of these two otherwise distinct domains. That is to say, religion and culture are each 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 mutual interactions and influences upon one another (or, as the site where I found this apt graphic phrases it, one studies how they’re “interlinked”).

religionandcultureFor example, consider the University of Arizona’s Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture, whose self-description is:

The Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture provides the University of Arizona with a research and outreach center that addresses the renewed role of religion in international politics and in societies across the globe and situates that role in historical perspective….

Or consider an upcoming summer course in Antwerp entitled “Religion, Culture and Society: Entanglement and Confrontation.”

Picture 14Basic to this way of approaching the field is the widely shared assumption that the area of human practice known as “religion” is somehow distinct and thus set apart from those other historical influences that go by the name of “culture” (which includes such other things as language, art, types of social organization, custom, systems of valuation and exchange, and, as in the Institute’s description above, politics — none of which is to be confused with religion). So, although not reducible to politics, religion can, nonetheless, play a political role — or so this position would say — and that role is the point of intersection or entanglement between the two. The question for this approach, then, is whether they will contest one another or cooperate.

What should be evident is that an even more basic assumption of this approach concerns the popular belief that the area we identify as “religion” is merely the public, and therefore observable, expression of what is believed to be a prior and dynamic experience, feeling, or sentiment. In a philosophically idealist move familiar to anyone acquainted with Reformation-era rhetorics, “faith” becomes the preferred name — by so-called religious devotees and many scholars alike — for this inner, private, motive force thought to be quite literally animating all rituals and institutions.

animate (v.)
1530s, “to fill with boldness or courage,” from Latin animatus past participle of animare “give breath to,” also “to endow with a particular spirit

“Religion,” then, is thought by many (both within and outside the university) to name the public manifestations (such as texts, rituals, symbols, institutions, etc.) of a deeply significant personal experience that is nonetheless universally shared by individuals. Because one cannot actually get inside other people’s heads — or so the common argument goes — scholars of religion are therefore left with studying these public, derivative expressions (which, of course, are prone to pollution and misinterpretation), comparing them across cultures in search of the similarities that may lead us to formulate a general theory of religion as a human phenomenon. (There may be no better example of how the comparative method is often used to search for sameness, as if that signifies some sort of shared identity and common origin.)

“Religion and Culture,” then, names a field which takes as its data the shape adopted by what is presumably the timeless essence of religion — a tangible shape taken when faith is expressed and thereby interacts in such historical settings as art, architecture, writing, behavior, etc. The job of such scholars is therefore to study what happens when manifested or embodied faith bumps into other things, what role it plays, and what this tells us about the inner essence that started it all.

But that’s not what the preposition “in” signals.

To study religion in culture instead means that one doesn’t begin with the assumption that these two distinct domains periodically bump into each other. Instead, the preposition signifies that the area of human behavior known as “religion” is assumed, from the outset, to be an element within, and thus a product of, human cultural systems — systems which are themselves historically specific products no less than any other system that structures our lives (e.g., the race system that we live within, the class system or gendered systems). So an assumption basic to this alternative approach is that the objects of study for any scholar in any branch of the human sciences are all assumed to be historical creations, that had a beginning and that inevitably change over time.

To study religion in culture therefore means that our object of study is assumed to be an eminently human and historical thing through and through — produced by human beings who came before us and something that we’re tweaking now before leaving the raw material to those who will follow.

What’s more, an important object of study for such scholars is how people decide what, within the wide cultural domain, gets to count as religious in the first place (that is, definitions and systems of classification are themselves just more of those human productions, right?). For if the domain that we know as religion isn’t obviously separate but is, instead, comprised of an assortment of mundane elements (such as what we do before we eat, how we mark a novice as a member of the group, who we decide you can or can’t mate with, what we do when someone dies, where we think the universe came from and is going, etc.) that we group together by means of our own criteria, our own definitions, calling it religion (or not) to suit our purposes, then to study religion in culture also means to study why we even call some sub-set of culture practices religious in the first place — examining what that naming accomplishes and for whom.

Looking at that picture at the top of the post, the one of the crowd, where do we draw the lines if we’re wanting to make some sense of that hectic group? Hats vs. no hats? Women vs. men? Dark vs. light clothing? Arms crossed or not? Who’s wearing polka-dots? Or maybe we should bring the notion of race into it and ask why the crowd all seems to be white in this old photo? My point? There’s likely innumerable ways to divide up that pictured mass of people in order to manage them, arrange them, make sense of them by ranking them…. In much the same way, defining religion in either this or that way, and thereby selecting from the innumerable things people say, do, and leave behind when they’re gone, now can be understood as but one more of those management techniques that some of us use to turn unruly masses of bodies and actions into something we think we can make sense of.

The result?

This is religion. That is not.

So this shouldn’t be taxed whereas that should, or that shouldn’t be allowed in publicly-funded schools but this should.

Although it may strike some as a little too subtle, for us the italicized preposition signals important information. For unlike the conjunction “and” that functions grammatically to link two distinct 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, encompassed by the other, thereby drawing our attention to what gets to count as religion and why (and for whom and for how long). Whatever else religion may or may not be to you, in this publicly-funded Department it is therefore assumed to be an aspect of far wider historical, cultural systems — using this no less complex term “culture,” yes, but as nothing more than a handy way to name the vast collection of actions and structures that people devise to manage lives, make meanings, and create identities.

So religion is 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, for whatever else you think it is, for us it’s a domain of the everyday that some people work very hard to distinguish so as to protect something or even to critique it.

And studying that arm wrestling match is what catches our attention here at the University of Alabama. And we’re hoping the italics catches your attention, as a typographical invitation to rethink the usual conjunction.

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