Words and Things: Modern Concepts, Ancient Interests

Matt Sheedy (Ph.D) lectures in the department of religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, atheism and science v. religion in the public realm,  as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

Let us consider for a moment a list of native terms that Brent Nongbri discusses in his book Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) along with some of the more common definitions that have been assigned to them. Here we find the Khasi word ka niam (rules or duties) (1); the Greek term ioudaismos (the activity of Judaizing) (2); the Greek eusebeia (attitudes toward the gods); the Roman eusebeia (“toward the bonds of kinship”) (4); the medieval Latin saecularis (Christian clergy not in a monastic order) (5); the Chinese zongjiao (“ancestral” or sectarian teachings) (25); the Latin religio (variously rites, rituals, rules, worship, reverence, scruples, monastic life) (28-31); the Greek thrēskeia (variously signaling rituals, loyalty or obedience to divine authority, observances, worship of proper gods or a particular ethnic group) (35-38); the Arabic dīn (variously faith, law, debt, custom, usage, judgment, direction, retribution, social transactions) (39-42); the Arabic umma (community, nation, faith) (44); the Arabic muslim (“one who submits to authority, surrenders, obeys”) (59); and the Middle Persian dēn (variously community, church, omniscience, wisdom, goodness, vision, revelation, etc.) (69). To this list Nongbri also adds dharma, dao, jiao (though he does not analyze their semantic histories) while noting that “[n]one of these ancient words delineates ‘religious’ from ‘non-religious.’”(45)

Nongrbri’s genealogy of these various concepts is meant to highlight a fairly basic and uncontroversial point: scholarly descriptions of the ancient world run into serious problems when using the term “religion” to characterize cultures prior to the early modern period, where cotemporary uses—e.g., as a legal category that confers rights and privileges upon certain groups (155)—simply did not exist.

I did not attend the recent SBL/NAASR panel on Nongbri’s book in San Antonio, though I am not at all surprised to hear that there remains a strong resistance to at least some of his conclusions. While I can only speculate as to what these objections might be, a look through the pages of Before Religion provides a number of clues.

The first and most obvious points of contention, to my mind at least, are the allies that Nongbri points to, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Peter Harrison, Talal Asad, Bruce Lincoln, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, Benson Saler, J. Z Smith, and Tomoko Masuzawa, among others. Often times fault lines are drawn around the reputation of certain thinkers whose very names may provoke dismissal in advance of any real engagement with the theories and ideas under discussion. It is worth pondering, then, to what extent Nongrbri’s various allies may have earned him the label “pretentious,” according to one reviewer, regardless of the arguments that he deploys.

Or perhaps there is an objection to the very idea of interrogating “words and things,” which Nongbri does, following Wittgenstein, by directing “attention to how terms are actually used in speech”? (7) Consider, for example, a line from Victor J. Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis (2008), where he states: “I prefer not to indulge in endless arguments over the meanings of words that never seem to converge on a consensus.” (14) For popular atheists like Stenger, as well as many theologians, the instability of meaning is viewed as a threat to theoretical certainty, which, in this case, requires that “religion” signify the same thing (more or less) in all times in places in order to condemn it. While it is obvious to most scholars that this move is guided by Stenger’s contemporary political interests and ideological leanings, the same suspicion does not seem to apply when the shoe is on the other foot.

This, it would seem, is a rather strange “fact,” as it is clear from Nongbri’s investigations of the pre-modern era (chapter 4) the Renaissance and Reformation (chapter 5) and “new world religions” in places like India, South Africa, and Japan (chapter 6), that “religion” is a modern concept that was imposed upon various cultures around the world and that failing to account for these histories will always land us in troubled waters.

Near the end of chapter 7, Nongrbi puts his finger on a common problem that I suspect touches a nerve for some who are invested in maintaining the concept “religion” to describe the ancient world by substituting it with the term “embedded religion.” As he writes:

The authors who use the trope of ‘embedded religion’ generally write in a descriptive register (they present themselves as giving an accurate account of an ancient culture). Yet their use of the idea that ‘religion was embedded’ in the social structures of the ancient world suggests that religion is in fact a redescriptive term (ancient people did not recognize religion as a distinct sphere of life). (151)

As an alternative, Nongbri proposes that scholars engage in more accurate descriptive accounts of “ancient religions” by focusing instead on such things as “Athenian appeals to ancestral traditions, Roman ethnicity, Mesopotamian scribal praxis, Christian and Muslim heresiological discourses,” etc. (159) From this shift in emphasis, the scholar can then go on to redescribe such practices in relation to modern concepts of religion in order to compare the very real and meaningful differences that history bestows.

Much like Jonathan Z. Smith, who has called attention to more contemporary constructions of religion with references to U.S. Supreme Court cases, Nongbri wants scholars to consider “What sorts of interests are involved in such decisions of defining religion? Who is doing the defining and why?” (155)

I am in full agreement with this series’ claim that Nongbri’s book is an important entry point into these debates for future readers and suspect that the resistance noted at this year’s SBL panel comes both from an unwillingness to engage with such counter-histories and a fear, as Nongbri argues in his concluding lines, that such an admission will mean assenting to the idea that we must “thoroughly rearrange those bits and pieces of what we once gathered together as ‘ancient religion.’” (159)

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