Word and Things: Recovering Theoretical Creativity

Adrian Hermann is Professor of Religion and Society at Forum Internationale Wissenschaft, University of Bonn, Germany. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

The debate that flares up in discussing a book like Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion seems to point to two different ways in which scholars are currently using the category of “religion.” At the same time, however, it seems that the differences between these two options are often not explicitly reflected upon. Instead, each side sees in their usage the only sensible way of speaking about “religion” and of conceptualizing its study, often without even being fully aware of the implications of their own position.

It seems to me, then, that rather than continuing this fight about the only valid way of dealing with the category of “religion,” it could be helpful to more clearly delineate the presuppositions and theoretical possibilities implied by each option. Nongbri has likewise argued that it might be a helpful starting point to contrast two ways of using the category of “religion.” At the end of Before Religion, which mostly deals with the category’s history, he provides a helpful distinction by contrasting “descriptive and redescriptive uses of religion” (p. 154, see also p. 21f). This is similar to what I have advocated in my own book Unterscheidungen der Religion (Hermann 2015) where I have distinguished between “discourse theoretical” and “theory of religion” approaches to the category. That is between, on the one hand, studies that do not make use of “religion” as a theoretical category and are interested in reconstructing the emergence of what is today a global discourse around “religion,” and, on the other hand, studies that are interested in describing things in the world as “religious” on the basis of a theoretical account of “religion.”

While I see much value in further reconstructing the various genealogies of the category, particularly in a global perspective (e.g., Hermann 2016) and we have recently seen many theoretical advances in this field (e.g., by Michael Bergunder [2014]), in the following I want to lend my support to a second point made by Nongbri regarding new ways of thinking about the other side of this argument, the redescriptive “theory of religion” approaches.

Just like Nongbri, I want to argue that we have to get rid of the idea that the only way of developing a “theory of religion” is to attempt to capture a set of phenomena that are somehow understood as being “religious.” Rather, I would follow Nongbri who argues for
a more playful approach to second-order, redescriptive usages of religion. Religion could be deployed in nonessentialist ways to treat something as a religion for the purposes of analysis. Such a move would shift our mode of discourse. We would no longer ask the question ‘Is phenomenon X a religion?’ Rather, we would ask something like ‘Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?’ (p. 155)

In this way, “theory of religion” approaches could be freed from the constraints of being obligated to encompass all identifiable characteristics of the ‘phenomenon’ of “religion in its great complexity,” as Benson Saler (2008, p. 222) would have it. Instead, it would allow us to re-discover a different meaning of “theory.” While earlier debates, e.g., between Saler (2008) and Timothy Fitzgerald (2009), stand for the two choices of either following Saler in attempting to formulate a “model of religion” that – ultimately – represents an attempt to capture religion’s “great complexity,” or, with Fitzgerald, abandoning any academic second-order use of the category and concentrating on reconstructing its genealogy as a heavily burdened hegemonic discursive instrument of power, there might still be another option: rethinking our understanding of what a “theory” is supposed to achieve.

In doing so, we could, for example, draw on the thought of political scientist and philosopher Wendy Brown. In her book Edgework she presents us with an understanding of theory that differs rather starkly from both Saler’s and Fitzgerald’s approaches to dealing with theoretical categories: For her,

[t]heory is not simply different from description; rather, it is incommensurate with description. Theory is not simply the opposite of application but carries the impossibility of application. As a meaning-making enterprise, theory depicts a world that does not quite exist, that is not quite the world we inhabit. But this is theory’s incomparable value, not its failure. Theory does not simply decipher the meanings of the world but recodes and rearranges them in order to reveal something about the meanings and incoherencies that we live with. To do this revelatory and speculative work, theory must work to one side of direct referents, or at least it must disregard the conventional meanings and locations of those referents. Theory violates the self-representation of things in order to represent those things and their relation—the world—differently. Thus, theory is never ‘accurate’ or ‘wrong’; it is only more or less illuminating, more or less provocative, more or less of an incitement to thought, imagination, desire, possibilities for renewal. (Brown 2005, p. 80)

In the ongoing debate about the relationship between “words and things” in the study of religion, it seems imperative to me to keep in mind two things: first, we should make use of a distinction like the one Nongbri offers in his book whenever we speak about “religion,” in order to make clear what approach to the category we are currently using and what we understand its theoretical implications to be. While the distinction between “descriptive” and “redescriptive” – or between “discourse theoretical” and “theory of religion” approaches – is itself not absolute, it would allow us to better profile and advance both of these options in the study of religion. And second, in allowing us to think about what theory-building might look like for a future study of religion, doing this might allow us to see redescriptive uses of the category less as something that can be “accurate” or “wrong,” but, as Brown suggests, as creative endeavors that can be “only more or less illuminating, more or less provocative, more or less of an incitement to thought, imagination, desire, possibilities for renewal.”


Bergunder, Michael (2014), “What is Religion? The Unexplained Subject Matter of Religious Studies”, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 26/3, 246–286.

Brown, Wendy (2005), Edgework. Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fitzgerald, Timothy (2009), “Benson Saler: ‘Conceptualizing religion: some recent reflections’”, Religion 39/2, 194–197.

Hermann, Adrian (2015), Unterscheidungen der Religion. Analysen zum globalen Religionsdiskurs und zum Problem der Differenzierung von ‘Religion’ in buddhistischen Kontexten des 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhunderts, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Hermann, Adrian (2016), “Distinctions of Religion. The Search for Equivalents of ‘Religion’ and the Challenge of Theorizing a ‘Global Discourse of Religion’”, in: Wijsen, F. / von Stuckrad, K. (Eds.), Making Religion. Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion, Leiden: Brill, 97–124.

Nongbri, Brent (2013), Before Religion. A History of a Modern Concept, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Saler, Benson (2008), “Conceptualizing religion: some recent reflections”, Religion 38/3, 219–225.