Of Words and Things: Introduction to a Guest Series

slicedordicedA longstanding debate across disciplines arose once again at a co-sponsored panel at the conference of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), last November, during a session (pictured above) devoted to reviewing Brent Nongbri’s recent book, Before Religion.

I’m partial to the book, since it’s on the category religion itself, and how scholars of the ancient world use this term as they attempt to make sense of the material they study.

In fact, I blurbed the book.


Although work has been done on this topic for a few decades now, if not longer (if we count Wilfred Cantwell Smith, that is, despite his taking it all in a rather different direction by trying to name and thereby recover the experience behind the word, which he termed “faith in transcendence”), I tend to think that Nongbri’s book will be the entry point into this debate for future readers, inasmuch as he’s able to take the critique as established, thereby summarizing the work already done and, importantly, applying it to a specific e.g., to show what’s at stake in assuming that our modern word, religion (and what we name by means of it) is universal.

But the relationship between words and things (to nod toward a famous French title by Foucault [not to mention another by that title by Brown in 1957 and, yes, another by Gellner in 1959]) is hardly settled today, as is evident from the mixed reception Nongbri’s book has received. For example, using the above-mentioned panel as an example, not only were the panelists themselves divided (with some examining the category itself while others used it to talk about things in the past that just were religious) but, judging by the Q&A which followed their papers, the audience was as well. While not all those who disagree have adopted one reviewer’s oddly dismissive tone, such as when writing, “Nongbri, in a fashion that has become de rigueur for the pretentious set, informs us that ‘religion’ is not a native category….”, what’s clear is that scholars of religion have not settled this dispute between what was once simply called phenomena and the words used to represent them — since, for some, it’s not a matter of representation; for the very words we use are claimed to constitute the things that we talk about.

So we’ve invited a few guests to discuss these topics in the coming weeks here on the Department’s blog, since these topics very much animate many of the classes in the study of religion here at the University of Alabama (let alone elsewhere as well). Starting this week, they’ll be published each morning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (for the next couple weeks) and then Brent Nongbri (of Aarhus University, Denmark) will close out the series with some final thoughts on words and things in the study of religion.

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