Grist for the Millstone

I recall a conference, quite some years ago, where, as part of a panel discussion, I was once called “a vulgar Smithian”; it was a criticism that responded to my interest in the category “religion” itself, thus linking me to Jonathan Z.’s often-cited (and, these days, often-criticized) claim from the opening to his 1982 essay collection, Imagining Religion:

… while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.

I made clear, at that time, that I took this characterization as a tremendous complement — I may have even thanked the person, if memory serves me, thereby owning the label — despite the pretty obvious implication that it was intended as an insult. For it struck me that being put anywhere in the company of Smith’s work, at least how I read it, wasn’t such a bad place to be.

What I find curious about all this is the amount of ink that some have spilled contesting such interests — that is, there’s quite a few c.v. lines, and now social media posts (some surprisingly personal), that wouldn’t exist if a few of us (it’s hardly all about me) hadn’t read Smith (and many others, of course) in just this way, applying their thoughts from there to here in just this manner, to thereby supply grist for other people’s mills — either to defend or critique what some see as the orthodoxy in our field. After all, that’s how discourses work, no? If we all agreed with each other then there likely wouldn’t be much to write about and we’d all order the same thing in restaurants.

So it strikes me that this critical turn, of which I am just one (recent) member, has been of tremendous value to the discourse and the field, and this includes the people who might now get to add notches to their belts by disagreeing so vehemently with some of the work now being done.

By the way, have you ever read the late Hans Penner’s 1984 review of Imagining Religion…? Smith and Penner started their careers together and they were longtime friends, but he’s got some real criticisms of the book. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but the distinction between the work and the person doing the work seems useful.

2 thoughts on “Grist for the Millstone

    1. It’s a useful review. Glad it’s helpful. Hans’s work is largely unread today, I fear, and it shouldn’t be… Do you know his “Is Phenomenology a Method for the Study of Religion?” The Bucknell Review 18/3 (1970)…? Or his “The Poverty of Functionalism,” History of Religions 11/1 (1971)…?