In Other Words…

Like some of you, I woke today to an email soliciting submissions for a special issue of the open access online journal Open Theology. The email opened as follows:

A person who reads texts from other religious traditions sometimes encounters what the reader understands to be a transcendent encounter with ultimacy.  Encounters with the ultimate – not only with texts but also with practices and persons – need to be taken into account theologically….

Now, I’m not going to harp on why a scholar of religion received this email but, instead, say that theologians of course have every right to pursue such lines of inquiry. That many who identify as scholars of religion yet use that old Tillichian nugget “ultimacy” is indeed a problem, I’d argue, but even that’s not what occurred to me as I first read that message. Instead, two other things dawned on me: (1) how nicely the call makes evident the second order work going on when people study other people — or the things those people produce or leave behind, such as texts, and (2) how quickly we often forget that our analysis is not simply innocent description of so-called facts on the ground.

For in the opening sentence we see clearly that “ultimacy” is an outsider’s interpretive term, used to satisfy incoming interests by translating and organizing what might otherwise be seen as historically or regionally discrete and thus diverse local things. Yet in the very next sentence this imported quality seems to be a matter of fact that just ought to be taken seriously.

That is, the second sentence might have read “So-called transcendent encounters…” or “Such claims of transcendent encounters…”

But, significantly, it does not.

Instead, we quickly move from “what the reader understands to be…” to an apparent description of an encounter with the ultimate — whatever that may actually signify.

My hunch is that you can see this sort of move all throughout the field, but only if you look closely enough. For while it’s been a longtime criticism of so-called reductionists, that they put words in the mouths of the people they studied, by not taking them seriously enough, I don’t know of many people who, when reading their own texts, talk about experiencing the sacred or the transcendent, let alone the ultimate. Instead, that’s the talk of the outsiders trying to make sense of difference or anyone who has read William James, Mircea Eliade or Tillich. It’s not wrong to do — that’s precisely how knowledge is produced, right? We classify and group together based on curiosities, etc. — but recognizing that all scholars do it pulls the rug out from under the useful technique to deauthorize those with whom you disagree: by portraying them as alienated from the real heart of the matter that only you can see. Come to think of it, it’s little different from the way politicians try to earn your vote by portraying their rival as out of touch with the people or by representing themselves as home grown.

So the next time you see someone talking about religion on the ground or lived religion, or read something critiquing another scholar as not taking religion seriously enough, re-read that person’s own work a little more closely to see if you can catch the words they’re inevitably putting into others’ mouths in their own attempt to make sense of the world. For you might find that even when we’re in the field, and thus apparently in close contact with those we’re studying, we’ve brought our cozy armchairs with us from the library.

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