Problems in the Big Tent

Photo of old curcus tent with two peaksOn social media yesterday a variety of people posted a link to a recent First Things blog post by a theology professor at Nortre Dame who made the argument that religions other than Christianity do not have theologies.

For although “[n]on-Christian piety is real and profound,” or so she claims, she defines the term theology in such a way, taking into account it’s so-called pre-modern usage, as to exclude anyone but Christians from having it. She writes:

Non-Christian piety is touching, because it does innocently and naively touch on the reality of God. The piety of pagans is like the love of virginal girls, who have yet to kiss the Bridegroom and yet fervently desire Him.

Her conclusion? Continue reading

#Day2018

Photo of Elijah Siegler

We’re very pleased to announce that Dr. Elijah Siegler, of the College of Charleston, will be our 2017-18 Day Lecturer.

The date for the event is still to be set, but we anticipate it being early in the Spring 2018 semester and we’re looking forward to Dr. Siegler being on campus for a couple days, visiting classes and meeting with students and faculty.

In his public lecture, Dr, Siegler will be speaking on what a scholar of religion might have to say about the films of the Coen brothers. His title: Myth, Meaning and Morality in the Films of the Coen Brothers.

Know their work?

For more on the Day Lecture, visit it’s page on the Department website.

This event is free and open to the public.

Digital Religious Studies

Photo of old computer punch cards

If you’ve followed our Department then you might know about our new MA, which started this Fall. While it’s focused on helping students develop their social theory skills, it also has a focus on the digital skills that have become increasingly relevant in scholarship — whether to communicate with wider audiences, via a variety of online projects (what might be called the public humanities), or to enhance the traditional research that we do.

That’s why every incoming group of grad students takes two required Fall classes, one on social theory and the other on digital tools. Continue reading

Components of What?

Picture of cards nad poker chipsOne of our grad students has pointed out a problem with a recent article that we read in our Department’s monthly journal group; Sarah wrote:

Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within…

I think this is a pretty keen insight, for when I first read the article I was struck by a passage on p. 323, coming after a long quotation concerning the difficulties of defining “society” and “culture”: Continue reading

Looking Over and Overlooking

Malory Nye’s tweet, the other day, got me thinking… So I replied:

Picture of three tweets that start to make the point of this blog post

For a while, now, I’ve had this feeling: as happens with any new and successfully reproduced social developments (or what advocates just call advances), newcomers to the group tend to normalize them. Which is a wonderful luxury, if you think about it — in fact, it’s likely among the things the earlier generation worked toward: the right of subsequent members to take things for granted that their elders could not.

“Of course we ought to have a course on theories of religion” someone might now say in our field, or, “Sure, naming something as ‘religious’ is worthwhile studying.” Why? Coz “#classificationmatters” they my tweet in reply. But the risk of normalizing such gains is that we fail to see them as the accomplishments of historical actors, in prior situations where this was not the case. Continue reading

Keyword

Book cover the the Keywords volume

A new book appeared in the Department the other day (it’s the second edition). Well, not new — the first edition came out in 2007 and this edition came out in 2014. So, having not seen it before, maybe I should just say that it’s new to me. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Two Roads Diverged…

Reslan Aslan, on the CNN show, Believer, speaking with a Hindu asceticI’m on a panel, at a national conference this November, assessing the contributions of the late Huston Smith, so I’m re-reading some things that I’ve not read in a long time — such as his 1958 book, The Religions of Man (which, in one or another edition, has been in print ever since it was first published).

Book cover of Huston Smith's 1958 book, The Relgiions of Man Continue reading

Damned if You Zoo, Damned if You Don’t: Mignolo and the Philosophy of Religion

Child in Seuss Landing Playground

Joe Shlabotnik (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

While the future and composition of the philosophy of religion is being challenged by several authors, I’ll wager that few are daring to teach its topics differently in their 100-level courses. For Labor Day weekend (2017), I was at Drake University for a meeting of the seminar on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion. Where mainstream philosophers of religion mostly concern themselves with topics culled from Abrahamic religions, a primary objective is to create teaching resources based on a wider range of topics for reason-giving about religion. Among the proposed outcomes are a syllabus and a textbook to promote this approach to doing the philosophy of religion.

My new colleague, Oludamini Ogunnakie, made use of the zoo as a metaphor to illustrate potentially problematic aspects of our seminar. First, the zoo business is something already practiced by the world religions paradigm. The work of Chantepie de la Saussaye is difficult to surpass in its ambition, and new intellectual projects do well to critically reconsider whether to continue such work. Everyone at the seminar agreed we should not sustain the rather simplistic premise that philosophers of religion need to merely widen their existing scope of inquiry. Just because some is good, more is not better.

There is a further reason that the global-critical philosophy of religion seminar should avoid getting into the zoo business.

Dr. Suess Zoo figurings

Wackystuff (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Dr. Ogunnakie mentioned the metaphor, I immediately thought of another acquaintance, whose collection includes If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss. Seuss documents the zoological aspirations of one Gerald McGrew. It is not my favorite book. Seuss tells how young Mr. McGrew’s finds his local zoo to be boring. As a remedy, McGrew begins a counterfactual thought experiment. He proposes what sorts of exhibits he would collect to curate the McGrew Zoo.

As I read it, McGrew uses all sorts of violent devices to capture and import oddities from afar. Furthermore, McGrew describes other people in ways that I can only qualify as racist and xenophobic. At no point does author of the book hint at any problems with McGrew’s actions and language. My conclusion is that this book is not one I wish children to read. If you wish to see, here is the story in full.

Likewise, revising the practice and contents for the philosophy of religion should avoid the notion of making a new zoo. Such a project would perpetuate orientalism and unquestioningly practice the violence of cultural appropriation. The seminar would undermine its other objectives by accumulating some impressive number exotic things to enclose and curate. That would make for precisely the sort of textbook that I do not wish undergrads to read.

There’s a sticky situation here. How can the seminar’s outcomes not appear to be in the zoo business?

One major rationale for the seminar is that our field has become all-too-familiar. Not much has changed since Ralph Cudworth coined the term at Cambridge to propose the True Intellectual System of the Universe. Inquiries in the field continue to orbit around the coherence of theism. The problematic issue is that the seminar is attempting to initiate a Copernican revolution for its field without alienating itself.

Almost anything will appear exotic to philosophers of religion whose discourses are, by and large, structurally and systematically limited to the topics of philosophical theology. The problem is manifested by a systemic reluctance to consider different data. Furthermore, the integration of different data can well be seen as a move to use existing methodologies to contain and domesticate such data. Philosophical methods pursue questions about comparative validity of reason-giving in order to set forth normative accounts or truths. And the seminar is propelled in part by a critical inquiry into why and how practices and systems of reason-giving have been excluded on the ground of their strangeness to Greco-Europoean intellectual history.

And so whatever the seminar produces, careful attention is needed to avoid the appearances of Gerald McGrew. The objectives and outcomes should not be a new zoo. How might the seminar avoid such aspersions?

Walter Mignolo’s work usefully theorizes the problem. As Mignolo argues: ‘‘There can be no others’’ inscribed a conceptualization of knowledge to a geopolitical space (Western Europe) and erased the possibility of even thinking about a conceptualization and distribution of knowledge ‘‘emanating’’ from other local histories (China, India, Islam, etc.)” (59). Mignolo notes how this creates conditions for what he calls the double-bind of border thinking (71). The risk is that either the exempli gratia and methods presented will so congruent with prevailing paradigms that their inclusion seems gratuitous, or, they will seem so strange that their validity as plausible modes of philosophizing will be cast in doubt.

I may be mistaken, but therein lies one of the sticky wickets facing the seminar. The seminar meets again at the AAR’s annual meeting this fall in Boston. I will try to keep you posted!