In or Out?

I’ve got to admit, I’m getting tired of all the “epistemological crisis” talk and the way it’s being pinned on the humanities in general and postmodernism in particular.

For the way I see it, members of groups that once benefited from a broad social consensus are now a bit angry that someone has pointed out the link between power and knowledge. Or, to rephrase, it’s curious to me how a socio-political issue is continually portrayed as an epistemological issue, as if this is all about how “we know” and not about “how we organize” and “who gets to organize.” Continue reading

“All of the evil that he represents for me…”

screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-27-13-pmSeeing cheering crowds in Miami, first thing this morning as I checked my phone for overnight news, celebrating Fidel Castro’s death, made me think a little about our disdain when there were rumors of people cheering after the twin towers collapsed (Trump routinely cited this early in his campaign); when is death — or better, whose death — worth cheering, I wondered?

But as the morning wore on and more news came out, my attention shifted to an issue that has long preoccupied me: our authority as scholars.

In fact, it’s a topic I spoke on last weekend, at our field’s main national conference, as part of a panel commenting on this year’s conference theme: revolutionary love. It struck me as entirely inappropriate for scholars of religion (but for liberal theologians, sure, why not?) for a variety of reasons, one of which was the problem of assuming that just because we study religion we therefore have something relevant to say about social issues, i.e., the ability to diagnose ills and provide remedies. For that’s what the panel was on: whether love was an effective political force. Continue reading

“A Horse is a Horse, of Course of Course”

quote1

In a review essay posted recently at the Boston Review — entitled “Holy Wars: Secularism and the Invention of Religion” — James Chappel looked at several recent books on religion and modernity. In that article he wrote as follows: Continue reading

Democracy is Risky

Picture 9A couple years ago I gave a talk at Lehigh University (a lecture that became chapter 8 in a book I published not long after). The topic was on my frustration with how scholars of religion — because they define their object of study as a universally present and deeply meaningful human impulse — often assume their research is always relevant. As evidence I drew on a recent national conference where scholars of religion were encouraged to think about how their work on this or that ritual or text could contribute to solving the problem of climate change. I could just as easily have cited the program for that very annual conference (something I wrote on long ago, actually), and how the “religion and…” rubric was infinitely variable (e.g., Religion and Literature, Religion and Film, Religion and Science, Religion and Politics, Religion and Food, etc., etc.); we often presume our object of study always to be relevant because we think that it somehow points outside of, and thus before and beyond, the happenstance of history. So it is assumed to play a role in anything that happens.

The problem, though, is that we also claim to be historians, e.g., historians of religion — but, defining religion in this way, makes us historians who study the transcendental. And that’s very unhistorial if you ask me. Continue reading

“It’s Absolutely Essential That You Continue, Teacher…”

obedienceThe other day, my REL 245 class, concerned with investigating some of the background assumptions that make it possible for many scholars today to study religion in America in terms of choice — as if religious consumers are shopping in a competitive spiritual marketplace — took a look at Stanley Milgram’s famous series of psychology experiments; dating from the early 1906s, this series of experiments examined the role authority plays in human action and decision-making. Continue reading

Critical Thinking Begins at Home

excellenceA letter came out recently from the President-elect of the main U.S. professional society for scholars who study religion concerning the conference theme for the 2014 meeting in San Diego: “Climate Change and the Coming Global Crisis: Religions and Responses” (read the full letter here [PDF]). Taking the letter as one’s object of study–since we, as scholars, are just as human, and thus our artifacts are just as interesting, as those we usually study, no?–provides an interesting moment in just how far critical thinking can take us when it comes to our own practices as scholars. Continue reading