Family Resemblance and the Social Risks of Guess Who

Years ago, before I had kids, I was chitchatting with an acquaintance. I cannot recall what we were actually talking about. The memory is remarkable to me because these days I am rarely alone enough to enjoy a leisurely adult conversation. I can’t believe now how much I took such moments for granted back then.

Anyway, in the midst of the conversation, the acquaintance’s young daughter came out of a building to meet her mother. They can’t have been apart for more than a few hours, but their reunion would make you think it had been days or weeks. The scene was heartwarming even from the position of the third-wheel.

As I watched them embrace, I felt a second-hand joy. And maybe out of some weird sense of guilt or obligation, I felt the need to say something the way people do when they find a silence awkward. I had never seen the young girl before, and I said something about how I thought she resembled her mother.

I don’t think the little girl heard or cared to listen to what I said. However, the mother took the comment in, looked at me, and said that they the daughter was adopted.

In hindsight, maybe I should have endured the silence! 😉

I don’t even know if this acquaintance would remember the incident. But my confusion about the moment left an impression enough for me to write about it years later.

You see, I did not intend for my remark to be a commentary on the genetic legitimacy of parentage. All I meant was that, in my observation, the child and the adult had similar appearances. But if you think about a game like Guess Who–the object of which is to deduce the identity of a select person by asking the selector questions about the person’s appearance, then you can see just how derivative such observations can be. If anything, I meant to point out something about the emotional closeness of the parent and daughter. I happened to riff on a physical relationship to do so. My acquaintance did not grant the authority of my metaphor.

 

Lest you think I’m trying to defend my actions, you should know that as a Black father of bi-racial children whose facial features are often the subject of exoticizing conversations, one of my nightmares is that at the wrong place and the wrong time, someone seeing a difference in our physical features will lead to a well-meaning but prejudicial concern about our emotional distance and result in our separation. So if anything, I was happy to be schooled in the aforementioned moment.

Maybe I should have paid better attention to Durkheim and thought about the social function of my comment. The incident has got me thinking more about the limits of a “family resemblance” approach to religion. Because while there’s no problem with simply remarking that something is a religion or like a religion, it leaves unclear what that resemblance  means explicitly. As Timothy Fitzgerald says, “There is a human drama being played out here and we may want to know the story” (231).

Guess Who: The Classic Mystery Face Game. People are trying to guess identities based upon cartoon facial features.

But to essentialize a relationship is to grow comfortable with more ambiguity, not less. Besides that not being a great game, what are the consequences of that complacency?

Your guess is as good as mine.

(Just Like) Starting Over Pt. 3

Ellie Cochran is a senior at UA, majoring in Religious Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies with a depth study in Environmental Management. She will be graduating this May and plans to pursue a Master of Science in Family Financial Planning & Counseling.

As I sat in Professor Crews’ class on a Tuesday in early February, I found myself wondering about each of the students who chose to add her REL 105 course to their schedule when they registered for classes a few months back. Many of them, in fact, most of them were looking for a Core course that was both interesting and would fulfill some portion of their vast degree requirements. I too was in that position just three years ago and, without ever considering that I would obtain an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, I signed up for the introductory course.

At the time that I registered for my intro course, I was considering a change in degrees, but I had not officially decided on anything. Throughout my freshman year of college, my major was Business, largely because that is what I had hesitantly declared while attending Bama Bound the June before I came to UA. During the fall and spring semesters of my first year, I took a couple of general business courses which were required of any major within the College of Business. In addition to taking the business requirements, I, like most students in their first two years of undergrad, focused on also taking a variety of courses that would fulfill the general Core requirements for the University as a whole. These included History, Literature, Art, Humanities, Natural Science, and social/behavioral science classes. When I decided to forgo my general business degree just two weeks before I began my sophomore year, I suddenly needed to modify my entire fall schedule. As a result, I loaded up on a mix of lower-level core courses, taking an online Anthropology class, large-enrollment History and Literature classes, one Natural Science, and you guessed it, a Religious Studies course. Continue reading

Make It So

Did you catch Titus Hjelm‘s excellent post the other day?

His argument concerned the manner in which otherwise routine claims or actions are represented by specific groups, for specific reasons, as controversial; the apparent controversy of some religions (notably, in his post, Islam — at least to a number of people in so-called Western countries) is thus not an essential trait but one that is acquired in the public marketplace. Continue reading

Religious Studies in the Time of Trumpism

160613223709-trump-speech-fact-check-bash-ron-pkg-00003714-large-169-2

When I heard Donald Trump’s speech on Monday I realized that Trump’s rhetoric presents the scholar of religion with a crossroads. Scholars of religion have to make a decision about how to engage Trumpism.

Continue reading

Classification Matters: Mindfulness in the Classroom

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 6.14.28 PM

By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is now completing her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

A course I am TAing for this semester opens each class with a mindfulness exercise for calming and finding one’s center. It starts, “Plant your feet firmly on the floor, adjust your posture,” moving eventually to noticing breathing patterns and trying to adjust them accordingly. As I joined the class a week late, I was unaware that this was part of the routine. Sitting there on my first day, I was a bit astounded that this was actually happening in the classroom. I should note that I was not inherently against it, but rather classifying it with any sort of religious ritual that might take place. At that moment, all I could think about was how this could not only be considered religious by some but also potentially could be making students very uncomfortable (whether there was a statement on day one of voluntary participation, I don’t know). However, having lived in Boulder for a year and a half, I have grown accustomed to Boulder’s affinity for Eastern religious practices or rituals — whatever those may be — and their pervading daily life. Continue reading

“And Yet They Thought That We Had an Organic, Genetic Loyalty to the Emperor…”

japaneseinternmentStill wondering about the relevance of a liberal arts degree, in general, or of taking a course in the academic study of religion in particular — where, among other things, we examine the various ways that people define religion, such as essentialism, which posits a necessary and universal inner identity to all things defined as religious…?

Well, if you are, then take a look at the headlines these days and maybe you’ll see some application of the skills you’ve acquired in our classes — such as being able to identify the problems with (and maybe the interests that drive) generalizing to all a trait shared only by some. For George Takei, who was interned as a child in a camp for Japanese-Americans (who, post-Pearl Harbor, were thought by many in the US to be untrustworthy and disloyal), has something to say about the way current political discourse paints others with rather broad brushes…

Click here if the embedded video fails to play.
The title for this post comes form the 1:40 point of the interview.

Of Prepositions and Conjunctions

Picture 4

The following is slightly adapted from the REL webpage’s
description of the Department motto.

Although it may seem to some to be a rather minor thing, and therefore something easily overlooked, our department’s motto — Studying Religion in Culture — italicizes the preposition “in” (not something we’re able to note here in the WordPress blog title, though). We’ve written it this way for close to 15 years, to draw attention to the fact that the conjunction in the more common version — Religion and Culture — carries with it a series of often undisclosed and, we think, troublesome assumptions that we hope our students will learn to scrutinize. Continue reading