In Search of…

Students in REL 490 are currently reading a couple of essays by Joseph Kitagawa (d. 1992), longtime (and influential) faculty member at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (from his 1987 collection), to help set the stage for our eventual reading of some of the works by the late Jonathan Z. Smith.

In Kitagawa’s essay, “The History of Religions in America” (1959 — originally published in that once influential set of essays on methodology), we find the following:

[O]ne must remember the admonition of Tor Andrae that the origin of religion is not a historical question; ultimately it is a metaphysical one.

It’s an interesting line, I think; given that the classic History of Religions approach was rather concerned with using the comparative method to identify the universal essence of religion, Kitagawa’s repetition of this warning has an ambivalent status in both his essay and in the field — not to mention how it could also serve to retain certain sorts of key inquiries for theology alone.

But without elaborating in detail here, I admit to being curious how people today read that advise… While for me discourses on origins are an effective rhetorical technique, employed in disputes among social actors in the present, I know plenty of people who still aim to figure out the origin of this or that religion (let alone a myth or a ritual) or who are set on explaining the pre-historic origins of religiosity in general.

So it seems that the admonition didn’t have much effect, unless there are more in our field than I realize who instead think of skin care products when they hear the word.

Let’s Get to Work

Mid-afternoon today, the last day of 2017, I received word that Professor Jonathan Z. Smith, of the University of Chicago, had passed away the day before (due to complications from lung cancer). You can read the obituary his family has written, which is posted on Prof. James Tabor’s blog.

In the coming days and months there’s sure to be a number of stories circulating about Jonathan — in fact, I’ve already seen many kind remembrances posted on social media. And, like others, I too have a few of my own. But one in particular stood out to me as I sat here, thinking about the sad news that I received earlier today. Continue reading

Coming Attractions: REL 490 Capstone Senior Seminar

REL 490 is the Department’s senior seminar, that’s offered each Spring. Required of all majors, its topic regularly changes as does the professor who offers it. The goal of the course is to offer some sort of test case or example that can provide an opportunity for students with wide interests to mull over the skills that were gained throughout the degree.

This Spring it’s Prof. McCutcheon who is teaching the course and the topic is the work of Jonathan Z. Smith.

But is it…? Continue reading

Agency, Structure, and the Myth of the Immaculate Perception

Picture 7

National Public Radio on the weekend played a story (an interview with Neal Gabler, the author of an Atlantic article on the same topic) about how hard many in the US have it economically. Continue reading

Our Highest Ideals

Picture 6I recall a close friend, almost 30 years ago, to whom I asked the following often-heard question, when they’d just had their first child:

Is he a good baby?

His reply?

We don’t believe in making moral judgments about our child.

I admit that the answer came as a bit of a surprise, since I was simply interested in knowing if the baby was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok; but, sure, after I thought about it for a moment, it was pretty evident that the old “good baby” trope wraps up an awful lot of unstated things and I had asked it pretty unthinkingly. After all, I could have just inquired if he was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok.

I thought of that exchange yesterday when I first read through the American Academy of Religion’s draft statement on responsible research, posted online for member commentary. (Click the graphic to read it.) Continue reading

The Eternal Return All Over Again

Picture 8I wrote a post recently in which I critiqued a new book by Brent Plate, saying it (along with other developments in the field, such as the turn toward so-called embodied or lived religion) was evidence that the work of Eliade was still representative of the field, no matter how much distance some may claim separates us today from when he first wrote many of his now famous studies in the history of religions (that is, back in the 1950s). I was lucky enough to have Brent comment on the post and a brief back-and-forth resulted, during which he posted the following comment:

I may be an unwitting Eliadean. So be it.

Continue reading

Classifying Classification in the Study of Religion

dandelionsclassificationSo ends the late Charles J. Adams‘s classic entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica on the topic of “Classification of Religions.” Or consider the Encyclopedia of Religion‘s own entry on the same topic (not updated in the second edition), this time written by the late Harry B. Partin — which concludes as follows: Continue reading

“Well I Guess the Biggest Question Would Be Why…”


“It is the fact that we have been preoccupied for a long time with finding in this seamless web of human activities the capacity to break one out and say ‘When they’re doing that one they’re doing religion’…”

Watch the video here:

This interview with Prof. Smith was conducted by Prof. Alfred F. Benney, of Fairfield University, while attending the annual AAR/SBL in Boston, MA, on November 21, 1999.

The Difficult Art

Picture 4“What we labor at together in college is the production of individuals who know not only that the world is far more complex than it first appears, but also that, therefore, interpretative decisions must be made, decisions of judgment which entail real consequences for which one must take responsibility, from which one may not flee by the dodge of disclaiming expertise. This ultimately political quest for paradigms, for the acquisition of the powers and skills of informed judgment, for the dual capacities of appreciation and criticism, might well stand as the explicit goal of every level of the college curriculum. The difficult art of making interpretative decisions and facing up to their full consequences ought to inform each and every course, each and every object of study. This is the work of education, it is also the work of the world and of life. Let students and the public and, above all, the faculty be told this clearly. This is the only sort of work for which college trains. It is more than enough.”

– from Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Puzzlement” (1986), republished in On Teaching Religion (2013: 127; edited by Christopher Lehrich)