Marian Apparitions: Religious Ephemera and Politics of Classification

Sierra Lawson, an MA student in the Department of Religious Studies, led our most recent journal group and has some reflections on the reading, Learn more about her work here.

In the Religion in Culture M.A. program, our monthly journal group has created a space in which graduate students can engage with faculty, beyond just their advisor, regarding their individual interests–interests that, ideally, will be reflected in their eventual thesis. While my focus on the Virgin of Guadalupe and her devotees in the rural Southeastern United States has remained constant throughout the course of my studies, my methods in studying her have evolved considerably. While searching for an article for the group to read next, I realized that if I chose it carefully it could potentially showcase a particular lacuna in the field that my work hopes to fill. Continue reading

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.

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 7: Methodological Pluralism

blindmenandtheelephantThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

Hanabusa Itchō‘s (d. 1724) print of the well-known parable of the blindmen and the elephant seemed to me a fitting image to open this commentary on the sixth bullet point in this document.

It reads:

pluralismI won’t quibble as to why the word “theoretical” isn’t bolded, but I tend to think it’s rather significant and not just a copyediting oversight; for “theory” is still (to borrow a phrase of my own, from an earlier but, I think, still relevant, time) a four-lettered word for many in our field, inasmuch as it implies, for them, determining the cause of religion as opposed to interpreting its enduring and deeply personal meaning. And, while many think that the era is long past when religion was claimed by scholars to be unique and unexplainable (what is meant by a Latin term we used to see a lot in the literature: sui generis), the still widespread commitment to seeing religion as a site where transcendent meaning is manifested (or embodied, as some now prefer to say), as opposed to seeing what we call religion to be a secondary phenomenon that results from some other mundane aspect of historical existence, tells me that not much has changed in our field. Continue reading

It’s All Relative

batmanRelativism, and criticisms of it — “Oh, you’re a relativist!” — strike me as similar to claims of reductionism: the problem isn’t (as critics of reductionism claim) that one reduces one’s object of study to something other than what it already is, but that someone else reduces it to something different than what you want to boil it down to. That not a lot of so-called religious people are walking around spontaneously reporting that they’ve experienced a hierophany of a structure of human consciousness called the sacred (as one well known arch-nemisis of reductionists everywhere might have once phrased it) suggests that no matter what a scholar thinks lies at the base of religion, inasmuch as they think there’s a universal base they are all deeply invested in reducing complexity and difference to unity and simplicity. Continue reading

I’m Rubber, You’re Glue

Definitions of the Humanities are themselves a curious thing, inasmuch as they often raise more issues than they settle. For example, consider this definition as found on the website for the US’s main Federal funding source for research in this area, the National Endowment for the Humanities:
Continue reading