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

Like Mice in a Maze

mazeI’ve written on the parable of the blind men and the elephant before, as far back as Manufacturing Religion (1997), where I argued:

The problem with the story of the blind men … is that the level of the narrative open to the listener is characterized by privileged access to the fact that there is indeed an elephant beyond the individual perceptions of the blind men…. [T]he story works only because, from the outset, we as listeners see the big picture; we know that the men are blind, deluded, partial, or whatever else the metaphor of blindness communicates to us. We know the secret and so we “get it”: “Aha, it’s really an elephant and they don’t know it!” (p. 110)

Continue reading

“Firm Religious Beliefs”

Picture 6Did you catch the story, the other day, of the Canadian University in which religious identity and gender-inclusion ran straight into each other and the former seems to have prevailed? As reported in the newspaper, The Toronto Star, the story opens:

A York University student who refused to do group work with women for religious reasons has sparked a human rights tug-of-war between a professor and campus administration.

While the professor wanted to deny the student’s request, a university dean ordered him to comply. Continue reading