Understanding Our Present Moment

My colleague tweeted the following the other day:

It was a bit tongue-in-cheek to be sure, but it made a good point, I think, as he elaborated in a few tweets that followed, such as his claim that “religious studies has theorized myth since its foundation & has a set of theoretical tools useful in the case of confederate monuments.” Continue reading

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

Common, Yes, But Also Compelling

Picture 6 Having just come from the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, where scholars of religions’ input on the topic of climate change was encouraged, inasmuch as we are presumed to have some special expertise based on what we happen to study — as phrased in a memo sent last year to the chairs of its various program units, written by our then incoming President:

It is our scholarly duty, I would argue, that we bring forward a scholarship from a wide set of traditions that may suggest a meaningful set of actions in response to an unprecedented and shared crisis…

— and at which, in my reply to a session on interreligious dialogue, I once again critiqued a statement from 1997 in which Jacob Neusner argued that the:

special promise of the academic study of religion is to nurture this country’s resources for tolerance for difference, our capacity to learn from each other, and to respect each other…

I find it interesting to turn attention to the manner in which scholars of religion apply their work to domains outside those of their expertise. Continue reading

Membership Has Its Privileges

popecommunionMy first book, Manufacturing Religion, was a critique of what I called the discourse on sui generis religion — that is, the approach to studying religion that presumes its object of study is somehow unique, self-caused, original, one of a kind, can’t be fully explained, etc. To rephrase it, it was a critique of those who think that, when it comes to studying religion, a special set of interpretive tools must be used, to get at the deep meaning of religious acts and symbols, tools that are different from how we study other mundane aspects of the human.

Because, well, religion is just different. It’s religion! Continue reading