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.

Word and Things: Recovering Theoretical Creativity

Adrian Hermann is Professor of Religion and Society at Forum Internationale Wissenschaft, University of Bonn, Germany. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

The debate that flares up in discussing a book like Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion seems to point to two different ways in which scholars are currently using the category of “religion.” At the same time, however, it seems that the differences between these two options are often not explicitly reflected upon. Instead, each side sees in their usage the only sensible way of speaking about “religion” and of conceptualizing its study, often without even being fully aware of the implications of their own position. Continue reading