On Religion, Words, and Things: A Reply

Brent Nongbri, from whom this response was invited, is a Visiting Associate Professor at Aarhus University. He recently completed a three-year project at Macquarie University (sponsored by the Australian Research Council) that explored the earliest Christian manuscripts from a number of angles, focusing on issues of construction and dating as well as provenance and collection history. The results of the project will appear in his forthcoming book on the archaeology of the earliest Christian manuscripts.

I’m grateful to the curators of “Studying Religion in Culture” for this opportunity to reflect a bit on “words and things,” and I would also like to thank the previous posters in this series for their insightful contributions on this topic and on the problems and prospects of working with the concept of religion.

I’ll start off my own comments, however, on a word other than “religion.” Continue reading

Words and Things: What’s in the Black Box?

Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill. Her dissertation “The Internet is Holy” charts the fusion of religion and information technologies in Silicon Valley since the mid-20th century. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

In our Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill I teach an undergraduate course called Technology, the Self, and Ethical Problems. The course serves two purposes, the first is to introduce students to the range of work being done at the intersection of religious studies and communication studies. The second is to prepare students to think critically about the relationship between words and things — what kind of social worlds do we build between and out of our shared ideas, languages, and material stuffs? Is it useful, or even possible, to think about these relations as existing between ontologically distinct categories? Continue reading

Words and Things: From Critiquing Ancient Religion to Imagining No Religion

Andrew Durdin is a lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He will receive his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School in the spring of 2017. His research focuses on Roman religion, magic and religion in the Roman Empire, and issues of theory, method, and historiography of religion in the ancient Mediterranean world. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

A few years ago, I sat on an AAR/SBL panel dedicated to Nongbri’s Before Religion. Since then I’ve continued to reflect on the ideological import of seeing religion in ancient cultures and how it serves to bolster the lingering notion of religion as a universal human experience. My interest was piqued, then, when I looked over the 2016 AAR/SBL program book and saw two SBL/NAASR panels dedicated to interrogating the category of ancient religion. The first explored the continued relevance of Nongbri’s book. The second panel was titled after Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin’s newly released book, Imagine No Religion. The panels’ juxtaposition on the program implied them as complementary, and, what is more, Barton and Boyarin explicitly situate their book as an expansion of Nongbri’s initial “sketch.” They adopt what I see as an eminently useful form of critical philology in an attempt to situate Latin religio and Greek thrēskeia in their ancient vocabularies without appeal to religion as an interpretive category. Having attended the panels and read both books, I’d like to offer some reflections on moving from Nongbri’s critique of ancient religion to Barton and Boyarin’s practice of imagining no religion. Continue reading

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

Words and Things: Happily Ever After Religion

Richard Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. He also curates the student-scholar collaborative blog, Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and TeachingFollow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

Brent Nongbri begins his approach to religious studies with memory of a problem. The problem is his inability to translate the English word, “religion” into the Khasi language of his fatherland. Well-disciplined in the liberal arts, he initially turned not to his father but to a Khasi-English dictionary for insight. Only after coming up short and progressing in his studies would he ask his father, who gave him the term, ka naim. Then as a graduate student, Nongbri knew well enough to inquire more—though again, not with an extended conversation on its semantic range but with yet another trip to the dictionary. There he learned that: Continue reading

Words and Things: Modern Concepts, Ancient Interests

Matt Sheedy (Ph.D) lectures in the department of religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, atheism and science v. religion in the public realm,  as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

Let us consider for a moment a list of native terms that Brent Nongbri discusses in his book Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) along with some of the more common definitions that have been assigned to them. Here we find the Khasi word ka niam (rules or duties) (1); the Greek term ioudaismos (the activity of Judaizing) (2); the Greek eusebeia (attitudes toward the gods); the Roman eusebeia (“toward the bonds of kinship”) (4); the medieval Latin saecularis (Christian clergy not in a monastic order) (5); the Chinese zongjiao (“ancestral” or sectarian teachings) (25); the Latin religio (variously rites, rituals, rules, worship, reverence, scruples, monastic life) (28-31); the Greek thrēskeia (variously signaling rituals, loyalty or obedience to divine authority, observances, worship of proper gods or a particular ethnic group) (35-38); the Arabic dīn (variously faith, law, debt, custom, usage, judgment, direction, retribution, social transactions) (39-42); the Arabic umma (community, nation, faith) (44); the Arabic muslim (“one who submits to authority, surrenders, obeys”) (59); and the Middle Persian dēn (variously community, church, omniscience, wisdom, goodness, vision, revelation, etc.) (69). To this list Nongbri also adds dharma, dao, jiao (though he does not analyze their semantic histories) while noting that “[n]one of these ancient words delineates ‘religious’ from ‘non-religious.’”(45) Continue reading

Words and Things: One or Two Things That I Know About Religion

Anders Klostergaard Petersen is a Professor in the School of Culture and Society in the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University, Denmark. He works in the areas of second Temple Judaism and early Christianity as well as studying cultural evolution. This post leads off a series of invited posts on the topic of words and things in the study of religion (introduced here).

During the last three years two important books have been published highlighting the absence of a concept of religion in the ancient world, namely Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale, 2013) and Carlin Barton’s and Daniel Boyarin’s Imagine no Religion. How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Fordham, 2016). Strictly speaking these studies are more narrow than their titles imply, since they focus on the ancient Graeco-Roman and Jewish worlds only. Yet, I think their argument pertains to any other pre-modern world as well, but needless to say that will have to be explored further in future studies. Continue reading

Of Words and Things: Introduction to a Guest Series

slicedordicedA longstanding debate across disciplines arose once again at a co-sponsored panel at the conference of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), last November, during a session (pictured above) devoted to reviewing Brent Nongbri’s recent book, Before Religion. Continue reading