Religion, Theory, Critique
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Religion, Theory, Critique

Classic and Contemporary Approaches and Methodologies

Richard King

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eBook - ePub

Religion, Theory, Critique

Classic and Contemporary Approaches and Methodologies

Richard King

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Religion, Theory, Critique is an essential tool for learning about theory and method in the study of religion. Leading experts engage with contemporary and classical theories as well as non-Western cultural contexts. Unlike other collections, this anthology emphasizes the dynamic relationship between "religion" as an object of study and different methodological approaches and openly addresses the question of the manifold ways in which "religion," "secular," and "culture" are imagined within different disciplinary horizons. This volume is the first textbook which seeks to engage discussion of classical approaches with contemporary cultural and critical theories.

Contributors write on the influence of the natural sciences in the study of religion; the role of European Christianity in modeling theories of religion; religious experience and the interface with cognitive science; the structure and function of religious language; the social-scientific study of religion; ritual in religion; the phenomenology of religion; critical theory and religion; embodiment and religion; the impact of colonialism and modernity; theorizing religion in terms of race and ethnicity; links among religion, nationalism, and globalization; the interplay of gender, sex, and religion; and religion and the environment. Each chapter introduces the topic, identifies key theorists and issues, and respects the pluralistic nature of the scholarship in the field. Altogether, this collection scrutinizes the explicit and implicit assumptions theorists make about religion as an object of analysis.

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1
The Copernican Turn in the Study of Religion
RICHARD KING
The academic future of religion as a concept will need to focus on deconstructing the category and analyzing its function within popular discourse, rather than assuming that the category has content and seeking to specify what that content is.
—William Arnal1
Debates within the field of religious studies, particularly since the 1990s, have increasingly focused on the “hidden” (one might even say “dark”) side of the “discipline”—that is, the cultural, political, and social processes that brought this particular academic field into existence, and the politics of its ongoing transformation. This interest in the way in which the field has been constructed, most strikingly exemplified by those who have sought to “denaturalize” the concept of religion as a category that maps seamlessly onto the diverse social and cultural fabrics of the world, received much of its initial impetus from the impact of feminist criticism upon the academy and its canons of knowledge. Since then a plethora of new “critical” perspectives have emerged, from those labeled by the (slightly problematic and triumphalist) prefix “post-” (for example, postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism) to other critical trends such as queer theory and critical race theory. Theoretical debate within the comparative study of religions is currently going though a process of engaging with these various intellectual trends—to which there are (and no doubt will continue to be) a variety of responses.
These trends have led to a widespread “postmodern” suspicion of grand narratives—of the universalist claims of an older generation of scholars to be able to speak in broadly essentialist terms about something called “religion.” Indeed this anxiety about generating cross-cultural claims has cast doubt upon the very possibility of a comparative study of religion. Such concerns are crucial to the ongoing development of the field, but they do not create an impasse that prevents the possibility of a self-critical and nuanced comparativism to take place. Indeed, I shall conclude this introductory chapter with an argument for the necessity of something resembling “the comparative study of religion” as a vital intellectual pursuit within a globalizing academy.
Despite this, mainstream textbooks on the study of religion have lagged behind in their grasp of the intellectual implications of such research for an understanding of both the history of the field and its ongoing formation and development. This volume is an attempt to bring together a variety of scholars and perspectives within an organizational framework that seeks to pay attention to the ways in which both historical and contemporary scholarship within the study of religion produces the very thing that they purport to study, namely, “religion.”
Generally speaking, the impact of these trends upon the field (as upon the humanities as a whole) has been to establish a stronger hold for what one might call “constructivist” or historicist understandings of cultural and religious forms. This trend, most famously outlined in Berger and Lückmann’s The Social Construction of Reality,2 published in 1966, has become something of an established “truth” or orthodoxy in the humanities and social sciences by the turn of the twenty-first century, though the implications of this standpoint are played out in different ways and with different degrees of emphasis in a variety of approaches. (There is a difference, for instance, between the position as found in the work of early structuralists such as Lévi-Strauss and the more radical rendering of the constructivist line by “poststructuralist” writers such as Derrida and Foucault.)3
At the same time as the constructivist position has established itself as a truism of sorts within the academy, there are also trends that seek to interrogate the implications of the constructivist or historicist position in the light of its own intellectual and cultural roots. In the field of the study of religion, some of these reflect conservative reactions (on behalf of traditions) to what is widely perceived to be a form of “multicultural relativism” (see, for instance, the work of John Milbank), while other critics have been motivated by a concern to move intellectual debates about “religion” beyond a narrowly Eurocentric history and frame theoretical discussions in a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and “globalized” conversational space.4 To what extent, such diverse thinkers ask, is the modern liberal acceptance of the constructed nature of cultures built upon a much older legacy of historicist thought that derives from the European Enlightenment and its critique of tradition, and that, in the field of the study of religions, has been most strongly expressed in terms of naturalistic accounts of religion (by European thinkers such as Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud)? To what extent do “secularist” accounts of religion offer an account that is unfairly “reductive” of the object of study (in this case, the reputed object “religion”)? An earlier rendition of such concerns about the implications of “naturalistic reductionism” precipitated the rise of the phenomenological approach to the study of religion, which gained such prominence in the late twentieth century (under the leadership in North America of figures such as Joachim Wach and Mircea Eliade) and which in institutional terms helped spawn the rise of autonomous “religious studies” departments in the United States and United Kingdom in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The phenomenology of religion (or “history of religions” school as it has sometimes been called) has come under increasing fire by recent waves of “critical theory” scholarship within the study of religion for the political associations of some of its primary advocates, for its romanticism, for its methodological naiveté and for its crypto-theological tendencies. The issue that precipitated the rise of the phenomenology of religion, however—that is, the search for an approach to the study of religions that does not offer a straightforwardly theological (read: “emic,” or insider) account on the one hand or a dogmatically secular, social-scientific (read: “etic,” or outsider) account on the other—remains a key tension within the field. All scholars working on religion in the contemporary academy will place themselves (or be placed by their academic peers and readers) at different points on the spectrum between these two poles.
Increasingly contemporary scholars of religion, influenced by feminist, poststructuralist, postcolonial, and queer theories, have sought to denaturalize the established categories of scholarly analysis—those terms and approaches that have been mostly taken for granted by an earlier generation. Most often this work has been done by highlighting the politics underlying the deployment of such theories, particularly in relation to processes of “othering” or exclusion (usually along gender, sexual, racial, or colonial lines). One does not have to be a card-carrying member of any of these intellectual trends to be impacted by the series of questions and challenges that they bring up for the field as a whole. It is in this context that contemporary theorizing about religion is now taking place.
A second trend in the academy at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a move (at least rhetorically) toward interdisciplinarity. This trend has led to the development of transinstitutional and cross-disciplinary centers but their status as long-term, stable entities remains unclear because they do not conform to the traditional spatial division of knowledge in the academy, which has been based on departmental and disciplinary specialization. As Andrew Haas has suggested:
The wider institution, however much it espouses a nominal notion of interdisciplinary studies, is not set up for the ground-breaking disruption and dispersal of a pure interdisciplinarity. The academy functions by virtue of its disciplines, not in opposition to them. Precise and defining boundaries are set rigidly in place through the creation of institutional compartments—faculties, departments, schools and colleges—that become dividing lines of bureaucratic organization by which each discipline is held in check and every field of study demarcated one against the other.… The University resists and will continue to resist any interdisciplinarity that disrupts the structural logic upon which it has prided itself for so many centuries.… The academy loves to applaud interdisciplinary rhetoric, and does so by employing this language of interdisciplinarity itself. But we know that this kind of rhetoric only goes so far. It must of necessity go only so far if the academy is to remain what it is.5
Despite this tension, contemporary work within the field of the study of religion continues to reflect this growing interest in stepping beyond the boundaries of specific disciplinary regimes. At the end of The Order of Things, Michel Foucault famously evokes the image of a human face drawn in the sand that is slowly disappearing as the waves wash over it.6 For Foucault the death of God heralded by Nietzsche (and the scholarly displacement of theology as queen of the sciences in the academy) has led to God’s temporary replacement by “Man” (and the establishment of the “sciences of man” as the replacement of the science of God, theology). This, he suggests, is little more than an aftereffect (an “aftershock” if you will) of the death of God. Similarly, this “Man” (actually a white European male) is destined to be displaced as a figure on which to establish the foundations of scientific knowledge and history.
Whether one sees the move toward interdisciplinarity in terms of Foucault’s prophecy of the demise of the sciences of man, or more simply as evidence of an attempt to redress previously unacknowledged inequalities and move away from narrow academic specialization, or even as evidence of the undermining of academic specialization and disciplinarity linked to the rise of managerialist and business-oriented models of university research, it remains the case that the mainstream knowledge-disciplines of the academy, grounded as they have been in the European Enlightenment’s reconfiguration of knowledge in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, are now being shaken up by a succession of critical waves that are hitting the shore of our “postmodern,” “postcolonial,” hypertextualized, ecologically conscious, and rapidly globalizing world. What will come out of these shifts is not yet clear. The interdisciplinary trend, however, has been most striking in scholarship that seeks to bridge the traditional divide between the “arts/humanities” and the “natural sciences”—particularly in work that explores and even disrupts an easy separation of the “nature/culture” divide upon which such a division of knowledge has been based. This is most striking, for instance, in debates about science and religion (especially the interface between cognitive science and religion), as well as in poststructuralist and feminist theories that focus on the idea of the thinking body (and that seek to read the body as both a “natural” given of our experience but also as an already cultured vehicle for framing that experience).
“CRITICAL RELIGION” AND THE COPERNICAN TURN IN THE STUDY OF RELIGIONS
Religion is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define. It is a second-order, generic concept that plays the same role in establishing a disciplinary horizon that a concept such as “language” plays in linguistics or “culture” plays in anthropology. There can be no disciplined study of religion without such a horizon.7
Although important intellectual precedents can be found in the work of Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), in many respects the epistemological foundation for modern Western theories of social constructivism can be found in Immanuel Kant’s work The Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Kant sought to initiate what he called a “Copernican Turn” in our understanding of human experience by demonstrating how our perception of the world is preconditioned by certain a priori categories (most notably, time and space). His analysis also offered an analysis of the constructed nature of our experience of reality, conditioned as it is not just by a priori and framing categories of the intellect, but also through the agency of the mind in organizing and synthesizing the sensory manifold that presents itself to us through the mediation of our sense organs. This realization, which for Kant related to a universal human subject, has echoed through subsequent European intellectual thought and, with increasing attention paid to gender, ethnic, race, and class identities, formed the intellectual foundations for the emergence of the social-constructivist paradigm that is now largely regnant within the humanities.
What we have seen in scholarship in the study of religion since the 1990s, however, is a similar “Copernican turn.” Just as Kant asks us to consider that the world of objects “out there” is actually framed by certain a priori categories that determine our perception of the world, we should recognize that the study of religion as a multidisciplinary field is not concerned with the examination of a stable phenomenon “out there” called “religion,” and that the object is itself constituted according to certain framing cultural assumptions. The impact of post-Kantian social constructionism and a wave of critical theories that have moved through the arts and humanities (namely, third-wave feminism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, queer theory, and the like) has been to highlight the ways in which the object of study is itself constructed in the act of examination itself.
As with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (associated with the physicist Niels Bohr), scholars influenced by a wave of critical theories have increasingly come to appreciate that what one chooses to measure (and how) determines to a significant degree what it is that one will find. This is no more a denial of an “objective reality” out there than Bohr’s theory is a denial of the reality of an electron, but what it does mean is that the kind of object one considers ...

Índice

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Preface
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. 1. The Copernican Turn in the Study of Religion
  9. Part 1: Historical Foundations/Genealogies
  10. Part 2: The Enlightenment Critique of Religion
  11. Part 3: Religion Beyond the West
  12. Part 4: Religion as Experience
  13. Part 5: Religion, Language, and Myth
  14. Part 6: Religion/Society/Culture
  15. Part 7: Religion, Ritual, and Action
  16. Part 8: The Phenomenology of Religion and Its Critics
  17. Part 9: Religion and Contemporary European Thought
  18. Part 10: Religion, Gender, and Sexuality
  19. Part 11: Religion, Coloniality and Race
  20. Part 12: Religion/Nation/Globalization
  21. List of Contributors
  22. Index