Saturday, August 04, 2012

After the religioclasts

Returning to "Theorizing Religion" after a few years is unnerving. I'm remembering thinking, at the end of the last iteration I did, that it hung together well but was committed to a classic texts/history of ideas/genealogy pedagogy in ways I wasn't sure I still fully supported. In the intervening years, that same syllabus has been taught, with no obvious negative consequences, and the five course texts I've ordered - all classics (Eliade, Freud, Durkheim, James, Weber) - remain central in the field. But still...  the most recent of those works was written almost seven decades ago!

The temptation is to put together a syllabus which, like when I design a brand new class, grows out of the most recent scholarly work I can find - lots of work published in the last decade, if not the last five years. Students are being invited not to a museum but to a vibrant community of ongoing scholarship, reflection and debate, after all.

It's not a new temptation. The "Theorizing Religion" syllabus has been worked over for almost two decades (!) in light of new trends, and is now sedimented with works which were brand new when first included but now look old: 1993, 1998, 2001, 2003. An astute student could date me from them. (As if I'm not dated already by my receding hairline, references to retro things like the cold war and "The Simpsons," etc.!)

These late-20th century publications are there because they work, have become part of the narrative of the course. They are the survivors of annual winnowings, based on student reflections as well as my own. (Plenty of other current works were tried once and dropped; some classic works, too.) They're not classic texts, nor likely to become so, but they help illuminate the continuing salience of issues and approaches introduced by the classic writers.

But are those the issues and approaches I should be initiating students in in 2012? I'm not trying to send students to graduate school in religious studies, although if they go I certainly want them to recognize what people are talking about. (If we were the kind of program so structured we'd have an upper-level course on the latest in theory and methodology.) I understand what I'm doing more generally as offering perspectives and resources valuable for any student, whatever she winds up doing. The most recent course description makes that broader aim clair:

Unreflective views about what "religion" is (and what it’s not) blind us to the true challenges and problems of "religious" traditions. More, they blind us to other theoretical and practical challenges of our time, for many other categories central to western modernity presuppose this particular concept of "religion." A critical understanding of "religion" and its implication in modern and postmodern understandings of politics, ethics, gender and progress can make this problematic concept a vehicle for deeper understandings of "religious" phenomena, an opening to genuine dialogue, and a resource for profound cultural critique.

That still sounds good to me (if a bit wordy; I'm working on it!). I'd inflect modern and postmodern with even more postcolonial, globalization and postsecular perspectives than before, but the project is sound. Yet does the Hume-Schleiermacher-Feuerbach-Marx-Weber-James-Durkheim-Freud-Eliade story, even narrated in a savvy postmodern way till cut it? The question isn't just if I shouldn't be knocking some of the old guys out to make place for Asad-Masuzawa-McCutcheon-Fitzgerald, a group one might call religioclasts for their claim that the concept of "religion" is eurocentric, ideological and should be abandoned. The religioclast perspective is part of the narration; my very first stab at this material already made a similar point, albeit with the work of "the Smiths" - Wilfred Cantwell and Jonathan Z.

(There is some sort of performative contradiction in a religioclast course in religious studies - a requirement for majors and minors which challenges the coherence and legitimacy of the field! - but I've long owned and enjoyed that, precisely as part of the broader contribution of the discipline. A witty student once explained the difference between religious studies and theology: "they study God, we study them." My approach just extends that to the culture at large: "they believe in religion, we study them." I do think it's valuable for political and cultural critical reasons to understand all this, and if pushed I might concede that seeing through "religion" may be religiously valuable too.)

The question is, rather, if an understanding of "western modernity," figured through essentially academic concepts and theories, is still pertinent. Shouldn't I be offering non-western views? Or at least case studies illustrating what the guild now understands to be paradigmatic of religion? The problem is that there are none of the former, for all the reasons the religioclasts have been giving, and that the guild doesn't agree about the latter, with each subspecialty offering its own case studies and the religioclasts inspiring polemical subjects like suicide bombers, heritage buffs, support groups, UFOlogists, fly-fishers and secular liberals.

What to do? My two decades in this business have made me aware of how quickly academic fashion changes. I want to give my students things that will be valuable in the long run. I've sometimes sniff at courses some of my colleagues teach for offering students only "perishable" materials, none of which will even be remembered ten or twenty years from now, but it would be hard to find a more ideologically freighted concept than that of "imperishable" classics. Would adding more recent works, and works from non-western traditions help? I'm tempted to pursue Daniel Dubuisson's throwaway remark about how the western homo religiosus could be knocked out by a homo dharmicus or a homo shamanicus; I'm fantasizing about the second, as it would explode the world religions frame, too.

I'm worrying that there is no place to go after the religioclasts but perishable theory, chauvinistic particularism, naive commitment to lived religion or disengenuous new universalism - all of which tempt me! I'll let you know what unfolds.

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