Saturday, December 29, 2012


Have I told you about "resource use decisions" (RUDs)? This deliberately unlovely, bureaucratic-sounding formulation is my contribution to the ERSEH (Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalayas) project. It came to me the last morning of our workshop in Shangrila, and now it's time to write it up. We're putting on a big conference in March, and want to circulate the papers well in advance. If my ideas prove helpful, they might shape some of the other papers.

RUD emerged from discussions about what on earth "everyday religion" was, and in what ways studying it might be useful in promoting environmental sustainability. "Everyday religion" was a term chosen by our little organizing committee at the one organizing meeting I had to miss - I'd been pushing for "lived religion." I continue to think of the two as cognates although, in fact, they're the fruits of different intellectual projects and disciplines. Engaging concerns of sociologists, historians and anthropologists as well as scholars of religion, they provide different problems and prospects. More grist for the theorist's mill! But also, one hopes, occasion for helpful clarifications.

According to sociologist Nancy T. Ammerman, studies of "everyday religion"

privilege the experience of nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas. That does not mean that "official" ideas are never important, only that they are most interesting to us when they get used by someone other than a professional. Similarly, everyday implies the activity that happens outside organized religious events and institutions, but that does not mean that we discount the influence those institutions wield or that we neglect what happens within organized religion "every day." We are interested in all the ways in which nonexperts experience religion. 
Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (Oxford 2007), 5 

That sounds pretty good to me as a start. It speaks to the populist anti-authoritarianism I preached when giving my talks in India in January, though it doesn't go as far as I'd like. There is expertise outside of specialists and status-conferring institutions, I'd want to insist, and there are traditional religious events outside these institutions, too. I worry about the passive implications of the language of "experience," even in a study emphasizing the ability of individuals and collectives to improvise and sustain alternatives to the work of institutions (13).

The "everyday" also brings all sorts of conceptual challenges with it. A distinguished anthropologist gave a talk about the everyday at New School recently which suggested that many of her colleagues (readers of Heidegger!) distrust the everyday as thoughtless, unconscious and, most damning, incapable of transcending itself; I encountered a similar perspective at the Center for the Study of the Developing World in Delhi. There's also a suspicion of the everyday deep in classic religious studies perhaps most visible in Weber's theory of "charisma," defined as out-of-the-everyday ausseralltäglich, and threatened by the everydayification Veralltägliching usually rendered "routinization" in English translation. To one of my religious studies colleagues, RUD sounds like the worst kind of routinization. These aren't debates I wanted to get involved, but it's actually proved good in helping me tease out the stakes of our proposals.

My preference, as you know, is for "lived religion," the view that what historian Robert Orsi calls "religious creativity" happens at every level and all the time: there is ... no religion that people have not taken up in their hands. The study of "lived religion" is in its way more ambitious than the exploration of "everyday religion." It directs attention to institutions and persons, texts and rituals, practice and theology, things and ideas – all as media of making and unmaking worlds. If the latter acknowledges (while challenging the dominance of) expert and institutional religion, the former implies that besides "lived" there is nothing but dead religion - even specialists in their institutions have lives and have creatively to make and maintain worlds. World-making is, I think, not only a great way of describing what people do, but a way to avoid anxieties about "syncretism" based on problematic ideas of purity.
Robert A. Orsi, “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live In?"
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42/2 (Jun. 2003): 169-174, 172

"Lived religion" is still in the same ballpark as "everyday religion," attending as it does to unofficial and domestic(ated) practices. But it might be better called "everywhere" or "everyone religion." Though it shares the preferential option for the non-specialist, it's really a theory of religion as a whole (and of religious studies as an ideological distortion of that whole). As you've seen me thinking and teaching about it, the lived religion approach inverts the view of the nature and history of religion which comes from specialists and was long replicated by academics. Religion isn't primarily the experience of something outside human life, but emerges from the challenges (and blessings) of life. Not everyone does it well - there are people with special gifts, many developed through special training, and it's natural to enlist their services - but everyone does it. And while we're at it, religion isn't just about otherworldly things. (Not Heidegger but the American pragmatists are the philosophical sources here.)

"Lived religion" has blind spots of its own, I'm sure, but I think it has great promise. For instance, on the vexed question of what is to count as religious. Ammerman again offers a good start:

Sometimes the participant is clear about what is happening, while the observer misses the religious dimension. At other times, the observer sees something of religious significance, while the participant is not so sure. … [W]henever people talk about and orient their lives in ways that go beyond everyday modern rationality, when they enchant their lives by drawing on spiritual language and concepts and experiences, they are engaging in religious action. Not everything is religious (or even spiritual) but when either observer or participant uses that category, social scientists should be interested in knowing why and how and to what effect. (224-25) 

Just how the participants' and observers' perspectives are to be brought together is the biggest question. My instinct here is to focus on the why and how and to what effect but Ammerman goes on to suggest that some kind of definition of religion is needed after all, and trots out the language of "sacred" and "transcendence" already hinted at above in "enchant" and "spiritual," along with "sacred others" like gods. I'm not sure we can do without something but this all sounds very monotheistic to me, indeed Protestant. As with the language of "experience" there seems a presumption that religion comes from outside and takes you outside ordinary life. I remember that at our first ERSEH discussion in Kathmandu one scholar embraced the category of "everyday religion" because, unlike most western "religion" theory which was about otherworldly things, this sounded like the dharma of South Asian traditions. 

I hope we can punt on the definition of religion by focusing on things people actually do and the decisions they make about them - our focus is given by concrete questions of environmental sustainability, not theoretical questions like "what is religion?" or "are all people religious?" or meaninglessly broad queries like "what is the Buddhist view of environment?" And so we come to "Resource Use Decisions," which only seems like a bureaucratic charisma-killer. Rather than supplement apparently non-religious categories used in studies of environmental sustainability with specifically religious ones, it stretches them in such a way as to let religious world-making flow in.

Here's the proposal from Shangrila:

The ERSEH project focuses on the way everyday religion shapes and is shaped by environments broadly understood, with an eye to informing policy on issues of environmental and cultural sustainability. It hopes to enrich studies of religion, environmental sustainability and the rapidly changing and politically and culturally vital Himalayan region by attending to the resource use decisions of ordinary people in their religious lives. These key terms are used not in their conventional economic ways but in a manner expanded and enriched by dialogue with the concerns of religious and environmental studies. 
Resource is understood in ways attentive to "sacred" as well as "natural" and "human" resources as constructed by different peoples. Resources are components of a complex social-ecological system in which individuals, groups and institutions not only use resources, but modify them, create them, and destroy them. Frameworks like RED facilitate the modeling of connections between components of each local "system" and can help clarify what is known and not known. Examples might include water supplies, time, the sacred energies of mountains, or the powers of religious objects and specialists. 
Use refers to the engagement of resources involved in all human practices. It draws attention to the variety of ends of human activity, far exceeding the emaciated ideal of homo oeconomicus, and to the various and new ways in which resources are crafted, exploited and improved by design. Examples might include sustenance, purification, propitiation of dangerous powers or festal squander. 
Decisions draws attention to the decisions people, individually and even more so as members of collectivities, make about resource use in ever changing social, economic and cultural landscapes; our attention is directed not only to what is decided but to how decisions are come to, as people seek advice and examples, cite, balance or contest authorities, seek validation from various sources, and give reasons of various kinds to various stakeholders. Many decisions are not experienced as such; it is interesting to observe when and how habitual decision-making practices are upset, recalibrated, and return to habitual status. Examples might include daily sacrifices, contributions to religious institutions (like sending sons to a monastery) or the amending of a ritual in the face of a changed resource environment. 
This model does not claim to be exhaustive but, together with the flowchart of interactions of environment, religion and state/development, offers a template for facilitating the analysis and integration of case studies. The deliberately mundane categories of resource, use and decision are intended to focus attention on different elements of social, ecological and symbolic systems; we may emend or replace them as a result of our studies. We may conclude that the terms, even as stretched, are still too utilitarian, or that they fundamentally distort indigenous understandings and experiences of agency. Even these, however, would be useful insights to offer environmental policy-makers. 

RUD was offered as a synthesis of many discussions and, in the absence of other proposed syntheses, has by default become our shared platform. I think it has a lot going for it, especially in the ERSEH context. Does it solve the problems of "religion," "world religions" and "everyday religion," and of the integration of participants' and observers' categories? It may not even successfully skirt them. But it does make clear to our research collaborators, innocent of the academic study of religion if not of western ideas of "religion," what we're about.

Sure, the RUD terms don't sing the way "sacred" and "transcendent" and the like do. They're not supposed to! (I actually like that the acronym can be pronounced rude.) But we've also stripped the ecologists' language of its secular halo. Who knows what we might discover!

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