Thursday, December 12, 2013

Theorizing Religion score

My dad sent this picture of sunset over the Pacific last night. That was probably during the time many of the students in "Theorizing Religion" sat down to craft their Final Reflections, which we just shared in class this morning. The crafting and sharing of final reflections happens each year, and is always informative (and gratifying - students are getting stuff from the class that means something to them, and which they're not getting elsewhere). But this class has had a special friendly energy, so when it came my turn to share my final reflection, I shared a lot.

Specifically, I noted that it's been twenty years that I've been teaching versions of this course -  as long as most of the students have been around. (For its first decade it was known as "Approaches to the Study of Religion.") I've not taught it each of those years, but certainly at least a dozen times, perhaps more than that. It's a special pleasure and privilege to teach it, as it gives the opportunity to reflect on what this religious studies thing is, and how I understanding my own place within it, year after year. And this can't just be open-ended navel-gazing, as it has to produce a workable syllabus each time.

Over the years the syllabus has changed in many ways, I told the class, but the core has always been a historical account of the emergence of modern thinking about religion in the West, and the academic discipline(s) that have engaged with it. The backbone has always been primary texts, from Hume to Eliade, as far as possible read in their entirety. But some of the same questions have dogged it the whole time, too. Classic texts? All western men? In various ways over the years I've tried to make it less Eurocentric, and leavened it with contemporary scholarship, much of the best of which happens to be by women. That we keep reading James, Durkheim, etc. seems warranted in part just by the fact that we do keep reading them. Pretty much the only texts I assigned in the 1990s that are still being read today are the classic texts, which serve as a lingua franca between generations - as long, of course, as we share this narrow core. Broadening the core seems the way to go, but this is something you can't do at the scale of a single class or school - or, indeed, country!

Lived religion has twisted the knife some more: to what extent does attention to thought, to systems, to texts reinforce a particular sense not just of what religions are but of what what human societies are like - an elitist one with hierarchies of authoritative interpreters? You've heard me worry about this many time before, so I'll say no more here. I shared this concern with the students, but admitted that the "hybridity all the way down" approach unsettled me, too ... as also does my discomfort with it.

I won't be doing "Theorizing Religion" next Fall - I'll be in China. And when I return to it in Fall Fall 2015, who knows what it will look like? Already when we did Marx this time around I remarked that my imminent Chinese adventure had given an edge of danger to ideas which, in an American liberal arts college setting, seem entirely recreational. After a year in the company of Chinese scholars of religion, some of them asking the same questions I ask each time I revise "Theorizing Religion," who knows where I'll be!

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