Saturday, July 26, 2014


My main "research question" for the China year concerns "religious studies in China" - how is "religion" studied and taught by scholars in Chinese university? Religious studies is a recent and fraught field in the US, which I know best, and all indications are that what I've learned to take for granted as "what religious studies is" is in fact a quite local intellectual and institutional formation. I know that, of course, and teach about the contingency and problems of it in "Theorizing Religion" each year, but my reference point has always been the North Atlantic, and more specifically the American case. It was an eye-opener for me to hear Gregory D. Alles at a panel on the not-quite-healed AAR/SBL split at the 2007 AAR Annual Meeting parochialize the intellectual culture of the AAR! His Religious Studies: A Global View made even clearer that particular claims to neutrality, universality and breadth were distinctives of US religious studies rather than the DNA of the field as a whole.

I don't know much yet about religious studies in China (the chapter in Alles' book makes a distinctive recent history clear, and things have doubtless changed since it was written too), but that will surely change quickly. I am truly fortunate to have landed a connection to an actual Religious Studies Department, and at an internationally respected university too. But what is Religious Studies at Fudan? They have a helpful page answering just that question, What is religious science? and it sounds serious. (Curiously the description is in English, even if you access the Chinese page 什么是宗教学.)

What starts out sounding like a pretty conventional old-school western understanding of world religions yields a more nuanced view of the diversity of the phenomena in question at every level. (The only question not asked is the bad boy one: does "religion" exist at all?) Religions have creeds, rituals and canons in variously centralized or diffused, written or other forms, which support moral codes and individual practices and "spiritual experiences" which, when shared, give rise to subtraditions of their own: there are very often several [spiritual] traditions within the same religion. But the way these are studied is academic and impressively (intimidatingly!) interdisciplinary.

Another area needs to be included into a curriculum of religious studies: the study of the study of religion. It encompasses historical, socio-economic, cultural and psychological explanatory paradigms. 

Philosophy of religion is a connected field, which tries to give meaning to religious experience and creeds in relationship to the philosophical systems of thought that have shaped the history of ideas. 

Becoming an expert in religious sciences requires familiarity with some adjacent disciplines and expertise:
(a) languages and textual analysis;
(b) sociological enquiry and methodology, including statistics;
(c) field study, non-directive interviews and anthropological methodology;
(d) history of arts, of sciences and ideas. 

Finally, we cannot overlook the contemporary significance of the religious phenomenon; it means formation to interreligious dialogue, religions and globalization, religion and ecology, religion and peacemaking, religions and feminism, religions and psychological healing.

A lot of this sounds familiar, and congenial. We'll see what it's like in practice! I'm sure to learn a lot, both about "religious studies in China," religious studies more generally, and religion - including Chinese religion. I'll probably be learning about all of these together, just as a visitor to American religious studies would find our categories and questions shaped in ways we aren't fully aware of by the inheritances of Protestantism, the enlightenment understandings of religious freedom in our political culture, and current intellectual and cultural issues.

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