Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Now we're talking

This might not look like much (!), but it's the fruit of an amazingly rich and exciting discussion about religion-making in today's Theorizing Religion class. It's the latest version of the "what is religion?" blackboard exercise, but we came at it in a different, deeper way this time. As well it ought to be: this is the third week of the class, not the first.

The discussion started with students, in threes, sharing their "religion matrix" reflections - a short essay on the role of the category of religion in their lives. The first of three "religion making" exercises over the course of the semester, this was the result of my work with the MetroCITI seminar last year, and is designed to surface, honor and engage students' "prior learning" about religion. Most of the students provided a sort of spiritual autobiography and were startled at how different and similar their classmates' were, whether they grew up in a world where religion was taken for granted (perhaps so much so that they felt they couldn't leave) or one where religion was off the map entirely, or any station or combination between. Many come from mixed religious families and narrated not only their own negotiation of multiple inheritances and loyalties but that of their parents and siblings, too. When we returned to one big discussion we considered if attention the intergenerational was a characteristic of accounts of people's religious state of being...

I'd told them also to think of how we might define religion and religion-making (this second a trick question, of course, since it's a made-up term) as they shared and reflected together. The blackboard sprawl is what emerged when we pooled our thoughts. Needless to say the many ideas which came up around "religion" wouldn't fit into any definition.
So we switched to "religion-making," which some students thought preceded "religion," or was identical to it, its dynamism, a dialectic. Religion, a sort of consensus emerged, is always "on the make" - both in the lives of individuals and communities, as they gather their inheritances and engage variously changing environments, friendly or hostile. This is why religion is always changing, and appropriately so.

Most of the students were thinking about religion-making from the inside, as people (in Orsi's terms) "make and unmake religious worlds," but a few also thought of how religion-language is projected onto the traditions of others, distorting them - closer to the subject of our course. I capped the discussion with a little lecturette on Wilfed Cantwell Smith's urging us to abandon the category of religion, since it's external and implicitly treats all belief as false and all ritual as ineffective - something which didn't happen and, considering all the things tied up with it (see our board-scrawl!), can't.

After a little excursus on inconclusive efforts to settle "religion" through etymology, I ended with Brent Nongbri's suggestion, fifty years after Cantwell Smith, that - understanding its modern western pedigree - we learn to think of "religion" in a "second-order," "redescriptive" way.

What sorts of interests are involved in such decisions of defining religion? Who is doing the defining and why? In other words, a good focus for those who would study “religion” in the modern day is keeping a close eye on the activity of defining religion and the act of saying that some things are “religious” and others are not. (Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept [Yale, 2013], 155)

This allows "playful" ways of thinking with the concept, compromised though it is. Nongbri doesn't call the first-order practices of description he's historicizing "religion-making," and is all about why we shouldn't assume them to be universal across times and places. He's also concerned with scholars rather than ordinary folk determining what "religion" is and can be for them - but I coopted him for our broader project, one in which modern scholars as well as practitioners are engaged in first- and, I suppose, second-order religion-making. We'll see where our discussions lead us! Perhaps today's discussion will allow students' prior learning more deeply to shape our discoveries.

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