Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The rest of the story

We had a gratifying convergence of things in Theorizing Religion today, made possible by a happy accident. The accident was that T (a journalist friend of my late Uncle Don), who was supposed to be passing through NYC last week, couldn't make it until this week, and we decided to get together for lunch. Theorizing Religion meets right after that, so I invited him to come for a short visit, and he did!

The gratifying convergence had to do with what we did in class last week, and what the assigned topic for today was. All of last week was devoted to students' reports on "Religion in the News," which opened out into a broader discussion of media "religion making." One of the questions we discussed at length was what made a religion story something newsworthy. (Another, less developed, was what made some news agency construct it as a religion story.) Our hypothesis was that "religion" turned up in the news when it intersected with "something else" - ideals of secular education, rights, commerce, politics, etc.

T confirmed this in the most convincing of ways - for he was the editor of the excellent Reuters FaithWorld, set up in 2003 to generate more and better informed news reports on religious subjects. T couldn't commission many articles himself, but he could recommend subjects to the bureau chiefs in various place (he'd been a bureau chief himself in many places). He knew they were reluctant to take on religion for various reasons. The best way to get them to follow up on his suggestions was to convince them something wasn't (or wasn't just) a religion story! Religion may have been newsworthy on its own, but it only found its way into print when it was also something else.

We didn't have time to revisit the question of how religion is distorted by this sort of reporting - I suspect T would have had interesting things to say about this, since he writes both for secular and religious news services - but what we got was plenty. Not just confirmation of our hunches, but a glimpse of the complicated ways in which news is made. In our discussions about the media last week, we asked if what was at play was so very different from what happens in academia. (Later we'll reconnect it with the more personal contexts broached in our "religion matrix" essays.) Now we have a first hand account of the making of religion making in the news to work with!

But another gratifying convergence emerged when we turned to the day's scheduled reading, Friedrich Schleiermacher's "On the Essence of Religion." For the argument here is precisely that religion has been misunderstood by religions's "cultured despisers" because they have confused it with "metaphysics" and "morals" (politics, too). Religion can align with these, Schleiermacher argues, but they are distinct. (In a nutshell, Schleiermacher's "religion" is not thinking or acting but intuition and feeling.) Their interaction can only be understood when their separate "essences" are understood. Religion's essence is best grasped, then, not when it inspires or is coopted by "praxis or speculation" but on its own, in moments and communities of "feeling of the infinite." Could this ever be conveyed in a news story - even if it somehow struck someone as newsworthy?

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