MRBlog | DISPATCHES. NEH Summer Institute on Problems in the Study of Religion (pt. 3) by Sarah E. Rollens

By Sarah E. Rollens

On July 17, the NEH Summer Institute on Problems in the Study of Religion at UVa wrapped up. I reported on the books and discussions during Week 1 here and Week 2 here. In Week 3, we engaged with questions about the disciplinary boundaries of religious studies, had the opportunity to meet with the author of another book we had read, and reached a level of group comfort in which inflammatory comments were actively encouraged—all in good, intellectual fun!

The first book of the week was Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (2010). In this (as some participants noted, somewhat unconventional) ethnography, Bender examines various people in Cambridge, MA, who identify as “spiritual but not religious” and engage in practices such as yoga, past life recollection, and other things that are usually swept together as “new age religion.” Though her informants typically understand themselves to have very individualistic practices, she analyzes them collectively and argues that their identities are strongly embedded in their social and cultural settings. In fact, many of them appear to use strategies to obfuscate the cultural and social sources of their spiritual identities. This means that spirituality, like religious, is a socially constructed category that is always historically contingent. It is, many of us noted, a product of modernity, despite its rhetoric of accessing an older, arcane authenticity. Indeed, Bender makes sense of these metaphysical practices in light of a very modern context: nineteenth-century discourse on spirituality and transcendentalism in American religion.

Since several participants in the Institute were anthropologists, there was extensive discussion about Bender’s ethnographic method. Instead of defining a particular group to study, Bender followed social networks outlined by her informants and thus ended up looking at a range of intersecting groups of practitioners in Cambridge. Moreover, these loosely collected practices were labeled as “metaphysical,” which some argued might impose a kind of false homogeneity to them. And, while she participated in some of their practices, it was clear that she was only an observer at others. We also wondered about the goal of this project: was it merely to underscore the embedded nature of religious identities, even if her informants profess otherwise, or was there a wider claim about the strategies of obfuscation involved in all identity production?

Lingering questions provided fodder for later in the week, when Bender herself visited us and talked more about the way in which she undertook this project.

Courtney Bender answers questions about her book
Courtney Bender answers questions about her book

In particular, she clarified how she used the categories of her analysis to organize her data: while she strove to accurately represent her informants, she was under no obligation to let them dictate the categories of her analysis, and so “metaphysicals” or “mystics” were scholarly categories which allowed her to analyze this nexus of practices and identities. We also chatted with her about the contours of higher education and religious studies’ place within wider university settings. Many of us were particularly interested in this topic, because we often have to justify the need for religious studies to be a separate department, despite its self-consciously interdisciplinary identity.

Up next was Sabha Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2015). Mahmood explores the politics of religion and secularism in contemporary Egypt, challenging the notion that they are simply separate spheres in the modern world. On the contrary, she argues that the nation state actively determines what counts as religion by policing an idealized religious/secular divide. In the case of Egypt, this contributes to religious conflict, which she illustrated by looking at the examples of Coptic Christians and Baha’is, both minorities in the country. Both of these groups have their religious identities regulated and in many ways, reorganized, by the state, because they are minorities that fall in particular legal categories. Thus, she looks closely at the ways in which the secular nation state of Egypt categorizes “religious minority” over against the majority Muslim identity. Mahmood did not seem to offer any way forward from the conflicts that she explored, but was most interested in exposing how the power operates to produce (in typical genealogical style).

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Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age

While some of the participants praised this book for uncovering the regimes of power involved in the discourse of secularism, others saw this book as a way to reinscribe inherently unequal social structures (a criticism which has been made of Mahmood’s other work as well). It brought up numerous questions for the critical study of religion. How do the power structures of the state affect how we study religion (and what counts as religion)? Do scholars have an obligation to offer ways forward when they wage such a strong critique of regimes of power? Can secularism still entail any beneficial project of liberation? Should people’s experiences of their own religious identity (even when they are determined by power) count for the scholar? If so, in what ways?

I personally think that Mahmood is one of the greatest thinkers of our time and that in this book she clearly articulated a very real problem entailed in the discourse of secularism. I do not think that scholars are obliged to solve the problems that they highlight, since we are not policy makers, lawmakers, or religious leaders. In fact, it seems more ethical to me to have separate people responsible for the critique and for proposing ways forward.

The final book of the week, and of the Institute, was Thomas Lewis’ Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion & Vice Versa (2016). This short book of essays brought together a number of conversations we’d been having in the previous two weeks. We spend the majority of the discussion talking about the role of normativity in our field and the goal of religious literacy in our classes. First, normativity. Lewis argues that all scholars of religion are engaged in normative projects whether they realize it or not. Any analysis, he contends, to show how things really work is making a normative claim. This makes work in religious studies structurally similar to theology, which is engaged in explicitly normative projects. Since this is the case, Lewis suggests that scholars of religion ought to engage with theologians, given that they are both generating normative claims about what they study. In a reasoned discussion that exposes all claims to critique, both sides ought to be able to assess which claims are more useful, more logical, or just better than others.

Some of the participants, myself included, were not completely convinced with this dimension of his argument. While we could certainly see how some projects in religious studies could have normative claims (think Slingerland and his claim that religious reasoning is a product of evolved strategies of cognition), others do not seem to have a normative bent. In particular, part of our field, in my opinion, is simply showing how certain interpretative frameworks are possible, not showing that they should or should not be carried out. I used the example of employing a capitalist framework to interpret the Gospel of Matthew. I wouldn’t advocate that such a reading is the “correct” one, and I think it would be based on problematic historical claims. But, I could see myself making an argument for how someone might use the intellectual resources in Matthew for such a project today. I could also see doing a similar project by arguing conversely that the gospel supports socialism. My goal would not be to advocate either interpretation, nor to argue that either one should not be done (who am I to police religious interpretations when I am not a practitioner of them?), but rather to expose the strategies that might make such interpretations possible. I don’t necessarily see a normative effort in such demonstrations.

As one participant put it, this critique of inherent normativity could be taken as a “minor win” for theologians, since it at least keeps their place at the Religious Studies table, so to speak. A little bit odd, we might also muse, since for a long time, it was a “theologians only” table. In any case, this part of Lewis’ book revitalized a long-standing debate about the relationship between religious studies and theology and shows that it is still alive and well in our field.

Second, the goal of religious literacy. Lewis was critical of efforts to teach religious literacy, because it distorts many of the complex issues with which religious studies scholars are actually concerned. This is an important critique to discuss, since many would argue that the civic good that religion professors provide students is knowledge about world religions. Yet we in the field all know that “world religions” is a terribly problematic category, and trying to boil them down to facts and figures is notoriously difficult, if not impossible.

So-called “world religions”

For Lewis, this enterprise also cannot take into account the lived expressions of these religions that we desperately need to understand. “Religious literacy” is thus a discourse full of normative claims about what different religions should or should not look like, which is not something many of us are comfortable participating in and is not especially helpful for understanding many global events. In our discussion group, this also engendered a great discussion about how to teach introductory classes in religious studies, world religions course, and survey courses.

Thus, the “problems” that the Institute ended with are rather practical ones: how should we, as a discipline, move forward? What are the boundaries of our field? What kind of scholarship are we aiming to produce? What are our obligations as teachers? These questions will continue to engage scholars as we work out what it means to study religion.

The Institute was a note-takers dream :)
The aftermath: the Institute was a note-taker’s dream 🙂

All pictures are property of the author or are sourced from WikiCommons’ public domain images. The views expressed represent author’s experience in the Institute and not necessarily those of the other participants or the directors.