Imagined Communities: Theory & Religion Series


by Kate Daley-Bailey

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

Perhaps one of the most instructive texts I have utilized for teaching a religious studies course is, oddly enough, not about ‘religion’. If fact upon picking up the booklist for the course (Religion and Media), I am quite sure a few of my students had reservations about this text’s inclusion. The text was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. My initial reading of that text was quite fortuitous… I stumbled upon it and read it as a kind of ancillary text to the ‘religion’ books I was reading. Then the opportunity to teach a more theory based course arrived and I thought it would provide an excellent test case for the course. (I did begin to doubt my choice but luckily my choice was reaffirmed by an esteemed colleague who nudged me forward, you know who you are.)

While not about ‘religion’ proper, Anderson’s text provides readers with a historical and theoretical exploration of an equally nebulas topic… ‘nation-ness’ which he describes as “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3). Try to unthink the concept of nation as you look at a map. Try to think of the world in pre-nation times and steam will burst forth from your proverbial ears. Why? Because the concept of ‘nation’ is not so much a subject one studies, but rather a mode or method through which one studies the world.

So much like the concept of ‘religion’, researching the concept of the ‘nation’ according to Anderson, comes replete with three paradoxes:

(1)   “The objective modernity of nations to a historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.

(2)   The formal universality of nationality as socio-political concept–in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender–vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, ‘Greek’ nationality is sui generis.

(3)   The political power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.” (5)

Can any scholar of religion look at these paradoxes and not see them reflected in their own inquiries or at least in the field at large? Do these paradoxes not span the spectrum of views we cover when we talk about ‘religion’?

While it took some of my students till midpoint to recognize what I was doing… covertly teaching them about the complexities of studying religion in the guise of teaching them about the complexities of studying nationalism… most of them picked up on the context clues fairly early on in the semester. The way I figure it, sometimes, the best way to get students to think about something differently is to pointedly and deliberately require them to think about something different.

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Interpellation in The Splendid Vision


by Adam Miller

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

The French marxist Louis Althusser theorized interpellation as “the process by which ideology addresses the individual.” Or, put differently, interpellation is the way a dominant ideology constructs the human subject in its terms. This theory has been criticized for “minimiz[ing] the possibility of individual agency and control in the process,” and perhaps rightly so. But I am not sure this is what Althusser was trying to get at. On the basis of admittedly very limited reading of his work, it seems to me he was trying to think about how ideology works, not how people negotiate identities within an ideological system. In any event, I found a particularly wonderful example of interpellation in Richard S. Cohen’s translation of The Splendid Vision (I won’t provide the Sanskrit title…it’s way, way too long).

His translation reads:

If somebody has not planted any roots of virtue, or has not seen a tathagata, or has not received a prophecy of future buddhahood, then he will fail to hear this dharma discourse. Likewise, he will fail to respect, worship, learn, copy, have copied, or place his faith in it. He will also fail to honor, respect, or worship dharma preachers. Wherever this dharma discourse goes…it will play the role of the tathagata.

Later the text goes on to enjoin anyone who hears the sūtra to “[p]rovide the dharma preacher…with whatever he needs for complete happiness.”

This text calls out anyone listening as a buddhist subject. And though the idea of buddhist subjectivity is quite complicated in philosophical circles, it seems to me that part of what it means to be a buddhist in the world is to make sure the dharma-preachers are comfortable. Indeed, the text promises that a person who reveres the sūtra and the expounder of the sūtra will amass more merit than the Buddha did through his extreme acts of giving in his former lives. Further still, anyone who hears this sūtra is already on the way to becoming a buddha.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Oh wait…you don’t have a choice.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholar Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Natasha L. Mikles


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.

by Natasha L. Mikles

Due to a spate of research travel and international conferences, I have spent a lot of time in airports over the past year. Maybe it is because I am a woman, but people (usually men) seem to take this opportunity to speak with me, ask me about my work, where I am going, and my reasons for going there. When I explain that I am a doctoral student in a religious studies program, my interlocutors overflow with questions—not about the mundane things that occupy my time like writing papers, teaching courses, and advising students. Rather, these inquisitors generally aim higher and want to know what it means to call oneself a scholar of “Tibetan and Chinese Religions.”

I usually stumble through some answer that is surely unsatisfying, and I have come to realize that I often find myself unable to answer the question of what we as scholars of religion do because I have a hard time explaining to myself what exactly it is that I do. Of course, my colleagues and I have our areas of research which have been neatly defined as discrete sub-fields by the American Academy of Religion Program book: Buddhism Section, Popular Culture and Religion Section, or—my personal favorite—Religion and Food. We all have prepared course syllabi and personal teaching expertise. We all speak our own set of research languages, study our own core texts, and perform our own methodologies. I understand what I do in the day-to-day flow of work and I know what I do to produce research within a collaborative space with colleagues, but what does it mean at a broader level to be a “scholar of religion”? What is the difference between me and a historian or an anthropologist or even an East Asian cultures scholar? Is there a difference at all?

I recently attended the International Association of Tibetan Studies conference in Bergen, Norway; over six hundred of the world’s Tibetanists joined together to attend five grueling days of conference with eight concurrent panels ranging on everything from the economic life of Tibetan monasteries in the early modern period to the disappearing linguistic diversity of contemporary Tibetan nomads. The evenings were spent discussing the day’s papers and carousing with far-flung colleagues over glasses of wine. While it was invigorating to attend a conference where one could hear a metaphorical Tower of Babel’s worth of research languages being spoken in the hallways, I found myself—in a way difficult to put a finger on—feeling a little like a stranger, despite the obvious overlap in everyone’s topics of research. The creeping sensation of dissimilarity was made particularly pronounced one evening when a colleague working in an East Asia studies department explained her research by stating to the table, “I just want to understand the history of this one monastery!” The operative word “just” struck me as significant for revealing the difference between scholars situated in the field of religious studies and those outside of it. In an effort to uncover the truth of the matter at hand, “just” limits acceptable modes of knowledge in ways that silence historical and contemporary voices who may speak about gods, demons, ritual power, and other things one cannot prove. While scholars in other disciplines are selective in listening to voices so that they may uncover historical and cultural realities, religion scholars are interested in listening to as many voice as possible to understand the heart of the matter.

This interaction reveals that we as “scholars of religion” are not defined merely by our topic of study. This is in part because the category of “religion” is an invention of western discourse. Tomoko Masuzawa demonstrates how the idea of “world religions” as a topic of study developed only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the stratification between local folkways and “world religions,” which featured core texts, beliefs, and a focus on individual achievement.[1] Brent Nongbri and others have built on this argument to push the relatively recent invention of “religion” even earlier as a product of European colonialism and a counterpoint to the developing notion of the “secular.”[2] Religion is a constructed category unique to the modern age with roots in western imperialism, but so is the field of religious studies itself. Bruce Lincoln traces the history of the American Academy of Religion from its birth in the National Association of Bible Instruction and has argued that among academic disciplines, religious studies is unique because it is “a discipline consciously designed to shield its object of study against critical interrogation.”[3]

Because of this constructed quality to our field and even our topic of study, scholars of religion are doing something different than historians, sociologists, or anthropologists. In thinking through my encounter with my colleague “just” studying monastic history, I contemplated the two recent books of religious studies theory that have most struck me as evocative calls to our field’s potential. On one hand is Encountering Religion by Tyler Roberts—a book that presents a model for the humanistic study of religion based upon “treating the humanities as a site of ‘encounter’ and ‘response’.”[4] Studying religion—particularly the religions of others—allows us to suspend our own deeply held convictions and for a brief period “encounter” that which is different—ultimately arriving at a perspective in which “difference is not otherness.”[5] Seemingly in opposition to the pluralistic message of Roberts, is Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars by Bruce Lincoln—a book that seeks to demonstrate how the academic study of religion must dismantle the ideology of institutional religious narratives to reveal their role in maintaining a hegemonic discourse that benefits those in power.

What the methodologies of these two books share in common—what is unique about scholars of religion—is that our research has at its foundation a form of deep listening to people and the texts, rituals, and institutions they create. It is listening to communities make statements and claims about things they could never prove, and taking them seriously regardless. Our best listening encompasses the multivocality of voiced and unvoiced statements, remembering that every speaker by necessity silences another who might have spoken. This foundational methodology naturally leads in two directions: we listen to understand and we listen to analyze. Listening prompts the sort of understanding seen in Tyler Roberts, where we seek to encounter the worldview of another and place their statements about un-provable things in contexts that reveal how they create significance for the speaker. Listening also prompts critical analysis of the sort seen in the work of Bruce Lincoln: an analytical questioning of who benefits from and is harmed by the recitation of these unprovable statements and, ultimately, how their un-provableness is hidden. Both of these methodologies rest on first inviting every voice to speak rather than—as my colleague studying Tibetan monastic development seeks to do—to shut some out as mere distractions from the “truth.”

So, for all the men in airports who talk to me and ask me what it is that I do, I’m listening—to you and your puerile theories on Richard Dawkins, to the writings of early twentieth-century Tibetans who found epic literature a particularly evocative voice in religious discourse, to nineteenth-century Chinese priests attempting to navigate a changing landscape of religious patronage. I’m listening.


[1] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

[2] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

[3] Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demon, Scholars and Priests. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 134.

[4] Tyler Roberts. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) 16.

[5] Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Natasha L. Mikles is doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia researching the relationship between Chinese and Tibetan popular literature and religious reform. She is the recipient of the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.

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Windows and Mirrors: Texts, Religions, and Stories of Origins

BSOR Cover June 2016 Edited 2The following is the introduction to the June 2016 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Philip L. Tite

Although the science of religion in the nineteenth century is often critiqued and mocked today for its fixation on origins—whether such a search is grounded in a social or biological evolutionary model, evokes orientalist values of the exotic other, proffers a grand theory explaining “religion” cross-culturally, or romanticizes the homo religiosus—the centrality of “stories of origins” remains firmly fixed in our scholarly imagination, especially when we study cultures and texts of antiquity. This issue of the Bulletin looks at one prominent origin story, namely, the discovery and preservation of the fourth-century Nag Hammadi codices from the late 1940s up to the 1970s. The key “storyteller” of the find has been James M. Robinson, whose final grand telling of the discovery was published in a massive two-volume work just prior to his death (Robinson 2014a and 2014b).

Stories of origins are tantalizing tales that we use in our classrooms to entice our students to fall in love with the materials that we hold so dear. They are tales that have been passed on to us by our mentors. Stories are legacies, and legacies are not easily challenged. In recent decades there has been a flurry of “discoveries” that have stirred up our imagination. The Nag Hammadi find in Egypt—with all of the delightfully dangerous heretical texts coming to light—was second only to the Dead Sea Scrolls in public controversy. More recently, Codex Tchacos got the buzz going once more when it was first released to the public in 2006 and 2007, given the “discovery” of an apocryphal Gospel of Judas (though oddly the other three texts in that codex are generally ignored). Just a few years ago the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife sent the academic Internet aflame with controversy over what looked like either a modern “forgery” or a challenge to accepted—“authentic”—narratives of formative Christianity. And the Secret Gospel of Mark is a well-known example of possible forgery or discovery (see especially Burke 2013).

But origin stories of ancient texts often focus on the modern discovery of those texts. And such origin stories of texts can be enchanting for our imaginations, such as the 1886-87 discovery of the Akhmim fragment of the Gospel of Peter, supposedly in a monk’s grave: a discovery that sent scholars of that generation into a frenzy of activity. Sometimes these stories are fantastical, centered on exotic details of blood feuds, murder, black market deals, shadowy figures, destruction of ancient materials by “primitive” locals, and intense detective work by the Euro-American scholar, such as Robinson, to “save” these ancient treasures for posterity. Thus, these treasures are transformed into our heritage, safely secured from the exotic yet uncivilized people currently occupying these ancient lands. Even in bringing such treasures to the academic public, the stories are better than any dime novel (and here the Berlin Codex comes readily to mind). These are academic detective stories that we love to read alongside our Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But unlike the famed detective of 221B Baker Street, London, our academic detectives are real, and their tales are accepted by many as fact. In a way, that aspect of reality makes them all the more worthwhile for our consumption.

Such origin stories of antiquities, however, are no less mirrors than the various anthropological origin stories of Müller, Tyler, or Frazer. Like the Victorian anthropologists, we treat our origin stories as windows into ancient worlds, into the life experiences of once living people, and into the broader cultural forces that we are so fixated on. And perhaps, at some level, that is what they are: windows into the past. But they are also mirrors for the present. They refract and reflect our own discourses, our modern concerns, debates, and self-authorizing worldviews. When we look into our mirrors, we typically see distorted aspects of ourselves embedded within our narratives, often because we fail to see that they are our narratives. Often the stories of antiquarian discoveries evoke persistent colonial and orientalizing attitudes that we in the “West” continue to internalize (even if unconsciously). In this sense, David Chidester’s comment on Müller is apt:

Müller knew that those raw materials had to be extracted from the colonies, transported to the metropolitan centers of theory production, and transformed into manufactured goods of theory that could be used by an imperial comparative religion. (Chidester 2000, 431 emphasis added)

It is this very process of extraction, transportation, transformation, and utilization that is served by such origin stories, such as what we see with Nag Hammadi. And the persuasive force of story should not be overlooked. Stories contain, normalize, and perpetuate such processes while obscuring their very presence. Even the storytellers may not be (fully) aware of these processes. And there may even be facts underlying those very narratives. They, like any story, may be true, they may be windows—but they are also mirrors that we, as both storyteller and listener, gaze into believing that we are at the window. In the end, we may see our origin stories telling us more about modern scholarship than ancient cultures and textual productions.

This issue of the Bulletin centers on two significant articles that have challenged the “authentic” tale of the Nag Hammadi discovery. Mark Goodacre (2013) and Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount (2014) have raised serious questions about the widely accepted account of the Nag Hammadi discovery. Denzey Lewis and Blount, in particular, have offered an alternative tale for us to hear, one that strives to move away from orientalist discourses of the exotic savage and the civilized scholar. It remains another tale, another mirror perhaps. But it is also an invitation to continue to weave stories, while challenging underlying presuppositions of such stories. Contributors were invited to respond to these two seminal articles, to respond to these works in constructive and critical ways, yet also to extend our discussion beyond just Nag Hammadi. Following the reactions by Dylan Burns, Brent Nongri, Eva Mroczek, Tony Burke, and Paul-Hubert Poirier we are pleased to include a response from Denzey Lewis. Both Goodacre and Blount declined our invitation to also write responses, though Goodacre was pleased to see the conversation being extended beyond the initial two articles. In facilitating this conversation within the pages of the Bulletin, it is my hope that scholars of the academic study of religion will take this conversation as an entry point into exploring the mirrors and windows that we—as scholars—internalize in our treatment of our sources, be those textual, material, or ethnographical data sets.

Beyond our main set of articles, we are also pleased to include a “Tips for Teaching” piece by Justin Tse on guest lecturing as a mode of conversation with students. Justin’s reflection arose from two guest lectures he recently gave on geography of religion theory, one being in my own theories course. We are also pleased to publish an interview with Donovan Schaefer on his recent and provocative book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (2015), a book where he applies affect theory to the study of religion and thereby raises several major theoretical challenges in how we study religious phenomena. I wish to express my appreciation to my associate editors, Nathan Rein and Matt Sheedy, for such a fascinating discussion with Donovan’s work on affect theory.


Burke, Tony, ed. 2013. Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery: The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate. Proceedings of the 2011 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Chidester, David. 2000. “Colonialism.” In Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, 432–37. London: Cassell.

Denzey Lewis, Nicola, and Justine Ariel Blount. 2014. “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133: 399–419. http://

Goodacre, Mark. 2013. “How Reliable is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35: 303–22. http://dx.doi. org/10.1177/0142064X13482243

Robinson, James M. 2014a. The Nag Hammadi Story, Volume 1: From the Discovery to the Publication. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 86. Leiden: Brill.

Robinson, James M. 2014b. The Nag Hammadi Story, Volume 2: The Publication. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 86. Leiden: Brill

Schaefer, Donovan O. 2015. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 45.2 (June 2016)

BSOR Cover June 2016 Edited 2The June issue of the Bulletin has now been published and is available both online and in print. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes a panel of papers engaging two seminal articles challenging the standard “story” of the discovery/origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices (by Mark Goodacre [2013] and Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Blount [2014]). Scholars were invited to engage these two articles, exploring the theoretical aspects of such “origin stories” while testing the alternatives set forth by these respective articles. In addition to this exchange, we are pleased to publish an interview with Donovan Schaefer (Trinity College, Oxford) on his recent and provocative book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Duke University Press, 2015). Finally, Justin Tse offers a reflection on guest lecturing within our “Tips for Teaching” section.

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 45, Issue 2 (June 2016)

Editor’s Introduction: “Windows and Mirrors: Texts, Religions, and Stories of Origins” Philip L. Tite (University of Washington) – (pp. 2-3)


“Telling Nag Hammadi’s Egyptian Stories” Dylan Michael Burns (Free University of Berlin) – (pp. 5-11)

“Finding Early Christian Books at Nag Hammadi and Beyond” Brent Nongbri (Macquarie University) – (pp. 11-19)

“True Stories and the Poetics of Textual Discovery” Eva Mroczek (University of California, Davis) – (pp. 21-31)

“What Do We Talk About When We Talk About the Nag Hammadi Library?” Tony Burke (York University) – (pp. 33-37)

“The 70th Anniversary of the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices: A Few Remarks on Recent Publications” Paul-Hubert Poirier (Université Laval) – (pp. 37-39)

“Rethinking the Rethinking of the Nag Hammadi Codices” Nicola Denzey Lewis (Brown University) – (pp. 39-45)


“‘Trauma Makes You’: An Interview with Donovan O. Schaefer” Matt Sheedy (University of Manitoba) and Nathan Rein (Ursinus College) – (pp. 45-55)

Tips for Teaching: “Guest Lecturing on Geographies of Religion: Interviewing My Colleagues’ Students, Focusing on Tangents” Justin K. H. Tse (University of Washington) – (pp. 55-61)

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Eoin O’Mahony


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.

by Eoin O’Mahony

So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders

I used to work for Ireland’s Catholic bishops. In an Irish context, where well over 80% of the population actively ticks the Roman Catholic box on the census, many thought that this meant access to political power. The Republic has no state church but it might as well have had. Since independence in 1922, the level of collusion in healthcare and education between government and the Catholic bishops was so great it may as well have been the established church. In 2006, fresh out of another workplace where bullying was widespread, I applied for a job as a social researcher. I saw this job in the newspaper and it looked like something, as a social scientist, I could do. I needed a job. About six months after I started it, part of which was to work alongside Catholic priests, I stopped wearing black or grey shirts to work. Priests thought I was a priest.

At the time I looked at that in one of two ways: they think enough of me that they see something of their life in this younger man. (I was 33 when I started, the average age of Irish Catholic priests is somewhere north of 55.) In a work environment that was far more supportive than my previous job, this seemed flattering. After all, being a priest while working for their bosses, the bishops of Ireland, must seem like the natural order of things. As time went on in the job however, I came to question the implication that being articulate and organised meant I could only have been a priest. Many of the Catholic priests I met on the job were educated at a time when only the smartest boys got to become priests. Their own life path was perhaps characterised by being articulate and organised at school and they were encouraged to think about being a priest by the generation of priests before them. I, on the other hand, had learned how to listen by virtue of my training as a good qualitative interviewer. Perhaps many of the priests who asked me if I was one of them did not know that listening skills come from many sources. I left the job in 2015, but reconciled myself to clerical recognition.

Beyond the job, working as I was on a doctoral thesis about the landscape of Catholic practice in Ireland, many assumed I had a Dan Brown-esque knowledge of the inner workings of Mother Church. At some stage of a social gathering, people would usually ask what I did for a living. I told them that I worked for the Catholic bishops as a researcher. Many didn’t know how to react; it often led to indifference and not curiosity. As opaque as the organisational structures were for me within the job, for many Irish people, Catholic or not, working for the Catholic Bishops Conference meant you were maybe a priest or an unthinking apologist for homophobia. The information I had presented them with had very little context in a society undergoing a profound readjustment to the institutional church after years of abuse revelations. Many merely didn’t know what to do with the information that I Work For The Bishops. In this job, I designed, coordinated, and reported on research projects. I facilitated focus groups and analysed multinational datasets using specialised software. To this day I believe that some thought we sat around thinking up ways to annoy women and LGBT people.

Particularly during the time of my doctoral fieldwork, examining pilgrimage, Marian statues, and denominational education, I came to develop a thicker skin to the question So You Are Not a Priest? If you are at all interested in religious studies in Ireland, particularly so from a Catholic background, most assume you are a devout and practising Catholic. In many minds I was the first in line for receiving the Host and dismissive of whatever notion of secularity they defined themselves by. I happen to think that this close identification comes not from something intrinsically invidious about Catholicism in Ireland. It comes from a sense that to believe as a Catholic in Ireland is, at least conversationally, about being a particular type of person. The closer you got to the centre of Church life, the more orthodox and unwavering you were. Proximity mattered and I worked in this formless, unknown stone building on a university campus. It is a characterisation of the life of a Catholic as defined by orthodoxy and unwavering support for church teaching.

Since finishing the job in Maynooth, I have tried to carve out a new job path for myself. Teaching geography at university is rewarding to me and I hope to be able to continue to do so. Outside employment of the Catholic Bishops, work is less secure and subject to a precariousness that would not be tolerated were I to actually have joined the priesthood. Academic life, coming as it does from clerical scholarship, has its own rituals and rites. It also has a profound sense of itself as thoroughly soaked in a defined secularism. I cannot be a geographer of religious practice and landscape in Ireland so I have to become another type of scholar in geography. There are no jobs for geography of religion scholars in the land of Saints and Scholars. Religious studies is obscure, more so in a self-consciously defined secular space as a university where studying religion means you are religious. So I need to become interested in secular things: cities, spatial justice, housing policy. To maintain an interest in religious studies professionally maybe means buying the grey and black shirts again.

Eoin O’Mahony holds a PhD. from the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Justin Henry


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.

by Justin Henry

“I dunno, let’s ask the theologian!” “The theologian.” That had become my nickname at the Christmas party. It was my first trip home since starting a PhD program in the History of Religions. From my days as an undergraduate philosophy major, I had given up on trying to make the case for the practical application of my academic interests. Now I was locked in a struggle to explain even what it is that I even do. That night, as I’d become accustomed, when I added that, “my focus is South Asian religion,” natural assumptions about joining the priesthood transformed into mild confusion. Aside from the general vexation caused by the “South Asian” geographical qualifier (‘Nam?), the obviously non-Christian (Muslim?) re-orientation of the conversation most often leaves my interlocutor with little basis on which to proceed.

Even the screen on the copier at the liberal arts college where I teach still blinks ‘Theology’ when I enter my code (the department is now called ‘Religious Studies’). The copy machine contains a vestige of the (not so long ago) days in which undergraduate courses in religion were not merely electives, ‘Gen Ed’ requirements, or a component of a major for those who ‘aren’t really sure what they want to do,’ but rather the foundation for a presumptive vocation.

In attempting to explain what I do, I never say what I wish I could say, what I often think: that I’m an anti-theologian, that I’m an anti-priest. In the classroom, up there in front of the lectern/pulpit, my aim is to divest myself of ‘miracle, mystery and authority’ – I don’t want to tell my students what to believe or what religion “is,” but rather to impart the power to decide such things back to them. I don’t slam religion, that’s not my job (the students come pre-acquainted with the combative atheist position, Richard Dawkins’ interviews are easily available on YouTube, and I suspect that a semester of that kind of approach would be wearisome). I do however offer a perspective that very few of my students been exposed to before: a chance to think about religion in a purely historical framework, as a social phenomenon, without asking them to accept any tenants as unassailable truths, and without any a priori proclamations regarding the superiority of a single tradition over others.

Mine is an anti-theology for a new age. “Religious Studies” as a collegiate industry grew coterminously with expansion and co-ed integration of higher education from the 1950s onwards. It was an era, in the wake of the second World War, when the intrinsic goodness of humanity had been called into question. The academic study of religion in this formative period (‘the comparative study of religion,’ theorizing ‘perennial wisdom’) was for many a quest after transhistorical and cross-cultural nuggets of commonality, in order to expose uniform, moral, life-affirming organs of consciousness common to all the world’s people. Religion makes sense, they argued. The methods of structural anthropology, which sought epistemically grounded logic in various aspects of social life, were imported into text-critical studies in religion, designed to find order and meaning in manifold (and often bewildering and seemingly contradictory) corpora of religious documents. Those with overtly sympathetic attitudes towards religion not readily welcomed in other corners of the Academy migrated to fledgling discipline.

Religious Studies (also, it should be noted, shaped by the cultural revolution of the 1960s) thus became, at least by reputation, a ‘safe space’ to discuss one’s own religious views, and to listen respectfully to those of others. (For critics like Allan Bloom, such laxity threatened descent into ‘cultural and moral relativism,’ and a betrayal of the rigorous search for absolute truth that is the foremost charge of the Humanities.)

My students do show up on the first day with the expectation that the class will be easy. But they also possess an attitude that must have been much less common a generation ago: certitude with respect to their own intellectual judgment, suspicion of authority and fearlessness in challenging it, and (surely tied to the former) incredulity towards the inherent value of religion. Most are from middle class, suburban, nominally Christian families. Quite a few (by the end of the semester when they’ve become comfortable enough in class discussion) volunteer a surprising biographical detail: since college, they’ve stopped going to church. It was ‘too political’ or ‘too gossipy.’

I’m not Richard Dawkins, but I’m not there to sing Kumbaya either. I’m there to take their diffuse incredulity and to focus it. I’m there to transform their suspicion and apathy towards religion into curiosity and excitement. So religion is not inherently good or bad – they accept that easily. So religions change over time, even to the extent that they are hard to define as discreet entities – they accept that too (though it takes a bit more trying). And so what is religiosity in the first place? Can it encompass spheres of human activity that don’t involve promises of life-after-death or the worship of divinities? Is it inherently political? Is it biologically motivated? Why does any of this matter to a 19-year-old living in the 21st century?

These are the questions that pique their interest. And the fact that they do presents a powerful case to the Allan Blooms of the world that the undergraduate study of religion (beyond Western traditions) can elicit the kind of reflection that stands as their desideratum. In class, we don’t simply valorize all religions as ‘equally true’ or ‘equally profound.’ To use the Sanskrit idiom, we ‘put them to the touchstone, like gold to test whether it is genuine.’ If a student emerges from the class with a renewed sense of faith, that’s fine. But if a student comes to question the very foundations of his or her religious upbringing, or of religion in general (or even of the academic study of religion in general), that’s fine too.

Unlike those generations of Religious Studies scholars before me, I have no stake in upholding religion – any religion – as a worthwhile or morally transformational human endeavor. My students don’t find this attitude shocking. Religious life isn’t as relevant to them as it was to their parents. They are open to the possibility that religion isn’t necessarily a component of a well-lived life.

In this spirit, perhaps my approach does resemble that of one eminent theologian, Paul the Apostle. Nicholas Wright argues that Paul’s theology was not inherently dogmatic, but was rather a framework for Christian communities to think together and come to their own conclusions regarding the essence of scripture: “Give a church a rule and you guide them for a day; teach a church to think and you guide them for life.”

Give a student a bunch of names and dates, and they’ll forget it by the end of the semester; teach a student to think about religion in relation to their own life, and they’ll keep thinking about it for years to come.

Justin W. Henry is a PhD candidate in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School and adjunct instructor of Religious Studies at Elmhurst College. Having spent over three years studying Theravada Buddhist and Hindu literature in Sri Lanka and India, he was Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Linguistics at Kelaniya University in 2008-9, and is the recipient of a Robert H.N. Ho Buddhist Studies Dissertation Fellowship through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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