by Tenzan Eaghll
Beer and religious studies go hand in hand. This has been a fact for as long as I have been hanging around religious studies departments. And we drink a lot of beer, not just at graduate ceremonies and dissertation defence parties, but after class, at luncheons, book clubs, and at weekend get-togethers where we debate theory. Why do beer and religious studies mix so well? First off, beer is conducive to good theoretical debates. It helps move us past social awkwardness and gets the ideas flowing. I cannot tell you how many productive nights I have spent with friends and colleagues debating the relationships between religion, philosophy, politics, science, and literature, over a pint. Much of the inspiration for my dissertation topic developed out of important issues that arose out of half drunken conversations. Second, there is something about beer and a good conversation that helps you engage with the “data” of religious studies in a new light. Anytime in the past four years that I have struggled with a theoretical issue, all I had to do was call up a buddy and order a drink, and we would talk it through. Although beer does not get much credit in the acknowledgment section of most books and dissertations, my bet is that it plays a far bigger role than most scholars let on.
Something I have learned from all these half-drunken conversations is that we always reside in the difference between theory and data. When we are engaged in research, we all too often make a simplistic distinction between theory and data, but when we are arguing with a friend about what Kant meant by “Schematism,” what Hegel meant by “Aufhebung,” or how to define “Christianity,” it becomes clear that what we take as data is already pre-selected by our theory of what is true. When we are engaged in close intellectual combat with a friend or fellow scholar, it becomes apparent that the thin line between theory and data does not hold up, and that what we take as data is simply a reflection of what we have been exposed to (i.e. what books we have read, things we have published, or previous conversations we have had, etc.). The fact some data (like scriptural passages) can be used in any number of different theoretical paradigms to justify incommensurable theories, shows that data do not exist independent of theory, but co-exists alongside it. Quite literally, data and theory co-exist as the Thing Itself (Das ding an sich). This was part of Heidegger’s critique of Kant in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. It is not possible, Heidegger argued, to distinguish our imaginative capacities from the movement of temporality, because the two go hand in hand in the formation of our symbolic world. At times we may use the theory/data distinction for its pedagogical value, but on closer analysis it becomes clear that we are never being purely theoretical and we never have access to pure data, but we are always engaged in “a praxis of difference” that is constituted by undecidability.
As scholars of religion, we are in a position similar to Don Quixote, because what we encounter as the real is also a literary creation. Like the noble knight in Cervantes’ novel, we too read a lot of books, and at times even indentify with what we read. And like Don Quixote, our beliefs can only ever be a farce of a tragedy that has vanished. When we encounter our data, we are not confronted with the absolute, or with a totality that signifies some particular thing, but merely with a reference to another book and other data, which are caught up in an endless and infinite deferral. It is thus impossible not to talk to our data, because we are caught up in their movement and disjunctive flow; we too, just like our data, are literary creations. As Dostoyevsky wrote in the Notes From the Underground, “Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love, what to respect, and what to despise.” Let’s face it, we exist in the space between theory and data, and there is no escape from this undecidability.
If you are confused by my ramblings, or just straight-out disagree with them, please join me for a beer sometime…
Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.