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

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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 Adam Miller

The goal of this series is to collect Bulletin reader-contributors’ reflections on how they describe what they do to those outside the discipline, drawing on one or two anecdotes. So far, we have seen just this from Matt Sheedy and Sarah Lynn Kleeb with their posts on the aftermath of their somewhat ad hoc self-identifications (the latter a truly charming story about a chance encounter with a comrade cabbie—well, depending on where one’s sympathies lie, I suppose). After these two inaugural posts, Matthew Baldwin mixed things up with an interrogation of the assumptions underlying the prompt itself—an always fun, thought-provoking move.

By slight contrast to the initial two posts, and in some ways building on the third, I’d like to draw attention to how the insider-outsider encounter (if we can use that language) is not always a one-off thing—that is, the “outsider” is not only the person sitting next to us on airplanes, standing behind us in line at grocery stores, and so on, whom we may never see again. Sometimes it’s a close friend (new or old), sometimes a partner, sibling, or parent.

None of us is born a scholar of religion. It’s a gig we kind of half fall into, half want to do, half get molded into, half work toward. (I never said I was a scholar of math.) In much the same way, people close to us half fall into, (probably don’t) half want to, (probably would rather not) half get molded into, (probably aren’t) half working toward being some kind of “outsider” to us. All we can hope for is that they humor us from time to time. Well, at least that’s what I feel like sometimes. Luckily, in my case, there’s a good deal of laughter—by which I mean: serious, engaged conversation that forces me to know what the hell I’m talking about and why it matters.

My dad (a railroader who all along knew I wasn’t a priest) is my anecdote. Well, he isn’t…our conversations are. How many nights have we stayed up way too late talking about what I do (often over cigarettes and whiskey, at least in more recent years)? I’ve lost count. I do know that they started a long while back…back in high school, when I wasn’t even on any official path to this profession. It continued through community college, through college, and through my first round of graduate school. It continues today.

For years, my pop has resisted becoming an “outsider” to what I do. He’s read a good number of the books that have had significant influence on my thinking—among them (if memory serves), J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion, Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and Gods and Demons, Craig Martin’s Critical Introduction and Capitalizing Religion, parts of Russell McCutcheon’s Critics Not Caretakers, Daniel Boucher’s Bodhisattvas of the Forest, Charlotte Eubanks’ Miracles of Book and Body, etc.—and has acquired through our conversations a working familiarity with folks like Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. Why has he done this? I’m sure it has something to do with me being his kid and all. But perhaps it has something to do with the dialectical nature of our exchanges, which have become more nuanced and complex over the years. Perhaps through a combination of offspring- and content-interest, my dad has compelled me to make what I do—which ranges from terribly arcane (involving, as it does, Sanskrit and Tibetan sources) to not clearly having anything to do with religion (any Death Grips fans in the house?)—intelligible, relevant, and worth all the time and energy (not to mention money) I’ve poured into it and not something else.

This might seem like a post written in homage to my father. In a sense, it clearly is. But I hope it also gives us reason to think critically about insider/outsider language—as it’s clear to me that some people are neither fully inside nor fully outside. (And here I—for what it’s worth—, not some institution or another, answer the question: Who counts as insider and outsider?) It may not be a parent. It may be a sibling, cousin, friend, or child. It may be the cashier at the local grocery store you frequent and with whom you have long been on a first-name basis. It could be anyone, really—relationships come in degrees. As such, from a certain perspective, the boundary dividing “insiders” and “outsiders” is more like a hill than the Wall.

All that’s to say: Sometimes people aren’t “insiders” strictly speaking (strictly = in terms of institutional credentials), but that does not mean we cannot engage in dialogue, sharpen our answer to the “who cares?” question, and learn from people beyond our institutionally defined in-group. Think back to when you were a kid on the playground. Did you ever ask some other kid from your class to play a game with you? It’s kind of like that…

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

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