So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Randi R. Warne


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

Religious Studies as Confundus Spell

by Randi R. Warne

“Religious Studies” is a term of great power. I have observed grown men reduced to shouting, spitting frustration in debates over what it is or is not. All aspects of the phenomenon being (allegedly) studied are contested, even, it seems, its very existence. Size, shape, territory – does it have a single, all-seeing eye, or has it many eyes, on all parts of its body, and if so, how many are close to its anus? Is the creature pliable or friable? Are there any others like it, or may it mate with like, albeit not identical creatures, and if so, is it truly unique? And so on, and on, and on.

One thing upon which there is agreement is the stupifying effect the term “Religious Studies” can have upon its hearers. “Religious Studies” is like an academic Confundus spell. Upon its utterance, otherwise reasonable people seem to be able to leap to the most bizarre conclusions. Overt cultural markers are ignored; clearly articulated statements become opaque and meaningless. Fear and anger can stir; the flight or fight response in the face of an unknown potential danger is triggered, until the counterspell is found in those dreadful words: “Are you going to be a nun?”

Allow me to relate an anecdote about how “Religious Studies” may have saved my life. I don’t mean this in the metaphysical sense, much less the spiritual, but in a very practical way. It was Winnipeg, the winter of 1974, and I was hitchhiking…[cliche alert]. I was living out in an old farmhouse on St. Anne’s Road, near the Perimeter Hwy. Everything was still open fields, no development, and the city bus line ended about a mile from my home. I attended the University of Winnipeg, a small downtown institution with a storied social activist history, and a stomping ground for the weird, the intellectual, and the otherwise eccentric. It was freezing – really freezing the way only a dry cold can freeze, nostrils iced to near closure, eyeballs stinging and lungs endangered – a black, crisp twinkling night. Every step crackled. Now I was prepared for this – wearing my mother’s old 1950s muskrat coat, my baba shawl from Mitchell’s Fabrics on Main Street, double-knitted gloves (for the uninitiated, two sets of gloves, one sown inside the other for warmth) – but it was a looong walk, so I decided to hitchhike.

People did that then, and though the traffic was minimal out there in the sticks, I gave it a shot. Now bear in mind through all of this that I looked like a polarized Janis Joplin, complete with crazy hair, granny glasses, and army boots (real army boots, 12 bucks, from the Army Surplus across the street from U of W. I swear they could kill, if I could maneuver myself to lift my feet out of the way of my coat and kick). So I felt pretty safe when, lo and behold, there was actually a car heading my way. I stuck out my mitten and hoped. The car slowed down, and the driver asked if I needed a ride. Well, yes I did! I was going to the farmhouse just up the road, and if he could drive me towards where the lights were vaguely flickering there in the distance, that would be terrific.

Let me say at this point that I was no naif. I knew hitchhiking had its dangers. A few years previous, I had had to jump out of a car and roll myself down an embankment, to escape a truly weird, metal rod wielding driver, who was forced to drive away from me down the highway when the light turned green. But this guy, the beige and brown guy who was saving me from frozen eyeballs, seemed relatively ok. So I got in. About two minutes later he started to tell me about his wife, and then things got tense. He was unhappy, she wanted a divorce, and I was not liking at all where this was going. The guy was getting more and more nervous. He asked me if I lived alone (which I took to mean, does anyone know where you are right now?) Oh no, I lived with other students, who were waiting for me… Boy my shoulder bag was heavy. It was filled with books, I was a student, you know, poor and struggling, stream-of-consciousness terror babble, when he asked the killer question: “What are you taking in school?” “Religious Studies,” I said proudly. “Oh!” he said, shocked: “Are you going to be a nun?”

I don’t know if he would have killed me (you never do know in these sorts of situations, and I kind of figured he wouldn’t, though he might mess me up a bit), but I am certain that the Confundus spell of “Religious Studies” went a long way that night to saving me from a whole lot of grief. He experienced cognitive dissonance; he probably thought he was picking up some loose hippie chick, and here he had this whacko who talked about Julian of Norwich and St. John of the Cross. He dropped me off at the side of the road fairly close to my home, told me I shouldn’t be out hitchhiking late at night, and then sped off towards the highway.

What is the takeaway here? Obviously, have an escape route planned when you’re hitchhiking, but other than that, after decades of being “in the field” in the academy, “Religious Studies” appears to be incomprehensible. You would think that academics would be bound by some code of professional honour to have at least some idea of what other, (neighbouring!) disciplines are about, but it appears not. This can lead to horrendous administrative “solutions” like marrying an analytic philosopher with a gender critical cultural analyst and then blaming “the woman” when it didn’t work out. “Well, you both talk about God, right?” Right.

However, these folks can hardly be blamed when even those who make a living at doing it can’t agree on the reality (or not) of what they are studying. I am not only talking “theology” here – surely it could be possible, in theory, that there is some reality beyond the purely material that could/might/just maybe be open to solid intellectual inquiry. Yet after decades of method and theory, what “Religious Studies” does remains deeply contested. The Chicago School has now been superseded by the Toronto School, perhaps to no one’s satisfaction.

So, what ought someone like me do? I am a Religious Studies “lifer”. I got my BA in Religious Studies in 1974, from a department that began in 1969. I graduated from the inaugural class of the Graduate Centre for Religious Studies at U of Toronto with my MA, and was the first U of T. Ph.D. graduate in the field of Religion and Culture. I joined the CSSR in 1980 and served on the executive in almost every position, including President.   I taught my first Religious Studies course in 1984, over thirty years ago. However I am starting to think the time of Religious Studies may be coming to an end. “Religious Studies” had its uses – it was not (supposed to be) theology; it was not (supposed to be) Christian; it was supposed to be a member of the liberal arts/social sciences enterprise that would analyze difference in theory and neutralize it in practice. In that sense, Religious Studies was useful as a Confundus spell – it stopped people for a second, made them ask (sometimes ridiculous) questions, but it had the capacity to make space for intellectual conversation that moved beyond conventional boundaries.

Some would argue it has achieved that goal. Others may look with disparagement upon the all too vigorous remnants of its Christian theological origins. For my part, however, I am finding the internal debates about the proper definition of “religion” does not address my questions, especially as (if? ) they persist as an apparent firewall to (to me) crucial debates about power, including gender and its performances in a world of real life social struggles that need to be addressed. I wish that the academic rosters are filled with culturally critical social activists whose insights serve as resources for derailing global inequalities. However, in my experience as a late full-time hire into a rapidly aging professoriate, that’s not the landscape I’m (fore)seeing in these economically strangled and troubled times. And that’s one reason why I am casting my lot more and more with Cultural Studies. It has its own problems and pretentions, to be sure. But it does understand ideology, margins, creativity, and outliers; it’s all “culture” and that is as real as it gets.

With luck, Cultural Studies may serve as a remedy to Religious Studies tangles much as the theory of a heliocentric solar system was to Ptolemaic epicycles. It’s not perfect, as an academic environment or as a perspective, but it has the advantage of moving the ground sufficiently so that the “odor of sanctity” that drives the more materialistically minded to apoplexy is rendered ordinary, just part of the mix. In Cultural Studies, the margins are rightly attended to, as essential parts of whole cultural systems. “What the priests say about women”, for example, carries the same weight as “what the midwives say about priests”, or anything else for that matter. It’s all part of the game. And it’s not news. Lots of Religious Studies folks have been using these tools for years. No one discipline owns a thinker; indeed, I wish that some of “our own” were better known in other circles.

This being said, the Confundus Spell of Religious Studies was and is indispensible to my intellectual formation and its growth over time. It gave me breathing space to ask my (apparently unorthodox, abnormal) questions about how this whole human mess works. Its diversionary power has likewise proven to have definite practical application, as my story about hitchhiking illustrates. It also holds a peculiar power within the academy, much like red kryptonite had for Superman. But that’s a set of stories for another time.

Randi R. Warne is a professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Philosphy/Religious Studies At Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax. She is also a founding member of MSVU’s Cultural Studies program, one of the three free-standing Cultural Studies programs in Canada. Her research interests include religion and culture, gender theory, and the politics of knowledge. Recent publications include “‘Gender’; Making the Gender-Critical Turn” and a two volume co-edited work New Approaches to the Study of Religion (with Armin Geertz and Peter Antes), published by Walter deGruyter.

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