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.
T. Nicole Goulet
My partner claims that one of the reasons that he switched from a MA in Religious Studies to a PhD in History was so that he would no longer have to explain what he does at parties. Sometimes I wish I had been as prudent, for in addition to having explain myself, I’m sometimes dragged around by friends who introduce me as ‘The-one-who-knows-everything-about-religion.’ Usually this is followed by, “Go ahead! Ask her the questions you were asking me about!” At this point I’m usually asked questions concerning obscure matters well outside of my expertise, grand theological questions about injustice and the afterlife, or broader musings about the supernatural. People are excited to talk religion and faith, but I usually fail to share this enthusiasm, and more often than not, deflate their keenness with my “I don’t know”s and “that’s not really what I do”s. Disappointed silence usually follows, but sometimes these meagre assertions result in the dreaded question: “Well, what do you do?” At this point, I am faced with the dilemma of how to answer, for in my mind, one size does not fit all. If the initial questions by party-goers are particularly Judeo-Christian centric and/or theological, I might respond simply by saying, “I study Hinduism.” Although one time when I did this, my Indo-Canadian neighbor scoffed at the idea that I could get a job teaching Hinduism when I wasn’t even Hindu, and argued that even though he wasn’t a practitioner, he could teach it better than me because he was raised in it. On other occasions, depending on the “seriousness” of the party, I tell people that I study race, class, and gender in the context of colonial India. But this often sucks the joy out of even the most cheerful of exchanges and my interlocutors shortly extricate themselves from the conversation to refresh their drinks.
Unlike Sarah Lynn Kleeb, I’ve rarely (if ever) been interrogated by anyone so enthusiastic about the subject as her Marxist cab driver; to toss out theorists’ names and have most family and friends understand my meaning simply isn’t possible. Nor do they understand the phrase, “Critical Theory of Religion,” which is certainly what I also do. And so, while such sound bites may be more accurate, their meaning is ultimately lost on most non-academics, but also, to be perfectly frank, on many of my academic colleagues as well. This points to the fact that the “insiders” of which we are a part (Critical Theorists of Religion), as opposed to the “outsiders” we address (everyone else), are really a very small circle of scholars; and even within that circle, the category of “insider” is so contestable as to be not necessarily that useful.
There are instances where we are compelled, or at least feel compelled, to inform others about what we do, and I find this particularly true in an academic setting. Academics outside the field have little understanding about what it means to study religion, and as a result, also misinform students about what we do. Students, for example, have casually mentioned to me that when they sit down with their advisors to tell them they want to do a minor or second major in religion, their advisors talked them out of it, seeing no need or benefit for the student. To combat this issue, we require more of an explanation than to say we critically theorize religion, we need to explain ourselves, patiently: not only do we foster critical thought about religion, we provide the tools to evaluate any system of thought, to challenge unexamined classifications, and reconsider assumptions. Such a set of tools is useful for all students no matter what their career path, particularly when it is taught, as it is in my department, as part of an effort to raise awareness of the bewildering diversity of religious traditions and beliefs, and the manner in which they challenge the predominantly Judeo-Christian, Western-centric values of our students.
But while that approach might work in a university setting it is often too long and demanding for conversations outside of the academy. In these instances, when possible, I aim for small successes. Take for example, the problem of my staunchly Catholic paternal grandmother. When I declared my intentions to become a nun at the age of 5, she and my grandfather quickly laid my hopes to rest by informing me that I couldn’t be a nun because my father was lapsed and so I wasn’t really a Catholic. When I began studying religion at university however, she began to tentatively hope that if not a nunnery, at least the Church might be a home for me after all. Even when I explained to her and other family members that what I studied was not theology, but instead a more critical approach to religion (and there is that word again), she couldn’t get past the dream of my spiritual rehabilitation. Ultimately, the closest she came to understanding my perspective was the running joke she shared with my father that my intent in studying religion was to start my own movement and make loads of money in the process off of unsuspecting believers.
While my family still don’t understand precisely what I do, I don’t dwell on it too much. For me, the little victory in our efforts at mutual comprehensibility was the fact that it was not my technical know-how, but their own gag about my starting a religious movement that allowed my family to separate their theological understanding of religion from what I do, even if such a leap in thought was incomplete. Their jokes suggested that they potentially understood religion as created by people rather than rooted in the sui generis sacred, and for me, this is a start of an ongoing process. But of course we don’t always have the enforced luxury of long-term, inescapable familial relationships in which to adequately impart such critical attitudes to others. And as I said, we don’t often run into kindred spirits who not only know the names of Marx or Asad or Spivak, but God forbid actually want to talk about them. More often than not, we only have a brief moment to explain ourselves, and how we choose to respond must be a way that people can understand, in order for it to be worth articulating.
Nicole Goulet is an Assistant Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, PA. Her work focuses on religious practice in Hinduism, with attention paid to race, class, and gender.