World Religions, American Religions, the Object of Study, and an Ode to Bruce Lincoln

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by Charles McCrary

This post originally appeared, in a slightly different version, at the group blog Religion in American History.

This year I’ve been teaching “world religions” for the first time. I knew I would be required to do it at some point, and I dreaded it. My position was familiar and wholly unoriginal: Religion doesn’t exist; it has no essence. The word wouldn’t even make sense to any of our non-Western and/or pre-modern subjects. It is a recent invention, a product of what has been largely an imperialist, colonialist, racist project. Less insidious but just as dissuasive, many world religions textbooks are $120 assemblages of Wikipedia articles couched in thinly veiled liberal Protestant theology. At any rate, the discourse of “world religions” is something we can and should study—and, as Mike Graziano recently pointed out, we can study it in the context of American history. But it’s not something we engage in.

Nevertheless, we have classes called “world religions.” Some institutions still call theirs something like “religion in the human experience.” So, how can we teach these classes in ideologically and methodologically responsible ways? Should we teach only a history of World Religions discourse itself—a meta-history? This is a viable option. Equipped with histories like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, intellectual frameworks from Wendy Brown and Russell McCutcheon, and maybe a few methodological tools from Foucault or Marx, students can use their textbook as a primary source, historicizing it and interrogating its normative assumptions. This would make for a good class. But I fear I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to accept total failure that this task would require, as I address a room full of students who are not well prepared for critical thinking and quite hesitant to give it a try. (Also, I know that “millennials” are supposedly marked by their ironic self-awareness, but that mood is characteristically absent from large portions of the demographic. My students resoundingly hate anything “meta.”) So what can we do?

Last semester I sat in on a seminar co-taught by Nicole Kelley and Matt Day designed to answer this very question. Is there any responsible and defensible way to talk about “religion” that identifies it, even if hesitantly and provisionally, as a thing in the world? If anyone can do it—and help us do it—it’s Bruce Lincoln. I read Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society in my first few weeks of grad school, and it remains one of the most influential books for my work. What I failed until recently to understand, though, was that Lincoln provides us with a framework for using “religious” as an analytic term (an undertaking of which I was once pretty churlishly dismissive.)

This semester my world religions class began with a close reading of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” and we cribbed from it—supplemented by selections from Discourse and Authority—our definition of religion: “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.” We also find a definition of our job: “History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.” Their first assignment was to rewrite this thesis in their own words. The course has thus transpired, like many of Lincoln’s books, as a series of historical studies of people utilizing religious discourse, with close attention to what is at stake in their use of that discourse.

Aside: Last weekend, we had the pleasure of welcoming Bruce Lincoln to Florida State as the keynote speaker for our annual Graduate Student Symposium, directed by Andy McKee. Because I was nervous and have nothing interesting to say, I didn’t meet Dr. Lincoln, but I’ll remember his visit for a long time. His keynote address, “A Seventeenth-Century Werewolf and the Drama of Religious Resistance,” was an excellent example of the way a close textual reading in context can produce microhistories that demonstrate broader societal trends. He illustrated how “religious resistance” is a particular strategy of the dominated wherein they use the authoritative logic and vocabulary of the dominators, but modify its orientation or moral implications. I could say more about this, but I understand it was recorded and should be available soon. You should watch/listen to it. At a roundtable discussion also featuring Matt Day and Cara Burnidge, Lincoln spoke with an openness and even vulnerability that I have never seen from someone of his stature. It was an amazing display of conceptual precision, methodological integrity, and yet generosity. I’ll stop the ode here, since reverence “is a religious, not a scholarly virtue.”

While these issues have been most apparent for me when teaching world religions, I’ve started to consider their relevance for my own research, too. The problem of world religions extends to “American religions” as well, as Mike Altman argued on the Religion in American History blog last year. While I’m sympathetic to Mike’s point of view (and I did try to offer a solution based on the constitution of publics, but I suppose I ended up taking step one, as outlined here), perhaps Lincoln can help us salvage the project of talking about American religions, not just American “religions.” Of course, we all should be very aware of how the term itself is manufactured, employed, and policed, but if we use Lincoln’s framework, perhaps we can identify discourse and discursive communities that we would deem “religious” in defensible scholarly acts of classification. Surely, ideological persuasion by appeals to transcendent authority has been a common feature of American history. And certainly we can historicize these moves by identifying the various sorts of capital at stake. I think this could be a satisfying theoretical delineation of my field—its “object of study,” religion in American history. I suspect it could help others as well, including those working in the modern West.

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