Why are Chinese Grandmothers Giving Offerings to Video Game Characters? And Why Does the Internet Think it’s Funny?


by Natasha L. Mikles

A strange set of pictures has been circulating on Chinese messaging apps this week. The photos—stills from the video footage of an internet café in an unknown Chinese city—show an elderly Chinese woman kneeling to make offerings and prostrating herself before an impressive statue of a man dressed in fantastical armor with a giant sword. The statue is reminiscent of traditional portrayals of the Chinese deity Guan Yu (known also as Guandi or Lord Guan), a deified hero from the Three Kingdoms period. Despite its imposing stature, however, the statue before which the Chinese woman was making offerings does not depict a deity, but rather Garen—a popular character from the online MMORPG League of Legends. The pictures first entered English-language circulation on the expat gossip and news website Shanghaiist, where they carry a variety of tags including “old” “prayer” and “lol.”

The Internet community has gleefully proclaimed the woman’s mistake and commented on the situation with an exuberant “lol.” But for scholars who consider their field as “Chinese religions,” this episode presents an interesting case study. Is this woman actually making a “mistake” or is something else going on? We might also ask why exactly this situation is so funny? What underlying assumptions about religion does the “lol” reveal? It seems there are at least two possibilities: Either 1) the woman mistook the figure Garen to be the traditional Chinese deity Guan Yu or 2) she was aware that she was making offerings to a statue of a figure not found in the traditional Chinese pantheon and simply did not care. If the woman was legitimately mistaken, this case says something interesting about the religious function of computer games. If the woman was not mistaken, this case says something interesting about how lived religion develops alongside media.

It is not so unreasonable to mistake Garen for Guan Yu. Many video games have incorporated deities or myths from a variety of cultures to add a fantastic atmosphere to the game, sometimes generating accusations of cultural insensitivity. In fact, League of Legends features a specific Guan Yu “skin” available for purchase to modify your character’s appearance in the game. Notably, this skin is linked not to the character that the Chinese woman may have mistaken for Guan Yu, but rather to the Barbarian King Tryndamere—a fact online gamers have debated with a surprising amount of depth and reference to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms which first made Guan Yu famous. Furthermore, there is an emerging body of literature on the religious functions of digital games. In eGods, William Sims Bainbridge argues that MMORPGS like “World of Warcraft” have taken on sociological functions previously served by religion. Games—with their systematized cosmologies, ritualized behaviors, and rules both spoken and unspoken—can function as implicit religions by creating specific worlds for players to inhabit populated with model heroes, mythic histories, and “ultimate concerns,” such as saving the world or defeating the opposing horde.

With this in mind, we might turn the question on its head to ask why it is surprising or funny to see someone make offerings to a game character. In her recent article in the edited volume Playing with Religion in Digital Games, Rachel Wagner explores the common assumption that games are “fun,” while religion is “serious.” She suggests instead reformulating our understanding of this dynamic as “being earnest as opposed to being insincere in one’s engagement with the ordered world that religions and games can evoke.”[1] To earnestly interact with this world in such a way that affirms and reifies its social rules and assumptions is to take part in it religiously. This Internet café chose to erect an imposing statue of a video game character outside its doors, deliberately drenched in all its mythic significance. Is it so strange, so “lol,” for a woman to earnestly, if mistakenly, make offerings to the video game character?

The second possibility—that the elderly Chinese woman knew this figure was not found in the Chinese pantheon but made offerings anyway—reveals something significant about the religious attitudes of the woman herself. While scholars of religion generally acknowledge that the lived realities of religious practice are seldom as neat and tidy as we pretend them to be, we are continually surprised at just how elastic the nature of religion can be. J.Z. Smith famously describes religion as “the quest, within bounds of human historical condition for the power to manipulate and negotiate ones ‘situation’ so as to have ‘space’ in which to meaningfully dwell.”[2] In the twenty-first century, why should this quest not include offering incense to an imposing armored figure outside the Internet café?

If, as Robert Orsi has argued in Between Heaven and Earth, religion is a network of relationships between people and the variety of sacred presences—both traditional and nontraditional—they revere, then it is irrelevant with what manner of “divine” personage this Chinese woman entered into relationship. Orsi is clear that his re-positioning of religions as networks of relationships frees scholars from claims about religion as either good or bad;[3] however, it also frees them from claims about whether a practice is authentic or inauthentic. Someone’s offerings to a large statue are not necessarily “mistaken” or “wrong” simply because they do not take place in the appropriate environs of a temple or to the appropriate figure of a Guan Yu.

As Clifford Geertz noted one cannot “see beliefs” and we can know very little about this woman’s motivations from some video footage. This is too bad because there is so much we could potentially learn from this woman. Would this scene have happened if the Cultural Revolution had not destroyed temples and monasteries, disrobed traditional religious practitioners, and broken the tradition of Chinese religious practice for over a decade? And what do this woman’s offerings reveal about my own practice of scholarship? These moments of “elasticity” and “ad hoc” religious practices show how fragile our identities as scholars and inhabitants of a discipline truly are. If a Chinese woman can make offerings—mistaken or otherwise—to a giant statue of a video game character from an American-developed game taking place in the mythical land of Runeterra, what does it mean to call myself a “scholar of Chinese Religion” or, even, a “scholar of religion?”

[1] Rachel Wagner, “The Importance of Playing in Earnest,” Playing with Religion in Digital Games, Heidi A. Campbell and Gregory Price Grieve, eds. (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2014. pp. 193-213, 193.

[2] Jonathan Z. Smith, Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 291.

[3] Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars who Study Them, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 2.

Natasha L. Mikles is doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia researching the relationship between Chinese and Tibetan popular literature and religious reform. She will be teaching a course on Chinese Religions at the University of Virginia this summer.

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Theory + Method = Methodology

by Richard K. Payne

A post on this site some time ago highlighted the continuing struggles of graduate students with the categories of theory and method. The author, Stacie Swain, said that she was “searching for the method upon which I might make my journey without drowning in the ‘sea of theory.’” Although my automatic tone for blogging is some flavor of hopefully amusing snark, in the face of this dilemma it is hard to snark away without seeming disdainful, especially when instead I’m feeling sympathetic. Having taught graduate level seminars on the subject, preceded by many years of teaching undergraduate courses in logic, symbolic logic, and critical thinking (okay, so there I’ve established my credibility), I have tried to assist students through this same oceanic disorientation many times. Over that time I have come up with a few summary formulations to help students get a grip on what is going on around them.

These are pretty simple, and so perhaps they look more like life preservers than battleships. These are simply heuristics, or “rules of thumb.” In other words these formulations are not impressive, so you may not want to let anyone know you are using them As heuristics, the usages of terms given here does not necessarily match usages found elsewhere—this is not a “key” to understanding how others use these terms, which can diverge rather radically from how they are used here. Nor is the purpose of this post to reform the languaging of work in religious studies. But these formulations create some ways of thinking through for yourself the different steps of the intellectual project at hand.

First, we all pretty much get into this because we find the subject interesting. Whatever this is, it is the broad subject area within which you will work. Personally, being exposed to the end of the Beats and beginning of Hip in nearby San Francisco, I developed an interest in Buddhism. If you’re reading this blog, you probably are interested in one of the subject areas conventionally considered a specialization within religious studies. I would call attention to the way the last phrase of that sentence is formed, “religious studies.” This identifies it as one of the fields of study, rather than something that would be identified as a discipline.

There are some important differences between fields such as “religious studies” or “ritual studies,” and disciplines such as “sociology” or “history.” Both fields of study and disciplines have some subject matter, but for fields of study that subject matter remains a constant source of discussion and disagreement. One of the historical turning points that led to the creation of any discipline is the establishment of the subject matter in such a fashion as to bring closure to those kinds of discussions and disagreements. I am speaking here of course for those standing within a discipline—for those standing outside, why the subject matter is defined the way it is may well remain a puzzle. A very simplistic example is alchemy—as a field of study it became the discipline chemistry when the chemical elements are identified as the appropriate subject matter. Disputes between adherents of the Aristotelian theory of four elements and adherents of the Paracelsian theory of three were closed off. With closure on how the subject matter was understood, there generally followed a similar closure on acceptable methods for the study of the subject. This is one of the reasons that students in the disciplines seem to have an easier time of things—they “know” what the subject matter of the discipline is, just as they “know” how one properly goes about studying it.

For those of us working in fields, however, both subject matter and the way to go about it are open—and exist in a dialectic. The dialectic is the relation between how we think about our subject matter and how we go about studying it. A contemporary issue is whether religion is to be thought of as a social practice or as individual transformative experience. Choosing one or the other will naturally lead to different approaches to studying the topic. Without some care, the dialectic can become a petitio principii fallacy in which the conclusions one reaches at the end of the study are in fact already present in the way the subject has been defined.

The movement from field to discipline is not, however, a necessary progression. While some disciplines have “evolved” from fields in this way, it is not appropriate to universalize from some instances to all. One important counter-example is Buddhist studies. From its inception in the nineteenth century, it has long been closer to a discipline because of the common acceptance of philology as its method, and doctrine as its object of study. In this it was, as one can see upon reflection, modeled on Biblical studies. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, Buddhism became increasingly the object of study of a variety of other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and the like. This made the object of study more complicated—no longer the study of texts to reveal doctrine, but rather questions such as the role of Buddhism in the lives of contemporary peoples. And in doing so moved Buddhist studies from a (quasi-)discipline to a field of study, though it retains a strong philological/doctrinal core.

Because the subject matters for such fields as religious studies and ritual studies are themselves social constructs, there can be no recourse to an objective reality for bringing closure to the discussions and disagreements. Ms. Swain refers to this quite nicely as “the analytic dysfunction of ‘religion’.” She mentions “the rift between those who study something meaningful and essential called ‘religion,’ and those who don’t take that ‘thing’ for granted.” From my comments above about the social construction of the subject matter of religious studies it may be obvious that I side with the latter group (and in private generally wonder what’s wrong with those other folks?). After about two centuries of struggling in the face of the increasing diversity of what we study, if the former position had any validity we would have come up with something by now.

My own position aside, the point relevant to our discussion here is that one almost inevitably confronts the issue of defining what one is talking about (since no one else has managed to do so except stipulatively, and that only works for the limited scope of the stipulation). This in turn may lead to the quagmire of theories of definition. A lot of time and effort can be expended just on this kind of theory. If that’s the kind of thing you enjoy doing, then have at it. You will not, however, be engaged in doing religious studies, but some form of epistemology. So, right now we will skirt that quagmire, and consider the concept of theory instead. Here is the key formula, I recommend you write it on a 3 X 5 card, tape it to the inside of your medicine cabinet, and look at it every morning:

theory + method = methodology

Theory: any idea about how something works, sometimes also called a “thesis statement.” Formulating this for a research project can be motivated by asking oneself What do I want to convince my readers of? or more fundamentally, Why should anyone read my work? Or, even more colloquially, So what? not in the dismissive sense, but rather in the serious sense of What is significant about this? What is important about this? This is more specific to one’s intellectual project than the general uses referring to background assumptions of the field, or the presumptions of popular religious culture.

One criterion for evaluating different ideas about how things work is scope, that is the breadth of a theory’s application. Another is the elegance of the theory, that is, its clarity and simplicity (see Occam’s razor and the principle of parsimony). (The philosophy of science has a bunch of these if you want more.) Note that these criteria for theories do not include whether they are true or false, but rather strong/weak. They are ultimately stories about how things work, or don’t, and as such are either better or worse than other theories. The point at this point is that theory is a very general, vague concept. As such, there is nothing much further to say about “theory” beyond what’s been said here. Theory, however, needs to be distinguished from theories about things: “theory of X.” Since theories of Xs are better or worse, it would be good to have some method for determining that. Therefore:

Method: how one determines whether a theory is a good one.

One does need to think through just how one’s method serves to evaluate one’s theory. Therefore, there is methodology:

Methodology: taking this really literally, methodology is “talking about method”—that is, talking about is how the method is appropriate for evaluating the theory in question.

That is still an empty framework, so the next step is to look at what hangs this all together.

The question: as I mentioned above, most of us get into this field because of some personal interest. The next step is to narrow your inquiry to a topic. If I may continue to cite Ms. Swain, she has a nice statement of her topic: “I plan to analyze discourse on ‘spirituality’ and the work that this concept does when grafted onto Indigenous rights discourse in contemporary Canadian politics.” This is clear, sounds do-able, and is relevant to contemporary issues. The next step is to develop the question. What question is one trying to answer? It is a well-formulated question that will provide direction and focus in a way that an interest or even a topic can’t. As the wise Scotsman put it to me once many years ago, “Aye lad, there’s many a dissertation gone astray for want of a well-formulated question.”

We of course form ideas about how things work on the basis of many different ideas about how things work. Some of these are intellectual principles, such as the principle of parsimony, also known as Occam’s razor: the principle that the simplest explanation is the best explanation. There are also what might be called pretheoretical commitments, such as “methodological naturalism,” the commitment to develop an explanation that does not draw on supernatural causes (and which then would not be falsifiable).

In the context of a specific research program, the question informs the theory. A theory is proposed as an answer to the question. Maybe the question is something like: Why does the Canadian public respond to claims of Indigenous rights when those are framed in terms of spirituality? A theory that follows from that question might be something like: There is a tradition of asserting that political rights follow from spirituality and religious values. How does one determine whether that is a good theory? This is the methodological step. Perhaps one could look at past court cases that have determined the rights of minorities—that would be a possible method.

Method is also to be distinguished from techniques. The technique used in this instance then might be something like a quantitative content analysis for number of references in court decisions to key terms, such as “God,” “religious values,” “religious tradition,” and so on. Just as one could employ other methods (such as perhaps examining newspaper accounts rather than court records, for example), one can also use different techniques (such as perhaps interviews rather than content analysis, for instance). At the level of techniques, we are dealing with very specific and well-defined tools—tools which we in religious studies borrow from other fields and disciplines. Content analysis is a technique that can be used to answer many different questions formulated in different subject areas. A hammer is a tool that can be used for driving nails, or for breaking rocks. The use of techniques, that is, of tools, requires specialized learning—preparing historical documents for automated content analysis for example, and then also the statistical skills to understand the results. Or formulating the questions to be asked in an interview so as to avoid leading the interviewees to answer in the ways one might hope they will.

So, schematically:
interest —> topic —> question —> theory —> methodology —> method —> techniques, and back again.

The key step, and consequently the most difficult one, is to formulate a question for oneself. Any number of dissertations have gotten stuck because a topic alone does not focus one’s efforts in any particular direction.

Bonus benefit: once the question is formulated, then the literature review is also given focus—some things are in, and some are out. One may feel loss at excluding some favorite reading in the area of interest, but it is not going to help answer the question.

I hope that this little sketch, and few simple distinctions in the meaning of key concepts will help. Remember, however, not everyone will have read this, and consequently they may use the terminology employed here in different ways, or even sloppily, such as saying “methodology” when they mean “method.” Good hunting.

Richard K. Payne is Dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley. The IBS is affiliated with both the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto.

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Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme: U Colorado Graduate Students


In this series with the Bulletin, we’ve asked a number of scholars to weigh-in on the theme of this year’s upcoming annual conference for the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, TX, “revolutionary love.” Our aim is to provide a forum for multiple voices to weigh-in on what some consider a controversial theme in the interest of engaging not only this question, but how it relates to broader concerns and divisions within the academic study of religions. For other posts in this series, see here.

Andie Alexander: While I regularly follow the Bulletin blog, one of my class assignments for my seminar on Religions in America at the University of Colorado Boulder this semester has been to address current conversations being had on blogs within the field. Our assignment was to follow two blogs and report back each week on the different ideas being discussed. Having selected the Bulletin blog as one of my two blogs to follow, I addressed their series on Revolutionary Love in class a few weeks back. At the time, the only post in the series was that from Aaron Hughes, but it worked well to cultivate much discussion among my classmates.

There was a bit of pushback to Hughes’ contention: “The christocentrism inherent to the theme… sends an unfortunate signal to the scholarly community. What does it mean to engage in the academic study of religion in 2016? Apparently, it means to look for largely Christocentric and supersessionist themes with which to examine the diversity of the world’s religions.” The general response to his point was: “Sure, all methodological approaches are rooted in a particular history, even the theoretical ones.” And while I don’t disagree with that argument, I think it doesn’t fully address the larger point I see Hughes trying to make. Furthermore, while I fully understand the concerns raised by Naomi Goldenberg and Deepak Sarma—especially with Sarma’s questions of whom this theme serves (and subsequently, does not), a point later addressed more explicitly by Eleanor Finnegan—I think that the problem extends far beyond the, to use Goldenberg’s phrase, “further Chirstianization of my professional association.” My concern with this notion of the “christocentrism” and “Christianization” at the exclusion of others is that the next step would be a more pluralist approach—a corrective approach suggested in my seminar as a response to this Protestant leaning. The problem I see with having an equal-opportunity approach to theme designations is that it furthers the assumption that this field of religious studies is ultimately about some stable, definitive category “religion” that represents internalized expressions of belief. By having a pluralist approach to presidential themes, we move away from any sort of critical discourses preoccupying the field today.

I think Richard Newton makes an interesting point in arguing that the emergence of conference themes suggests a notion of irrelevancy—not something all that new to those in the academic study of religion, let alone, the humanities. But the sense that we need some sort of central theme to create a sense of purpose for the field—let alone, the need for a sense of purpose—is, I think, quite telling. However, to rely on some notion of “love”—however broadly conceived it may (or likely, may not) be—necessarily posits the field within a particular set of assumptions. And while those notions and definitions of “love” may be varied, they still all harken back to the assumption that this category is necessarily important within the field of religious studies. As Merinda Simmons argues:

But that fact is too often forgotten, it seems, even now in this academy wherein talk of “critical theory” proliferates but wherein its implications are curiously absent. Scholars thus do themselves… no favors by… professing their love for it, and calling that progressive academic work. What we are left with, in that case, are dueling essentialisms in the service of respective passions.

These “dueling essentialisms”—to use Simmons’ language—ultimately distract from the larger concerns. While we can very easily get caught up in the argument over whether Revolutionary Love is an acceptable theme, and consequently, a goal of the AAR, I think we should be more focused on why it is that the AAR, and more broadly the field of religious studies, see a need to define a yearly thematic purpose and goal for scholarship in this field. To me, these themes are a very troubling attempt at field legitimization, which ultimately do not work in our favor.

While I have no intention of expressing my grievances with the theme of “Revolutionary Love” specifically, I will posit that the concerns raised in some of these posts are, to me, too narrowly construed. Though I am no fan of the Protestant assumptions of religion underscored by this theme, I think that we should be more concerned with the larger question of the motives of our field. Even though the well-intentioned and insightful arguments address the negative implications of the biases of the executive members of the AAR, they ultimately lead to these “dueling essentialisms” of purpose, which rely on the assumption of the self-evident importance of this category “religion.” In doing so, these arguments then divert our attention away from the more systemic issues of how our field is being constructed and legitimized more broadly by and for us, as well as for others. Rather than weighing in on the legitimacy of Revolutionary Love—let alone, any other theme—as an appropriate endeavor for the field of religious studies, I think we should be turning our attention to why the AAR and scholars within the field are attempting to legitimize the academic study of religion in this way.

Israel Dominguez: As someone who has only very recently entered academia through the field of religious studies, I find myself simultaneously enthralled by and struggling to understand the tensions found within this new environment:

“Theology needs to stay out of our way.”

“No, no, no. You can’t forget where you come from. Besides, theology isn’t going anywhere.”

“Why does any of this matter again?”

There are so many different perspectives, each straining to be heard above the din of clashing opinions. The controversy surrounding this year’s AAR annual theme is a prime example of that clash. Naomi Goldenberg and Deepak Sarma have taken decisive and aggressive stances against the apparent “Christianization” and “imperialistic missionary paradigms” that Serene Jones’ theme seems to promulgate. Others like Craig Prentiss and Aaron Hughes have also taken clear, albeit less accusatorial, positions that share the concerns expressed by a more vehement set of voices.

After reading various blog responses that weighed in on the situation, I went in search of Jones’ actual wording of the theme in order to try and get a better feel for what exactly was going on. She writes: “I use the word ‘love’ in the broadest possible sense, including love as a social and political force, a structural reality, a collective endeavor, a shared social practice, a language, a relationship, a moment, a gesture, an identity, a quest.”

While Jones may have used James Baldwin to help contextualize the now-contentious use of the word “love,” her own description is fairly open-ended. Describing “love” as a language, moment, quest, or gesture seems to appeal to the term’s ubiquity, transcending any one, specific religious context. While Jones’ background as a theologian is evidenced by her choice to use “state of being, or a state of grace” to help further the definition of her theme, that’s not really a surprise. We are ultimately a product of our biases. We can’t help but be so.

At the moment, I cannot honestly say whether I’m in favor for or against “Revolutionary Love.” Personally, however, I think one of the most critical things to not lose sight of is the fact that this particular annual meeting theme has created dialogue – dialogue that can provide insight into our own identities as scholars, based on how we perceive and react to this theme. Jones herself said she wanted “to provoke our thinking,” and she has certainly done that. Besides, tension isn’t necessarily something that should be shied away from. The energy of our field is so consistently powered by conflict and, more importantly, its resulting discourse. Without conflict, scholarship stagnates and growth is actively inhibited, and where would we be then?

Elizabeth Wilson: One of the most basic and fundamental things I have been taught and trained to do in academia is to be generous with my reading and understanding of a text. I tend to think that whatever scholar I am reading has spent time and energy, years of labor and devotion into whatever work he or she is putting forth. I intend to continue this practice as I move through my own academic journey and would hope that others would do the same. I read the description put forth by the president of the AAR, Serene Jones, and applied this generous principal. I worked to check my own baggage and bias and attempted to read with an open mind. What I read did not offend or threaten me as a burgeoning scholar at all. I was more concerned with the varying responses. I’m concerned about the dichotomy set up between theological and scholarly, or what some have claimed is more scientific. Theological study is not the demon in this story, but it tends to be the marginalized outcast. Theology is not a counter to the academic study of religion, where one is good and the other bad. The pursuit of religious studies is not a science. I truly do not understand how it could be. It seems that the science rhetoric is a means to legitimize the validity of this pursuit. There is plenty of room at the table and plenty of food to enjoy by all, theologians and scholars alike. What is more, I do not read Dr. Jones explanation as a way to assert a theological stance or present Christianity as the dominant presence. I agree with Aaron Hughes that Dr. Jones is not attempting “some common core of sui generis spirituality”.

I do see how some may feel left out of this attempt to incorporate. Eleanor Finnegan reminds us that, “scholars have played an important role in using ideas about love to reassert feelings of estrangement, difference, and exclusion.” This theme can easily be read with Christocentric undertones and emic terminology that would be familiar to anyone in the “in-group” of Christianity. However, who cares! I’m yet to meet a scholar who does not foreground his or her own work and perspective. It’s what they know. Why should we fault any scholar for speaking on what they know? Is it not what they have been trained to do? By trying to distinguish who is in and who is out, have we not become guilty of the very structures and practices we critique: othering? There are better things we can do with our intellect and energy than tear apart a theme for a conference that ultimately does not matter. It is optional and completely open to interpretation and usage. If we want to talk about love, perhaps we should focus on the fact that “the love that we lack is the bond of charity between study-of-religion(s) people and theologians, between critics and caretakers.” (Steven Engler)

John Sheridan: After reading the posts of religious studies scholars about the upcoming AAR Annual Meeting in San Antonio, I have become deeply invested in this debate. I have to say that two weeks ago this debate seemed quite frivolous to me. Dr. Serene Jones, an ordained minister, has set the theme for the Annual conference as “Revolutionary Love.” The scholarly repertoire of critiques and analysis on both sides of the debate has been very insightful. Some scholars think we should embrace this theme with a critical and creative perspective, turning the theme inside out or any other way we want. However, judging by the rhetoric of other scholars, it seems as if they are going to vomit with disgust over such an abhorrent AAR theme. Despite what I say next, scholars on both sides of the debate have made very insightful suggestions that have caused me to think critically about the issues at hand and what is at stake in this seemly impertinent debate.

We must be vigilant and wary towards any theme that does not represent a scholarly consciousness of inclusivity and sensitivity to other religious traditions and peoples. However, if to uphold this consciousness we then criticize a worldwide tradition along with its adherents, it would seem that we are contradicting ourselves. Christianity deserves the same scholarly attitudes and approaches as any other religious tradition. I do not claim to be objective by any means but religious studies has taught me how to quite my biases so I can listen to perspectives that are different from my own. Hopefully, this causes me to analyze and understand these perspectives that are foreign to me. I deeply value this process because I understand what it is like to have your worldview radically reconfigured by the introduction of new and profound knowledge.

I believe that an interdisciplinary field should promote inclusivity, openness, and unification. I think it is important that we do not just implement religious studies techniques of tolerance and understanding when we are studying religious traditions that interest us, but also implement these techniques when interacting with other scholars, fields, and persons. Finally, in regards to scholarly rigor and objectivity, it is important to remember that religious studies analyzes Nones as well as Christians. Therefore, contextualizing objectivity as nonreligious seems problematic for myriad reasons.

John Sheridan is a first-year master’s student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. His focus is on religion in North America and the lived experience of an Anabaptist communal group called the Hutterites.

Elizabeth Wilson is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on Christian appropriation of Buddhism.

Israel Dominguez is a Chancellor’s Fellow and first-year master’s student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. His primary research interest focuses on decolonization within the context of U.S.-Mexico borderland religion.

Andie Alexander is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on the discourses on belief, practicality of definition, identity construction, and distinction of public and private with regard to issues and constructions of religious freedom in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here.

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Reflections on Wittgenstein


by Adam T. Miller

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you may have noticed a recent spell of Wittgenstein quotes as status updates. This is because I’ve been doing a quick read of his Philosophical Investigations as a one-last-hurrah sort of thing before winter quarter begins. And in my reading yesterday morning, I came across the following intriguing remark:

It is, of course, imaginable that two people belonging to a tribe unacquainted with games should sit at a chessboard and go through the moves of a game of chess; and even with all the mental accompaniments. And if we were to see it, we’d say that they were playing chess. But now imagine a game of chess translated according to certain rules into a series of actions which we do not ordinarily associate with a game–say into yells and stamping of feet. And now suppose those two people to yell and stamp instead of playing the form of chess that we are used to; and this in such a way that what goes on is translatable by suitable rules into a game of chess. Would we still be inclined to say that they were playing a game? And with what right could one say so? (Anscombe, Hacker, and Schulte [trans.], remark 200, p. 87)

What is at issue here, on my reading, is the relationship between categories and that which they purport to demarcate, and to explore this problem, Wittgenstein uses the category game.

He first asks us to imagine a social group “unacquainted with games,” two members of which engage in a behavior we associate with one species of our genus game (namely, chess). To paraphrase further: He wants us to imagine a society in which the category game does not exist, yet the people therein–or, at least two of them–sometimes behave in accordance to a set of rules that we associate with chess. So far, so good.

He then asks us to imagine a scenario where these same individuals engage in an activity that doesn’t seem to us to be a game, yet in fact has rules and aims that correspond to those of chess in a one-to-one manner. Again, given that they lacked the category game, would we still want to call it a game? If so, on what grounds? If not, why?

This thought experiment, and the questions that come with it, ought to give scholars of religion pause, especially those of us who study cultures where the category religion did not exist.

As Wittgenstein aims to show throughout his work–our ordinary language is often vague, and the meaning of a word comes not from the object to which it refers (which is more or less his view in the Tractatus) but rather from its use in a given context. Now, there are multiple contexts in which the category religion is used–ranging from dinner conversation to news reports, from academic literature to tax codes. In these contexts, the sense of the category arises from how the word is used, from the ends such a usage serves, from its relationship to the words around it, and so on. Taken together, these uses form a family.

Returning briefly to Wittgenstein on games:

How would we explain to someone what a game is? I think that we’d describe games to him, and we might add to the description: “This and similar things are called ‘games’.” And do we know any more ourselves? Is it just that we can’t tell others exactly what a game is? — But this is not ignorance. We don’t know the boundaries because none have been drawn. (ibid., remark 69, p. 37)

Does this hold with religion? In all its use-contexts, have no boundaries been drawn between religion and other categories? Or is it more accurate to say that multiple boundaries have, in fact, been drawn where the category is known and used? And what can we say of contexts in which the category itself is unknown? Has no boundary been drawn in such cases? Or have multiple boundaries been retrofitted by those using the category? In any event, Wittgenstein maintains, clarity is not required to make a concept usable in everyday life. And this, I think, we can all agree on.

But, he writes, “we can draw a boundary — for a special purpose” (ibid.), and drawing a specific boundary makes a category useful for that purpose. Now, I hope it is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that the academic study of religion is different from dinner conversations, news reports, and tax codes in that it takes religion as its organizing concept, as its very reason for being. But is it special enough to insist that a boundary, perhaps just a certain type of boundary–one governed by the methodological strictures associated with the academy–be drawn? Others may disagree, but I think so.

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If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Kocku von Stuckrad


On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Kocku von Stuckrad

Academia is full of clichés and myths. For a group of people whose jobs depend on critical reflection and revision, we don’t apply those skills to the profession itself very often. The fuss about academic exceptionality, the myths of ‘turning your hobby into a profession’ or ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’—all of this is deeply problematic. It does not benefit us as scholars. It only reinforces the assumptions that we should expect to work more than the hours we’re paid for, that if we work outside the narrow confines of the academy we’ve failed somehow, and many other pieces of tacit knowledge we all have to struggle with these days.

So the most important message I want to convey is that being an academic is a job, not a calling. Our careers are dependent on highly contingent parameters, mainly because science is ultimately social.


Of course, it’s easy to offer advice about not taking it all too seriously when you have a tenured position. I certainly don’t want to minimize the struggles of scholars who are still trying to achieve tenure. I do understand this personally as well; I was shortlisted for 12 professor positions before I landed my first tenured job (which was not even a professorship). Nevertheless, one of the keys is not taking yourself too seriously, in two senses: if you land a tenured position, or a job at all in this market, you shouldn’t think this makes you better than others who didn’t land the same job. At the same time, when you’re the one who’s turned down for that job, you shouldn’t take it too personally. A huge part of academia is chance and luck. Quality is one part of the mix, but it’s in there together with networks, timing, and just plain luck—all factors more or less beyond the control of the person applying for the job.

Science is a social system like any other system. It is dependent on hierarchies and networks as much as any corporate job—and this is not new. My supervisor gave me similar advice 20 years ago, and he in turn referred back to Max Weber, who already understood all of this in 1918. Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf is usually translated into English as Science as a Vocation, but this is misleading and revealing at the same time. It is misleading because the correct translation would simply be Science as a Profession or even Science as a Job; it is revealing because it confirms the myth that becoming a professor is a ‘calling’ that we have to follow and not just a job like other jobs. Based on Weber’s lecture, we can conclude that contingency has always characterized academic careers: “Certainly, chance does not rule alone, but it rules to an unusually high degree. I know of hardly any career on earth where chance plays such a role.” And Weber tells the students that “I may say so all the more since I personally owe it to some mere accidents that during my very early years I was appointed to a full professorship in a discipline in which men of my generation undoubtedly had achieved more than I had” (Science as a Vocation, quoted online from H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills [translated and edited], From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 129 –156, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).

This is not a problem of neoliberalism, as some critics argue. What is new is the scale of the problem—where university education used to be for the elite, it is now much more democratic. The benefits accrue to more people, but so do the same old problems. The context is different, but the structures are similar. Viewing science as a social system can be revealing both academically and personally. We have to take seriously that the reality is different from the myth. The myth is objectivity, the search for truth, the Protestant hangover of “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Demystifying academia is a key task for scholars. The reality is that academia is steered by social communication, networks, and contingency. This is important not just for academic self-reflection, but also for scholarly understanding of the processes that generate knowledge in this system, and its limitations. And it is important for your personal life.

Creating Options

Taking the reality of contingency seriously, you should always keep an ear to the ground. This is partly about flexibility, about staying in motion, navigating between what you want and the reality of what is available. It’s about being in the driver’s seat, taking control in the face of contingency. If you can generate options, you will not be so much at the mercy of a single job application or even a single career track. It’s not only about being open to change; it’s about actively pursuing it. And this is true at whatever stage of your career you happen to be, whether you’re a PhD student, a postdoc, or a tenured professor.


Muhammad Ali was a champion not only because he could deliver a punch, but because he knew how to take one. One of my favorite childhood memories is of my father waking us up at 2am so we could watch Ali’s legendary fights on TV in Europe. It’s about endurance. The struggle with the system and its representatives is bruising. You have to be able to stay on your feet in the face of contingency and unfairness. But you also have to be aware of your own limitations. A dream that costs you your personal happiness is not a dream worth pursuing.

Prioritizing happiness

What it ultimately comes down to is being the director of your own life. It’s not a failure if you don’t make it to that academic dream job. It’s also not a failure if you do. Happiness is in the balance between dreams, possibilities, and reality. It’s not just the values of the academic world that count. There is more to explore, and more to live up to. An academic career is a profession, not a calling. It’s important to go where you’re welcome and appreciated, to work in a setting where not only your expertise but also your vision and your preferred method of collaboration are valued. If you can find that context, whether inside or outside the narrow confines of academia, it will be much more important for your career, not to mention your personal happiness, than the salary you earn or the reputation of the institution that hires you.

Demystifying academia—cutting it down to size—would benefit us no matter where we are in our careers. Academia is just a job. Managing expectations might be our true scholarly vocation.

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Diversity is Not Enough (Harvard’s Concealed Theology)


Note: This post originally appeared on Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

by Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the article that was making the rounds on Facebook last month about a new free online course on religion being offered by Harvard’s Divinity School? The course seeks to improve tolerance and understanding about religion by improving religious literacy. Titled “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures,” the course includes six classes on different topics and will be followed by more specific courses on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Although the course pretends to be theoretically innovative, it is actually just a repackaging of the old “seven dimensions” model established by Ninian Smart. For starters, the website states that, “The study of religion is the study of a rich and fascinating dimension of human experience that includes but goes well beyond beliefs and ritual practices.”  Just like Smart, who identified religion as a unique aspect of human experience and claimed that it has various social dimensions that can be studied cross-culturally, the course designers at Harvard have provided an empirical basis for studying non-empirical phenomena. They have preserved the confessional approach to religious education in a scientific language.

The core objectives of the course are to teach learners that (1) religions are internally diverse, (2) how they evolve and change through time, and (3) how religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience. It is important to note how they never actually interrogate the meaning of  “religion, ” but merely pass the buck, so to speak, and suggest that religion is produced by a series of dimensions that are defined as religious. Here is the YouTube advertisement for the course:


Notice how they simultaneously suggest that religions do not function in isolation from their political, economic, and cultural contexts,  yet still claim that it is impossible to understand a culture without considering its religious dimensions? This classic phenomenological move attempts to define religion by mundane acts like belief and ritual practice, while simultaneously isolating something that goes well beyond them.

Of course, by incorporating the social and material elements into their definition of religion, courses like this are certainly an improvement upon a purely theological analysis of the subject, but by failing to submit the category itself to analysis they continue to present religion as sui generis. After all, if “religion and culture” are inseparable, how are they able to refer to religion as something unique that exceeds the limits of human practice?

I would suggest that this attempt to contextualize religion while also preserving its unique qualities is a value laden approach to the subject that does not help us to the understand the complexity of the world we live in, but merely functions as a theological tool to separate religion from other aspects of culture. In the vein of Smart, what the course designers at Harvard seek to create is a “federalism of tolerance” by concealing a theological agenda in a secular guise. The idea that religion is a unique phenomenon distinct from other aspects of culture, such as music or philosophy, is a theological claim that prioritizes religious experience. Simply diversifying the forms of religion and its plurality in history does not correct the misunderstanding about religion. Diversity is not enough.

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The Privilege of Being Unremarkable


by Steven Ramey

The reporting surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice both reveals and complicates the concept of privilege in an intriguing manner. Many of the articles, such as this Politico piece, were notable for what they refrain from stating, that he is a white male. This contrasts with the emphasis on ethnicity and gender in earlier pieces about those being considered for the position, such as Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Judge Sri Srinivasan. After the Garland nomination announcement, one article noted Garland’s judicial experience and legal training and specified how he would not add diversity to the Supreme Court. The article continued, referencing Justice Sonya Sotomayor as Latina and Srinivasan as both Hindu and Asian-American. The choice not to relate Garland’s racial, ethnic, and gender identifications reflects the privilege of a white male in the United States.

Gyanendra Pandey distinguishes between marked and unmarked citizens in his book Routine Violence. While such designations are not unique to Pandey, he emphasizes them in the context of India and the ways those identified as Muslim are commonly marked as Indian Muslims or Muslim Indians, whereas Hindus have the privilege of being unmarked; they are simply Indian. As evident in the focus on Garland’s ideology and judicial temperament (with no reference to demographic characteristics), being unmarked often means that people focus on someone’s qualifications and achievements without seeing that person first as a representative of a community, which quickly becomes homogenized and united into a singular collective.

Of course, what goes as unmarked in India is different than in the United States, where Srinivasan is doubly marked, both in terms of religion and ethnicity. Privilege, in that sense, is not a singular system but is context dependent. One element of the emphasis on ethnicity and gender revolves around being a first, Lynch would have been the first African-American female justice, and Srinivasan would have been the first Hindu, Indian-American justice. While being first is historic, being one among many is, of course, a sign of one type of privilege. One’s position in history, then, is more based on one’s contributions beyond being a symbol of opportunity and diversity.

The first articles that I saw on Garland’s pending nomination last week never mentioned his identification as a Jew. The failure to mention his religious identification raises the question if a Jew is also an unmarked citizen. Since Will Herberg’s 1955 book Protestant Catholic Jew, much discussion of religion in the United States focuses on those three religions as generally American, making being Jewish unremarkable and privileged, in contrast to being Hindu. However, Senator Bernie Sanders’ first primary victory in New Hampshire became remarkable, in some accounts, because he identifies as Jewish and was thus the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary. The prior presence of Jews on the Supreme Court, and the current presence of 3 justices who identify as Jewish, makes Garland’s religious identification less remarkable that Sanders’. The current court’s make-up confirms Garland’s privilege, as he would join six other justices whom we classify as white and 5 other justices whom we classify as male.

Of further interest, though, is the way Garland’s Jewish identification is represented. His family on his mother’s side is Jewish, while his father was Protestant, and Garland was raised as a Jew. The immigration of his grandparents from Eastern Europe becomes an enthralling component of his story and the only further reference to his ethnicity that I have seen. What is interesting, though, is that his father’s ethnicity or family background remains unremarkable (apparently Protestant and European-American) and just typically American. As this furthers the point about the privilege of being common and thus unmarked, it also becomes a corollary to the one-drop rule, as ancestry that diverges from those presumed to be unmarked American become important to highlight (sometimes positively, sometimes not), which further reinforces the privilege of the dominant, unmarked standard.


Photo credit: Merrick Garland speaks at his Supreme Court nomination with President Obama, by the White House, Public Domain

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