More than Belief: An Interview with Manuel A. Vásquez (Part 2)

(This is part 2 of a 3 part interview with Manuel A. Vásquez about his recent book, More than Belief; see part 1 here.)

Craig Martin: As someone who is similarly theory-minded, I want to introduce theory at the undergraduate level—but find it to be a difficult task. How much theory do you introduce at the undergraduate level? Do you introduce it in lectures? Do you have students read it? Can you comment on your success (or lack of) in this area? Any hints or tips?

Manuel Vásquez: I am strong believer in anchored theory. When I teach the Junior Seminar at the University of Florida, which is the undergraduate version of method and theory, I try to start from a particular case study or a concrete application of a theoretical research programme. Say I would like for students to understand the basics of Durkheim’s theory of religion. I may assign Robert Bellah’s “Civil Religion in America” and we start with a conversation about what happened in the aftermath of 9-11. As we discuss the sense of grief and bafflement and the solidarity that emerged out of that tragic event, we can move to primary readings that focus on the concepts of anomie, social facts, and religion as social effervescence and collective moral conscience. We can do the same for Weber, kicking things off with a discussion of the gospel of health and wealth among Neo-Pentecostal and connecting it with the Weberian notion of elective affinity between a religious ethos and a particular kind of economic worldview. The point is that both undergraduates and graduate students have to see theory at work, proving itself useful (or not!) in disclosing particular relevant phenomena, especially current phenomena. Once you persuade students that theories can help see our world in new, interesting, and useful ways, you are more likely to get them to read portions of Elementary Forms, or The Protestant Ethic, or Totem and Taboo.


CM: If you wouldn’t mind me pressing a few critical questions, I have a couple! First, I’m curious about the “non-reductive” part of your theory. On the one hand, it’s clearly “reductive” in the sense that you openly describe everything in materialist terms. However, you claim that the method is not completely reductive in at least two ways. First, you claim to remain “humbly agnostic” about the actual existence of supernatural agents, etc. Second, you say your method is non-reductive because explanation should not always “point downward,” e.g., it’s not generally helpful to “reduce” social things to the level of chemistry or physics. I fully understand and agree with the latter, but don’t completely understand the former. The sort of anti-essentialist ontology contemporary materialism assumes is often at odds with supernaturalist ontologies and supernaturalist claims—e.g., you can’t hold that race is a social construction and accept that it is quite possible that a god created essentially different races at the tower of Babel. Why should we remain humbly agnostic about the latter sorts of claims?

MV: This is a very good question. By non-reductive, I am not implying that my theory operates outside what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the immanent frame. Given our carnality, our situatedness in time and space, it is impossible to avoid being reductive. Even those thinkers who defend notions such as the sacred, the holy, or God engage in some sort of reductionism and often their lack of reflexivity about how these reductionisms are imbricated with socio-historical reality can lead to domination. The point, however, is to be strategic about the kinds of reductionism that we as scholars want to pursue. So, it is crucial to be aware of the kinds of reductionism that are unavoidable and those that may be most fruitful within the limits of the possible, fruitful in terms of producing rich, nuanced, and rigorous-yet-flexible accounts of our being-in-the world.

In my view, our historicity and embodiment necessarily require us to function within a naturalist framework. Not doing so leads us to a deleterious denial of our viscerality, getting us into all sorts of unresolvable dualisms. However, affirming naturalist perspectives does not mean that we can or should deny the possibility of extra-naturalist dynamics. After all, the boundary between what counts as natural and as supernatural is itself contextual and shifting. What a Kayapo shaman may understand as nature is not the same as what Descartes thought nature was. I like how pragmatist philosopher Joseph Margolis puts it: the human self is “natural but not naturalizable,” at least not fully naturalizable or not once-and-for-all naturalizable, that is, not susceptible of being rendered fully transparent by any reductionism, including scientism. This is because humans are cyborgs, hybrid realities constituted by multiple differential patterns of mattering, involving discursive matrices, social fields, and neural and ecological networks. These matrices, fields, and networks inter-act in complex, often paradoxical and even stochastic ways that defy any mono-causal explanation. In general, following the post-modernist suspicion of totalizing narratives, I am distrustful any kind of account that claims to have made religion fully transparent. In the spirit of Nietzsche and Deleuze, I see myself as a theorist of becoming, of immanent transcendence, who seeks to avoid closures or reified boundaries, even between a naturalism to which I am wholeheartedly committed and a potential beyond-the-natural. I would like to remain open to alterity and to being surprised by the people I study, many of whom believe in supernatural agents and forces or may advance views that seem out of line our current critical horizons.

In the example that you give, as a religion scholar, I would definitely approach race as a product of particular discursive and non-discursive practices operating upon and from the body. But I would be interested in understanding the conditions under which the Babel claim comes to be lived as authoritative by those who hold it, as well as the material effects this claim carries in terms of the articulation of subjectivities or forms of social organization. My role here is not to dismiss the claim as wrong from the get go, but to study the conditions of its production, circulation, and reception. In fact, dismissing the Babel claim offhand may even be an unproductive methodological move, since it may thwart consideration of the effectiveness of the claim, that is, of the real, material effects it may have in the believer’s everyday life.

(This is part 2 of 3—look for the final part later this week.)

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