Denomination Blues: World Religions and the “Educated Fool”

By Justin Stein

It seems that, no matter how insistently I stress to my students in my “Introduction to the World Religions” course that each religious tradition that we cover exhibits tremendous diversity both synchronically and diachronically, I am always beset with a stack of blue books whose authors have failed to recognize this fundamental point. In struggling to describe what Christians do or what Buddhists believe, my students consistently end up making untrue generalizations that make me profoundly uneasy. However, the source of my angst comes less from their penchant for pigeonholing, than from the fact that they are simply reproducing what they heard in lecture or read in the textbook. To adapt James Loewen’s memorable phrase, these are “lies their teacher told them.”

But although specialists in any particular tradition may be able to impress the tremendous internal diversity of Christian rituals or Buddhist doctrines upon their students over the course of a semester, how nuanced of an approach is possible in teaching a survey class based on a pluralistic discourse that presupposes clear distinctions between natural kinds? This is my denomination blues, quite opposed to Washington Phillips’ call in Jesus’ name, though we both decry the production of “educated fools”. My blues come from wondering how to communicate to our students, and to the public more broadly, the insights of the last two or three decades of scholarship: that religions are not natural categories but discursive ones that are mobilized strategically; that traditions are invented, communities imagined, both by insiders and outsiders.

Tomoko Masuzawa’s celebrated The Invention of World Religions (2005) provides a genealogy for the construction of the “world religions” discourse propagated in our introductory courses. This discourse presents a list of roughly ten to twelve religions, each linked to ethnic and geographical markers, which are concretized in the map that has become a standard feature in world religions’ textbook. “As a rule,” she writes, the map admits to “situations of ‘significant overlap,’ that is, the situations of coexistence or intermixture of traditions that are in principle—so it is implied—distinct.

“In this respect,” she writes, “East Asia traditionally, and North America increasingly, represent   especially challenging situations for visual representation, being regions known for a greater degree of coexistence, admixture, and even syncretism. Yet the difficulty of representation may be more than a matter of mixed population or multiple affiliations. For, in some localities, being religious—or to put it more concretely, practicing or engaging in what has been deemed ‘religious’—may be related to the question of personal and group identity in a way altogether different from the one usually assumed. In some cases, for that matter, religion and identity may not relate at all.” (5-6)

Masuzawa’s words speak to broad populations, from the majority of Japanese who identify as “nonreligious” but offer prayers and buy amulets at both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, to the “spiritual, but not religious” in the U.S. and Canada who believe in angels and non-medical healing, to the practitioners of “tribal,” “indigenous,” or “primal” religions (to use three common phrases from contemporary world religion textbooks, Masuzawa, 43). Where do they fit into the pluralistic model? Moreover, what of the diasporic and transnational subjects who frustrate the neat distinctions of such maps?

My denomination blues were also taken up in an article in the current issue of Teaching Theology and Religion, in which Reid Locklin, Tracy Tiemeier, and Johann Vento present ways of “Teaching World Religions without Teaching ‘World Religions’”. While their specific approaches are specifically tailored for Christian theology programs, their goals of promoting “student engagement with the questions and empirical study of a plurality of religious traditions without, insofar as possible, engaging in the rhetoric of pluralism or the reification of the category religion” (160) is a sensible goal for those considering how to improve their approach to the introductory course in religious studies departments as well.

In preparing my students for the essay question on their final exam, which asked them to compare and contrast three religions—one “Western,” one “Indic,” and one “East Asian”—they were stunned when I confirmed in tutorial that Sikhism and Mahayana Buddhism frustrated this neat tripartite division. My advice to them on this issue was that they could perhaps use one of these religions in their introduction or conclusion of the essay, to demonstrate the artifice of matching religious families to territories by considering cases of “in betweenness”. In marking their papers, I have to say, I was unsurprised that none of them made the move of deconstructing the validity of the question itself.

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