Compare, Comparing, Comparison

By Matt Sheedy

For the past few years I have taught a class called ethics in world religions, which I inherited—textbook and all—from a course designed for on-line consumption. While I had initial reservations about teaching from a standard phenomenological textbook (The World’s Religions by William A. Young), as a novice university instructor and PhD student I thought it justified and even fruitful to give it a shot. In the introductory chapter, Young frames his definition of religion as “human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy” (3). While clearly essentialist, I had until recently thought this approach to be relatively benign. So long as I framed his discussion as a standard comparative method seeking to make generalizations about how traditional worldviews align with ethical practices (e.g., ahimsa in light of a Jain understanding of karma), it was at least adequate to the task. I soon realized, however, that despite my efforts to introduce other methods and theories into my lectures, students routinely responded using confessional and essentialist language.  As Craig Martin pointed out in yesterday’s post, “Academic Habits,” much of this has to do with the students’ habitus that they bring with them to class—and it is only through reinforcing new habits that they can come to understand how to “relate” religion using critical conceptual models.

In this vein, I decided to include 3 essays this term (which is currently in session) in addition to Young’s text, including “Religion, Religions, Religious,” by J.Z Smith. While I am not yet convinced that this is a fruitful approach, as compared to, say, a concepts-based model (e.g., myth, authority, classification, etc.), my aim has been as follows.

I introduce Young’s text in relation to Smith’s usage of the phrase, “the map is not the territory.”  This suggests that the text is being used as one of many frameworks for comparing religion and must therefore be assessed for its strengths and weaknesses. What does this map tell us about religious beliefs and practices? Does this really fit with the territory, with what we find when we apply different methods and theories? To address this problem, I end with “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in order to demonstrate the lineage of Young’s model within the genealogy of the world religions paradigm that Smith traces in his essay. When we get to the end of Smith’s argument we can see not only how classification has functioned historically (e.g., Christians vs. “idolatry” or “heathens”), leading to the cherished set of 12-15 “world religions” of today’s standard textbook, but also how Young’s classification of religion as “human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy” fails on at least two accounts.

First, by suggesting that humans are somehow transformed by religion, Young is a) making a normative claim about the function of religion (i.e., what it should do for you) and, second, b) implying a standard for assessing whether or not one has lived up to the challenge. One glaring example of this problem at work can be seen when he declares that Islam is a religion of peace (416). Placed within his framework of “human transformation,” one might ask how we can then account for how Muslims who engage in acts of violence are to be classified? Are they not living up to the “true” Islam? Are they apostates or even idolaters? Are they even Muslims at all? Ironically, this seemingly liberal framework seems to be reinforcing the dichotomy between us and them, where the focus on “essence” all but erases the historically-contingent and culturally-dependent nature of religion itself.

Here Smith’s mention of Milford Spiro’s anthropological definition of religion comes in handy, where, by placing “human cultural activities or institutions as the summum genus and religion as the subordinate taxon” (Relating Religion, 193), the question shifts from matters of “human transformation” towards the many ways that human beings relate to religion given their proximity to other social, historical and cultural institutions, along with how things like war, poverty and colonialism come to shape the way religion expresses itself and not the other way around.

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