Religious “Expression”?

Some scholars of religion talk as if cultural stuff—icons, myths, rituals, practices, ideologies, discourses, etc.—allows practitioners to “express” themselves, their religious beliefs, or simply their “religion.” Other scholars talk as if the use of this cultural stuff has the effect of “constituting” (perhaps by “performing”) themselves, their religious beliefs, or their identity.

The implicit ontological differences here are considerable. For the former group, “selves,” “beliefs,” and “religions” precede their “expression.” For the latter group, “selves,” “beliefs,” or “identities” are products.

Roland Barthes once said “tell me how you classify and I’ll tell you who you are.” What does one’s preference for either “express” or “constitute” say about who one is, or about one’s assumptions and theoretical commitments?

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2 Responses to Religious “Expression”?

  1. zjb says:

    Nice post, Craig. But we can also mix it up. A third option would be to say that “expression” is itself the “constitution” of religion. In the arts, there’s a lot of confusion about German Expression, from which a lot of this comes in western theory of religion (Otto, Tillich, Eliade {?}). The less interesting scholarship about German Expressionism suggests that an Expressionist “expresses” his own innermost core. But Kandinsky himself insisted that he was not painting-expressing his own psychic states. The subject expressed here is not the human subject, but the abstract sound of the shape itself. I’m pretty sure this comes close to what early 20th c. Jewish thinkers like Buber and Rosenzweig meant by “revelation,” and I daresay this is pretty close to Otto in his own theories in the Idea of the Holy. In the interest of self-promotion, I write about this in the Abstract chapter of _Shape of Revelation_. The claim won’t make you any happier, I’m sure. It’s vested in a lot of proto Heideggerian trust in the generative power of language (Die Sprache spricht), and it suggests that the human religious genius is a medium for said expression of or encounter with an extra-mundane presence. But it certainly complicates the either/or choice between
    “expression” or “constitution.”

  2. Randi Warne says:

    Craig, was your concluding question intended to be rhetorical?

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