Agonistic Respect in the Study of Religion

by Jack Tsonis

As many will be aware, the upcoming AAR meeting in Baltimore will see an experiment in format with the creation of program “Clusters.” Larger than Units, Groups, and Sections, the aim of the Cluster approach is to “cut across different kinds of Units” and to “create more dynamic, creative structures and cross-disciplinary sessions.” For most readers of this blog, the Cluster of greatest interest will no doubt be the Social Theory and Religion Cluster.

While the specific concerns of the STRC will be various, one of the key goals articulated in a planning session at the 2012 meeting in Chicago was to work towards higher levels of engagement with other segments of the AAR. Of particular concern to many in the room was thinking about how best to present the analytical perspectives advocated by the STRC to other groups in the field, particularly those perceived as having a more “descriptive” than “theoretical” bent.

It seems like a well acknowledged fact that there is a major division in religious studies between “reductionist” scholars, i.e. those who advocate a social-scientific and discourse-analytical approach to all belief and action; and “essentialist” scholars, who believe that “religion” constitutes a sui generis aspect of human life and that all religions are different responses to the same transcendent reality (which typically leads to more descriptive or phenomenological forms of scholarship).

Whilst the division is obviously more complicated and multilayered than this common caricature suggests, the STRC nevertheless advocates a form of analysis that is clearly counterposed to scholarship underpinned by theological essentialism. Critics have long argued that such scholarship too often reproduces insider accounts of religiously motivated action without sufficient problematization, and that it regularly deploys unhistoricized or even quasi-theological notions (such as “the sacred”) as central analytic categories. Yet such critics also argue that the essentialist approach is the dominant one both in the AAR and in the institutionalized structures of religious studies more broadly. Leaving aside whether this is actually the case (and how in fact it would be measured), this claim points toward one of the most pressing areas of contest in the contemporary study of religion.

Given that the issue revolves primarily around the negotiation of different intellectual and political interests within shared space, a useful point of consideration might be William Connolly’s notion of “agonistic respect.” While Connolly’s work is mainly concerned with politics, his perspectives on democratic theory provide food for thought for those interested in the broader aims of the STRC.

Connolly construes agonistic respect as an ethos of engagement appropriate for the complexities of late modern society, an ethos in which partisans of all sides approach political debates with “a certain forbearance and hesitancy” with respect to their perspective’s universal applicability (see Pluralism2005). This does not mean that a lukewarm middle ground is sought, for “partisans may test, challenge, and contest pertinent elements in the fundaments of others.” Connolly suggests that when such contestations are explored without resentment, they can evolve into “reciprocal commitment to inject generosity and forbearance into public negotiations between parties who reciprocally acknowledge that the deepest wellsprings of human inspiration are to date susceptible to multiple interpretations.” Agonistic respect is respectful because it recognizes this ultimate ambiguity and tempers the debate accordingly (usually with a vision of shared interest), but agonistic because it nevertheless engages in deep contestation regarding the fundaments of others’ viewpoints, as well as strenuous justification of one’s own.

On my reading, if this general orientation is taken to academic work, it allows for a form of critical, deconstructive scholarship that can be (a) insistent on the priority of its methodological commitments vis-à-vis approaches that appear less critically self-reflexive; while is at the same time (b) not guilty of what might be called “Enlightenment hubris” with regard to how this insistence of methodological priority is advocated (think Dawkins & co).

In other words, the conceptualization of agonistic respect as a civic virtue for negotiating differing religious faiths and political creeds can be easily recalibrated as an academic virtue for dealing with points of tension between competing methodologies. Naturally there are substantial differences between the competitive dynamics of political action and the competitive dynamics of scholarly debate; but the principles of agonistic respect surely provide a desirable model for contestation in both areas.

The whole purpose of the Cluster approach is to encourage ways of moving beyond the hyper-specialized conversations that take place across the disparate groups of the AAR. But being serious about that goal should also mean being committed to forging productive sites of debate between those who study religion not just with different methodological commitments, but with different metaphysical commitments. Anything less will only reinforce the fractured and often parochial divisions that have for so long marked the field.

The point is not to strike an even or harmonious balance between contesting points of view, nor to fill the air with fuzzy pluralistic affect in which fundamental differences are overlooked. It is to wage the battle of ideas with more respect for the deep wellsprings of other scholars’ commitments, regardless of the specific reasons that we do not agree with them. But it is also about bringing into the foreground the fundaments of each perspective so that they can be debated more clearly, something that is often overlooked in the critical response to theological essentialism.

The ideal today is not “objectivity” but “ideological transparency” – or, as J. Z. Smith reminds us, not “processes of proof” but “rhetorics of persuasion” – where not just methodological commitments are made clear, but also, at various stages, the metaphysical commitments that lie behind them.

When scholars advocate a discursively and politically aware form of scholarship that rejects theological essentialism as a viable standpoint for the production of knowledge in an academic context, they believe that this is not merely based upon simple affective sentiments about what they think is right or true, but that those sentiments are based upon the best readings of human history as we can construe them. Recognizing this explicitly, rather than implicitly, should allow us to argue our points robustly but without assuming that they are based on self-evident truths or universally applicable standards of judgement. If we can get others to approach the table with the same attitude, then debates about best practice in the field may take on a productive new cast.

Jack Tsonis is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University in Sydney. His dissertation is called Don’t Say All Religions Are Equal Unless You Really Mean It: A Critical Analysis of the Pluralist Theory of Religions, which examines the way in which the pluralistic world religions paradigm of the twentieth century remains structured to an important degree by the assumptions of nineteenth-century colonial discourse, specifically focusing on John Hick as an instantiation of this problem. His research areas include the history of scholarship on religion in the west, communications history and media theory, and evolutionary paradigms for the long-term history of cultural change.

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3 Responses to Agonistic Respect in the Study of Religion

  1. Craig Martin says:

    I really don’t want to talk to insiders though. I’m 100% uninterested in dialoguing with them about what I do …

  2. Jack Tsonis says:

    Fair enough Craig. I understand your senitments, and I’m sure many would agree with you. I do too in certain respects. But I find this way of thinking particularly pertinent in the context of professional meetings and public debates, especially in situations with the potential to grab the attention of an interested but non-specialist audience.

  3. Matt Sheedy says:

    A further problem in my own experience is how I’ve often encountered a cold shoulder when challenging more theological approaches and, as a consequence, found myself with fewer allies than I’d like. From a purely pragmatic point of view (which is a further angle to Jack’s argument), it seems difficult to not engage across methods and theories (including theology), especially for those without an established position within a university.

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