Religion Snapshots: How to Make Sense of ‘Religious’ Language, Part 2


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see hereherehere and here.

Question: In a recent blog (re-posted on the Bulletin from the University of Alabama’s Studying Religion in Culture blog), Russell McCutcheon suggests that the use of ”God-talk” by a woman in Tennessee–who had received a very large anonymous tip at her job as a waitress, thereby drawing the attention of the media–could be productively understood as one species of a larger human genus that tries to figure out causes and motivations. Specifically, McCutcheon muses:

But what if we, as scholars of religion, reconsidered how we focus on her attempt to make sense of this unanticipated event — drawn as we surely are to zeroing in on her use of God-talk — and, instead, saw her efforts to make sense of this anomalous situation as but one species of a far wider human genus that includes you and I trying to figure out causes and motivations of any sort?

In this Religion Snapshots feature, contributors were asked to weigh-in on the usefulness of this approach. Part 1 can be found here.

Dennis LoRusso: My thoughts about this piece are not so much a criticism but a reflection on its implications, based on my own “past experience of events.” McCutcheon destabilizes the idea of “causation” by rendering it a product of culture. I am reminded here of Talal Asad’s insightful work On Suicide Bombing (2007), in which he interrogates the strategies used to determine the motivations of so-called terrorists. He asserts that “motives in general are more complicated than is popularly supposed and that the assumption that they are truths to be accessed is mistaken.” However, the scholar can investigate how particular explanations of events serve to justify our response (in Asad’s case, he is appropriately interested in the “War on Terror”). Like the suicide bomber, the generous couple who left the tip remain conspicuously absent in this narrative, and therefore their motives, too, are “inevitably fictions that justify our responses but that we cannot verify.”

Through “shifting our focus,” McCutcheon and Asad admit that they are not asking us to abandon all efforts at determining causation, but rather to reject the notion that an act can be easily reduced to some “religious” origin. The question is not why does “religion” cause people to act in certain ways. As McCutcheon suggests, our efforts equally require a commitment to cause and effect. The challenge for the scholars is to illuminate why certain social actors in particular social settings make appeals to “religion” in order explain certain events and not others.

Tenzan Eaghll: Although McCutcheon is completely correct to point out the arbitrary and mundane nature of the category religion, I think he short-changes critique by failing to emphasize what Michel Foucault called “archaeology.” For example, in this piece McCutcheon asserts that what we should study is the causational thinking and categorization that goes into making sense of the world, but then he tries to ground this critique of causational thinking in human “cultural-wide practice.” Instead of invoking textual difference to explain or complicate the archaeological conditions that make judgment and critique possible, as does Foucault, he appeals to an anthropological ground in the “human genus.” What I feel is lacking in this approach is a call to historicize the conditions of possibility that make cultural practice possible in the first place.

One way to phrase my concern would be to ask the following question: what is the basis of critique? Is it “imaginative inference,” as McCutcheon suggests, or is it textual difference (the supplemental chain from which all discourse emerges)? I think that the latter position is affirmed by Foucault in The Order of Things when he writes, “In attempting to uncover the deepest strata of Western culture, I am restoring to our silent and apparently immobile soil, its rifts, its instability, its flaws; and it is the same ground that is once more stirring under our feet.” In my opinion, our goal can’t simply be to emphasize causative thinking as a “cultural-wide practice” because that merely produces a static view of human practice. What is needed is more attention to the archaeology of thought.

As Foucault roundly demonstrates in all his works, providing historical analysis of the formation of ideas (philosophical, religious, Christian, sexual, Hegelian, etc.) need not imply that there is some essence behind those ideas which never changes, but simply that ideas influence cultural practice, and that we can study their formation and change throughout time (as many competing discourses). Now, clearly some scholars do search for the timeless essence of ideas and McCutcheon is correct to call them out for it, but without an additional emphasis on archaeology I fear we will become a discipline that advocates scholarly quietism. After all, to determine the nature of “cultural-wide practice” before we even begin our analysis is to negate the very reason for critique in the first place. As Foucault writes in “What is Enlightenment?” what we need to analyze are “the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events.” And it is this archaeological method he is referring to when he states his desire to “give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.”


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