Dead Religions

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by Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the 2008 interview with J.Z. Smith that was recently making the rounds on Facebook? In it, Smith suggests that the benefit of studying dead ancient religions is that they can’t talk back to you. When you study dead religions, no one can pipe up and say, ‘hey, that is not how I practice my religion!’ As Smith states:

I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, ‘That’s not what I heard last Sunday!’ Everybody’s dead. And I like that

Now, everyone who studies contemporary cultural movements will no doubt sympathize with this point, as having to constantly be aware of how ‘practitioners’ interpret your writing is always a concern—especially given the Doniger controversy—but Smith’s comment got me thinking about the deeper theoretical implications of our work. What his statement made me wonder was the following: aren’t all religions dead religions?

After all, none of us study the ‘living present’ but only its dead counterpart. As Russell McCutcheon has aptly noted in numerous Culture on the Edge posts, historical rationalization always comes after the fact. We never actually encounter things in their ‘present’ state, but only in a strange, foreign, and unknown past. Sometimes our ‘data’ is from 2000 years ago, and sometimes it is from yesterday, but it is always dead because even events from today are already yesterday. As McCutcheon writes, “After all, we’re all living in someone else’s “good old days” right now.

A similar point is also made by Derrida in “Violence and Metaphysics,” when he argues that the question of historical origins—precisely our “jewgreek” origins—should not be understood as “a chronological, but a pre-logical progression.” That is, all decisions about history, whether ancient or modern, are decisions that are made before we turn to our ‘data.’ We don’t study the chronological progression of history, but the difference that presents itself as history. In this way, every ‘religion’ that we study is dead because by the time it comes under our gaze it belongs to a prior set of decisions, incisions, and cuts.

Or, to go even further back than Derrida, Hegel argues for this exact point in The Philosophy of Right when he famously quipped that “the owl of minerva flies at dusk.” By this, Hegel is implying that philosophy comes to understand history only after it passes away. Philosophy cannot be prescriptive because the view it offers is always one of hindsight:

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One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.

The basic point: historical rationalization is always post hoc. We never encounter the living thing, but only its dead counterpart. So, whether we study the ancient civilization of Babylon or contemporary Hinduism, we all study dead religions.

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7 Responses to Dead Religions

  1. Morgan says:

    I don’t agree with the equation of past to dead. The human experience happens entirely in the past (here’s this idea explained in an entertaining video: http://youtu.be/BTOODPf-iuc ). If anything, the present is a construction around relevance and can easily span years as in “the present epoch” etc.

    Religious people arguing about what happened yesterday, last month, or two thousand years ago is the living social body of religion — one that can have influence on the future. The social stuff of living culture and data to be studied are not seperate.

    There’s a metaphor about pagan reconstructionists and zombie religion begging to be made…

  2. Carl says:

    This equation of “past” and “dead” is dubious at best. As someone who studies Islam and Christianity in a comparative frame, the words and deeds of actors dead for millennia still have tremendous impact on the present and future (as well as the past). Practiced religion is very much alive. The trap here seems to be one which considers religion as a succession of discrete events, rather than an ever-evolving beast constantly rewriting the past using the tools of the present while gazing to the future.

  3. Theodore Gabriel says:

    The urge of all religions is to preserve the past , though there are reforms and innovation which are usually perceived as radical but nevertheless becomes the norm sooner or later . So in the sense of growth and change most religions are living entities, not remaining static forever but evolving into different forms in the course of time. This urge to change is more marked as time goes on., and more marked in the modern and postmodern forms than in the earlier past.

  4. Matt says:

    Why hasn’t anybody quoted Faulkner yet??? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    Of course, McCutcheon would be right that we ought to look more closely at how that utterance allowed Faulkner (or his character) to position himself in an open field of discursive postures. Past is construct, present is construct, future is up for grabs, timeline is reversible, and oblivion is inevitable.

  5. Tenzan says:

    If Faulkner teaches us anything, it is that all voices resound from a coffin. Like Addie in ‘As I Lay Dying,’ we live only to prepare for death.

  6. Bhairav says:

    I agree that theoretic contemplations about a religion might be significantly different from the empirical or theoretic understanding of it by a practitioner.

    It would be wrong to generalise that all religion is about past. Perhaps it is true for “book” based religions like judaism, christianity or Islam where the prophetic sayings are given prime importance.
    For oriental religious movements under Hindu or Buddhist umbrella, one’s personal truth has deeper significance than someone else’s personal truth in past. However, it cannot be denied that some schools in oriental religions creates a mental fantasy land where the stories, realisation of personalities in past (through books, discourses) are given prime importance.
    I would refrain from making blanket statements generalising about religions here.

  7. Bhairav says:

    I agree that theoretic contemplations about a religion might be significantly different from the empirical or theoretic understanding of it by a practitioner.

    It would be wrong to generalise that all religion is about past. Perhaps it is true for “book” based religions like judaism, christianity or Islam where the prophetic sayings are given prime importance.
    For oriental religious movements under Hindu or Budhist umbrella, one’s personal truth has deeper significance than someone else’s personal truth in past. However, it cannot be denied that some schools in oriental religions creates a mental fantasy land where the stories, realisation of personalities in past (through books, discourses) are given prime importance.
    I would refrain from making blanket statements generalising about religions here.

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