NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link.
For the last three years I’ve been teaching philosophy and religious studies at The American University in Cairo, and naturally the experience of working with a predominantly non-North American student body has been instructive. Early on, I noticed something interesting about students’ discourse concerning religion – the prevalence of the term “spiritual.” In nearly every class I have taught, a student deploys the term at some point, and I’ve made a habit of asking what the term means. In almost every case, the response I get is a moment of slightly baffled reflection, followed by an uncertain “um…”
This, of course, is not unique to students at AUC. The term “spirituality” has been a kind of black box for some time now in contemporary religious discourse, and I suspect many North American students would react in a similarly befuddled fashion if asked to define the term. This curious phenomenon came to mind as I’ve been reading Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion and Jonathan Herman’s “The Spiritual Illusion,” published in MTSR (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion) last year. Both interrogate terms important to our field, although they do so in different ways. Nongbri offers a lucid and very accessible genealogy of the term “religion,” while Herman seeks to discern the meaning of the decidedly (intentionally?) fuzzy term “spiritual” in the discourse of individuals and communities who identify with it.
Despite their different approaches and topics, Nongbri and Herman share a similar goal: encouraging religious studies scholars to be more reflective about the terms we use. Nongbri reminds us that “religion” – as comfortable and familiar as the term is for us – is by no means a natural type, and while he does not suggest it be dismissed from the field, he warns us that deploying it to organize data “out there” that we choose to study can be misleading in lieu of an awareness of the term’s history. Herman similarly criticizes unreflective uses of the term “spiritual” in academic discourse, while also pointing out that this term does seem to denote something interesting in contemporary popular religious discourse that is worth studying (“an important data point in the study of religion,” as he puts it).
These concerns hit somewhat close to home, as a good deal of my research involves equally problematic terminology. The subtitle of my forthcoming book (Zen and the Unspeakable God, Penn State University Press) includes the term “mystical experience,” a phrase that is sure to raise a few hackles as it brazenly deploys not just one but two terms that are (not without justification) regarded with suspicion by many of my colleagues.
Certainly, both Nongbri and Herman – and the many other scholars who have been reminding us to be careful of our language – are correct that terms like “religion,” “spiritual,” and “mystical” cannot be used without qualification or explanation. Clarity and precision are, of course, goals for which we must strive in our research, and conscientiously self-reflective employment of theory is an essential part of that task. All of which is to say that we must be careful and rigorous about the terms we use to describe the things we study.
At the same time, however, we must also remain aware that – as much as these terms have roles to play in academic jargon – they also feature prominently in the discourse and self-understanding of many contemporary religious practitioners. “Religion” may be a product of a distinctly Western/modern/Christian/post-Enlightenment history, but it is also now part of the discourse of religious subjects and communities, some of whom do not share that history. Herman refers to spirituality as a “folk category.” So, it seems that we academics do not have exclusive authority over the deployment of these terms. And this means that we also do not have exclusive authority over their meanings.
What does this mean for the contemporary academic who researches things that go by (or are called by) these names? On one hand, the basic need for academic research to be lucid, self-reflective, and accurate demands that we define these terms with precision and clarity; otherwise, our audiences can barely know what it is we are trying to say. On the other hand, however, it is equally obvious that when these terms are deployed by religious subjects, they very often are not used with the kind of rigor and consistency that we demand of ourselves and our peers. In fact, it may be that they are designed precisely not to do so (Herman suggests that the term “spirituality” may be “by definition resistant to critical elaboration”).
This means that, to the extent that the academic researcher pins down her terms with clarity and precision, she runs the risk of misrepresenting or failing to capture those ideologies, practices, beliefs, and behaviors that go by the same name but are inherently fuzzy and amorphous. On the other hand, academic research cannot consist merely of reproducing the ambiguity of emic religious discourse.
In sum, it seems that the researcher is ultimately left with the responsibility to perform a delicate balancing act. Lucidity and precision are necessary qualities of academic research that should be maximized as much as possible. However, insofar as the phenomena we study are inherently ambiguous, amorphous, and vague, those features are empirically salient factors that ought themselves to be subjects of inquiry.
Nearly every student whom I have asked to define “spirituality” has ultimately mustered little more than a shrug and a slightly embarrassed smile. But it is also the case that, in nearly every instance that a student has deployed this term in classroom discussion, other students nodded knowingly in agreement. Terms such as “spiritual” may be recalcitrant, intransigently vague, and frustratingly murky. But they are also meaningful to the people and communities who deploy them. Aristotle once cautioned that the wise individual searches for only that degree of precision that the subject matter at hand allows. For us in religious studies, this may be a particularly fruitful piece of advice.
Jason Blum is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. His research focuses on religious studies theory and methodology and issues at the intersection of philosophy and religion, such as mystical experience, the relationship between science and religion, and religious ethics