In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.
Mistaken Identities, Teachable Moments, and Phantoms of the Academy
by Charles S. Preston
In the world’s myths and religious literature, the theme of mistaken identity appears frequently, and as a student of religion, my experiences with the “so you’re going to be a priest?” question have often felt like moments of mistaken identity. Usually the mistake does not lead to much plot progression or any epiphany, and it rather seems like the inquirer is merely trying to place me into some easily-understood category in response to which either I have to reveal my true identity and explain the academic study of religion, or merrily go along pretending to be someone I am not in order to avoid conflict or conversation. As I want to suggest in this short essay, however, perhaps my attempts at avoiding conflict through false identities have been misguided and resulted in missed opportunities.
In my early days as a student of religion, I had to contend with two variants of what I will here call, for shorthand, “the priest question.” Having grown up in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, some friends and neighbors assumed I was becoming a priest. Meanwhile, a few of my Jewish relatives presumed I was becoming a rabbi. In contrast, I was actually most interested in South Asian religions, and never for any reasons of personal spirituality. In fact, as an atheist, being a priest of any variety was always furthest from my mind. But the easy presumption that interest in religion equates to spiritual interest is hard to combat. It is, itself, a form of mistaken identity.
In general, those earlier problems have been resolved with family and friends as I have explained myself to them, but problems persist and I continue to compile humorous anecdotes. To cite a favorite, once on a date some years ago, I mentioned that I was working on my PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In response, my date immediately asked me the priest question with concern and confusion because she assumed a priest would be celibate, and thus she could not figure out why we were on a date to begin with! This was a woman with an advanced degree in the sciences, thus exemplifying how little even the well-educated know about religious studies as a discipline. Meanwhile, my being in the Divinity School has generated some other misunderstandings based on the stereotype, held by some at University of Chicago, of Divinity School students as rabid atheists. At a Hillel function, I was once asked, “What is it like to be a believer in the Divinity School?” The question was another instance of mistaken identity, and it revealed quite a bit more about the faulty logic and assumptions of the questioner than it did of me.
My experiences researching in India have also brought up a few instances of this misunderstanding in ways that are both useful and problematic. One fellow American whom I happened to meet in India asked me if I was studying to be a Hindu priest. While certainly I was not, I have found that being willing to grant some truth and value to Hindu religious ideas can be a boon when working in India. While I am upfront about my intentions with my research work, while touring temples and experiencing other aspects of Hinduism, it can be useful for my own growing understanding and for avoiding conflict to go with the flow, and to nod and agree. Indeed, spend enough time there and you might start to want to worship Ganesh to help remove obstacles, and I have done so on many an occasion. Certainly being very respectful, too, does not in any way compromise my scholastic work, and I would venture to say a respectful approach is critical to the study of religion.
Yet the presumption of my being Hindu has become something of a mixed blessing in recent months as I am currently engaged to a Hindu woman and her family is planning a Hindu wedding for us. While she and her (atheist) father understand my academic approach, her mother has, based on my knowledge of the tradition, begun presuming that I am even more orthodox than my fiancée! I have been willing to participate in all sorts of traditional practices for the wedding (I have always been open to trying any and all religious practices as a participant observer, and to worshipping anything from Allah to Zoroaster), and my future mother-in-law has begun using this not only as proof that I am acceptable but also as a bargaining chip with my fiancée to force her to be open to more traditional components of the wedding ceremony. Suddenly, I am presumed to be the Orthodox Brahmin in the family, and while perhaps it is presently useful, it is far from the truth, and problematic to refute. Sometimes our mistaken identities do get us into trouble.
But there is another intentional mistaken identity that I have adopted in response to the priest question in order to avoid the question entirely. Over the past five or six years, my elevator speech about what I do has been simple: I study Indian literature. And this is no prevarication as indeed my dissertation was on twentieth-century Sanskrit literature. Since so few people in the U.S. know what Sanskrit is, I usually avoid that word altogether. In India, I usually say I am a scholar of Sanskrit, and given that the study of religion in India is generally a theological or confessional matter rather than the religious studies model of the Euro-American academy (although there are some notable exceptions in a few universities), this works quite well to avoid the question, although my future mother-in-law and some in her family have conflated even knowledge of Sanskrit with religious orthodoxy, thus revealing a chink in this Sanskrit-studies armor. In some respects, this answer reflects my own identity crisis in the academy as a scholar of religion whose dissertation looks somewhat more like an area studies project, and while my interests have always been more in the religious aspects of these modern texts, they are not limited to issues of religion alone. Sometimes, I do not quite know my own disciplinary identity.
But the escape into area studies hides a deeper problem, and one that I thank the Bulletin’s editor, Adam Miller, for making me think about by giving me this prompt. (Indeed, it is the sign of a good question that it makes the questioned rethink a position.) Backing up a little, the inevitable question that one gets when one answers the priest question in the negative, and especially the question one gets when saying one is doing a PhD on Sanskrit literature is always the same, and is often uttered with a strong hint of incredulity and/or sarcasm: “What are you going to do with that degree?” The answer is always to become a professor and to teach. But until the prompt for this essay, I had not realized that a better answer to the priest question lies in the answer to the second question. It is here where the problem of my evasion becomes clearest.
The priest question, it now seems to me, is a teachable moment: a chance to teach strangers, friends, and family what the study of religion is about and to provide an alternative model to the usually assumed priestly vocational approach. As I make the leap from PhD researcher to professor, it seems all the more imperative not to shirk my pedagogical duties. As an introvert who generally avoids conversation with strangers, the area studies evasion has been useful, but it is also, I now see, an avoidance of my new responsibility as a professor of religious studies to talk with anyone, not just students, about religious studies in its non-confessional avatar. It is time to own up to my true identity, and to make the most use of it, and that is the moral of this story of mistaken professional identity. By challenging the mistaken identity of scholars of religion as priests-to-be, we challenge entrenched presuppositions about religion as a whole, and open students and even people we meet by chance, anywhere from airports to zoos, to new ways of thinking. Indeed, just as we try to correct our students’ mistaken assumptions about religion and mistaken and harmful stereotypes about specific religions, we might simultaneously challenge their ideas of scholarship, education, and even ourselves. I have on occasion offered myself as an example, with good results, to help my students question their preconceived ideas about religion and its study. The same process can work at cocktail parties.
Yet then the question remains: what is religious studies, how do we explain it to those outside the discipline, and why is it important to do so? There are sharper scholars who can speak to that question in many more pages than I wish to take up here, there are minds who would do so far more astutely, and there are critics who would rightly question the enterprise altogether. But I might give a short answer that relates to the theme of mistaken identity. One of my professors, Christian Wedemeyer, once explained (at a department party in 2007 or so) that his passion for religious studies arises from the fact that the scholar of religion can wear many hats. While the object of study is always religion, one can approach it through literature, ritual, material objects, anthropology, historiography, philosophy, politics, etc. This description immediately resonated with my own initial attraction to the field, and expressed my own interests in religious studies more clearly than I had before (see: teaching can happen at cocktail parties). Given the centrality of religion in the daily lives of human beings and in modern political discussions, it is understandable that religious studies might and certainly should overlap with and be approached through multiple other disciplines and methodologies. One might then be doing “area studies” work – on postcolonial Sanskrit literature, for example – but with an ultimate interest in the role of religion in that material. Thus it is natural and even imperative that the scholar of religion might be mistaken for a scholar of some other discipline, and indeed, the opposite can and should occur. I would argue that fluid disciplinary identities might be conducive to more creative approaches to religion by breaking down disciplinary boundaries, to release the study of religion from the priestly confines but also from religious studies itself.
That said, one might reasonably suggest in response that if the study of religion consists of just an amalgam of approaches to religion, and if indeed religion is just the product of the West, as many have argued, or of the scholar’s imagination, as J. Z. Smith famously proclaimed, then why hold on to the discipline at all? Why even bother explaining what religious studies is? Why not keep the other fields and give up the “religious studies” disguise? These are questions we must face if we are to discuss seriously with students and even strangers the constructed nature of “religion” as a category. While I concur with this skeptical and critical line of inquiry with respect to “religion,” the best answer I have found comes from a verse in Alice Notley’s feminist poetic epic The Descent of Alette. I have quoted that verse here including the poet’s somewhat confusing but distinctive use of quotation marks for metrical purposes:
“‘But they are phantoms,” “only phantoms!’ I cried” “‘They can kill now,’
said the men” “‘We have created them” “& they are real” “They can
harm now” “They can harm now” “We can do nothing” “but herd them —”
“Or they” “will turn on us’”
The context of the poem makes it clear that the phantoms are divine beings, but it is also evident that the phantoms are the ideologies and structures that humans create. They have not only been mistaken for being real (a case of mistaken identity), they have become real: they have been mistaken into existence. If religion as a category is the creation of scholars, it has surely become real, and that bull has escaped the academic farm and run amok. It cannot be mistaken for a mere scholastic phantom, but has real implications for governments and identity formations. This is certainly not to deride religion as merely a lethal force, as certainly it has served many salutary properties in human experience from the psychological to the artistic and beyond. But when multiple phantoms (religions) collide, creating tensions of different scales and degrees (from great wars to immigration policies to interreligious marriages), some herding is in order.
Most people assume that religion is to be herded by priests, but scholars of religion, too, help in their own way to herd these phantoms. Priests might care for and feed the phantoms, but I might say that scholars have a different job on the farm. By studying religions critically and from various perspectives, by knowing them to be phantoms, and by trying to understand their behavior in the world as they are continually created and recreated by human endeavors, we scholars of religion perform an important role in intellectual husbandry. We shirk our duty as trained scholars if we merely cast off religion as a mere phantom to be ignored, or to be feared or despised, or to be diffused into other disciplines. I have erred in pretending to have a different job and missed out on chances to own up to my identity as a scholar of religion, to show that there are other ways of studying, appreciating, and critiquing religion. Indeed, by suggesting different approaches to religion (and indeed different religions themselves), we might perhaps make some headway toward herding the phantoms, the mistaken identities and identifications, that haunt our students, our readers, and yes, even the occasional stranger.
 Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette (NY: Penguin Books, 1992), 94. My thanks to Shanna Carlson for introducing me to this book.
Charles S. Preston completed his PhD in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School barely more than a week ago. His dissertation is about modern Sanskrit plays and poems written by the prominent twentieth-century scholar V. Raghavan. He will be a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University during the 2016-2017 academic year.