Imagined Communities: Theory & Religion Series


by Kate Daley-Bailey

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

Perhaps one of the most instructive texts I have utilized for teaching a religious studies course is, oddly enough, not about ‘religion’. If fact upon picking up the booklist for the course (Religion and Media), I am quite sure a few of my students had reservations about this text’s inclusion. The text was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. My initial reading of that text was quite fortuitous… I stumbled upon it and read it as a kind of ancillary text to the ‘religion’ books I was reading. Then the opportunity to teach a more theory based course arrived and I thought it would provide an excellent test case for the course. (I did begin to doubt my choice but luckily my choice was reaffirmed by an esteemed colleague who nudged me forward, you know who you are.)

While not about ‘religion’ proper, Anderson’s text provides readers with a historical and theoretical exploration of an equally nebulas topic… ‘nation-ness’ which he describes as “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3). Try to unthink the concept of nation as you look at a map. Try to think of the world in pre-nation times and steam will burst forth from your proverbial ears. Why? Because the concept of ‘nation’ is not so much a subject one studies, but rather a mode or method through which one studies the world.

So much like the concept of ‘religion’, researching the concept of the ‘nation’ according to Anderson, comes replete with three paradoxes:

(1)   “The objective modernity of nations to a historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.

(2)   The formal universality of nationality as socio-political concept–in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender–vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, ‘Greek’ nationality is sui generis.

(3)   The political power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.” (5)

Can any scholar of religion look at these paradoxes and not see them reflected in their own inquiries or at least in the field at large? Do these paradoxes not span the spectrum of views we cover when we talk about ‘religion’?

While it took some of my students till midpoint to recognize what I was doing… covertly teaching them about the complexities of studying religion in the guise of teaching them about the complexities of studying nationalism… most of them picked up on the context clues fairly early on in the semester. The way I figure it, sometimes, the best way to get students to think about something differently is to pointedly and deliberately require them to think about something different.

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