So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Russell T. McCutcheon


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

by Russell T. McCutcheon

I think there’s been enough posts in this series to afford me the opportunity to tweak it, just a bit, and update something I wrote a while ago concerning how colleagues react when they find out that you’re interested in not religion but in the very category religion itself.

Writing in the introduction to Manufacturing Religion (published in 1997) I phrased it as follows (p. 6):

For some scholars of religion, such a metatheoretical focus will no doubt be troubling or possibly even perplexing. I say this because, on a number of occasions, I have been asked by colleagues, “But where do you get your hands dirty?” I take it that they are asking me what historical religion, which specific myth, or what particular ritual do I study. No doubt after coming clear as to what the book is concerned to address, some readers will still be asking what I simply refer to as the “dirty hands” question. “All this is fine and good, but what has it got to do with religion?” Another form of the question revolves around talk of hard data: Where is your hard data? Have you been in the field? Where is your ethnographic evidence? The prominence of this sort of questioning in the discourse has direct relevance for the critique I develop, for it presumes that religion, myths, and rituals are simply and self-evidently “out there,” unique and easily identified, like ripe fruit on a tree just waiting to be picked.

I then concluded that making the discourse on religion one’s data “is generally not received very well by some scholars” (p. 7). Hence my choice of a quote from Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus to open the book: “the sorcerer’s apprentice who takes the risk of looking into native sorcery and its fetishes … must expect to see turned against him the violence he has unleashed.”

One of my first experiences of just such a poor reception was when I was first asked that “dirty hands” question: it was during a job interview at the AAR, in one of those curtained hotel ballrooms, for a tenure-track position as Western Michigan (an opening specifically aimed at hiring in the area of method and theory). I was pretty new to the interview game back then and this may have been my first experience with a hiring committee. It was 1994 or maybe 1995; I was an Instructor, back then, at the University of Tennessee, and I was either about to defend or had only recently defended my dissertation up in Toronto. What made all this unique was that Western Michigan was hiring in an area that almost no one took seriously back then—long before all those now mandatory “method & theory” courses were invented in grad schools across the continent and so prior to everyone listing on the CV “method & theory” as one of the competencies. So for that small group of us (many of whom were indeed at Toronto) who identified with what was then a pretty new specialty in our field, it was a little exciting. Jump ahead a bit and we learned that the search was cancelled and (as I recall) re-advertised the following year with “method and theory” now merely listed among the various things the successful applicant might be able to do.

So I’m guessing that, like so many other occasions, “m&t” had been the occasion for an internal arm-wrestling match in the department—it’s a hunch based not just on how the ad changed over the course of a year but also on the evidence provided by that dirty-hands question. For I was asked that very question by faculty who really didn’t seem to get what they’d advertised for—or who were using the occasion of an interview to contest it. “So and so in our department does Japan, so and so does Africa, I do such and such—so where do you get your hands dirty?” was how I remember it being posed to me. My answer concerning studying methods and theories, and thus studying the works of scholars of religions themselves, and doing fieldwork at conferences and in journals, didn’t go over so well, for it just elicited a paraphrase of the same question, asked of me yet again, as if repeating it—much like talking loudly and slowly to a foreigner—might help me to understand it better. Not unlike an interview I had some years later, to be Dean of an honors college, and at which I was asked so many questions about recruiting that I had to pause and ask if this was indeed an interview for the position of Dean, I was then asked so many questions about what religion I actually studied that I paused and, as I recall still, said something like “This is a position in method and theory, no?”

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

While this hardly rises to the level of the violence of which Bourdieu wrote, failing to obtain a way to feed yourself because your interests deviated from the norm is as close as I’d like to come to it in my professional life.

So yes, seated on a plane, trying to explain being a scholar of religion as opposed to a theologian, to your happenstance seatmate, does present some challenges; but I think that they pale in comparison to the difficulties entailed in trying to explain to colleagues—colleagues, which implies that we work together, supposedly share common tools and intellectual interests—that one studies the fact that some people call certain things religious (or not).

Given the ease with which we know that we’re not studying, say, mana, but, instead, studying people who happen to talk about mana—and thus rather easily making the shift to seeing our work as anthropocentric—suggests that, if pressed, our colleagues should be able to figure out that the shift from religion to “religion” is not that difficult to make. For as the case of mana so nicely illustrates, just because people themselves talk about something as a feature of their world does not necessarily mean that we, as scholars, must naively accept its existence and, as the people themselves may see it, its ontological status. After all, there’s all sorts of people who claim to be masculine or feminine but there’s also plenty who are interested in studying gender as an historical phenomenon itself—it’s not that controversial, at least to many scholars (in fact, it’s now even a little passé for some). But tell another scholar in our field that you study the category religion itself and, well, there’s a good chance they’ll roll their eyes, tell you you’re obsessed with the category religion (as someone once did with me, looking over my online C.V. at an NEH event where I was a guest), or maybe, as a scholar more senior than I did just last week, tell you that you’re in a rut. They may even blurb a book in which your work appears and use their few sentences on the back cover as a chance to undermine the point of the essay you wrote for the volume.

Not outright violence, yea, if by that we mean bloodshed, but each is a curious moment of disciplining—each a situation in which your research interests are not misunderstood but actively contested and delegitimized.

The arm wrestling of that job interview never really went away.

So when it comes to making the shift from religion to “religion”—to being interested in the possible motives or effects of using that organizational term in either this or that manner—it’s still pretty controversial work. And that I’ve persisted in this interest makes me a little controversial as well—for example, apart from being told I’m in a rut—could you imagine saying the same to anyone who spends twenty or more years studying, say, religion in America?!—it has gained for me the reputation that I’m out to kill religious studies departments or the field as a whole. In the early years I always thought it was an association that had something to do with my friendship with the late Gary Lease, who played a central role in the demise of the program at Santa Cruz (for more, see his essay in the special issue of MTSR that he guest edited (7/4 [1995]). But since I’ve been working in a Department that has so successfully reinvented itself since 2001 (e.g., we’ve more than doubled the size of our tenure/tenure-track faculty [now at 10] and, given the success so far of our proposal, we hope to begin offering a rather novel MA in the Fall of 2017) it still puzzles me that this impression persists. (Just how much of my work has such a person actually read, I often ask myself.) In fact, people who get jobs working here are routinely quizzed, or so they tell me, by friends who want to know what it’s like working with someone who’s trying to eliminate the field; perhaps it’s because we’ve succeeded by being a different sort of department, and thus the fear these queries signify is for the future of the study of religion practiced as what at least Don Wiebe would simply term a crypto-theological endeavor.

But critiquing that pursuit hardly prevents us from redescribing the field.

So I find that in the midst of conversations with colleagues, there’s a lot of background noise, baggage, or whatever you wish to call it, that impedes a quick description of what it is that I actually study. Defying the boxes into which we usually place ourselves comes, at minimum, with the price of raised eyebrows—it really would be so much easier if I could just say that I study Buddhist rituals or Native American origins stories. But even for those who seem to think they get it, they often assume it’s just the word that we study, as if things have natural lives without words to name them. (Wasn’t that Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s point in asserting that faith predated the so-called cumulative tradition?) “Surely people were religious even if they didn’t have the word religion, no?” It’s a remarkably Platonic approach, if you think about it, one that many would see as sadly outdated if applied to other topics, but this essentialist viewpoint still reigns in our field. “Sure there’s no functional equivalent to ‘religion’ in this or that language,” someone might admit, “but of course those people were religious. They believed in gods, didn’t they?” But what if by words we instead meant the terminological iceberg tips of socio-semantic frameworks that enable us not just to identify something but, as part of that process, to distinguish this from that and then to rank that over this? For then to say that one studies the word religion says far more than some tend to think when they first hear it. Now we study not the term religion, as if it is separate from some pan-human quality, but, rather, we examine the very fact that we (and, yes, sometimes it is all about us) come to know others, and thus ourselves, by applying this word in discrete situations, as if it names something deep in the human heart (or brain, maybe genes). Perhaps it’s a little too grandiose to phrase it this way, but now the study of “religion” is but one way into the study of signification itself, linking us closely to such other cutting-edge fields as semiotics and identity studies.

But that’s just not the right story for those who wish to study the sacred—either to embrace it or debunk it (the two positions that still seem to define many of the debates in the field). This third option—the very ability to signify something as sacred, as set apart, as inviolable, etc.—strikes me as a far more interesting route, ensuring that I have conversation partners all over the university, united not by our object of study but by our shared curiosities and the common tools that we use to satisfy them.

Interdisciplinarity at its best.

But sitting across from those faculty at that job interview, over 20 years ago, or reading that recent email in which I’m told I’m in a bit of a rut, are not examples of such conversations. Instead, they’re somewhat akin to the situations others in this series have recounted: of the seat mate on the long haul flight, who doesn’t quite understand what it is that we do. But the resemblance is, as I say, only somewhat, for I think that the examples I’ve cited are moments where the wrestling match has been quite evident all along, making plain that our conversation partner’s usually unimpeded ability to divide the world (and its people) up in a manner assumed to be natural, has just been curtailed somewhat, and that the very situated interests that animate their system of distinction are showing, just a bit, around the edges.

That’s why they slap back and try to spank you, misattribute things to your work or call it journalism and tell people—right in front of you sometimes—that it’s passé.

The trick is not taking it personally and turning those momentary jousts—whether on a jet or in a conference session—into fieldwork opportunities, seeing them as e.g.s that illustrate how the game is played.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *