Something I Learned From J.Z. Smith: Tenzan Eaghll

by Tenzan Eaghll

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

I never had the honor of meeting Jonathan Z. Smith, and to be honest, I haven’t even had the opportunity to read all of his works yet. However, the publications of his that I have had the pleasure of reading have immensely influenced my teaching style and I am grateful for the critical contribution he made to religious studies. The pedagogical usefulness of his work is quite remarkable. He had the ability to write about extremely difficult ideas in an accessible and even fun manner. Whenever I use his work in my classroom I find students grasp the underlying point very easily and tend to appreciate the candor with which he addresses the topics under consideration.

Without a doubt, the essay of his that I have used the most in class has been “Religion, Religions, Religious.” Originally published in 1998 in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, it provides a brief genealogy and history of the category of “religion,” summarizing its various permutations and interpretations since antiquity. It is written in a way that introduces students to the general history of the category of religion and to the fundamental problematic that underlies the study of religion—‘what is it we are talking about when we are talking about religion.’ The essay is also a bit ahead of its time, for although other attempts to trace the genealogy of religion were written before it, Smith’s broad sweeping historical summary of religion, as well as its naturalization and permutation into the “world religions” paradigm, prefigures full-length studies on the subject like The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa and Before Religion by Brent Nongbri.

The first time I read “Religion, Religions, Religious” was as a graduate student in a method & theory class. Smith’s essay was used as a class primer before reading The Invention of World Religions, and in a way it influenced how I understood the latter. What I learned from Smith’s essay upon this first reading was that it is possible to understand the invention, construction, and naturalization of religion as a positive pedagogical lesson. Though it is possible to see the lack of categorical stability in religious studies as a negative fact about our field—not to mention the nihilistic plight of the religion scholar—Smith encourages us to see it as evidence for what aligns religious studies with other academic fields, and as evidence for the various ways in which humans organize their world. At the end of the essay, after detailing many of the permutations and interpretations of religion since antiquity, Smith states that,

It was once a tactic of students of religion to cite the appendix of James H. Leuba’s Psychological Study of Religion (1912), which lists more than fifty definitions of          religion, to demonstrate that ‘the effort clearly to define religion in short compass is a hopeless task’ (King 1954). Not at all! The moral of Leuba is not that religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways.

When confronted with the reality that religion is not a native category to the world, but is in fact a second order anthropological term used to organize data, one could throw their arms up in frustration and conclude that it is best to abandon the study of religion and switch to history, or even anthropology itself, but Smith encourages us to see this terminological diversity as the very object of our study. What do people say about religion? How do they use it to carve up the world and create maps for the terrain before them? This positive pedagogical lesson influenced my reading of The Invention of World Religions and other genealogical accounts because it led me to see these works not as refutations of the central category of our field, but evidence for its diversity and importance. According to this perspective, what makes religious studies important is not that religion is “sacred” or “special” in some regard, but that humans use it in various social ways to shape the world around them. Moreover, what makes our field fascinating is that what gets to count as religion in the world is always an open and contested possibility.

Last semester I was given the opportunity to teach a graduate method & theory class and I had the honor of introducing the students to Smith’s essay and the positive pedagogical lesson it contains. Much like how the essay was used in the class I took as a graduate student, I used it to prime students for more complex genealogical material. At one point during the seminar, a student asked me what I thought all this material implied about the study of religion: ‘If ‘religion’ is a modern invention with no singular definition to encapsulate its meaning,’ the student questioned, ‘what are we studying in this class and in this college of religious studies.’ I replied that ‘we study how people use and think about religion,’ and that ‘this is an exciting thing because there are an infinite variety of ways this has been done, not just in the past, but right now in our contemporary world. Acknowledging the invention, construction, and naturalization of religion doesn’t mean it cannot be studied, but simply that what we study are these creative acts and their affects.’

I look forward to reading more of J. Z. Smith’s work in the future and learning other lessons from him, but so far, this positive pedagogical point about genealogy and the construction of our world is my favorite.

Tenzan Eaghll completed his doctoral research at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, 2016. He is currently a Lecturer at the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand. His research focuses on the intersection of continental philosophy and method and theory in the study of religion, with a special focus on contemporary French thought.

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One Response to Something I Learned From J.Z. Smith: Tenzan Eaghll

  1. Karen Zoppa says:

    Thank you Tenzan – you articulated my own appreciation for JZS better than I could.

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