Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Mitsutoshi Horii

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.

by Mitsutoshi Horii

My disciplinary background is in Sociology, and I have also written on the topic of Religious Studies. I often feel there is some distance between these two academic disciplines, which I have to constantly jump across. But this would be nothing compared to the cross-disciplinary journey of the late Jonathan Z. Smith. In an interview in 2008, Smith stated: “I started off originally in grass breeding.”

I often wonder about my own academic identity, sometimes aimlessly moving between Sociology, Religious Studies, and Japanese Studies: Where do I belong? The story of Smith’s enormous cross-disciplinary jump, however, gives me comfort.

I completed my PhD in Sociology at a university in the UK towards the end of 2005. My thesis was on the de-professionalization of Buddhist priests in contemporary Japan. At that time I took for granted the conceptualization of Japanese Buddhism as a ‘religion,’ and the academic discipline of sociology as ‘secular.’ This assumption was implicit throughout my PhD thesis. Immediately after the completion of my PhD, I came across Timothy Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies. It was in my reading of this book that I first encountered Jonathan Z. Smith.

Fitzgerald’s book shook the conceptual foundation upon which I had stood until that point, and made me realize that the religious-secular distinction is an ideological construction – making such a distinction is a classificatory practice. As a student of Sociology, I studied Emile Durkheim and Mary Douglas, for example, who turned the issue of classification into the object of analysis. I believe most undergraduate students in Sociology learn that racial categories (such as ‘Black,’ ‘White,’ ‘Yellow,’ and the like) are social constructs. However, I realized that most sociologists seemed to regard ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ as the natural order of things.

In the process of my post-PhD exploration on the critical studies of the religious-secular distinction (known as ‘critical religion’), I frequently came across references to Jonathan Z. Smith’s work. In particular, his famous essay ‘Religion, Religious, Religions’ has been one of the foundational texts to which I still return. Other works I came across include Imagining Religion and Map is not Territory.

As a non-specialist in religion, whose main focus tends to be on Japan and social theories, I have found some of Smith’s texts impenetrable. However, some of his more general remarks scattered across his works have often been sources of inspiration to me. The inspiration that I took away from Smith may not have be his intention when he composed these words, and I believe Smith might not agree with my more deconstructionist approach to the concept of ‘religion.’ Nevertheless, here are some examples.

In the opening paragraph of Imagining Religion, Smith claims: “man, more precisely western man, has had only the last few centuries in which to imagine religion.” (xi) Then he continues:

Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy. (xi)

These sentences remind me that ‘religion’ is a scholarly construction. It has also made me wonder whether the term ‘religion’ would be useful to analyze the everyday social world of ordinary people outside of academia. People outside of academia generally know the word ‘religion,’ which generates a multiplicity of meanings in different discursive fields within their social world. Meanings of ‘religion’ in this context would often differ from the one constructed in academia. Here I pose a question: Is the scholarly concept of religion useful to analyze everyday social reality?

Smith seems to provide us with an interesting answer to this question. At the very end of Map is not Territory, he states:

… we may have to relax some of our cherished notions of significance and seriousness. We may have to become initiated by the other whom we study and undergo the ordeal of incongruity. For we have often missed what is humane in the other by the very seriousness of our quest. We need to reflect on and play with the necessary incongruity of our maps before we set out on a voyage of discovery to chart the worlds of other men. For the dictum of Alfred Korzybski is inescapable: “Map is not territory” – but maps are all we have. (309)

The scholarly notion of religion is part of the conceptual map widely shared by academics. This is all that we have. It may guide us to a destination, but it is often useless for us to explore the area of investigation. We may have to rely on local knowledge, or get a more detailed map from a local specialist. We should not hang on to the map we brought with us from the modern West. We should stop trying to understand the area with that modern Western map. If we keep using that map, our understanding of the area can be distorted, or we may get lost. What we should commit ourselves to is not the map, but the expedition.

I am originally from Japan, and I came to the UK for my university education. I then went back to Japan to carry out fieldwork for my PhD. By that time, I had been carrying with me the modern Western scholarly conceptual map, which is embedded with the religious-secular distinction. This was all that I had at that time. However, as Smith suggests, I gradually learned to “reflect on and play with the necessary incongruity” caused by my own map. For example, there are discrepancies between the sociological meaning of ‘religion’ and what the same term means in the Japanese colloquial discourse. My post-PhD study in ‘critical religion’ interrogates the scholarly concept of religion, and now my forthcoming book The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2018) problematizes the serious attachment amongst scholars of Japanese religions to the concept of religion as a category of analysis. I have taken Smith’s remarks as if he is telling me to ‘relax’ my attachment to my modern Western scholarly map. It is useful to guide me up to a certain point, but useless to go further. Of course, as Smith says, my own conceptual map is all that I have. When one’s map does not make sense, however, you have to ask for local knowledge (e.g., learning emic classifications on their own terms). If it is available, we should get a new more detailed and nuanced map to navigate more effectively in a way that is more rooted to the local culture in quesiton. In this process, we may have to abandon the category ‘religion.’ I believe that this intellectual flexibility is essential, most especially, for cross-cultural explorations.

Mitsutoshi Horii is an associate professor at Shumei University in Japan. He works as Shumei’s representative at Chaucer College Canterbury, which is Shumei’s overseas campus in the UK. His previous research was in sociology of risk and uncertainty. His more recent research critically examines the religious-secular distinction in Japan and Western sociological theory. His forthcoming book, The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan: Shūkyō and Temple Buddhism will be published in the summer of 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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