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 Merinda Simmons*
Sometimes part of the work in articulating what it is one does intellectually or professionally is figuring out decisively what it is one does not do. As part of last year’s NAASR program on “Theory in a Time of Excess,” I talked about the perils of defining an approach exclusively as a negative (i.e., the critical theory as “not theology” approach). But I do think there is something useful in determining where one wants to draw boundaries around one’s work (and why). Plus, this series is all about how to treat the anxiety or discomfort or annoyance that comes with the task (challenge?) of explaining what we do “to outsiders.” At such times, knowing what we scholars of religion don’t do matters. Why would explaining our work be a task at all? Presumably, because “those” outsiders don’t understand “us.” I get it. I sometimes still find myself gearing up when I hear someone about to ask the “so what do you do?” question—shifting my stance a bit as my brain weighs the advantages and disadvantages of saying simply “I’m a professor in a religious studies department” and letting it lie without crafting a more nuanced or explanatory follow-up. The temptation to explain, I think, comes from our own anxiety over the prospect of being mistaken for theologians.
Funny how anxiety works, though. The more we have, the more we try to draw and police the boundaries surrounding the thing about which we’re anxious. In other words, if we really were confident that what we do isn’t theology, maybe we’d let others’ misidentifications of religious studies as theology roll off our backs a bit more easily. My own suspicion is that the label hits just a little too close to home. It’s easy to get defensive, after all, when so much of the field can still rightly be called theological and when religious leaders in a community are still invited to sit in on academic job searches. This is how I make sense of the fact that the impulse to say I don’t do theology!, while perhaps clarifying in social domains where there is little basis for understanding the nuances of religious studies, still holds so much sway among fellow academicians as well. What this impulse prevents, however, is the ability to think about other kinds of analysis—at times more difficult to discern—from which we might try to steer clear.
I find Bruce Lincoln’s brief “Theses on Method” useful for so many reasons, but one of them is that they articulate nicely what scholars committed to critical inquiry are not doing, and, correlatively, what kinds of tendencies in scholarship prevent us from doing that same critical inquiry. I’m thinking specifically of theses 9, 12, and 13:
9. Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other.
12. Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as “reductionism”. This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion “as religion”–that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status–may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.
13. When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.
Criticism is not cynicism.
Criticism is not religious reductionism.
Criticism is not advocacy or retail (etc).
The title of this series is telling. “Scholars Explain…” The prepositional phrase “of religion” is not needed here because, as we have long discussed and debated, the object of study is more or less beside the point. If I want to identify myself as a scholar, my disciplinary affiliation notwithstanding, Lincoln’s distinctions are the ones to keep in mind—not those between theory and theology. The latter keep the focus on the object of study, engaging in the very theological rhetoric we try so hard to mitigate or deconstruct.
Getting comfortable with these distinctions helps me to let go of trying to shape perceptions of the kind of work I do. My nascent work with archives is a case in point. As I mentioned a few months ago in a Culture on the Edge blog post, I approach historical texts from a perspective akin to what Hayden White outlines in his now-classic Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), keeping in mind the manifold narrative devices present in the presentation of an artifact. So, I’m not thumbing through library stacks in the same way that, perhaps, colleagues in a History department might. This has caused some confusion when I’ve ventured into special collections. When I set out to explore some resources for my current work on the concept of “slave religion,” for instance, one librarian in particular became incredulous as I explained to her my project (one that focuses on the rhetorical and political implications of the category rather than the descriptive history of rituals and belief systems in the 18th and 19th centuries). “But what are you really studying?,” she asked.
Here was the “so you’re not [what I would have assumed]?” moment. She didn’t anticipate priesthood, but she clearly expected me to be something other than theorist. What use would a theorist have for archives, after all?
I take heart in what Jacques Derrida suggests in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression:
…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. (17)
What am I really studying? Processes of production rather than recording. Or, put more simply, I’m interested in how people tell stories. Many of these stories are to do with matters popularly deemed “religious,” but what it is I do, at the end of the day, is read and analyze narratives.
As long as we try to nuance our objects of study, we will continue to confound curious people asking what they think are simple questions about what we do. And being unable to give a simple answer is our problem—not theirs. “I study Christianity, but you know…I mean, I’m not a seminarian, so…” doesn’t cut the mustard. A productive challenge lies in figuring out how to articulate my approach rather than whatever or whomever I happen to be discussing in my work.
There is, of course, a certain arrogance at work in any presumption that people should understand what we do and why it matters in the first place. It can be all too easy to condescend in reply when asked about our profession. Doing so, however, reflects our own expectations and assumptions far more than those of the enquiring minds wanting to know. The defensiveness that pokes fun at outsiders who just don’t get it does not reflect their ignorance so much as our insecurity. Emphasizing the how instead of the what seems one way to make things a bit simpler, and it seems also a way to make our work translate to a variety of different spheres.
Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion vol. 8 (1996): 225-27.
Merinda Simmons is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Both her teaching and research focus on identifications of race, gender, and religion in the Caribbean and the American South. She is the author of Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora (Ohio State University Press, 2014). Her co-edited books include The Trouble with Post-Blackness (with Houston A. Baker, Jr., Columbia University Press, 2015) and Race and Displacement (with Maha Marouan, University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is currently at work on a monograph tentatively entitled Sourcing Slave Religion: Theorizing Experience in the American South.
*This piece first ran in August 2016.