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 this link.
by Sarah Lynn Kleeb*
About 10 years ago, I was returning home from one of my first big academic conferences. I was in that weird post-conference headspace of feeling mildly buzzed and yet utterly spent, as I entered the taxi that would take me home from the airport. The cab driver was an older man, probably in his 60s, grey hair, bushy beard. He seemed like a kind man, with a genuine smile and courteous nature, and I welcomed his warm and gentle approach after a long day and a long week. I was tired, and very much looking forward to sinking down into the comfortable, plush back seat of the cab, silently watching the world blur past as the driver whisked me home.
The driver, however, wanted to chat. As we merged onto the highway, he asked where I had been, if I was from Toronto, what I’d been doing out of town, and all the standard questions cab drivers generally ask their fares from the airport. I answered minimally, but courteously, sliding down into my seat a bit further and looking intently out the window, hoping he’d pick up on my body language. He did not.
“An academic conference? Are you a professor, a student?” he asked.
When I told him that I was a student and he asked what I studied, I tried to stifle a heavy sigh, knowing that this often leads to a long – and occasionally somewhat frustrating – conversation. As it turned out, there was a massive traffic jam, meaning we’d be in the car together for at least an hour, so I resolved myself to snap out of my little self-centered haze and make myself available to this seemingly kind man with at least a bit of time-passing conversation.
But, then came that important moment: What do I tell him I study? This was still in my early grad school days, and I, like so many of us who study religion in an academic, non-theological context, was accustomed to people assuming I was going to be a religious official of some sort whenever I told them I studied “religion”. I was still searching for a label that would work against such assumptions. So, for what may have been the first time ever, I told him, “I study Critical Theory of Religion”.
My thought process was this: “Critical Theory” means something more specific than most people realize, so he likely won’t precisely understand the reference. But, “critical” should be a broad enough term to express the non-theological/non-apologist nature of my studies. So, out it came, and I anticipated some mildly confused muttering, and – maybe – an awkward silence to follow. I was very wrong.
He looked at me in the rear view mirror with a noticeably arched eyebrow, and asked, “Critical Theory? Does that mean……… [very pregnant pause]……. Karl Marx?”
Aside from the arched eyebrow, his face had been hard to read (especially from the back seat), and I wasn’t sure how to interpret him. He was, of course, quite right – that is pretty much what I’d meant (small-scale, anyway). Marx is, indeed, one of the central figures for this particular school of thought. But, was his moment of recognition about to get me thrown out of his cab on the side of the highway? Was the raised eyebrow cheeky or accusatory? Not everyone responds well to Marx (to put it lightly).
I stammered out, “Uhhhhh….. Well…. Ummmmm….. Yeah, Marx is one of the key thinkers I’m looking at,” in an attempt to both maintain my position, and perhaps soften it a bit, just in case (“one of…”). He didn’t say anything for a moment that seemed eternal, though it was probably only about 10 seconds.
When he did speak, my jaw dropped. To my utter delight, my cab driver was really into Marx, and he was remarkably well-versed in Marxist theory. His hesitation in asking about Marx, he confessed, was due to his own internal monologue, which was similar to my own – i.e., would asking about Marx lead me to react defensively or aggressively? As it turned out, he had fled to Canada from the former Yugoslavia several years prior, and (as I’d eventually learn is the case for so many workers in Canada) he was highly educated, but with degrees that weren’t considered valid in his new homeland. He told me about his amazing journey as a political refugee, about coming to Canada with the promise of work based on his credentials, only to learn – upon arriving – that his options were severely limited, since his education was not recognized. With bright smiles on both our faces, me now sitting on the edge of the back seat, leaning against the front passenger-side seat to get as close to eye-contact as I could, we exchanged off-the-cuff insights about Marx and Feuerbach, and their views of religion. I remember him emphasizing issues of praxis and critique – at the time, I’d figured that this was just because such topics are par for the proverbial course in talking about Marx. Years later, I now realize that he was probably calling back to the Praxis School of Marxian thought, which originated in the former Yugoslavia in the 1960s. We marvelled together at the continued relevance of thinkers like Marx, the extent to which his own critiques – and his calls to continuous, relentless, critique – remain valid even in 2005, even in Canada. We talked about so many things that I can’t even remember now, but it was, without a doubt, the single greatest cab ride of my life. I’ve never been so elated to be stuck in traffic for what ended up being nearly 2 hours.
As we took our leave of each other upon reaching my apartment, we shook hands and patted each other on the back, regarding each other warmly, like instant comrades. I found the unrestrained physical contact between us – he an older man and me a younger woman in my mid-twenties, he a cab driver and me his fare – to be a significant violation of divisive norms, an action so true to the tradition of Critical Theory. He cut my fare to a mere fraction, and I returned the favour by upping his tip tenfold (we both chuckled a bit about this part of our exchange, considering our topic of conversation). We expressed our sincere mutual appreciation of one another and wished each other all the best as we both departed, beaming with delight, heading back into our individual lives.
Thinking through my use of this particular label, “I study Critical Theory of Religion”, my intention was clearly to separate myself from particular kinds of scholarship: theological scholarship, faith-based investigations of religions and religiosities. Recalling this particular story, though, helps to remind me that self-applied descriptors can act as an “in” as well as an “out”. As we define ourselves (in true Critical Theory fashion) as “not-this” and “not-that” with the delimiter “Critical Theory”, so do we enter into a particular community with others, even if we do not realize it or recognize such others at a glance. “Critical Theory” constitutes a “getting away from”, but also a “moving toward”. In this fruitful space of recognition, contingent upon disclosure of the descriptor “Critical Theory (of Religion)”, I was able to experience an unexpected solidarity that relied entirely on the work done by that particular term. Had I described myself as merely studying “religion”, such a connection may not have been so easily and wonderfully formed.
Sarah Lynn Kleeb received her PhD in August 2015, and is an on-the-market scholar currently teaching courses in humanities, academic writing, and religion and media at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Sarah’s doctoral thesis, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Notion of “Liberation” and the Legacy of Marx’s “Ruthless Criticism”, critically examines connections between religious belief and (social, political, economic) dissent, particularly as manifest in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology. Current research interests include the rise of Pope Francis, who frequently uses liberationist language and economic critique in interviews and encyclicals, yet who has long distanced himself from liberation theology.
This post originally ran May 2016.