So You’re Not a Priest? Scholar Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Natasha L. Mikles


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 Natasha L. Mikles

Due to a spate of research travel and international conferences, I have spent a lot of time in airports over the past year. Maybe it is because I am a woman, but people (usually men) seem to take this opportunity to speak with me, ask me about my work, where I am going, and my reasons for going there. When I explain that I am a doctoral student in a religious studies program, my interlocutors overflow with questions—not about the mundane things that occupy my time like writing papers, teaching courses, and advising students. Rather, these inquisitors generally aim higher and want to know what it means to call oneself a scholar of “Tibetan and Chinese Religions.”

I usually stumble through some answer that is surely unsatisfying, and I have come to realize that I often find myself unable to answer the question of what we as scholars of religion do because I have a hard time explaining to myself what exactly it is that I do. Of course, my colleagues and I have our areas of research which have been neatly defined as discrete sub-fields by the American Academy of Religion Program book: Buddhism Section, Popular Culture and Religion Section, or—my personal favorite—Religion and Food. We all have prepared course syllabi and personal teaching expertise. We all speak our own set of research languages, study our own core texts, and perform our own methodologies. I understand what I do in the day-to-day flow of work and I know what I do to produce research within a collaborative space with colleagues, but what does it mean at a broader level to be a “scholar of religion”? What is the difference between me and a historian or an anthropologist or even an East Asian cultures scholar? Is there a difference at all?

I recently attended the International Association of Tibetan Studies conference in Bergen, Norway; over six hundred of the world’s Tibetanists joined together to attend five grueling days of conference with eight concurrent panels ranging on everything from the economic life of Tibetan monasteries in the early modern period to the disappearing linguistic diversity of contemporary Tibetan nomads. The evenings were spent discussing the day’s papers and carousing with far-flung colleagues over glasses of wine. While it was invigorating to attend a conference where one could hear a metaphorical Tower of Babel’s worth of research languages being spoken in the hallways, I found myself—in a way difficult to put a finger on—feeling a little like a stranger, despite the obvious overlap in everyone’s topics of research. The creeping sensation of dissimilarity was made particularly pronounced one evening when a colleague working in an East Asia studies department explained her research by stating to the table, “I just want to understand the history of this one monastery!” The operative word “just” struck me as significant for revealing the difference between scholars situated in the field of religious studies and those outside of it. In an effort to uncover the truth of the matter at hand, “just” limits acceptable modes of knowledge in ways that silence historical and contemporary voices who may speak about gods, demons, ritual power, and other things one cannot prove. While scholars in other disciplines are selective in listening to voices so that they may uncover historical and cultural realities, religion scholars are interested in listening to as many voice as possible to understand the heart of the matter.

This interaction reveals that we as “scholars of religion” are not defined merely by our topic of study. This is in part because the category of “religion” is an invention of western discourse. Tomoko Masuzawa demonstrates how the idea of “world religions” as a topic of study developed only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the stratification between local folkways and “world religions,” which featured core texts, beliefs, and a focus on individual achievement.[1] Brent Nongbri and others have built on this argument to push the relatively recent invention of “religion” even earlier as a product of European colonialism and a counterpoint to the developing notion of the “secular.”[2] Religion is a constructed category unique to the modern age with roots in western imperialism, but so is the field of religious studies itself. Bruce Lincoln traces the history of the American Academy of Religion from its birth in the National Association of Bible Instruction and has argued that among academic disciplines, religious studies is unique because it is “a discipline consciously designed to shield its object of study against critical interrogation.”[3]

Because of this constructed quality to our field and even our topic of study, scholars of religion are doing something different than historians, sociologists, or anthropologists. In thinking through my encounter with my colleague “just” studying monastic history, I contemplated the two recent books of religious studies theory that have most struck me as evocative calls to our field’s potential. On one hand is Encountering Religion by Tyler Roberts—a book that presents a model for the humanistic study of religion based upon “treating the humanities as a site of ‘encounter’ and ‘response’.”[4] Studying religion—particularly the religions of others—allows us to suspend our own deeply held convictions and for a brief period “encounter” that which is different—ultimately arriving at a perspective in which “difference is not otherness.”[5] Seemingly in opposition to the pluralistic message of Roberts, is Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars by Bruce Lincoln—a book that seeks to demonstrate how the academic study of religion must dismantle the ideology of institutional religious narratives to reveal their role in maintaining a hegemonic discourse that benefits those in power.

What the methodologies of these two books share in common—what is unique about scholars of religion—is that our research has at its foundation a form of deep listening to people and the texts, rituals, and institutions they create. It is listening to communities make statements and claims about things they could never prove, and taking them seriously regardless. Our best listening encompasses the multivocality of voiced and unvoiced statements, remembering that every speaker by necessity silences another who might have spoken. This foundational methodology naturally leads in two directions: we listen to understand and we listen to analyze. Listening prompts the sort of understanding seen in Tyler Roberts, where we seek to encounter the worldview of another and place their statements about un-provable things in contexts that reveal how they create significance for the speaker. Listening also prompts critical analysis of the sort seen in the work of Bruce Lincoln: an analytical questioning of who benefits from and is harmed by the recitation of these unprovable statements and, ultimately, how their un-provableness is hidden. Both of these methodologies rest on first inviting every voice to speak rather than—as my colleague studying Tibetan monastic development seeks to do—to shut some out as mere distractions from the “truth.”

So, for all the men in airports who talk to me and ask me what it is that I do, I’m listening—to you and your puerile theories on Richard Dawkins, to the writings of early twentieth-century Tibetans who found epic literature a particularly evocative voice in religious discourse, to nineteenth-century Chinese priests attempting to navigate a changing landscape of religious patronage. I’m listening.


[1] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

[2] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

[3] Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demon, Scholars and Priests. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 134.

[4] Tyler Roberts. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) 16.

[5] Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Natasha L. Mikles is doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia researching the relationship between Chinese and Tibetan popular literature and religious reform. She is the recipient of the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.

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One Response to So You’re Not a Priest? Scholar Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Natasha L. Mikles

  1. Matt Baldwin says:

    Interesting piece! I enjoyed it. Would you agree that listening is a form of collecting data? err… I mean #data?

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