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The Northwestern Department of Religious Studies graduate students invite young scholars to submit paper proposals for “Sovereignty & Strangeness,” a graduate conference to be held October 19-21, 2018 in Evanston, IL. Proposals are due May 6, 2018. You can get more details and view the full CFP at our website: https://sites.northwestern.edu/sovereigntyandstrangeness.
This conference aims to explore the constitutive relationship between sovereignty and that which is strange, queer, or illegible. How might the language of sovereignty be useful for thinking about power in religious or secular contexts when spiritual communities, charismatic individuals, and state institutions make claim to and perform supreme authority over populations and territories? And how might the language of strangeness help trace the disruptive potential of places, practices, and bodies that exceed the logic of sovereignty? Such questions converge in talking about queer and trans* materialities, racialized cosmologies, gender troubles, cultic communities, and liberation theologies, to name just a few examples. This conference hopes to put two intellectual currents – studies of sovereignty and studies of strangeness – into conversation in ways that open these terms up to new and unexpected meanings.
We are thrilled to have Drs. Ashon Crawley and Melissa M. Wilcox as keynote speakers for this conference.
Please send a 500-word abstract, along with your name, institution, and year of study to NUReligiousStudiesConference[at]gmail.com by May 6, 2018.
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.
“What will he become?”
by Sher Afgan Tareen
On most afternoons in West Windsor New Jersey where my aunt resides, apart from grabbing a pear from the kitchen table or scanning all the family pictures in the sunroom for one more time, there usually is not all that much to do. A decade ago, the usual placidity turned tense when my grandmother broached my brother’s career. It had been few months since my brother had informed us that he will apply for graduate school in religious studies and forego his earlier plan of pursuing a career in law or finance. No one raised any concerns. But the silence from our end bespoke a curiosity that had swiftly grown into an unbearably annoying question: “What will he become?” My brother was perturbed. He beseeched everyone to stop bothering him. Back then, I sympathized with him. But as I recollect that afternoon right now, I also erred from blaming my grandmother for causing unnecessary grief. We had not really learned how to react when a college educated boy from Pakistan does not utter Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer or even Cricket player as the career he wishes to pursue. Sure, my grandmother always sounded like an inquisitor when she questioned someone but in that particular moment, she was a hiker who feared getting lost on the trail.
My grandmother had been the one who taught us how to pray and reminded us to fear pork and sexual intimacy. But she belonged to an upper middle class family. Studying religion is not a task expected from folks like us. Our study of religion consists of memorizing the Quran at home with the aid of a poor chap who enjoys the free tea and biscuits he receives in return. In addition, we also take Islamiyat, a class on Islam that elite Pakistanis only mention while recounting the number of A’s they scored in the O’Levels examination. My brother had also been one of those who aced Islamiyaat. But at Macalester College he had enrolled in an Introduction to Islam course, hoping to ameliorate the stress of taking multiple econ courses by balancing them off with a course promising an easy A. But once the semester concluded, an unfamiliar humility subdued his desire to see his grade point average closer to 4.0 than 3.0. He realized that growing up a Muslim does not guarantee an easier route to success in a class on Islam. He gained interest in theory and method of religion and the debates over normative practice of Islam in India during the colonial era. That he could authoritatively describe his research interests however did not parry the question “what will he become?”
My grandmother left us the day he had become. Nowadays, lots of brown folks study and teach Islam. Heck, even Hamza Ali Abassi, a famous actor, hosted a Ramadan television show in which he broached the question of whether a secular state may classify what counts as religion. Someone inform Talal Asad please, if he does not know it yet.
But whereas my brother had to convince his family to remain at ease over a future unknown, I caused unease by resisting the future they have inferred about me.
“A family of PhDs! Wow,” or “So it must run in the family” are phrases I have frequently heard on disparate occasions from people unknown to one another. They deduce the success my brother has had as a scholar of religion as my future. Why wouldn’t they? We share a common past; we are graduates from Macalester College who pursued graduate studies in Religion. Although I have followed his steps, I have felt differently walking on those steps.
Unlike my brother, I did not necessarily pursue a career as a scholar of religion. I was somewhat reminded of having pursued a career as a scholar of religion. During the first week of college, my brother instructed me to take religion courses in a manner as if he was asking me to walk inside a home he once used to live in. He was being nostalgic; I all of a sudden had multiple religion courses on my class shopping list. A year later, I registered for a course titled The Study of Religion or something very generic that I can not recall right now. I attended the first day of class and along my classmates proposed a research topic for the final paper. Later that day, one of my other professors approached me and very nicely suggested I delay taking that class. Only then I realized I had been sitting next to senior year religion majors who were preparing to write their capstone papers, not any final paper. The epiphany embarrassed me; how haughty my professors will think I am! That said, having taken five classes already, I had also secured a minor in religion. That I did not know beforehand either! Upon graduating, I had completed 17 religion courses, falling one short I suppose of a double major in Religion and Religion.
I then applied for a Masters in religion to various schools because applying to schools was the only kind of application letter I knew how to fill out. Two years later I applied for a PhD in religion to various schools because I had not learned how to apply for actual jobs as a Masters in religion either. My cover letter was excellent. I wrote what I wanted to study but did not belabor the specifics because I did not really want to study what I wrote I wanted to study. I did not want to do much at all. I was enjoying playing cricket and was content doing more of that, not contemplating why Harvard Divinity School paid me a monthly stipend.
Conceit, as in I was cocksure one of these programs will surely want me, and an uncontrolled libido, as in I had yet to and therefore really wanted to witness the America they represented in American Pie 2, led me to Florida State University. During the summer between Harvard and Florida State, I did nothing except play more cricket and meet a girl who I wished I had known longer. When I arrived in Tallahassee, I started sleeping on the dining room couch until my roommate grew tired of reminding me I had a room to myself and needed to purchase a bed. I saw in real life the kinds of girls they showed in American Pie 2, but I thought mostly of the olive skinned black haired girl I had met during the summer. The next semester I left school, returned to D.C, dated her, landed a gig as a supporting actor for a Pakistani drama serial, lost it because being two inches taller than the female protagonist was not masculine enough. Six months later, I returned to school. My academic career restarted. My relationship ended. I experienced acute depression and anger. I had started losing myself. I had left my body and my body was searching for me. But religious studies never escaped my grasp. If my arrogance irks people who would in such conditions struggle academically, it should. There is something not on when you do pretty well at something but you are mentally somewhere else.
Nick Kyrgios recently conceded “I don’t love the sport” despite attaining his best ATP ranking. His serve demands attention: seriously fast, but somehow so effortless and unhurried. He also plays video games before a match and once took a power nap between sets at the US Open. Over the years, his mercurial behavior has attracted tremendous criticism. Mark Philippoussis, a retired fellow Australian tennis player, suggested that Kyrgios should forsake his career if he truly does not love the sport. But Kyrgios also stated “I do not really know what else to do without it.” How do you keep doing something you do not love? You ask what else could I really do? If you are Kyrgios, you realize you cannot play for the Boston Celtics and emulate your idol Kevin Garnett. I realized I could not be a Pakistani actor, at least not yet.
Kyrgios and I go about doing what we do but we perpetually get distracted by something completely unrelated to our career and/or something threatening to unravel our careers. We display signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What will we become?
Sher Afgan Tareen is a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. He specializes in Islam in America. His research interests include the politics of religious pluralism and freedom, theories of space and place, and the religious history of out-of-status migrants to America.
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.
Explaining Yourself To Others –Religious Studies and Jewish Studies
by Zachary Braiterman
Maybe it’s not a bad thing, but why is it the case that a Jewish Studies professor or a professor of Religion has to constantly explain to others what he or she does? Because of the roles, obscure and not so obscure, that religion plays in the public sphere, especially among intellectuals? Because religion permeates everything? Because people care deeply about religion, even those against it? Because of the minority status of Jews and Jewish Studies in both the public at large and in the university? If we trip on our own tongues, it’s in large part because we trade with obscure matter about which ordinary people demand clarity. But the object character of our discipline is not the half of it. There’s also the subject of Religious Studies or Jewish Studies. How do we explain not just the object of our study, and why we think it’s important, but rather the subjective character of our investment in it?
We are supposed to be critics. We are supposed to view the object of our study from a distance. That’s what we tell others and that’s what we tell ourselves. But it’s a lie, an apologetic half-truth at best. Literature professors love literature. Chemistry professor are chemists. Physics professors are physicists. Philosophy professors are philosophers. They are moved by the object of their study and participate in its dissemination. So what about us? It is assumed that if one studies religion or Judaism it is because the scholar has a special love for and affiliation with its object, or with the intellectual exploration of its object. It’s not an entirely unfair assumption.
Non-academics, usually Jews, usually older Jews, will invariably ask me if I am a rabbi. I don’t mind the question very much. No, thank God, I’m not a rabbi, and I’m not a community functionary. That’s what I always tell them, as if to cleanse myself. My ready-to-hand quip is that my late father in no uncertain terms forbade me to become a rabbi. Unreligious, my father like many American Jews who grew up in the 1930s had a strong ethnic affection for Jewish people. With other Jews, my father was comfortable, easy and loose. What my father understood was that rabbis are unfree, bound and pushed around as they are by synagogue boards and synagogue politics. In contrast, it has been my experience that academics can pretty much say what they want. This might be a naïve view and there is evidence enough to suggest that, in Jewish Studies, one has to watch what one says. Indeed, we are not autonomous agents; one always speaks in-community. But just because free speech is framed or carries a price doesn’t make it any less free. That’s just how discourse, especially contested discourse, works.
It’s one thing to explain yourself to strangers, another to explain yourself to family. To date I’ve written two monographs, one on theological and textual revision in post-Holocaust Jewish thought, the other on art, aesthetics and twentieth century Jewish philosophy. My late father-in-law gave the first one a good shot. My older brother has both volumes at home but confessed that the material is too technical, impossible to read. My younger brother couldn’t care a less about what I do and regards academic life with unadulterated contempt. My young children already think that “Jewish philosophy” is the punchline to some joke or no little eye-rolling. For whatever reason, I find it easiest to communicate with my sister-in-law, who grew up modern orthodox, and a nephew. These conversations work best when cutting across very particular segments. When I sometime succeed at explaining what I’m trying to communicate, the older brother asks me why I don’t try write in more ordinary language. Or at least he used to. I try to explain that these books are about complex phenomena the understanding of which depends upon technical terminology. So why not write a book for a popular readership? Truth be told, it comes down to pride and craft. Academic books are complex by design, and there’s a pride that comes into their creation.
Having said that, it’s also true that, well into my career, I got bored with my field. Or rather, frustrated with the concentricity of my own marginality–the marginality of Humanities professors in the larger public and the larger university, the marginality of Religious Studies in the academy, the marginality of Jewish Studies in the academy and in Religious Studies, the marginality of Jewish philosophy in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies, and the marginality of aesthetics in Jewish philosophy. So I started a blog as a way to reach out–to friends inside and outside the academy, to colleagues inside and outside Religious Studies and Jewish Studies and Jewish philosophy, to family, and to perfect strangers upon whom one regularly stumbles online. The point has been to go for the middle brow. Some posts are more technically demanding; others are not. Every post comes with a picture that I have either taken myself or stolen from other online sites. What I have tried to do at “Jewish Philosophy Place” is to systematize and record the things that I see, read, look at, and think about on an ad hoc daily basis. The only thing that holds together this miscellany of thought, culture, art, and politics is my own intention.
An almost trivial thing, the blog is relatively uncomplicated. It’s self-justifying. People will read it or they won’t, but there it is. It simply is, calling public attention to itself. Now and then my brother will weigh in on this or that post, usually those relating to Israeli politics. My mother enjoys a fan-base among a segment of my academic friends, mostly because she comments in such an arch way. It may be that because of the blog I never get a job offer from a university more prestigious than the one that currently employs me, and that’s okay. In the meantime, it has gotten me some little attention inside and outside the academy, more attention than was the case when all I did was write scholarly books and articles. As something of an extrovert, that has been the cause of much satisfaction. And while I understand that mine is a very niche presence online, it has relieved much of the isolation I felt previous to its creation.
But to academics? Try to explain yourself to a fellow academic outside the field of either Religion or Jewish Studies. They are the worst, the least ready to hear another person out, especially when it comes to religion or to Judaism. This is a dirty little secret, so dirty that we barely communicate it to our closest colleagues in the field. About lines of affiliation, here’s what I’ve never dared say to a fellow academic in so many words–that no, I’m not a community functionary or apologist, that my father forbade the rabbinate to me, and that, yes, surrounded by books and by family, that, yes, I love the Jewish textual tradition and find myself there, the synagogue and its structure, the home ritual of Judaism and its philosophical expression, that, yes, I find my place in Jewish community politics, including the “Zionist idea,” and that, yes, I can situate myself in community critically, with an eye to history and politics and period detail, which is the only way an intellectual can in good faith situate, not because these things are true, but because they are beautiful, even when they are not. Alas, I fear that this is a conversation killer, but there’s no way around it.
Zachary Braiterman is professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His work explores the interface between Jewish thought and culture, continental philosophy, aesthetic theory, and visual culture.
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. 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.” 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.”
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’.” 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.” 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.
 Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)
 Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)
 Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demon, Scholars and Priests. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 134.
 Tyler Roberts. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) 16.
 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.
I Think I’m Done With Comparative Religions
by Matt Sheedy
My parents were in town last week for a visit and stayed at a bed and breakfast not far from where I live. On their last morning they convinced the proprietor of the B&B to have me over for breakfast, which we shared with two other couples, one from China and the other from Red Deer, Alberta. After some light banter the man from Red Deer asked me what I do for a living, to which I promptly replied, “I’m a scholar of comparative religions.”
I had not been asked this question in some time and was a little caught off guard, opting for an old default term that I had used in the past in the place of “religious studies” or the “study of religion,” which I’ve found most people mistake for theology. The modifier “comparative” seemed, at the very least, to signal something other than Christian apologetics or, as I used to get during my Master’s days, that I was training to become a priest. While the term “comparative religions” is loaded and largely passé for many scholars in the field (though Eric Sharpe’s text of that name is still worth reading), I had still assumed, evidently (if unreflectively), that it would suffice as a stand-in description for a curious outsider to mark my boundary as “other-than-theology.”
In an attempt to relate to my work the man from Red Deer asked me if I was familiar with the writings of C.S. Lewis, of whom he was a fan. This did not strike me as unusual given the popularity of Lewis among both children and adults, though the familiar turn to a Christian apologist did not give me confidence that my self-description as a scholar of comparative religions had done that work that I had hoped it would do. He then asked me if I had heard of Ravi Zacharias (I said I was vaguely familiar), and went on to discuss his work on “comparative religions” with such books as Jesus Among Other Gods, The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha, and The Price and the Prophet: Jesus Talks with Mohammad.
I looked up The Price and the Prophet when I retuned home latter that day and found the following description:
Nothing is more centerstage at this time in world history than the place of religion – its use and abuse. What is Islam? What is the Christian faith? Are these on a collision course? Listen in on a conversation between two young men – one a devout Muslim and the other at a crossroads as he faces the claims of Jesus Christ. Enter into the debate as heart and mind intertwine with the deepest themes of faith and truth. … Can we see the difference and learn to live peaceably with these differences? Read this book as part of the Great Conversations series by Ravi Zacharias as he tackles this sensitive theme in The Prophet and the Prince. It could change the way you think about God and the nature of Truth.
That same evening I was finishing up Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (2015) by Thomas A. Lewis, which ends by offering a critique of Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World (2011). Commenting on the problem of “comparative religions” Lewis writes:
Beyond legitimating certain notions of continuity with origins, conceiving of religions as even roughly cohesive wholes in this manner easily obscures important differences within these traditions. This problem comes out clearly in a work such as Prothero’s God Is Not One. For all Prothero’s attention to differences within traditions, these are clearly subordinated to the differences between the eight different “rival religions” that are presented as the basic alternatives. Yet the point about the occlusion of differences within traditions still lingers in more sophisticated and subtle work in the field (134-35).
Lewis goes on to talk about a similar dynamic at work in the Comparative Religious Ideas Project, which brought together a number of scholars at a series of conferences from 1995 to 1999, and produced three volumes, The Human Condition, Ultimate Realities, and Religious Truth. Discussing these themes, Lewis continues:
Each of these scholars focuses on a particular period or even text of a given tradition, and the project is explicit about acknowledging differences and diversity within religious traditions. Despite making these qualifications, the project holds onto the rubrics of distinct religions to structure the project. They identify these traditions as “Buddhism, Chinese religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.” … They define these religious traditions in terms of canonical texts and “motifs,” arguing that despite the internal diversity, these traditions “form around and take their initial identity from these core texts and motifs in such a way that all subsequent developments in each tradition have to come to terms with them.” All Hindus have to come to terms with the Vedas; all Buddhists must somehow engage the Buddha’s teachings and canonical accounts of his life; all Muslims relate to the Qur’an as authoritative; and so forth (135).
In the context of my conversation with the man from Red Deer, what struck me about Lewis’s remarks (Thomas A. not C.S.) was how similar the apologetics of Zacharias was to both Prothero and the Comparative Religious Ideas Project. Granted, the latter do not attempt to legitimate their claims theologically, as advocates of a particular tradition, though they are all led by a concern with reconciling “differences” through favorable comparison in the interest of cooperation and in the service of inter-faith dialogue.
One obvious problem with this model, as Lewis nicely states a few pages later, is that it “reinscribes the notion that relevant differences within Christianity—or Islam, or Buddhism—are less significant than the commonalities” (136). While we could certainly take Lewis’s point further, his basic argument is that the method of comparison in these and related studies begins with the default assumption of some common essence within various identified religions—each of which share certain “truths,” “ultimate realities” and views on the “human condition” that are deemed similar at their core, and where differences can serve as an object lesson for others to learn from (e.g., how to be more “biocentric” like Indigenous people).
While my encounter with the man from Red Deer is anecdotal and by no means a representative sample of perceptions of those from outside of the discipline, it reminded me of how fraught “comparative religions” is as a description of the field, especially for those of us who aim to work with critical methods and theories and to push beyond regnant paradigms. It also reminded me how the term functions as a sign-symbol within a particular economy of meaning, signalling for many (it would appear) other popular “comparativists” in our shared social worlds–e.g., Ravi Zaharias, Deepak Chopra, or the following link (teaser!), which came up fourth when I googled “comparative religion.”
I am not sure what a useful term might be for explaining to outsiders what it is that I/we do, though one thing is for certain: I think I’m done with comparative religions.
Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.
by Alexander Rocklin
I was on an airplane back home to Chicago from Trinidad and Tobago last summer, after a layover in Miami. Summer is the only time during the year I have to read for pleasure and I was enjoying Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym. In order to avoid distraction on planes I typically listen to music while I read. However, this is often not an effective deterrent to interruption. We were about halfway through the flight when I noticed that the woman sitting a seat away from me was gesticulating and mouthing in my direction “Oh wow! What is that?” She was gesturing toward the inflight entertainment. I removed only one ear bud and holding it up I told her the program was NBC’s obstacle course extravaganza, American Ninja Warrior. She used this moment of at least one unblocked ear canal to start up a conversation, asking the what do you do question.
I don’t typically give much thought in my reply to this question because in my experience people have not shown much interest in what I do (on airplanes at least, not while doing research in Trinidad, where people are curious and confused by a white guy from the US studying things East Indian). When I told her I was a historian of religion who studies Hinduism and Islam in the Americas and was going to start as a visiting professor in religious studies her eyes lit up. She told me she was coming back from a summer mission. Our discussion meandered between her work, American Ninja Warrior, and the book I was reading. I shared with her my plans to go on the job market in the fall and all of a sudden I felt a jolt as she grabbed my arm with one hand, put her other hand on my shoulder, and began to pray over me. She asked her god to help me with my move to Oregon and with my coming job search. I awkwardly thanked her.
When I told her I was coming back from doing research in Trinidad, she said was coming from the Dominican Republic and that she had been to Mexico the year before; that there was a lot of work to be done in the field in Mexico. She informed me that many of the people there had given up Jesus and eternal life to worship Death and Satan! I asked her if she was talking about the Catholic folk saint Santa Muerte. I explained that most devotees of Santa Muerte identified as Christian and did not see themselves as worshiping death. She was for many just another saint, if a particularly responsive but unofficial one. She looked at me as I spoke, but transitioned without comment to tell me about her work in the DR. As she was talking the calendar app on my phone began to buzz. I absentmindedly took the phone out of my pocket and dismissed the reminder. As I did so my seatmate’s eyes went wide again as she saw the background on my phone, an image featuring a glaring demon with protruding fangs from the cover of a late 19th century book on “obeah,” popularly defined as African Caribbean magic.
She immediately went back to her ninja warriors. I looked over at her for a moment and then went back to Pym.
At the level of the airplane conversation (at the least), given how cursory they often are, I wonder how much control we really can have over how our seatmates identify us and understand what we do/say (and vice versa). And our desires and intentions (when/if those can be consciously and coherently articulated and determined) only take us part of the way. Our projects of identity confection are hardly the only things that make us. There are things and bodies beyond what we would call ourselves that get caught up in making us “who we are” in a given context, despite how we construct ourselves. The novel Pym’s protagonist is Chris Jaynes, a college professor who identifies as Black. However, he has very light skin and is identified as white—and his African American associates are taken to be his slaves!—by [spoiler alert] the novel’s titular character. Initially, in Jaynes’ case, it was his skin that Pym assumed told him something important (given his antebellum point of reference). But also the Victorian explorer interpreted him in relation to Jaynes’ travel companions in order to make sense of him. We and our flightmates have a variety of frames that order our interactions, constrain but also make possible some sort of understanding of the world and where we might fit in it. But the various elements can change and shift. I went from anonymous neighbor to fellow worker in the Latin American missionary field to likely worshiper of Death and Satan (!) in the span of little over half a dozen minutes. Or at least that was my take on our interaction. Different people will situate us differently using different things—different bits of our bodies, who and what we associate or are associated with, in their work of identifying us. The information I provided but also the background image on my phone helped to shift the ways in which I was legible for this woman, in apparently startling ways.
Though neither missionary nor obeahman, I will take whichever of these identifications affords me the most quiet time for reading.
Alexander Rocklin is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Willamette University. He completed his PhD in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. His research interests include colonialism and the politics of the category religion, religion and race, and histories of Hinduism, Islam, and Afro-Atlantic traditions in the Americas. His work has appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and the New West Indian Guide.
by Stacie Swain
When I began writing this piece, I was on a plane ride back to Ottawa for the 2nd year of my MA in the study of religion, after travelling for two and a half months for both studious and non-studious reasons. Constantly switching contexts requires constant acts of identification, description, and explanation – who you are, where you come from, what you do, why you’re there, how you got there, where you were before, and so on.
On this particular flight, I was seated in between two strangers; and, as so many others in this series have noted that they themselves do, I was staring at my laptop, headphones on, hoping that neither of the nice seeming middle-aged ladies to either side asked me what I was doing, writing, or studying. My antisocial tendencies in this case mostly sourced from explanation-exhaustion, in that I was simply tired of the ‘elevator pitch’ that I could recite by rote at this point, sometimes given in layperson’s terms and sometimes not, and the conversations that often (but not always) tread (or trudge) a relatively predictable path.
Of course, as other posts in this series have also pointed out, the extent to which I identify, describe, and explain myself depends upon who they are, where we are, whether or not I feel like talking about it, and the persistence of the person(s) in question. My default reply is my thesis topic flavour of the month, and often (especially if they have that confused face) I qualify the short explanation with a nod to the fact that I don’t study theology, and instead come at things from more of a social sciences kind of perspective.
#notallscholarsofreligion pull this explanatory maneuver of course, but there is a certain amount of baggage (normative assumptions) that we pick up off of the baggage claim when we identify as scholars of religion. Perhaps the issue is even more confused, as some have suggested, by the variety of names for our field – for example, that I’m in a department of ‘Religious’ Studies, and therefore perhaps my studies are performed from a religious perspective.
A case in point of the impression that I, and others, often wish to avoid is encapsulated in this Buzzfeed list, “29 Things All Divinity School Students Will Understand.” Now, I may be in a department of Religious Studies, but I’m not at a Divinity school. I’ll admit that I’m not even entirely sure what they are, but I know that lots of top universities have them – Harvard, Duke, Yale, and Oxford, to name a few. Pop culture as it may be, this Buzzfeed post serves as data in that it identifies and reinforces a boundary between those within divinity schools and those outside of them, a form of inclusion and exclusion based upon those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t.
Even though I’m not attending a divinity school (perhaps I just don’t get it), I can see that the post is demonstrative of the overlap and ambiguity over what those studying religion do or wish to become. Namely, while the tone of the post is overtly Christian and theological (i.e. #8 the Bible is “the text,” #12 “We’re doing God’s work”), you might have noticed that #7 almost literally asks the same question that this series in the Bulletin does: so, you’re not studying religion in a post-secondary institution in order to become a priest/minister/nun/monk, etc.? For my reaction upon seeing elements of this list that cross-apply to me (i.e. #14, a tropical AAR/SBL location) and particularly #7, please refer to the face-palming Jesus statue that serves as the header image for this series.
My point here, however, is not to replay debates within the field regarding the covert and overt theological agendas with which scholars in departments of religion sometimes jostle for space. Nor do I wish to contribute to the debate over which forms of scholarship the AAR should include or exclude (for that see the other Bulletin series, ‘Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme’).
Instead, the Buzzfeed post I cite reinforces what Russell McCutcheon discusses in a recent contribution. While this series asks us how we explain what we do to “outsiders,” McCutcheon draws our attention to how we explain what we do to our colleagues. This brings up the question, just who is an outsider and what makes a colleague’? Where are these boundaries and who gets to draw them?
This question brings to mind a situation I found myself in at this past spring’s Eastern Regional AAR meeting in Pittsburgh. At lunch one day, my co-diner identified himself as a ‘critical theologian.’ As you may have adduced from some of my earlier remarks, I position myself far, far, away – perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is one – from theological approaches within the study of religion. But, as you do, we both gave a version of our elevator pitches, though perhaps adjusted as per the context and according to our understanding of what the other person could and would understand. If we had wished to be provocative (as we all surely sometimes do?), perhaps the version would have included what we thought the other wouldn’t understand or agree with.
To my surprise, or perhaps less surprising given that we were both relatively civil social beings regulated by a conference etiquette, we were able to have a good conversation upon some common ground, even if I can’t remember now what exactly it was. We became Facebook friends, and sometimes their posts make me feel as though I’m peeking into another world, one that I cultivate both a border and a distance from within my own work and how I identify as a scholar of religion.
What then of Ivy League Divinity schools, outsiders, and colleagues? This issue, that of how departments that claim to study religion identify, describe, and explain themselves, is particularly pertinent as I browse various universities’ doctoral programs. For while I think that I’m looking for a context that might suit me – or where and how I situate myself as a scholar of religion – in reality I’m also attempting to determine which department I might suit. In other words, where might I be an outsider versus where might I speak the right language? And how much am I willing to reconstruct what I think I do contingently upon context?
Using a language metaphor for approaches within the study of religion has occupied my mind lately, likely in part due to my summer attendance of a workshop at the Arctic University of Trømso in Norway on ‘Translations: indigenous, religion, tradition, culture.’ Excuse the convoluted phrasing, but what are else are we doing when we describe what we do to whomever we see as outsiders, but performing an act of translation or interpretation of our ‘academese,’ our learned jargon, into layperson’s or alternative terms?
Perhaps I’m also influenced by the fact that I’ve been thinking ahead to the NAASR meeting in San Antonio this year, and trying to think about description, interpretation, comparison, and explanation, not simply as methods but as social procedures, or practices, that constitute our everyday lives – including those parts of our lives in which we become ‘scholars of religion’ in an active, agential sense, such as in the situations that this series aims to address.
NAASR’s program asks that we examine the above four terms as, “key tools that all scholars of religion surely employ, regardless their approach to the study of religion.” This description shows a particular interpretation of ‘method’ as tools we use, but the terms chosen are equally operative in the constitution of our ‘selves’ as scholars of religion. This series, for example, operates largely according to a logic of comparison and need for explanation that is predicated upon a boundary not unlike that in the Buzzfeed list previously cited. (See what I did there?)
To conclude, one might ask – how do we explain ourselves to ‘outsiders’ when our own ‘insider’ status is contestable and contingent? Well, we might select one of the aforementioned tools, those tools that we (theoretically, or according to a particular theory) put to work upon those whom we study, and apply them to ourselves. We might thus consider how we become constituted as scholars of religion – not only as and to ourselves, but also for those to whom we answer the call: “Hey you!” and the ensuing query, “What do you do?”
Stacie Swain is an MA student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Ottawa. She’s interested in how language and language-use impact social and political engagement, particularly when ‘religion’ and similarly problematic concepts do work within hegemonic discourses in reference to minority groups.