Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Response to: “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion”

*This blog originally appeared on Stacie A. Swain's Blog

By Stacie A. Swain,

Earlier today, I read the editorial “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion” in Critical Research on Religion, 2016, Vol. 4(1) 3–7, by Warren S. Goldstein, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin.

To give a brief background, from what I gather, since the inception of the journal there has been debate around what exactly ‘critical’ means when it comes to the study of what we’re classifying as ‘religion.’ The triple-authored editorial characterizes three scholars (Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Craig Martin) as representing the “critical religion” approach, then makes an argument for the approach that the three editorial authors represent, that of a “critical theory of religion” (and, why it is different and presumably better than the other).

After reading the editorial, I had some thoughts of my own – perhaps we can continue the rule of three, and have three graduate students weigh in? – and as my thoughts were getting rather lengthy, I decided to post them here as opposed to in a Facebook comment. I would be delighted if anyone has a response, and would like to preface my comments with the admission that they’re shamelessly self-reflexive with respect to my own situatedness and my chosen master’s research project, a working-out-loud of my own positioning and approach. And, I haven’t read the work, except perhaps briefly, of the editorial’s authors, so take my critique with a grain of salt.The particular strand of thought that I want to pull out is:

As it stands, the approach of critical religion is solely deconstructive and not constructive; it does not build anything… It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it. It is only through the use of values and ideals that this can be done. (Pages 4 and 6)

While now you can see why I used the term “better” above, I’d like to discuss some important points with respect to (re)construction, who gets to do it, and according to whose values and ideals (or interests?). For example, I’m studying the category of religion in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada, and deconstructing the politics attendant upon its use (by the state). Part of that deconstruction is patently pointing out that it’s not my place to construct a “better” state, but to contribute to making space for more often excluded voices to fill; not refilling that space with my own (privileged) voice, which would reproduce what I critique. As a result, I consciously draw upon Indigenous voices that outline similar interests (and sometimes sources, but I’m not sure about values) and do offer what they see as progressive constructions. I see that as possibly (but not necessarily, because I have critical doubts about my own positive influence), contributing to a discourse on social change – IF anyone wants to use my work for their own purposes, or even if it just makes someone (anyone) think twice about a statement or event.

So, while of course I’m situated/implicated, with the model that I use – that of critical religion, if that isn’t clear yet – I’m also not actively constructing a model to replace what I’ve just attempted to take apart. However, isn’t that still ‘constructive’ in a sense that is precluded by the above quote? Perhaps in a less imperialistic way, at least in this particular context? I find that a critical religion approach allows me to mitigate to some extent the fact that I am non-Indigenous and thus in the context of this literature a settler, and the social implications attendant upon accepting that as an identity claim.

In an academic context, I don’t see it as my place to decide, define, and thus impose and reproduce values and ideals either of or upon those social actors and contexts that I claim to study. This is in part because I am aware that I myself am imbricated in a social and institutional context in which certain values and ideals are often assumed, and privileged. It would therefore undermine my academic interests and yes goals, to presume to construct a new world on top of possible others. The extent to which this strategic attempt at self-effacement might apply (and work) would likely change from person to person, project to project, context to context.

As the editorial states, “[critical religion] is based on a suspicion of universal values and an attempt to socially locate them as interests. Identifying such social loci is essential.” This leads me to venture that the real issue at stake between the two positions that the editorial presents, is “social progress” according to whom, and the assumption of universal values within scholarship as well as outside of it – something “better” or “beyond.” Others prefer to describe and/or acknowledge these presumed values and ideals as another layer of interests, context-specific and socially situated, and equally open to critique.

I quote, but add italics for emphasis: “Yet, scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests. It can only be counter-hegemonic when it reveals particular interests hidden behind proclaimed universal values.”
Indeed, but with the caveat that I am also suspicious of those values claimed in the first sentence.

Before concluding, I’d like to address one final and related point, and bring a third voice into the discourses represented here by the two sets of three. The editorial above can be supplemented by two posts on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog, that recount a social media conversation between several of the scholars above and a few others. You can read part one, and part two. At the end, Craig Martin notes that he finds, “the voices of women in our discussion conspicuous by their absence.” And while Rebekka King is an author of the editorial above and I by no means wish to discount her voice by failing to note that, I am both adding my piece (above) and want to selectively quote another woman from outside of this debate.

While I confess that some of it is beyond me at this point in the semester (at least I can count this editorial towards my literature review, which I should be working on!), I find sections of a post on Sarah Ahmed’s blog relevant, and compelling:

The promise of the universal is what conceals the very failure of the universal to be universal. …the universal as pure or empty form, as abstraction from something or anything in particular. But remember: abstraction is an activity. To abstract is to drag away. The very effort to drag the universal away from the particular is what makes the promise of the universal a particular promise; a promise that seems empty enough to be filled by anyone is how a promise evokes someone. It is the emptiness of the promise that is the form of the universal; it is how the universal takes form around some bodies that do not have to transform themselves to enter the room kept open by the universal. 
And: no matter how convincing feminist and anti-racist critiques of universalism (of how the white man becomes the universal subject) universalism seems to come back up, right up, straight and upright, very quickly. I have also called this mechanism a “spring back mechanism.” An order is quickly e-established because the effort to transform that order becomes too exhausting. Universalism: when you push against it, you become pushy. 
Back to the same thing. 
Same old, same old.

And I think that I’ll end on that suggestive note, and add that I am very open to critique and response – I’m a newcomer in the room and I’m not exhausted yet.

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