Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 1

By Stacie A. Swain

Recently I wrote a response to an editorial in Critical Research on Religion (CRR).The editorial debates a ‘critical religion’ versus a ‘critical theory of religion’ approach. An earlier piece briefly mentioned in the editorial (and in my post) asks, “Can a religious approach be critical?” and the answer from the CRR editorial board, in short, is “yes.” I’d like to muse on these thoughts a little more by pointing out that we now have three word combinations to consider when we think of what a ‘critical’ approach may entail with respect to ‘religion’:

1) A critical religion approach
2) A critical theory of religion
3) A critical religious approach

What distinguishes the first from the latter two is the contention that, as Willi Braun states, “religion does not exist; all that exists for our study are people who do things that we [or they] classify as “religious.”[i] In contrast, the latter two take for granted that there is something identifiable called ‘religion’ and that one can have the quality of being ‘religious.’ Here we have two claims (similarly named, but rearranged), presuming that #3 above is subsumed within #2. The two claims in question regard:

a)      theory that is critical of what gets classified as ‘religion’ as an object of study;
b)      a critical theory of an object of study classified as ‘religion.’

The pedagogical implications of the two approaches in question can be elucidated by considering not only such wordplay, but also the aims that they claim to work towards and how they do so. The aims of CRR state that, “our goal is not to be pro-religion or anti-religion but to understand religions in both their positive and negative manifestations.”[ii] The authors of the editorial, “suggest a more social scientific construction of the category of religion… It need not have one agreed upon universal definition, since we think such a definition is impossible, but may contain multiple definitions (after all, words have more than one meaning) derived from some common characteristics of the world’s religions.”[iii]
When thinking about teaching this approach, it would entail defining the “category of religion” according to “the world’s religions” (i.e. defining religion by referring to religions).This is, to borrow a nice turn of phrase from Tomoko Masuzawa, “intricately intrareferential.”[iv] If one invokes ‘religion’ enough then it will (seem to) appear, much like the phantasm of ‘Bloody Mary’might as one stares into the bathroom mirror; then, you study what has been invoked as if ‘it’ has always been there, and even though you’re alone in the room, as if you had nothing to do with placing ‘it’ there and naming ‘it.’ From this I gather that a critical theory of religion entails a critical approach to something given to be already and always existing, origins mystified in the processes of construction.
The editorial in question particularly critiques critical religion as having a solely deconstructive approach. To reiterate a quote that appeared in my last post: “scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests… the critique needs to have a goal. It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it.”[v]A critical theory of religion then, can perhaps be described as constructive criticism – this approach claims to construct something called religion in a ‘better’ way, using criticism to build upwards upon a foundational concept called ‘religion.’ For if it is a “positive manifestation” then it is to be praised, and if it is a “negative manifestation,” then it is to be improved. This is done according to the “values” quoted above.
The above requires the admission that what has been constructed and classified (or classified and constructed) as ‘religion,’ has been constructed badly in the first place and continues to be. This is where the question of “values” and a progressive narrative comes in – one must have a pre-established notion of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ if one is to reconstruct it. But good or bad according to whom and in what context? In a pedagogy of a critical theory of religion, does one teach values to students, values beyond those of responsible and rigorous scholarship? Is there a line separating pedagogy from personal and/or institutional ideologies? If not, is there some mechanism in place to ensure full disclosure of that ideology and the potential interests it may serve, or serve to disguise?
In contrast and speaking generally, a critical religion approach is critical of the category of religion and those forms of scholarship that uncritically perpetuate narratives of the good, the bad, and the ugly ‘religion.’[vi]A deconstructive pedagogy might include examining the productive power of these (loaded) narratives in order to draw attention to construction, context, aims, and social implications. In the Twitterverse, it appears that undergraduate students in Alabama are doing just this with respect to ideology and the media. One student concludes a report on the exclusionary politics of news media: “Recognizing how a narrative is being built is an important facet of learning to deconstruct. Through deconstruction, we take nothing on face value, and contemplate why and how things are being represented.”
Thus, what are the implications of the way that CRR represents a critical theory of religion? What are some other representation of a ‘critical’ approach? For example, there’s Matt Sheedy’s recent take over at the Bulletin: “The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgments.” I would add that the ‘familiar’ be made strange, as well.

[i]This is in “Introducing Religion,” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith, unfortunately I only have an electronic copy of the chapter in question at the moment, and don’t know the page number in the book.
[ii]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 4.
[iv]Speaking of both religion and culture, Masuzawa, “Culture,” 82.
[v]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 6.
[vi] For a more thorough discussion of what ‘critical religion’ is or isn’t according to specific scholars, consult the sources within the editorials discussed.


  1. Another good post Stacie!

    I wonder whether we can think even more about the CRR group's confidence that progressive values can supply a telos to criticism. Or whether we can continue thinking about the rather similar position of scholars like Paul Griffiths who want to insist that all research is at bottom "theology" because it enacts value-laden agendas in scholarship. Can we compare these positions to so-called "fundamentalist" critics of science who insist that all theory is at bottom "belief"?

    In response to this kind of theory of scholarship as the pursuit of valued ends it seems to me that the proper thing for us to do is to further historicize the field. I.E. if it is not self-evident right now to the CRR group that their value-position is only one of many possible identities within the field—and even that it is far from the dominant position—then maybe what is needed is more history of the field?

    Given the (reasonable, pragmatic) position that inquiry seeks to resolve questions with answers and problems with solutions, is it possible to explain the relationship between the problems scholars are working on, the questions they are asking (and the methods they use to pursue solutions and answers) and some "value system" that is directing them?

    Can we inquire more deeply into the institutional and social/historical processes which have endorsed particular cadres or networks of scholars (i.e. particular departments, at particular schools; particular boards and leadership teams; particular groups of friends) as belonging to the "right" value groups?

    The field is diverse. It can't possibly be reduced to one set of "right" values, right?

    There are "public" and "private" universities; there are "partisan," "sectarian," and "ideological" structures at work; some are in "secular," some in "religious" universities and colleges; there are a variety of scholarly associations reflecting identities, etc. Would there be any value in conducting a more thorough taxonomy of the field?

    You ask above: "In a pedagogy of a critical theory of religion, does one teach values to students, values beyond those of responsible and rigorous scholarship? Is there a line separating pedagogy from personal and/or institutional ideologies?"

    This is a great area of inquiry. It is a real question to my mind how it is and what we do actually teach our students to do. Are there things called "values" that our pedagogy reproduces in the students with whom we have contact? Are our critical tools ("rigorous scholarship") actually enacting values or are they rather more like habits and preferences that define a disciplinary horizon within the field? What's the difference between an "ethos" and a "value"?

    Can we know what the social and historical consequences of our inquiries will be?

    What problems are we working on and why are we working on them?

    When we see one, how do we recognize a problem that could be amenable to the inquiries conducted in our discipline/field?

    And as for students... how do they end up where they end up? is it just accidental, the networks they stumble into? Is there a risk that their own prior value commitments may be overturned by the "wrong" institutional network and affiliations? How do they know that they have entered into the "right" disciplinary sub-grouping? how do they know they are asking the right questions or doing work that has "real value"?


    1. This conversation is so enlivening and in the end, necessary to the discipline (if we can call it that). In simpler terms, i often wonder about the students' question: so now that we know how to assess different critical stances, now that we accept the constructed fact of any given "narrative," what does it mean? Or as an old mentor of mine always asked, "so what?" This is in my opinion the frontier of critical theory right now - the daunting and ambiguous yet required interrogation of "so what?". Thank you both for clearing the "weg."