Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ritual Language and Christian Ontologies

By Rebekka King, Middle Tennessee State University


At Middle Tennessee State University, I have inherited a course on Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which is a 4000-level or senior course. While at most universities a course that purports to be an overview of the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ traditions would be listed as a first- or second-year course, this course’s listing as a senior level course means that I strive to straddle two pedagogical imperatives. First, I want to teach adequate material or data about religions, so that the students have a sense of the traditions themselves; however, because the course is a senior-level course, I also want to equip them with a theoretical apparatus with which they can think critically about religions. In addition, the reality of living in the “buckle of the bible belt” means that many of my students come to class with very clearly defined assumptions about what religion does (particularly Christianity, which is my area of specialization).

I’ve divided this course into three units: Text, Tradition, and Imagination. For this blog post, I would like to reflect on an exercise that I use to teach tradition in regards to Christianity. Along with providing an overview of Christian ritual practices, I want the students to consider language as one of the primary locations of Christian practices. Thus, I draw from my own disciplinary home, the Anthropology of Christianity, and have the students discuss Christian language ideologies and notions of sincerity and performance. More precisely, I want the students to think about larger questions concerning what we think language does—that is, its communicative capacities.  


In preparation for the assignment, we consider Joel Robbins’ article, ‘On Not Knowing Other Minds,’ which among other things helps the students to think about the ways that we understand language  and Western culture. The crux of Robbins’ piece suggests that the idea that we can or should be able tell what other people are thinking based on what they do or say is related to particular cultural practices and not necessarily universal.

In addition, since many of my students are not familiar with liturgical traditions in Christianity, I have them attend a service (or watch one online) at a local liturgical church in order for them to begin thinking about the diverse ways that language is employed in Christian practices. I lecture briefly on the differences between language ideologies: referential language (that is the idea that words can signify objects and experiences) and constitutive language (the idea that words can make something happen, including enacting some sort of ontological change).

Class Exercise

“Hand me your pen,” I will say to an unsuspecting student in the front row. 

I follow up with a question to the rest of the class: “what did I do there?” A chorus of “you took his pen” usually ensues, and with a bit of prodding we come to the conclusion that I have made that particular student “penless.” In other words, I transform the student into a “penless individual.” Somehow the words themselves made the student into a different type of person (one without a pen). This is an example of language that is constitutive: my words did more than just express my own desire for a pen, they transformed the student into a new type of being. 

From there, I then proceed to declare various students united in holy matrimony. For extra bonus points, I will marry myself to a piece of technology (this year I developed an intimate relationship with an old overhead projector, which served as a continuous reference point for students when we talked throughout the term about ontological boundaries). After performing the various marriages, I have the students discuss whether or not they are actually married. It doesn’t take long for the students to uncover the reasons that they are not married are my lack of authority to actually marry them and the social space in which we are located is not one that has been entered with expectations of the performance of a marriage ceremony. Marriage it seems is more than words.

At this point, we discuss what language does for evangelical Christians. Much of the evangelical mind, relies  on an understanding of language as referential (think, for example, or biblical literalism). Again, the ‘bible belt’ works to my advantage here, and I am able to draw on the knowledge from my students regarding Christian conversion language and its assumed transformative potentials. 

My intention, ultimately, is to have the students see how Christian notions of language and conversion (which many of them take for granted) are intertwined as simultaneously referential and constitutive in the Christian consciousness. Why does saying/thinking that one is “born again” make someone born again for evangelicals? What do the words do and what do they signify? And what are the ontological consequences of a worldview that allows language to hold that kind of power?

In so doing, I try to draw out from the students Christian conceptions of the ways in which words serve to mediate interior experiences that are often contingent on the assumptions we make about individuals as moral agents. I use examples from contemporary Christian culture that disrupt these assumptions: Ted Haggard is a good example, although this year only a handful of my students were familiar with the Haggard case, so I will likely have to wait for another unfortunate fall from grace by an authoritative figure in the future.


As mentioned above, I have several pedagogical aims that come to the forefront in evaluating my students that reflect my desire for students to both acquire information and engage the theories we have looked at in class. Most importantly, I want them to be able to apply the theories to new data, especially data that doesn’t fit a neat definition of religion. So while I teach them to think about language in the context of a particular variety of evangelical Christianity that permeates the American South, I also want them to transpose those ideas into other, non-religious discursive spaces.

PJ Harvey’s anti-war ballad, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” (click here for lyrics) is a great way to think about what words do and how authority is invested in particular individuals and institutions. This year I used this song on a unit test to evaluate my students’ abilities to think critically and creatively. The test included the usual definition questions and short answer questions intended to determine whether students had done the readings, attended lectures and studied, but the final section of the test—featuring Harvey—was meant to take them to the next level.

I asked them a number of questions that corresponded to some of the larger themes from our class, including describing the language ideology that this song presumes. The great thing about this song is that there is no right or wrong answer. Clearly, a song that provides a narrative in which words make murder can be seen as constitutive, but if one steps back from a literal reading from the text (itself a referential act), one can begin to see that Harvey’s larger critique of British institutions (a point which is perhaps reinforced more so in the video than the lyrics) also could be seen as evoking an interpretive practice that falls within the realm of the same referential assumptions that evangelicals make about language and human subjectivities. A critique of the critique reminds us that Harvey herself is encapsulated by the very forces she subverts.

It’s also a pretty great song.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Inherited Elephant

By Adam T. Miller

(A version of this post originally appeared on the author's blog.)

On August 13th, Matt Sheedy's “Teaching Ethics and/in the World Religions Paradigm” (originally posted here) appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. The piece opens with an overview of some of the struggles associated with teaching inherited introductory courses in religious studies. Although I have only been teaching for a year, his words resonated with me; edited to reflect my admittedly minimal experience (without eyesores like brackets and ellipses), they read:
Like several others, I have inherited an accelerated online course called Religion and the Human Adventure. The course was designed to provide students with an introduction to “world religions” using the comparison of case studies to illustrate themes/categories. Over the past year, several of my students have come from my university’s nursing program, which requires their graduates to take one course on religion. Most of these students enter the class expecting/hoping to learn about the beliefs and practices of other religions in order to be better nurses--a respectable goal, to be sure, but not necessarily what courses on religion are about.
For my first two terms of teaching this class, I supplemented my inherited textbook (Gary E. Kessler's Studying Religion: An Introduction through Cases) with some extra readings focused on a tradition or theme relevant to the assigned reading from the textbook. More recently, however, I’ve opted to supplement Kessler with chapters from Craig Martin's A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion.
Sheedy closes the second paragraph saying that he uses his inherited textbook as “not just a resource, but the primary object of study.” This is something I cannot yet say, but I'm working on it. And Martin provides a point of entry for me in “Conceiving the ‘We’ in Pluralism.”
Introductory textbooks in religious studies often promote pluralism/tolerance, the idea that “we can get along once we realize that we are, at bottom, similar in essential ways [and that] we might attenuate social conflict with a deep, empathetic understanding of others.” The textbook I use is no exception. In fact, its last chapter (titled “Religious Diversity and Truth”) comes to a close with the story of the blind people and the elephant, a narrative culled from the Buddhist tradition that I've seen used more than once in arguments for pluralism/tolerance.
In short form, the story tells of a scenario in which a king orders a handful of blind men to describe an elephant on the basis of limited tactile experience. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and, ergo, provides a different report to the king. (The man who touched the leg said “an elephant is like a pillar,” and so on. And let's not ignore that only men were given access to the elephant.)
According to Kessler, the take home point of the story is that all religious views are partially true, but never completely so. He is quick to point out, however, that this leads to a paradox--for how can we know that views are partial without seeing the whole?, and if we can see the whole, have we not moved beyond partiality? Skirting around this paradox, Kessler says: “Perhaps we should not read too much into this parable. After all, it is only a story.”
But on the basis of this mere story, Kessler constructs what he calls the Elephant Principle. Outlining the contours of this principle, as well as the motivations underlying its construction and promotion, he writes:
Perhaps we cannot do much better than to adopt the principle that all religions have a partial grasp on truth...It seems that the only justification for adopting the notion that all religious contain some of the truth is pragmatic. The view encourages religious toleration, explains why religions may disagree, and promotes interreligious dialogue. If we talk to others who disagree, if we study their religious beliefs and practices, if we listen with the principle of charity to their myths and legends, we may learn something of real value that we did not know before. We can even learn something from atheism and agnosticism if we listen. We do not have to agree in order to learn.
Valuable social benefits also result from adopting the principle...that all religious and antireligious views are partial. Adopting such a principle not only promotes dialogue, but also a religiously tolerant society in which “the religious beliefs, or rejection of religion, of the citizen are not allowed to affect their legal right to live, marry, raise children, worship, pursue careers, own property, make contracts, participate in politics, and engage in all the other activities normally open to citizens in that society.” (316-317; concluding quote from J. B. Schneewind's "Bayle, Locke, and the Concept of Toleration," in Razavi and Ambuel's Philosophy, Religion, and the Question of Intolerance)
In the first paragraph, the plural pronoun “we” shows up frequently. But Kessler never discusses who constitutes this “we”, who constitutes the “them” in contradistinction to which the “we” comes into being, who gets to draw the line between the “we” and the “them”, whose interests are being served in constituting the “we” in this-or-that way, and whether the interests of all members of the “we” are served equally.
In the last paragraph, “citizenship” and its attendant duties/expectations are called upon as pragmatic justification for the promotion of the Elephant Principle. But Kessler never critically addresses the configuration of power that this principle upholds--he just describes it as if its political and social value were obvious.
But just as it is not my job to privilege one religion over others (or one understanding of a particular religion over others), neither is it my job “to domesticate social differences to prepare students for life in late capitalism.” On the contrary, I see it as my responsibility to expose those processes by which contingent social orders are rendered natural.
I want to do the best I can with my inherited elephant. Like Sheedy, I aim to take Kessler's book as my primary object of study. And my first step toward accomplishing this goal will be (1) to assign Kessler's final chapter and Martin's post in the same week, and (2) to have my students wrestle with the critical questions Martin poses as they relate to the Elephant Principle. It's probably not realistic to expect my students to grasp and unpack fully the import of such questions. But if it gets them thinking, I'll mark it down as a win.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Practicum's Syllabus Project--Call for Contributors

Would you like to contribute to our syllabus project? In a sense every course is an argument. Of what do we want to persuade students over the course of the semester? We invite instructors to share a course syllabus and reflect on the argument their course attempts to make. What readings, data, or examples do you use to advance the argument? We're particularly interested in strategies for the various intro courses, but all courses are fair game. Email us (practicumreligionblog@gmail.com), Facebook message us, etc

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Teaching Beyond the World Religions Paradigm?

By Philip L. Tite

(This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.)

Currently I am teaching an undergraduate course, Introductions to Western Religions. This introductory course (along with its companion course, Introduction to Eastern Religions) is a common one in universities across North America. These are the basic “feeder” courses, or foundation courses, that support the religious studies major. Often they are designed to teach the basic content associated with such religions: historical survey, beliefs system, ethics, social/community structure, and (perhaps most importantly) the major religious texts associated with each tradition.

These introductory courses are supported by academic presses, especially those which specialize in textbooks. There is a plethora of textbooks out there on the market that continue to compete for that coveted “intro textbook” status. Many of these books are constantly being issued in new editions, forcing students to purchase expensive books with little opportunity of re-sell. From a purely commercial perspective, there is definitely a market for “world religions” in textbook publishing. And likely this is due to the continued market for such courses – courses that may be keeping some departments above water in an era when the humanities have once again come under fire as students and parents react to the Great Recession and the astronomical cost of higher education (especially in the United States).

The entire approach to the study of religion that is exemplified in such world religions courses (whether covering the major world religions or divided into the eastern and western camps) falls under what has been dubbed the “world religions paradigm” (WRP).

In the past few years, the WRP has been challenged by scholars. Suzanne Owen’s (Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10.3 (2011): 253-68) has offered an excellent analysis of the paradigm, pointing out several problems with the WRP and calling on educators in the United Kingdom (and beyond) to discard it: The WRP largely emerges out of European colonialism; it universalizes and thus essentializes a cultural tradition (a sui generis product that transcends the historical); it obscures the distinctly local cultural practices, thereby decontextualizing those cultural practices while authenticating a constructed “core”; it imposes Western (i.e., Judeo-Christian) models of “religion” that have emerged since the Enlightenment as normative for cultures encountered through colonial expansion and thereby creates and defines that very “other” in terms of the “us” (e.g., religion as a private, internal belief system separate from public or mundane matters); it tends to stop at the descriptive level, albeit with a moral agenda of promoting pluralism and tolerance, and thus avoids – indeed resists – reductive explanatory approaches.

Owen has noted the challenge facing scholars who reject the WRP but are required to teach the basic introductory courses. Many end up teaching these content driven courses, following the standard layout of the world religions textbook. A further challenge I have noticed in North American religious studies departments is the implicit presence of the WRP in those very departments where the paradigm has be overtly rejected. I recall one university I taught at where I was told “we’ve rejected that model” (i.e., the WRP), yet then I saw that they organized their major into eastern and western traditions with the standard “intro to” Judaism, Islam, Eastern Religions (an odd conglomerate of traditions!), etc. So while there may be no “Introduction to World Religions” or “Western/Eastern Religion”, the WRP continued to be the subtext (with all the implicit problems that Owen highlights for us) driving the entire degree program. For me the problem was not only the inconsistency of “rejecting” the WRP while embracing it on the larger structural level of the degree program, but more importantly the blindness in even seeing that they were still following this model. I felt that there was a failure to really challenge the WRP.

Since teaching at that university, I have tried to think through possible ways to teach such required courses in a way that would guide students to not only learn content about diverse religious traditions (I do think we can know something about the world around us), but also, and more importantly, to critically discern and analyze the constructed nature of “religion” and in particular the WRP. This summer I have had the opportunity to experiment with such an approach when offered the “Intro to Western Religions” at the University of Washington.

My basic idea is that we shift our focus away from just studying the major traditions from the West (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and instead look at “Western Religions” as a constructed category that shapes data into commonsense categories. Thus, the very category “Western Religions” (and not just religions of the West) becomes our object of study. My claim is that the intro course can be the site where we deconstruct the very nature of the course we are signed up for. I tend to do this a lot in my teaching; i.e., to take the course title and description and to work with my students to undermine (or to look at the underlying presuppositions of) that very course title. The intro to comparative religion course offers an excellent opportunity to overtly challenge the WRP, not only in scholarship but within the broader, media-driven view of religion that we continually find imposed upon students as the “obvious” construction of reality. By bringing these “Western” religions together in such a course, we can finally look at the underlying power dynamics involved in the construction and internalization of the WRP.

So for my Intro to Western Religions course, we do not use a standard textbook. Rather, we are taking three or four mainstream intro to world religions textbooks that are on the market today and comparing the ways in which the authors construct/present as normative the three so-called “Abrahamic faiths”. The textbooks have become our object of study rather than our guide into our object of study. The idea is that while we are learning “content” (i.e., something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we are also looking at the “spin” given to those traditions. We began by setting the stage for our critical analysis by discussing theoretical problems in the study of “Western Religions”: the definitional problem of “religion” (reading J. Z Smith and incorporating Craig Martin’s insights on the “delimitation” underlying definitions of religion); the WRP (reading Owen); the exclusion of certain “fringe religions” or those cultural processes that are often excluded from the category “Western Religions” (New Religious Movements, Native American cultures, hybridization of African cultures within North American contexts, civil religion, etc); and the entire eastern/western division of world religions. This opening module helped establish the analytical lens by which we looked at the various “narrative mappings” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Certainly we are learning descriptive “facts” about these three religions, but more importantly we are learning how those facts are created and given a spin by each author – and this critical gaze has been applied as well to any lecture I may give (such as an historical overview) or to a documentary (such as a BBC documentary we watched on Andalusian Spain).

So far this has been working in class. It has been fun to identify and compare structural components in the presentation of the “same facts.” For example, Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions (I have the 7th edition published in 2007) begins and ends with a focus on 9/11 and the “war on terror” – a framing mechanism that allows her to try to correct misunderstandings of “authentic” Islam in the wake of 9/11:

In fact, ignorance about Islam and perceived targeting of Muslims in general by the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ have exacerbated a dangerous and growing divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in the contemporary world. Therefore it is extremely important to carefully study the origins, teachings, and modern history of this major world religion (376).

Thus, the construction of Islam in this textbook and importance of studying Islam through such a construct is needed in order to correct misunderstandings of Islam within current geo-political crises. This tells us something about the contingency of scholarship (and teaching!), moral undertones driving pedagogy, and the role of the scholar (at least some scholars/teachers) in “saving” a religion as authentic (e.g., in the close of this chapter, Fisher spends a great deal of time arguing that violent acts by Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda are not authentic or correct understandings of Islam, specifically the concept ofjihad). In these discursive moves, Fisher makes a normative claim about Islam, its future hopes (via inter-faith dialogue and progressive ideology), and its inherent goodness.

With a very different “spin”, Warren Matthews makes a different normative claim about Islam. In his World Religions (I have the 6th edition published in 2010), Matthews opens with the following statement:

The ensuing account tries to present the facts of history with respect for the Muslim views that Muhammad’s actions, words, and teachings were inspired by his own religious experiences. Nevertheless, other forces interacted with his recitations of the Qur’an and his actions based on them. In the history of this religion, as I have with others, I try to present a sympathetic, understanding account of the religion’s beliefs about its origins and development  (327).

Rather than authenticating this “religion” via geo-political conflicts currently affecting public perceptions of Islam, Matthews exemplifies the very theoretical approach of the phenomenologist of religion, where sympathy with those being studied stands alongside giving interpretative force to the insider’s private experiential truth claims (which also evoke the notion that religion is essentially a private, irreductive experience that the outsider can only approximate in his or her understanding of the insider’s truth claims).

My students were quick to note that these framing mechanisms were not as overt in the chapters on Judaism and Christianity, where the presuppositions underlying the presentations are more tacit. While the overt articulation of the authors’ agendas were convenient for us in our analysis of the construction of “Western/World Religions”, they also helped us discern something about the target audience (or the assumed Christian demographic of the North American classroom). The other two chapters in Matthews in particular began with historical surveys that re-presented biblical narratives as historically reliable (we discussed some possibilities for such presentation for the likely target/assumed audience of the textbook). The assumption that students entering these courses would have a background in Christian tradition also was evident to me when I read the study questions at the end of Matthews’ chapter on Christianity (e.g., “What major social issues should Christianity address in the twenty-first century?”).

We were also able to note normative – or universalizing – assumptions in the discussion of Judaism. For example, Fisher opens the discussion of Jewish beliefs with the following claim: “The central Jewish belief is monotheism” (271). On the surface this does not seem all that problematic. After all, aren’t we talking about the three great monotheistic faiths? Doesn’t the Jewish Shema embody a commitment to monotheism? But then we looked at what is excluded by such a totalizing, universal claim by Fisher. Not only are possible polytheistic and/or henotheistic aspects in the changing understandings of God within the emergence of Judaism omitted from discussion, but we also fail to include the rise of Jewish atheism and secular Zionism in the 20th century. We also fail to consider the ancient ideas of the manifestation of God in, for example, the Shekhinah, the Kavod, or Wisdom/Sophia (and the whole process of divine attributes being personified extensions of the divine).

At the end of the course, we will come full circle to the theoretical problems with the WRP, the colonial and post-colonial power dynamics underlying that paradigm, etc. My hope is that my students will not only learn something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but will also (more importantly) learn that these traditions are socially constructed, contingently presented and evaluated, and consumed by particular audiences as commodities or products that shape perceptions and social interactions. They are not “things unto themselves” but are built up as “things unto themselves” for particular, underlying agendas to which those constructs serve.

So should we be teaching courses such as “Introduction to Western Religions”? Absolutely. But not in the way that these courses are often taught. I like to see the course as anopportunity to expose my students to the very idea that religious traditions are discursive products; i.e., narrative maps that guide and shape human interactions and social perceptions of reality. Even though an introductory course, I think that we can use such courses (and should use such courses) to encourage critical “looking below the surface” rather than simply stopping at the descriptive level of content to which the student is expected to memorize and re-articulate on an examination. In my own view, that’s what higher education should do, especially within the field of religious studies. Graduates of our programs should not simply have overly expensive pieces of paper declaring that they are culturally sensitive and can ace a trivia game at the local pub (if religious topics ever arose), but rather they should be culture critics. They should be able to discern and analyze the constructed, normative world around them that is often taken for granted. “Religion” – as a discursive object – continues to be one of those very “taken for granted” discursive maps. And our students should not simply be map readers or map makers, but analysts of the purposes, mechanisms, and assumptions in the very production of those maps.

This task does not (or should not) be pushed off to graduate school or even upper level undergraduate courses. This should start at the get-go. My current course is a pedagogical experiment for me. It is an attempt at teaching beyond the world religions paradigm by teaching through the world religions paradigm.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Caution: Technical Terminology Ahead

By Russell McCutcheon

(This post originally appeared on the University of Alabama Department of Religious Studies blog.)


I see posts like this on social media all the time (click it if you’re dying to find out what those 22 words are); what I think drives them is a general failure on the part of many to understand language as a tool used by groups to achieve a variety of social ends and not a universal medium in which we all just naturally swim. For only if we assume the latter would we be shocked to find out that what we mean by some word is not what they mean by it.

This is a hill that we continually have to climb in the introductory course in our Department: to persuade new students that just because they might use, say, the word myth or ritual or cult or even religion itself as part of their daily speech, the words might mean something entirely different in our class — that the words do different work in different settings. (Anthropologists surely experience much the same with “culture”…)

Those who resist this strike me as failing to understand that the academic study of religion is no less specialized than any other domain within the university; but other fields have the benefit of a technical terminology far removed from daily speech — few of us walk around talking about “the gravitational constant” even though we all know what happens to a ball when we throw it. So we arrive in a Physics intro course feeling rather humble, maybe even intimidated, for we know from the outset that our commonsense view of the world is not something we’re drawing upon in that class, that we’re there to be introduced to a technical specialty that will depart considerably from the taken-for-granted. In fact, our commonsense view of the world might even become our data (e.g., studying the blind spot of the eye in an anatomy course).

And thus, while recognizing that these two processes are of course inter-related, the skill of the many 100-level professors is likely to familiarize students with a field’s technical terminology, whereas the skill of the intro Religious Studies professors is possibly first to defamiliarize students with their folk view of the world before ever getting on with the business of teaching them the new material; for only by doing the former will space be made to entertain accomplishing the latter.

But how to do this though?

Well, one thing I try to do is never to have students use regular dictionaries for technical terms — we’re not looking for a broad sample of how people who speak English use this or that word (say, society) but, instead, we're interested in how scholars use the term and what sort of work it makes possible for them carry out. Unless we’re seeking to accumulate data (such as examining how some population talks about, and thereby organizes, their world), we’re probably acquiring tools in that class, and refining technical vocabularies; so dictionaries of the Oxford or Webster variety are of little use to us in the introductory course.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Teaching Ethics and/in the World Religions Paradigm

By Matt Sheedy

Like many PhD students, adjuncts, and even the occasional tenured professor, I inherited a course some years back, textbook, and all, called Ethics and World Religions. The course was designed to provide students with a general introduction to “world religions” with an emphasis on the ethical systems of Judaism, Jainism, Hinduism, “Indigenous religions,” etc. Over the years, on average, over half of the students have come from my university’s business school, which requires their graduates to obtain one half credit in a course on ethics. These are but a few examples of the practical constraints that religion scholars face in the classroom, especially in first year introductory courses.

After my first semester of teaching this class in an online format, where the texts and on-line lectures cannot be changed due to copyright restrictions, I quickly moved to supplement this material with a number of theoretical essays for the classroom version of the course. In recent years, I’ve set things up so that the textbook, The World’s Religions by William A. Young, is not just a resource, but the primary object of study.

Some essays that I’ve found useful for this task include J.Z Smith’s “Religion, Religions, Religious” and the chapters on “Authority” and “Habitus” from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. Martin’s text has been particularly helpful in calling attention to how authorizing strategies function in the discourse of the world religions paradigm. For example, his suggestion in the chapter on “Habitus” that we begin our investigations by paying attention to the form (e.g., language-use, diction, performance, etc.) rather than leading with the presumed content (e.g., axioms about Islam, such as the “5 Pillars” or passages from the Qur’an) helps students to see that religious identities can be more productively explained by showing how particular habits, tastes and preferences shape the ways in which theological ideas are embodied and practiced in the everyday world. Many Muslims, for example, might adhere to some version of the “5 Pillars,” though simply stating this as fact (as Young’s textbook does) tells us next to nothing about the ways that it is authorized, modified, selectively privileged or ignored and, most importantly, for what reasons?

Beginning the class with these essays (along with a case study or two) also makes it easier for students to see how the phenomenological approach that is presented in the textbook is trying to square a highly fractured circle by lumping large groups under a particular cluster of shared beliefs and practices, thereby authorizing certain norms and principles over others. It is precisely for this reason, however, that the textbook is useful since it reproduces a variation of a generic liberal approach to comparing religions common in the Euro-West.

Turning to the question of ethics, I get students to read Seyla Benhabib’s essay, “The Generalized and the Concrete Other,” where she demonstrates that while social norms in Western liberal democracies are based upon generalized principles, such as equality and fairness, they tend to tilt in the favor of dominant groups. In her analysis, Benhabib traces representations of women in Western political theory since Thomas Hobbes in order to show how such principles reflect a patriarchal bias. Like Martin, she also recommends that scholars start from particular contexts in their investigations and not some generalized map that claims to represent the whole. 

I’ve found this combination of essays (though I always test out new essays each year) in a course on ethics and world religions helps students to see the relationship between general principles and concrete group identities, and helps to make it apparent how the textbook works as a comparative strategy rather than a definitive representation.

Instead of presenting what is “ethical” according to certain insiders’ self-descriptions or, as Young puts it, of aiming “to understand religion from the perspective of religious persons themselves,” (which begs the question, which insiders, and which representations?) my aim is to point out the always existing tension between generalized norms and how they are interpreted by various groups, especially those on the margins who do not fit the “official” mold.

By the course’s end, my hope is that students not only understand something about how religious insiders describe themselves, but that the explanations of those insiders (whether coming from priests, scholars or sworn enemies) are best understood by applying theory in an attempt to explain how they work in the social world. Far from neglecting those sticky questions of evaluation and judgment common to most classes on ethics, this approach also demonstrates some of the main challenges to addressing the problem of ethics in the first place.