This series of posts is excerpted from a chapter from a forthcoming book titled After “World Religions”: Reconstructing Religious Studies, edited by Christopher R. Cotter and David G. Robertson.
Arguably, a weakness in the approach I’ve outlined in this series is that it is extremely one-sided in its myopic focus on texts and their history of interpretation. This approach, one might object, focuses entirely on the elites who produce texts, ideology, and theology, but tells us little about lay practitioners, lay worship, lay practices, or so-called “lived religion.” Secondly, perhaps it reinforces regnant stereotypes about religion (in part derived from the Protestant tradition), that religion is, in essence, fundamentally about “belief” and “doctrine.”
I would argue that the second objection doesn’t apply here, because focusing on the situated and political interpretation of texts is squarely at odds with the idea that religion is about timeless belief. In addition, looking at how people radically modify, add to, and discard elements of their cultural inheritance—depending on their local interests rather than pre-existing beliefs—further challenges the Protestant stereotype that beliefs precede and drive behavior and action.
The former objection is perhaps more serious, but I think it too lands somewhat wide of the mark. The objection that focusing on texts and interpretation misrepresents the religions at hand would make sense, but only if these courses were about “religion.” However, as I noted in my introductory remarks, at bottom these classes are in fact not at all about “religions” but about a social theory for which these “religions” only serve as useful examples. As Jonathan Z. Smith once wrote, in an introductory course “there is nothing that must be taught, there is nothing that cannot be left out.” The theoretical question I propose—e.g., how do people use their cultural inheritance to advance a social agenda—is what drives the selection of the course content, not the emic view of what these religions consist of. “Religions of the East” is, at the end of the day, not about what modern “Hindus” think “Hinduism” is (nor “Buddhists” and “Buddhism”), but about how people recycle culture in order to put it to new purposes. I find the theoretical questions far more interesting than the content to which we apply our questions, and I believe students are better served by courses that promote critical thinking as opposed to the accumulation of historical trivia.