Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Rethinking Classic Texts/Theorists: Huston Smith

In this series, Practicum asks scholars to consider how classic texts or theorists can be critically re-thought for use in religious studies classrooms.

Textbook As Artifact
Russell T. McCutcheon, University of Alabama

Which classic text are you using and in which course?

Well, if you don’t mind me tweaking your question, I can say which I’m not using: the late Huston Smith's The World’s Religions. Now, to some readers that might read as an uninteresting or uninspired response, but given that the publisher reports that the 1958 book (originally entitled The Religions of Man, a book that has been lightly edited and updated and repeatedly re-published over the years, with the current edition simply reproducing the 1991 edition with a few tangential pieces added at the end) has now sold about 3 million copies, with what I’ve learned to be half to two thirds of annual sales for course adoptions, it means that there are many classes still using this so-called classic book as their introduction, making the choice not to use it stand out somewhat. (Though who knows how many are using it today because they are required to, as I was in my very first semester teaching a world religions course, back in 1993-4—I’d read it the year before but only became familiar with using it because of that requirement.)

What is the basic argument of the text and how has it traditionally been employed in religious studies classrooms?

That all religions are vehicles for the expression of an inner, universal (dare I say transcendent, as Smith would surely have) meaning, and thus that they ought to be studied empathetically, starting with the orthodox stands of elite practitioners, thought to somehow be representative of religion on the ground (as some now say) and thus in people’s lives, all of which can be accessed through the experiences and expressions of the people under study (what he called religion’s exoteric aspects, such as rituals, traditions, etc.—we see here the old inner/outer and primary/secondary distinctions so common to our field). But, if we’re trying to be descriptively accurate, saying “people under study” really doesn’t capture what Smith’s book is all about (its based on a 1955 public television course, in case readers don’t know that). For he’d likely have preferred to see himself and the people with whom he spoke as conversation partners, maybe even fellow travelers, all trying to sort out issues of meaning in their lives via these so-called wisdom traditions.

Why is this text important or relevant for contemporary religious studies students?

As Hamlet said, “Ay, there’s the rub!” For I have no doubt that the vast majority of users are reading the text as an accurate representation of what Hindus and Buddhists etc., believe and do, with those choosing to adopt it preferring his approach for its ability to build bridges and provide a window onto what unites us all despite the apparent differences—not much different from the world religions genre as a whole, of course. And with so many sold, the publisher can of course offer the book pretty affordable ($2.99 for the ebook version), which may also account for its popularity (who doesn’t want to save their students some money?). But despite this use, which presumes it is still relevant, the book instead remains really quite important for me, though not for that reason; instead, as I argued in a paper at an American Academy of Religion session yesterday afternoon, a conference from which I’m returning as I write this very text (at my gate: Delta 981 at 12:20 to ATL and then on to BHM), the book provides a snapshot of our field 60 years ago, back when Formica table tops and saddle shoes were around. The curious thing, though, is that hardly anyone likely sees the book as a primary source, as an historic artifact, but, instead, it continues to be used as an authoritative introduction to the study of religion—remember, hundreds of thousands of copies are sold per year, presumably, and who knows how many more used copies that don’t even register as sales with the publisher). For, if you think about it, it’s pretty tough to name a 60-year-old book in any other field that still sets the table for newcomers—I can’t even imagine a chemical engineering degree or a sociology or geography course starting off as if such a book was still relevant for telling students how they ought to be doing what they’re training to do, as opposed to establishing a reference point to make evident how far their field may have come. And that’s precisely how I think we ought to be using the book—sure, recognizing that it surely played an important role in the early years of the field in North America, when studying religion in a non-judgmental way was pretty novel for a lot of people. But that the field seems not to have moved, at least for those opting to use this book (the current edition, based on the 1991 text, has illustrations and suggested readings 30 years out of date) is something worth thinking about, I’d say.

How are you using the text to expand upon, subvert, or challenge traditional interpretations?

I think that’s pretty apparent from the above answer—rethinking how we use the text is the key. What should be apparent, I hope, is that I’m not critiquing Smith—he was scholar of his time (as we all are!) who, yes, made an important contribution to the field’s pre-history (Religious Studies wasn’t even a field in the US back then). I’m not debating that. What I’m suggesting is that the prominence of the book today tells us everything about us, the ones using it and still reading it. So, if you like, it’s a classic inversion to reader response theory, in which we let go of the idea of the author as the intentional and thus authoritative source and, instead, see the text as an artifact that has utility in the present, for the reader, who makes it useful or meaningful or important in this or that way, all based on their interests, situation, etc. It’s a pretty mundane move for some, sure, but in the study of religion—e.g., at this conference you continually heard people talking about what Xenophanes meant or what Paul said, and none of these disclosures were pitched as theoretical shorthands for, for example, “what the Pauline redactional tradition has conveyed to us…”—it’s still pretty radical and, for many, unthinkable, since we seem among the last places where the intentional, meaning-centered self still reigns supreme (it does in law too, of course). After all, the premise of the field for many—including the world of H. Smith, to be sure, but they’re hardly alone—is that pristine internal states and dispositions are only secondarily projected outward into the world, and, if decoded in just the right way, we’ll arrive at knowledge of the universal self, which goes by variously names but is often just called the human condition or human nature. After all, if you read carefully, you’ll always see that social context merely shapes and does not cause this thing called religion, even for the so-called new materialists in the field. So turning all this on its head, studying not just the material history of a text, such as his textbook, but also its contemporary uses and the situations in which it read, seems to me not just a novel approach but one very much needed today.

If you have already used this text in the classroom, which specific learning activities did you organize?

Like I said, I used it 25 years ago, because I had to (and, yes, I used it as a typical introduction to the field, but it soon after made its way into my first book as an example of how not to study religion and I stopped using it as soon as I could). So what comes to my mind, as I referenced in my AAR paper, is my colleague Steven Ramey, and how he uses such books in his own introduction to world religions—a course that, over the course of a semester, moves students to the position of becoming interested in the book as their e.g., asking why the author did what s/he did in organizing and writing it. So, ultimately, it’s a course on classification and its practical effects (what a great general education course, right?), using scholars as the object of study but, being a 100-level intro, it does this gradually, strategically, taking great care in how to move students to a position to not just take what their books (and their professors?!) say at face value. It’s the sort of thing you’d hope every single university course does—but, yes, we know few probably do—since authors and professors are people too. Now this doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about the world (I’m so tired of that response to any sort of self-reflexive critique in our field, something Craig Martin’s recent NAASR paper focused on in great detail) but it does mean that our talk about the world is part of the world and, sooner or later, as legitimate an object of study as any other.

So the moral of the story: texts are artifacts, and not just when they’re called scriptures.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Interview with the Editors: Stereotyping Religion

Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clich├ęs (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017)
Interview with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin

What is the main argument in this book?

CM: In a sense, this book is the exact opposite of the “Religion for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to Religion” sorts of literature. Whereas those books are designed to tell us what “religion” basically is, this book suggests that “religion” is not basically anything.

BS: This book takes some of the more common cliches about religion as its object of study. Each essay addresses one of the ten more common cliches (religions are belief systems, religion makes people moral, religions are bullshit, to name but a few) where it discusses the cliche’s history, assumptions, and political work that the cliche performs.

What motivated your work?

CM: Much of my teaching involves un-teaching, in the sense that I have to fight against popular cliches about religion. Frustratingly, they come from multiple directions at once: some liberal students assume religion is somehow essentially oppressive, while some conservative students might assume that religion is essential to morality, etc. Perhaps above all else is the assumption that religion is in some way a fundamentally private or spiritual thing; for some this means that religion does not or ought not have public consequences, and for others this means that religion concerns an individual’s relation to a world above--what both views have in common is that “religion” is not seen primarily as a social thing, or only secondarily a social thing. Since I tend to be very Durkheimian in my approach to the subject matter, this kills me!

In addition to wanting a text that would help with un-teaching, I wanted a text that I could recommend to friends outside religious studies who are confused about what is it we do in our field. No, we’re not studying “faiths” or “belief systems.” No, we’re not teaching students about the nature of the divine. And, perhaps most importantly, no, we’re not promoting religious tolerance and ecumenism. Some of my liberal friends seem to assume--on the basis of the fact that I’m left-leaning--that what I do in class might best be represented by those “co-exist” bumper stickers. But no!!! We’re historicizing discourses and ideologies!

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

CM: I think poststructuralist anti-essentialism lies behind the book as a whole. While there are clearly differences of opinion across the contributors, all of them accept that any attempt to offer a “here’s religion in a nutshell” narrative is destined to be greatly problematic.

Secondly, I think the authors also widely assume that the historicization of the use of the concept of “religion”--by scholars such as Russ McCutcheon, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Tim Fitzgerald--are crucial to our work. The modern invention of “religion” was thoroughly imbricated with colonialism, imperialism, and Euro-centirsm, and we must be continually vigilant regarding the normative baggage our discourses carry.

BS: Building off Craig’s answer, critical theory lurks in the background of every essay, although it’s rarely evoked explicitly.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

CM: I haven’t had the chance to use it yet, but I’m anxious to give it a try. We’ve designed it to be accessible to 18 year old college students--we demanded a lot of revisions for clarity from the contributors!

BS: We imagine the book can be used in any RS class, but it’s best suited for an intro class or any class that addresses method and theory. Each chapter is free from jargon and should be accessible to any undergraduate.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

BS: Some students might read this book and assume we’re critiquing specific cliches, but that some unexplored cliches about religion might be more relevant or insightful. In the book’s intro, we make it clear that this is not our goal. Instead, we argue that students can apply the book’s methodologies to interrogate any and all cliches about religion. Ideally, students will use this book as an opportunity to question some of their basic assumptions about religion. Who would most benefit from this book? Anyone who claims to have a universal theory about religion or who hasn’t thought about the history of a particular cliche or about the partisan interests it serves.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Omissions: #MeToo, Critical Identity Theory, and the Religious Studies Classroom

Photo credit: https://www.cio.com/article/3234464/careers-staffing/stopping-sexual-harassment-ready-for-a-witch-hunt.html

Leslie Dorrough Smith, Avila University

As a person who teaches gender theory courses in addition to the usual religious studies regimen, I was prepared for having the #metoo conversation about systemic harassment and prejudice with my students last week. While that happened, perhaps the most unexpected feature of the conversation was the student who mentioned that she’d like to talk about the #metoo movement but wasn’t sure that it was apropos to our religious studies class. She knew that we spoke a lot about gender, race, sexuality, etc., but could we bring up that topic “in here”?

This conversation got me thinking about how we often fail our students in a religious studies setting by focusing too much on traditional conceptualizations of religion (that is, one grounded in beliefs and worldviews) even when we claim to take a critical approach. To be perfectly clear, by “failure,” I do not mean that we fail to indoctrinate students to take a particular position on various social issues. Rather, what I mean here is that we employ a highly-compartmentalized treatment of gender, race, class, and the like, wherein such topics are addressed with some finality (often once, in a particular week, later on in the semester), thus implying to students that religion is only sometimes about these most common methods of social power and categorization.

In fact, taking seriously that religion is a rhetorical strategy by which one group authorizes its claims over others means that we are always already talking about the various social modes of persuasion and habituation used to justify our classification practices. Under this more critical reading of religion, religious studies is about how human power strategies are deployed (via the very rituals, beliefs, ethics, and other “classic” categories that often populate our discipline’s syllabi) specifically in the name of regulating social groups; race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. are simply the names we give to our most popular forms of regulation.

From this perspective, the question then becomes whether humans consistently make transcendent appeals to justify the power relationships that they forge. This was the very question I asked my student when that #metoo conversation proceeded, for I hoped to help her understand that whether religious groups use the words “sexual harassment” or make moral claims against it is largely irrelevant if their role in their respective cultures involves endorsing the very power relationships that makes sexual harassment possible. With that said, we then talked about the power arrangements that sexual harassment both creates and endorses (misogyny, patriarchal authority, locating women’s worth and identity in their sexuality, etc.), and then asked whether we could find examples of religious groups that promote those same principles. Focusing on our own culture, we were then able to see how many major American religious groups promote such power differentials even when they simultaneously condemn harassment’s many forms.

As is often the case when studying culture, that opened up another conversation about what it means when a group actively says it promotes one thing but through its behaviors contributes to something entirely different (another post for another time, perhaps). But what I hope she came away with was the ability to re-hone her own inquiry such that she is able to ask the more etic question regarding whether transcendent appeals are ever used to justify strategic world-building activities rather than the more emic approach that uses religious insiders’ own claims (“Sexual harassment is a disgrace to God”) as the measure of their social engagement. For in the end, failing to ask questions in this way is a failure to ask about the various ways that humans constitute culture. And as I hope we know by now, if you’re not talking about culture, you’re not talking about religion.