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.


  1. Sorry I missed your paper. Would have liked to have heard it.

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