Response: Center and Periphery

Two men sitting at a table having a conversationEarlier this week Stephen S. Bush responded to one of my posts on his recent monograph, Visions of Religion. In my post I suggested that Bush’s work arguably props up the status quo in our field, and as such he could resort to rhetorical enthymemes that leave certain assumptions unstated and unargued — particularly since sympathetic readers in the mainstream of the field already share those assumptions. In his response Bush claims that I’m unfair to him, since he did provide argumentation for the assertions or assumptions I claimed were unstated or unargued. In addition, he objected to my characterization of his work as representing the center of the field. According to Bush, my work — which focuses on discourse analysis, ideology critique, and power — is closer to the center of the field, and his work — which includes a focus on experience and meaning — is more likely to be considered passé and thus on the periphery.

In this post I’d like to respond to Bush’s two points. First, I would like to address Bush’s claim that he did provide arguments for those claims I suggested were left unargued. To some extent I’m willing to admit that insofar as I was unsympathetic to the argument of his book as a whole, I may have been unfair or overly critical in my analysis (for sympathies and antipathies direct much of what we do as scholars). However, I don’t think I was quite as unfair as he suggests. Second, I’d like to address the claim that discourse analysis and ideology critique are closer to the center of the field.

Bush offers two examples of claims I say were unargued but which he claims were argued. First, there is the question of whether he argues for the claim that we “should not” subordinate questions of meaning to power. I hate to be pedantic, but his response is to point to the arguments in the book for the importance of meaning — he offers no argument against subordinating meaning to power. I would freely stipulate that meaning is important (at least if we define it as “discourse” or “language use,” which Bush seems to do at several points, if not all), but I would nevertheless add that from a certain perspective there are excellent reasons for making those considerations subordinate to a consideration of meaning’s role in power relations. Bush offers, as far as I can tell, no argument against that claim. Second, there is the question of whether Bush argues for the claim that we “should” include an account of power. He points readers to the section of his book titled “In Defense of Power.” However, upon scouring that section all I find is a description of how people can account for power (he offers examples from Asad, Geertz, and Raboteau), but, significantly, no argument for the claim that we should do so. It should go without saying that the fact that we can do something is not an argument that we should do it. In the section Bush points us to, the closest we get is another sheer assertion that “my counsel is that we should reject those moments in Geertz’s corpus when he speaks of culture as separate from power” (70). Why?

I think we are closer to the mark when Bush says in his post that “our methodology should be capable of analyzing adequately that which it sets out to analyze.” He adds a quotation from his book that notes, “[i]f religions involve all three [aspects] then it seems that someone who wants to understand a religion adequately would have to attend to all three.” This is in fact an argument in favor of including an emphasis on all three elements Bush identifies (i.e., experience, meaning, and power). However, this argument assumes a realist perspective from which religion is a mind-independent object in the world, about which our referential accounts can be adequate or inadequate — and, unfortunately, this is precisely the perspective that the poststructuralist rejects. The argument that our accounts of religion must be adequate to reality only works if we circularly assume there’s a reality to which we can be adequate in the first place. I suspect that Bush likely finds anti-realist poststructuralist approaches as problematic as I find realist approaches, and thus on this point perhaps we’re speaking across a gulf too broad to bridge.

Regarding the depiction of our field’s center and periphery, Bush is right to “doubt there is any single status quo in religious studies generally or theory of religion in particular.” The field is divided, and there are most certainly multiple centers and multiple peripheries — no doubt varying on the basis of one’s perspectival location within the field. Further, any claims about the shape of the field are complicated by the fact that such claims are inevitably normative: when people make claims about what the field looks like they are also making claims about what they would like the field to be. We all have a stake in the shape of the field in which we are situated, and we’re liable to inflate the “problems” that work against our interests. As Aaron Hughes writes in Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, “[w]hy do we engage in theory and method? One reason we do so … is to draw boundaries between inside an outside. Like any other technique of ‘othering,’ these discourses permit us to define our discipline and ultimately ourselves and our place within.” Our descriptions of the field are always already prescriptions constitutive of the field itself. In addition, as a friend of a friend said on Facebook (in response to Bush’s post), it is interesting that both he and I want to claim a position on the periphery; perhaps we’re all telling narratives in which we’re the underdog.

However, even given those caveats that call into question anyone’s descriptions of the field, I wonder how we might intersubjectively identify a center of some sort? Theoretically, we could look at the AAR program book, the AAR book awards, the AAR officers, the field’s job ads, or the nature of the most prestigious graduate programs. The measure I would like to point to, however, is the nature of the introductory textbooks designed for undergraduate or graduate use. Consider the following texts, all published by mainstream presses: Cunningham and Kelsay’s The Sacred Quest: An Invitation to the Study of Religion (Pearson), Huff and Wetherilt’s Religion: A Search for Meaning (McGraw Hill), Smart’s Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (Pearson), Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions (HarperOne), Livingston’s Anatomy of the Sacred (Pearson), Molloy’s Experiencing the World’s Religions (McGraw Hill), Brodd et al., Invitation to World Religions (Oxford University Press), and Fisher’s Living Religions (Pearson). A cursory glance at these reveals an emphasis on experience and meaning, even if most include some consideration of power relations. According to the OUP website, Invitation to World Religions

invites students to explore the world’s great religions with respect and a sense of wonder. This chapter structure enables students to navigate each religion in a consistent and systematic way and helps students to make comparisons between religions. The book describes the essential features of each religion and shows how the religions have responded to basic human needs and to the cultural contexts in which they developed. The authors also encourage students to develop an appreciation for what religious beliefs and practices actually mean to their adherents.

According to the Pearson site, Living Religions

emphasizes the personal consciousness of believers and their own accounts of their religion and relevance in the present day. Mary Pat Fisher considers how the contemporary beliefs and practices of each of these traditions has evolved, and explores the changing nature of each religion. … Living Religions provides a sympathetic approach to the historical teachings of traditional faiths, indigenous religions, and new religious movements.

These texts not only focus on description or appreciation of the experiences and beliefs of religious insiders, but — in addition — a couple of them are implicitly or explicitly perennialist in their approach. In addition, we are more and more seeing the inclusion of a focus on “lived religion,” which is explicitly about understanding (as opposed to explaining or reducing) insiders’ experiences and meanings. These are the texts introducing students to what we do in our field, and in them we find that experience and meaning are by no means passé.

Further, I can think of only three introductory texts that emphasize ideology, discourse, or power relations over or at the expense of meaning and experience: McCutcheon’s Introducing Religion (Equinox), Nye’s Religion: The Basics (Routledge), and my A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Routledge). However, the sales of these books put together are likely dwarfed by any single introductory text mentioned above.

Of course the textbook market necessarily lags behind the field as a whole (there is inevitably some delay between shifts in the field and the introduction of these shifts at the undergraduate level), but if they are a significant indicator in any sense, our field is not dominated by a poststructuralist approach on power. To use Bush’s own words, “power still frequently fails to receive its proper due, simply out of neglect” (68).

Discover more from Culture on the Edge

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading