S. Brent Plate’s recent post at Religion Dispatches suggests that when it comes to religious studies, scholars are, in a sense, both insiders and outsiders at the same time. He comes to this conclusion through a comparison of the field of art to the field of religious studies. Iconoclasm in art, he suggests, is actually its own sort of iconification (my horrible word, not his). Artist Ai Weiwei, for instance, photographed himself destroying ancient Chinese artifacts. According to Plate, “iconoclasm is itself an iconic act. One image replaces another. Ai was careful to have his iconoclastic act documented, skillfully shot on camera and reproduced for many to see.” Recently another artist publicly smashed some of Ai’s art in an art gallery, where the act appeared to be partly protest and partly performance art. Iconoclasm is yet again a new iconification. Outsiders who are critical of the tradition are at the same time insiders, extending the tradition in new ways. Plate concludes that, “Tradition is itself a series of creative and destructive acts, stability and instability; the icons are the tradition as much as the images of iconoclasm. Nothing stays the same.”
Plate similarly sees religion scholars who criticize religion as also being both insiders and outsiders at the same time, although he suggests that we should avoid using a hammer when a more gentle tool would do. He writes:
To teach and write about religious traditions is to enter that fray, to pull from tradition, to find one’s place within it, and to turn that in new ways, often breaking things in the process. Teachers and writers on religion can have an understated aim of performing an iconoclastic move toward the students’ own assumptions, their own ideals and images. We call it “critical thinking,” and modern universities are founded on such an ideal. But, translated across the inside-outside divide, critical thinking becomes a shaking up of faith, or worse, in the wrong hands, faith bashing.
Nietzsche gave us philosophy with a hammer—though what is more often needed in the classroom is a screwdriver.
He concludes by suggesting that in the classroom scholars of religious studies are artists negotiating the remains of the old and navigating its connection to the new—neither exactly insiders nor outsiders, but rather somewhere in between the two.
While I think Plate is absolutely correct that all cultural traditions involve ongoing creation and destruction, and that iconoclasm is iconic in its own right, he loses me when he compares the artist to the scholar. I would argue that artists smashing other artists’ work are playing in the same structural field, in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense—to smash Ai’s work is likely done with the hope of gaining some of the distinction or prestige in the art world that Ai already enjoys. By contrast, I understand religious studies and, e.g., Christian churches to occupy separate fields, with different habits, rules of competition, and forms of distinction.
As noted above, Plate writes that to “teach and write about religious traditions is to enter that fray, to pull from tradition, to find one’s place within it.” Consider this: in my course on the “Evolution of Jesus,” I often teach “The Aryan Christ: The Electrochristology of Ariosophy” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (found in Alternative Christs, edited by Olav Hammer). According to this essay, Jörg Lanz invented a version of Jesus in the early twentieth century that combined a naive understanding of electricity with a racist theory of the evolution of humanity. According to Lanz, the pure Aryan race has slowly degraded over time as a result of miscegenation with beasts; consequently their electrical powers have similarly degraded. On this view Jesus—an electric being with miraculous, electrical powers—came to renew the covenant between the Israelite’s god and the pure Aryans. The chapter is fascinating because it shows how Jesus was reread in light of nascent scientific discoveries in support of Aryan racism and antisemitism.
However, when I teach this chapter I am not entering Lanz’s fray or pulling from his tradition. On the contrary, my social field—the academic study of religion—doesn’t overlap with Lanz’s field at all. I am not at all interested in engaging with his Christianity, his racism, or his scientism, either to promote or to critique it.
Of course, it is clear that the conclusions I might reach in my analysis—”Lanz’s racism depends on false assumptions about racial difference” or “Lanz’s views on electricity are based on demonstrably false and outdated scientific views”—might well be at odds with Lanz’s own view. However, the purpose of these critical points is not to retard Lanz’s agenda but rather to explain to students how he manipulates the authoritative cultural tools available to him in service of his agenda.
I am rewarded in my social field not when I engage Lanz, but when I demonstrate to students how culture is continually transformed and whose interests are advanced with this or that transformation. Of course, this is exactly what Plate was doing with his analysis of Ai, but that makes him unlike rather than like Ai, whose interests likely would not have been served by drawing attention to how his own iconoclasm is iconic. As J.Z. Smith rightly notes in Relating Religion, the purpose of ornithology is not to learn how to fly but to understand birds. The difference here is between playing a sport and writing a history of the sport. From a the perspective of a historian, explaining a team’s strategy commits one neither to rooting for nor against the team.
Which game do we, as scholars, want to play in the classroom?
This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.