Religious “Expression”?

kumbh melaSome scholars of religion talk as if cultural stuff—icons, myths, rituals, practices, ideologies, discourses, etc.—allows practitioners to “express” themselves, their religious beliefs, or simply their “religion.” Other scholars talk as if the use of this cultural stuff has the effect of “constituting” (perhaps by “performing”) themselves, their religious beliefs, or their identity.

The implicit ontological differences here are considerable. For the former group, “selves,” “beliefs,” and “religions” precede their “expression.” For the latter group, “selves,” “beliefs,” or “identities” are products.

Roland Barthes once said “tell me how you classify and I’ll tell you who you are.” What does one’s preference for either “express” or “constitute” say about who one is, or about one’s assumptions and theoretical commitments?

(This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.)

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