There’s been lots of buzz, over the past decade or so, about material religion or embodied religion, as if this apparent emphasis on the empirical, the contingent, the historical, somehow gets us out of what many now see as the old rut of studying disembodied beliefs alone.
For instance, take the following quote (from the opening to their first newsletter) from the late 1990s/early 2000s Material History of American Religion Project centered at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University, funded (like much scholarship on religion in America) by the Lilly Endowment, and involving several key figures in the early years of this movement:
[T]he scholars associated with this project have set out to pay attention to a neglected dimension of the history of religion in America. Too often the story of religion has been told as though it were a matter of thoughts and ideals alone. Material history is embodied history and recognizes that religious people have enacted their spiritual beliefs and religious ideals in a very material world. We are looking at the material evidence, getting into the material, and finding out a great deal in the first year of this project.
Dare we ask: Material evidence of what…? Well, apparently of the beliefs, faiths, experiences, etc. — i.e., “enacted their spiritual lives and religious ideals” — that are somehow assumed to motivate people to do this or that with their bodies.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, non?
My point? I am at a loss to explain how — apart from, say, changing the old word “manifestation” to the sexy new “embodiment” — this new approach is any different from the old approach that once dominated our field, represented so nicely by the work of Mircea Eliade and those others who drew on hermeneutics and phenomenology to come up with a method to somehow “get at” what they considered to be the essential and historically universal sine qua non of religion. For in both cases, “that which presents itself to our senses” (as they used to say, as if the world marched toward us of its own accord) is assumed to be evidence of a something else — and that something else is asserted to be non-empirical and can only be inferred from our so-called historical, descriptive, and comparative studies. Call it faith, call it belief, call it spirit, or call it soul, I’m not sure what difference it makes, for what these two approaches share is a presumption that history is merely an arbitrary stage on which ahistorical themes and dispositions of universal scope are played out.
The ultimate aim of Lilly Endowment’s religion grantmaking is to deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians, primarily by helping to strengthen their congregations. To that end, our religion grantmaking in recent years has consisted largely of a series of major, interlocking initiatives aimed at enhancing and sustaining the quality of ministry in American congregations and parishes.
It seems to me that a scholarly approach that heralds the empirical, but which is in the service of conserving the common assumption concerning the primacy of a non-empirical spirituality and inspiration, quite nicely enhances and sustains the participant’s viewpoint. No wonder that such work earns grants.
The question is, though, whether a mere paraphrase of what people are already saying about themselves and their lives constitutes scholarship.