The Un-translatability of Religion, The Un-translatability of Life: Thinking Talal Asad’s Thought Unthought in the Study of Religion

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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Every scholarly attempt to define—and, by extension, theorize, interpret, and conceptualize—religion is based on the sovereign “force of decision.” Such theory-decision translates religion into a symbol or category, accounting for it, separating and releasing it from what Talal Asad calls the “not so easily varied” disciplinary practices that constitute life. In this separation of “religion,” life becomes a spectator (theoros) to itself. Asad’s argument about the impossibility of defining religion, connected to his contention that “life is essentially itself,” helps us think about the un-translatability of life. Closely paralleling Nietzsche and Heidegger’s reflections on existence and memory—but largely unthought by contemporary theorists of religion—Asad’s thinking about religion is a refusal to historicize life.

The Un-translatability of Religion, The Un-translatability of Life: Thinking Talal Asad’s Thought Unthought in the Study of Religion

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion



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  • 4

    In a decisive metaphorical touch Tweed (2009) compares Jews Christians and other religious persons to the metaphor of “crabs.” According to him Jews and others can be a metaphor like crabs because like crabs they can also be “crustaceans.” This way of representing religious identities constitutes for Tweed an “ethic of representation.” If this is so we may not have much hope for “ethics”!

  • 5

    Taylor (2009) often speaks of the need to find “alternative visions of religion” which do not “remain stuck in the oppositions and contradictions of the past” and do not “pose a threat to the future.” One may say that not to believe in God in the traditional sense and to take God as virtual life is to take God as literature. This privileged position of not believing in God in the traditional sense now passes for a proper responsibility to the past and its memory. The future is simply liberated from the threat of the past by way of not believing in God in the traditional sense of the term by a simple qualification.

  • 11

    Heidegger (cited in Derrida 2009: 305-306) later says that “only for those who are stubborn in their head [or fool-headed] is life is merely life” (“denn Eigensennigen ist Leben nur Leben”). Heidegger says this in order to make space for the claim that life is being toward death that is life and death are inseparable. Life that is being toward death is life where there cannot be any separation between past present and future.


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